South America is generally known for being made up of many Spanish-speaking countries and one particularly large Portuguese-speaking country (Brazil). However, a nation’s or region’s language composition is never quite as simple as it seems. We decided to dig a little deeper and explore the most spoken languages in South America. We started with a list of the most spoken indigenous languages because after all, they were there first. Then, we looked at the top languages that were brought to South America by immigrants, starting with Spanish and Portuguese, which are neck-and-neck for the title of “most spoken language in South America.” These numbers include all speakers of each language, not just native speakers, and all of the immigrant language data comes from Ethnologue.
8 Most Spoken Indigenous Languages In South America
- Quechua (Andean region) — 8 million speakers
- Guarani (Paraguay and surrounding area) — 5 million speakers
- Aymara (Peru and Bolivia) — 2.5 million speakers
- Mapudungun (Chile) — 500,000 speakers
- Guajiro (Venezuela and Colombia) — 200,000 speakers
- Embera (Colombia) — 70,000 speakers
- Paez (Colombia) — 60,000 speakers
- Ashaninka (Peru and Brazil) — 50,000 speakers
Note: Indigenous language data comes from Native Languages of the Americas.
10 Most Spoken Immigrant Languages In South America
Though the tally is quite close, Spanish is the most spoken language in South America, edging out Portuguese by a few million people. Just over 197 million South Americans speak Spanish, with the largest number living in Colombia — about 46.3 million. Close behind is Argentina, with almost 42 million speakers, followed by Venezuela (29.8 million), Peru (26.7 million), Chile (18.1 million), Bolivia (9.4 million), Paraguay (4.5 million), Uruguay (3.3 million) and Brazil (460,000).
Coming in at a close second is Portuguese, with approximately 194.5 million speakers in South America. Brazil is home to the vast majority of those speakers (194 million) and is the only country in South America where Portuguese is the official language. There are also contingents of Portuguese speakers in Venezuela (254,000), Paraguay (212,000) and Uruguay (24,000).
English is the third most spoken immigrant language in South America, with about 5.4 million speakers. Most of them live in Argentina (2.8 million) and Colombia (1.9 million), followed by Guyana (680,000). The majority of the (albeit very small) population of the Falkland Islands, which are an autonomous territory of the United Kingdom, speak English as well (2,600).
After English, the number of speakers for each language drops off a bit. The fourth most spoken language in South America is Italian, with about 1.5 million speakers. Almost all of them live in Argentina, but a handful are located in Brazil (50,000).
5. Arabic (various dialects)
There are two different Arabic dialects with a significant number of speakers in South America: Modern Standard Arabic and North Levantine Spoken Arabic. Because the dialects are mutually intelligible, we’ve combined them in this ranking. South America is home to about 1.1 million Arabic speakers, primarily living in Argentina (1 million). There are also pockets of Arabic speakers in Venezuela (110,000) and Suriname (1,000).
With number six, we’re dropping below a million. Approximately 617,000 German speakers reside in South America. Many of them live in Argentina (400,000), while others are in Ecuador (112,000), Paraguay (58,000), Uruguay (27,000) and Chile (20,000).
7. Chinese (various dialects)
As with Arabic, there are many different varieties of Chinese, and a few of them are spoken in South America, including Hakka Chinese, Yue Chinese and Mandarin Chinese. If you combine all of the dialects, there are about 535,000 Chinese speakers in South America. The majority are in Argentina (400,000), but there are also Chinese speakers in Peru (100,000), French Guiana (13,800), Suriname (12,600), Ecuador (7,000) and Guyana (1,500).
Coming in at number eight on our list of the most spoken languages in South America is Ukrainian. There are approximately 527,000 Ukrainian speakers in South America, most of whom are in Brazil (500,000). The rest live in Argentina (27,000).
The penultimate language on our list is Japanese, spoken by about 412,000 people in South America. 380,000 Japanese speakers live in Brazil, while Argentina is home to the other 32,000.
Dutch just barely beat out French for tenth most spoken language. There are about 280,000 Dutch speakers in South America, all of whom live in Suriname — a former Dutch colony where Dutch is still the official language. There are only 231,000 French speakers in South America. They all live in French Guiana, a territory of France where French is the official language.