English is the most-spoken language in the world, and it can be found spread far and wide. While there’s no official lingua franca for the planet, English is often used to communicate across nations. This is because of a number of historical factors, most notably the patterns of colonialism by English speakers. Exactly how many people speak English, though, and where are all those speakers? We look at the world of English and dive into the demographic data that’s available.
A Brief History of English
English is a member of the Germanic language family. That means it’s descended from Proto-Germanic, along with German, Dutch and Swedish, along with 43 other living Germanic languages. If you go back even further up the language family tree, English is an Indo-European language, which is one of the largest language families in the world and comprises most of the languages spoken that originated in Europe.
Historical linguists date the English language back to the fifth century, when Germanic tribes (speaking Proto-Germanic) invaded Britain. The languages of these groups influenced each other, forming Old English. The earliest form of English looks very different from our modern form, but the two share a number of words and roots of words. In 1066, the Normans — a group from the area now known as France — conquered England and brought with them a form of French. Many French words, along with some Latin, were mixed in with Old English, and these eventually changed the language so much that Middle English was born.
Two factors led to the evolution toward Modern English. First was the advent of printing in the 16th century, which allowed mass-produced language for the first time. The spelling of words became standardized by the next century, and words could travel further than ever before. Second, waves of colonialism and imperialism spread the English language further afield. The United Kingdom imposed English on their territories around the world, and when the period of British colonialism was coming to a close it was only replaced with American imperialism, which is what forcefully made the English language as widespread as it is today.
Which Countries Speak English?
According to the British government, the countries with a majority of native English speakers are as follows: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
The list of countries where English is legally an official language is actually much longer: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, the Cook Islands, Dominica, Eswatini, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Namibia, Nauru, Nigeria, Niue, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
How Many People In The World Speak English?
Out of the world’s approximately 7.8 billion inhabitants, 1.35 billion speak English. The majority aren’t native English speakers, however. About 360 million people speak English as their first language. The most common first language is Chinese, followed distantly by Spanish and then, in third, comes English. In addition to being widely spoken, English is by far the most commonly studied foreign language in the world, followed by French at a distant second.
How Many People Speak English In The Americas?
English is spread out throughout the Americas, making it hard to tabulate exactly, but it is likely somewhere around 350 million. The majority of those native English speakers live in the United States — about 297.4 million of them. Another 30 million native English speakers reside in Canada. Although a number of countries in the Caribbean have English listed as an official language, it’s largely a remnant of colonialism and the majority of the population does not speak standard English.
In South America and Central America, about 14 million people speak English. The vast majority of these speakers live in Argentina (5.9 million), Colombia (2 million), Chile (1.97 million) and Puerto Rico (1.6 million). There are pockets of English speakers spread throughout, however.
How Many People Speak English In Europe?
Europe is home to roughly 212 million English speakers, and nearly every country in the continent has a sizable population. As mentioned, English is often used as a lingua franca between people who don’t necessarily speak it as a first language, and nowhere is that truer than in Europe.
In the United Kingdom, where English started all those centuries ago, there are about 60 million English speakers. This breaks down to 49.8 million speakers in England and Wales, 5.1 million in Scotland and 1.7 million in Northern Ireland.
After the United Kingdom, Germany has the most English speakers with 45.8 million. This is followed by France (25.4 million) and Italy (20.7 million). The majority of these speakers aren’t native speakers, however. Germany, for example, only has about 240,000 native English speakers.
How Many People Speak English In Africa?
As in the Caribbean, a number of African countries have English as an official language because of colonialism. In all of Africa — a population of about 1.2 billion — only 6.5 million people speak English as their native language. But following the pattern of a number of other continents, a number of Africans have learned English as a second language. Around 237 million people in Africa speak English in total (including native and non-native speakers).
The greatest number of English speakers are in Nigeria, where there are about 111 million people who speak at least some of the language. Nigeria is followed by Uganda (29 million), South Africa (16 million) and Cameroon (9.8 million).
How Many People Speak English In Asia?
Asia has relatively few native English speakers, but a large number of people speak English as a second or foreign language. While it’s difficult to say exactly how many people speak English across the vast continent of Asia, Ethnologue estimates it to be around 460 million.
India — colonized by the United Kingdom until the mid-20th century — has by far the most speakers, with around 265 million speakers of English. And that’s followed by the Philippines (50 million), Bangladesh (29 million) and Pakistan (25 million).
How Many People Speak English In Oceania?
Across Oceania, there are over 30 million English speakers. The majority of Australians are native speakers, with about 22.2 million in total. In New Zealand, there are approximately 4 million English speakers (most New Zealanders speak a dialect of English known as New Zealand English). Papua New Guinea adds another 3.2 million English speakers, and Fiji has 200,000.
Why Learn English?
The sheer volume of people who speak English make it a very popular choice around the world. In many countries around the world, English is the most obvious choice for a second language. There are of course drawbacks to English’s status as a lingua franca — including the fact that it gives an advantage to people born in predominantly English-speaking countries — but it’s undeniably a useful took that is ever-present in the worlds of business, entertainment, science and more.
If you’re reading this article, however, there’s an above average chance that you already know English. So we also want to highlight that it’s great to expand your horizons by learning other languages. Not sure where to start? Check out our list of easiest languages for English speakers to learn here. Or if you want more of a challenge, take a look at the hardest languages to learn here.