Europe can be a tricky thing to define. According to the Ancient Greeks, Europa was the beautiful princess abducted by Zeus and taken to the island of Crete. Geographically, we typically define it as the land mass stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. With an area of only 4 million square miles, it’s the second smallest continent on Earth. It encompasses 44 sovereign nations, 748 million inhabitants and one of the most important political institutions in the world: the European Union. The most spoken languages in Europe are also some of the most widely spoken in the world. And let’s not forget that “Europe” is also a stand-in for certain cultural attitudes and liberal democracy. So all of these descriptors are what we mean when we speak about Europe.
But what do people speak in Europe? Surprisingly, there are over 200 different languages spoken throughout this small continent. The majority of these languages evolved from the Indo-European family language tree.
With all of these languages and cultures existing inside a relatively small geographic expanse, Europe is an amazing and unique place to visit. Yet when it comes to deciding which language to learn for your vacation, all of these choices make for a difficult decision. We’ll break down the 10 most spoken languages in Europe so you can decide which one is the most practical for your travels.
The Most Spoken Languages In Europe
Perhaps a surprise for many individuals, Russian tops this list as the most spoken language in Europe with roughly 140 million native speakers on the continent! This is particularly interesting because while most languages in Europe use the Latin alphabet, Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet instead. This can be a tricky challenge for would-be Russian learners, but it doesn’t hinder the millions of individuals who claim it as their mother tongue. It’s the official language of Russia and Belarus, but it’s also still widely used in many eastern European countries (where it was taught in school during the Soviet Era). For those looking to travel to Russia, having some knowledge of the language is highly encouraged, as only about 5 percent of Russians can speak English.
The language of philosophers and thinkers, German comes in second for the largest native-speaking population in Europe. It’s the sole official language of Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein, and it’s a co-official language in Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. With all of those countries combined, approximately 95 million people in Europe speak German as their first language. And did you know that German is the mostly widely-understood language after English? This is because it’s popular as a second (or third, or fourth) language in Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Poland, Finland, Hungary and many other European countries. Why not add it to your list for your trip to Germany?
Next on the list of most spoken languages in Europe is French, with about 80 million native speakers. It is the official language of France (of course), as well as a co-official language of Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. If you consider the percentage of the population that learned French as a second language, then over 30 percent of European inhabitants know the language, making it a great choice for those who want to travel around the continent. That said, French’s global reach is even more impressive than its usefulness in Europe, as almost 30 countries claim French as an official or administrative language!
Coming in at number 4, Turkish is the official language of Turkey and has about 78 million native speakers in Europe. It also has co-official status in Cypress and is widely spoken around the Mediterranean, particularly in Macedonia, Greece and Serbia. Those unfamiliar with Europe may be surprised to know that Germany also has a large population of Turkish speakers — around 1.3 million people, in fact! Of course, Turkey and the Turkish language are special in terms of culture, as they belong to the social traditions of Europe as well as Asia. For those looking for a special vacation, Istanbul — the city half in Europe and half in Asia — cannot be beat!
The 60 million Italian native speakers in Europe are experts on la dolce vita. Italian is naturally the official language of Italy, but it’s also a co-official language of Switzerland (it’s the third most spoken language by the Swiss, after German and French) and of Vatican City, the city-state for the Roman Catholic Church (conveniently landlocked by Rome, Italy). When you want to experience the authentic Italian way of life on your travels, then learning Italian is a must!
You had to know this was coming, right? English, the global lingua franca, has 360 million native speakers worldwide, with just under 60 million of those living in Europe. It’s the de facto (but not “official”) language of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, but the large number of English-speaking expats residing in Europe also adds to this number. As for second language speakers, about a third of older Europeans can speak English, while nearly half of 15- to 35-year-olds have a mastery of the language. That said, some scholars theorize that the political realities of Brexit may weaken the dominance of English in Europe in the future. All the more reason to add another language under your belt now.
For years now, Spain has enjoyed a covetable position as one of Europe’s best travel destinations — especially for other Europeans looking for a warm and relaxing summer vacation. That, along with the fact that 43 million Europeans claim Spanish as their mother tongue, is reason enough to start learning this language. (By the way, did you know that Spanish is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn?). Spanish’s prestige grows even more when leaving Europe: 20 countries have Spanish declared as an official language and over 470 million individuals are native speakers throughout the globe, making it second most widely spoken native language in the world.
While perhaps not as well-known as the other languages on this list, there are 36 million Polish native speakers who live in Europe. Most of these individuals (naturally) live in Poland, but Polish is also widely spoken in Czechia, Hungary, Belarus and Ukraine. Collectively, almost 6 percent of the European population speaks Polish as a first, second or third language.
The national language of Ukraine is spoken by 27 million native speakers, with the majority residing in Europe. Ukraine is actually the largest country by area in Europe (when one excludes France’s overseas territories and the Asian continental portion of Russia). Plus, if you have knowledge of Ukrainian, you’ll also end up understanding a lot of Russian!
The last spot on our list goes to Dutch, narrowly beating out Romanian for a spot in the Top 10. Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands but also enjoys co-official status in Belgium. In total, 22 million Europeans speak Dutch as their mother tongue. While this may seem like a small number, this language is pretty easy to pick up for native English speakers, especially compared to the other Germanic languages! Why not add it to your repertoire for your next trip to Amsterdam?
This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated with more recent data and information.