Here Are The Countries Where People Speak German
- Written byFergus O'Sullivan
- Read time7 mins
If you’re thinking about learning German, you may have wondered where or in which countries you can speak it.
After all, English speakers can use their language just about anywhere, how does it work with German?
German is actually surprisingly spread out over the world. It’s the language of the majority in three countries with a total population of about 100 million.
These three countries and some surrounding areas are called the Sprachraum, which literally means “speaking-space.”
It’s not just those millions of people you can talk to, either: There are substantial pockets of German speakers across the globe, from South American pampas to the Russian taiga.
Add to that the millions of people who, like you, have learned it as a second language and, while it in no way has the spread of English or even Spanish, German is surprisingly useful in many different places.
Let’s take a look at some of them now.
Where is German spoken?
Native German speakers: 85 million
Unsurprisingly, the most speakers of the German language can be found in Germany, called Deutschland by the people who live there.
Smack dab in the center of Europe, the country boasts a population of 85 million, about 75 million of which speak German natively. Almost everybody else there speaks it as a second language.
While Germany does have plenty of dialects and secondary languages, official German, called Hochdeutsch (“High German”), is taught in schools and everybody should be able to understand it.
It’s the language you’ll hear on most radio and TV and also in most government offices.
Need to register your stay in Germany? The person behind the desk will likely speak Hochdeutsch to you.
Outside of official business, though, your mileage may vary greatly as regions pride themselves on their own speech and way of talking.
Thus, depending on where you live or visit, you may want to pick up some of the local lingo, too. Some of the differences between dialects are pretty amazing.
Southern German dialects are particularly tricky for learners as they feature some sounds not found in Hochdeutsch and feature an expanded vocabulary.
Still, though, learning with a decent German course should prepare you enough that adapting will be easy.
Native German speakers: 8 million
Our next major player in the Sprachraum is Austria, called Österreich (“eastern empire”) by the people that live there.
It only has a population roughly a tenth of that of Germany, but exerts disproportionate influence on the German language by virtue of having produced so many artists, writers and poets.
Walking down almost any street in Vienna and you feel every single building has a plaque on it denoting how some important person or another stayed there; it’s impressive.
Austrian German can be a bit rough to learn, though: it’s part of the Southern German dialects and as a result has many of the grammatical and syntactical quirks of those, and then some.
That said, once you get used to Austrian dialects, you’ll grow to appreciate them a lot. They have their own flow and rhythm which is downright charming.
Combined with the famed hospitality of the Austrians, and speaking German in Austria becomes a real pleasure.
Native German speakers: 5 million
The last big player in the Sprachraum is Switzerland, where German is the biggest of four official languages; the others being French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romance.
German is the official tongue in 21 of the Swiss confederacy’s 26 cantons (constituent countries) and taught in schools all over the country.
The German of Switzerland, called die Schweiz (find out where that article comes from here), is very different from anything you’ll hear elsewhere, though.
Grouped by some in the southern group of German dialects, it’s like nothing else.
Listening to it even as an experienced speaker of Hochdeutsch you’ll likely only pick out a few words at first.
Luckily, the Swiss have Hochdeutsch in school, so you can speak it and be understood. Still, if you’re going to live there, you may want to take local courses to pick up some Swiss German.
The rest of the European Sprachraum
Germany, Austria and Switzerland are the most important part of the Sprachraum, but German is spoken elsewhere in Europe, too. Here are three countries where German is an official language.
Native German speakers: about 35,000
The official language of Liechtenstein, a tiny statelet with a population of roughly 40,000 is German and most people there speak it. Still, it’s so small I’ve put it in with the minnows.
Wedged between Switzerland and Austria, the people of Liechtenstein speak a Swiss dialect of German.
Once upon a time, Liechtenstein was supposed to become a Swiss canton, but through dynastic chicanery this never happened, so it has remained independent until this day.
Native German speakers: about 75,000
Belgium is also part of the Sprachraum, though only a tiny proportion of the population, less than one percent, speaks German.
Unsurprisingly, they live along the border with Germany and Luxembourg, our next entry.
However, the language is also taught in schools and as a result several million Belgians speak it to some degree.
If you’re in the country and you meet somebody who doesn’t speak English and you don’t know Dutch or French, you could try speaking German and see where that gets you.
Native German speakers: about 10,000
The last member of the European Sprachraum in an official capacity is Luxembourg, another very small country.
Though actual German speakers are only a tiny percentage of the population, Luxembourgish has strong German elements and German is one of the country’s official languages.
Having visited there myself a few times, you can speak German to almost anybody and get a response. English is more to fall back on.
The rest of the Sprachraum
German is also spoken unofficially by plenty of people.
In Europe, for example, in the border area of the Netherlands people speak a dialect that’s both German and Dutch at the same time.
Dutch and German are also close enough together that many Dutch people can get by — though they won’t be happy to.
Denmark also has a small group of German speakers within its borders, unsurprisingly in the southern part of the country, which was once German.
German is recognized as a local language in Northern Italy and parts of Poland, where local government operates partially in German, though without national standing.
There are also pockets of German speakers in Hungary, Romania, Czechia and Slovakia.
Most of these are legacies of German colonialism in the middle ages and often these people will speak old forms of German.
Ukraine & Russia
There are several pockets of German speakers in Ukraine and Russia.
Some of them were medieval settlers, while others accepted an invitation from Catherine the Great of Russia in the late 1700s to move to her empire.
Sorrowfully enough, these groups were decimated in Stalin’s purges of the 30s and 40s, so few Russian Germans remain. The few that survived the purges moved to Germany in the 90s.
Another important part of the diaspora are the settlers who moved to the Americas in the last few hundred years.
Though most Germans who moved to North America gave up much of their Germanness, with a few exceptions like the Texas Germans who still speak broken German among themselves, the story is different in South America.
In Brazil, for example, German has official standing in several southern states, while there are plenty of Argentinian citizens that speak German with their family members.
There are also small minorities living in Paraguay and Uruguay.
Although German is a language that’s overwhelmingly spoken in Europe, and in three particular countries at that, the above shows it has more reach than you may think.
Add to that all the people that, like you, have learned it as a second language, and you may find it more useful for traveling than you thought.
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