The United Kingdom is, unsurprisingly, very English. Of the 65.1 million residents of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, over 98 percent speak English. The United Kingdom is also tied for third least-likely in Europe to speak a foreign language, with only 31 percent speaking at least two languages.
Despite this linguistic dominance, English is far from the only language of the United Kingdom. With its proximity to Europe and long history of colonialism, there are a number of languages and dialects that have shaped the country. Here are a few of the most-spoken.
English: 58.1 million speakers
English is the de facto national language of the United Kingdom, meaning there’s no law that makes it the official language. It’s used in every official capacity just because the country overwhelmingly speaks the language.
Geographically, English is spoken pretty much everywhere in the United Kingdom but is most strongly represented in England. The areas where you are most likely to encounter people speaking minority languages are northern Scotland and Wales, which have regional languages.
Indigenous Languages: 2.3 million speakers
English was not always the language of the United Kingdom. For a few centuries after the Norman Invasion of 1066, French was the primary language spoken by the government and the upper-class, with English relegated to the lower classes. But before either the French or the Germanic people came to the British Isles, there were already languages spoken on the landmass, and a few of them still exist in various forms today.
The most popular language after English is Scots, a strongly English-influenced language spoken by 1.5 million people in Scotland. It is sometimes considered a dialect of English instead of a language, yet they counted it separately on the most recent census. People who speak Scots have generally learned it as a second language, with the first being English, but Scots is retained because it contributes to the national identity of Scotland.
After Scots, the most commonly spoken language is Welsh, which has 560,000 speakers as of the 2011 census. Welsh is the only language in all of the United Kingdom that has a legal status. A series of different laws in the past 30 years has made it so Welsh has to be treated as equal to English in the country. That means all public services have signs in both languages, and it’s used by the government. Despite that, only 19 percent of Wales’ population speaks Welsh, as compared to 99 percent who speak English. Even worse for the language, the number of Welsh speakers is declining. The law is likely to keep Welsh from ever going extinct, however.
There are also a few more minor indigenous languages. The most recent estimates state there are 90,000 Angloromani speakers, 87,000 Scottish Gaelic speakers, 16,700 Shelta speakers, 5,730 Irish speakers and 600 Cornish speakers.
Immigrant Languages: 4.2 million speakers
For as long as it has existed, the United Kingdom has been a hub of immigration in Europe. One of the main reasons is that its colonial past has led to people coming to England, particularly from regions of India and Pakistan.
The biggest immigrant language is Polish, with over 546,000 speakers. This is largely due to the opening of borders to Poland when the country joined the European Union in 2004. Up until Brexit, the United Kingdom was very open to immigrants and became a land of opportunity for Europeans, which led to an influx of other languages spoken in the country.
The next four most-spoken immigrant languages come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are Punjabi (273,231), Urdu (268,680), Bengali (221,403) and Gujarati (213,094). As mentioned, this is the legacy of England’s presence in India during the 19th and 20th centuries.
After that, the languages spoken are Arabic (159,290), French (147,099), Chinese languages (141,052), Portuguese (133,453) and Spanish (120,222). There are also countless other languages spoken in pockets throughout the United Kingdom, with most clustered around major metropolitan areas like London.
This article was originally published on February 27, 2018. It was updated for accuracy on October 27, 2020.