Before we discuss multilingual countries, it’s worth establishing that we’re talking about most countries in the world. Many of us who grew up in a monolingual country assume learning a second language is an adventurous journey that transgresses the boundaries of our culture, but for many people around the world, the use of a second or even a third language is simply part of normal, everyday life.
Here are some of the most multilingual countries in the world. Our criteria are not limited to the simple quantity of languages spoken, because otherwise the United States, where over 350 languages are spoken, would have made it. Instead, we’ve considered countries where multilingualism is woven into the very fabric of society, where it’s perfectly common to have to switch languages when you travel from one city to another.
The 7 Most Multilingual Countries
Let’s start with Europe. This list could include Switzerland (four official languages) or Belgium (three official languages), but, like most multilingual countries on the continent, they contain many monolingual speakers in somewhat segregated communities. Luxembourg, however, can pride itself on being the exception. A tiny principality in the heart of Europe, Luxembourg has three official languages: French, German and Luxembourgish. It sounds quite modest, but they are all included in the educational system and in official documents. Most native citizens speak all three languages fluently, so we can aptly say it is a truly trilingual society — a rarity and a wonder.
Out of the ashes of Yugoslavia rose a number of countries, one of them being Serbia. The country’s official language is Serbian, but the land’s rich history makes it possible to hear several other tongues. Older generations still speak Russian due to Soviet influence, and since the Serbian language is similar to Bosnian, Croatian and Montenegrin, all four are mutually intelligible. In certain regions will you also hear Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak and Albanian (mostly close to the borders of the respective countries).
In the province of Vojvodina alone you will find six official languages: Hungarian, Serbian, Romanian, Croatian, Slovak and Rusyn (Ruthenian). And if you visit central Serbia, you will probably hear Bulgarian occasionally.
Macedonian and Slovenian were spoken in Yugoslavia as well, so you might bump into people who still understand and speak both — though they’re now spoken mostly in their newly independent countries.
English is also taught from an early age as a compulsory subject in school. German is not compulsory, but it is a highly valued optional subject for Serbia’s economic migrants, whose eyes are invariably set on Austria.
And lest we forget: Serbian possesses two alphabets, Latin and Cyrillic. You can choose one or the other, but in both cases, the principle of “write as you speak” is valid, providing great phonetic accuracy to readers and learners.
When South Africa ended apartheid, it also abandoned the notion that one can have too many official languages: it presently has 11! But the country spent a large part of its history speaking Afrikaans (an offshoot of Dutch, spoken by the first settlers in 1652) and English (from the second wave of colonists, who arrived in 1822).
South Africa’s history is particularly paradoxical in comparison to other countries with a colonial past. Whereas dialects and vernacular were stamped out vigorously in other colonial countries, in South Africa, local vernaculars were not forbidden throughout the centuries of colonization. In fact, the colonizers actually encouraged indigenous populations to continue speaking these languages as a way to culturally segregate them, and as a way to prevent access to white-controlled institutions. Without a command of the English language, many vulnerable indigenous groups became fenced in linguistically — denying democracy to millions for generations.
With the end of official apartheid, other languages were recognized as official besides Afrikaans and English: Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. A country as linguistically diverse as South Africa means that most citizens speak more than one language.
Spanning two continents and 11 time zones, Russia is home to a variety of languages spread over more than 20 republics within the borders of the Russian Federation. The following languages are all officially recognized in their own republics: Adygean, Bashkir, Ingush, Kabardian, Balkar, Tatar, Kalmyk, Abaza, Cherkess, Karachay, Nogai, Mari, Mordvin, Komi, Ossetian, Udmurt, Chechen and Chuvash. The official language is still Russian, though, so you will be able to travel throughout the bi-continental country and be understood if you speak it.
Indonesia’s geography is certainly responsible for its linguistic plurality. With approximately 17,500 islands (922 inhabited), it is ripe for such linguistic diversity. Many inhabitants of the same islands don’t even speak the same language, even though Bahasa Indonesia, a descendant of a Malay trade dialect, was adopted as the official language in the 1930s and is now taught at schools throughout the country. Around 20 million people speak it as a first language and 140 million speak it as a second language. Indonesia is home to 240 million people and many ethnic groups, which accounts for the existence of over 725 languages in the entire country — many of which run the risk of disappearing in an increasingly globalized world.
Official figures for languages in India are somewhat hard to pin down, but what can be said for sure is that India is home to many languages, starting with the 22 recognized in the constitution, including Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi and Tamil, with Hindi written in the Devanagari script recognized as the official language of the Government of India, alongside English. The latter, being the language of the ex-colonizer, is also spoken fluently by 90 million speakers, constituting the more educated and powerful segments of the population. Hindi is spoken by roughly 40 percent of Indian citizens, mostly in the north and center. There is not, however, a designated national language.
The 1961 Indian census identified 1,652 “mother tongues” in the country, but whether that refers exclusively to languages or includes dialects is not clear. To muddle the numbers even more, many at the time declared a language they did not actually speak, and some confused a language with the name of their caste.
The 2001 census indicates the existence of circa 122 major languages in the country and 1,599 other languages (possibly including dialects), but more recent and allegedly reliable research has identified 780 languages and suspects the existence of as many as 100 others. Whatever the correct figures might be, non-governmental findings mention the disappearance of 220 Indian languages in the last 50 years, with an added 150 threatened with extinction in the next 50, as speakers die, and the next generation fail to learn their parents’ tongues.
Papua New Guinea
Getting the universally recognized title of the most multilingual country on earth might seem an honor to many and a headache to some, but Papua New Guinea wins it with aplomb. There are over 850 languages spoken in a country populated by tribes that total a mere 9.4 million inhabitants. Unfortunately, many of these languages have less than 1,000 speakers and run the risk of extinction under the smothering influence of English and Tok Pisin, an English-based creole. The other two official languages are Hiri Motu and Papua New Guinean Sign Language, the latter made official in 2015.
This article was originally published on January 31, 2017, and has been updated with more recent information.