South America is a continent full of diverse cultures and languages. In fact, it’s home to 455 living languages.
Although we won’t explore all 455 in this post, we will look at the most common languages spoken in South America, including both immigrant and indigenous languages.
Before we dive deep into languages let’s start at the beginning.
What is South America?
South America is the fourth largest continent in the world. It forms part of the Western Hemisphere.
What countries are in South America?
South America consists of 12 independent countries.
Where is South America?
South America is located south of North America. It is the fourth largest continent and has a total population of over 430 million people.
South America’s diverse cultures come from European, Native American, African and Asian influences.
What are the official languages of South America?
In Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela, people speak primarily Spanish.
Portuguese is spoken mainly in Brazil.
English is the official language of Guyana, however many other languages are spoken there as well.
In Suriname, a form of Dutch is the official language.
Due to the great cultural diversity, many countries list more than one official language, including several indigenous languages.
What are the most common languages in South America?
English, Spanish, and Portuguese are the most commonly spoken languages in South America.
However, many other languages are used throughout South America, including Dutch, French, German, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Italian.
All of the above languages were brought to South America through immigration and colonization.
If you look strictly at the number of speakers, several indigenous languages would make this top ten list.
However, for the sake of organization, we will keep information about indigenous languages together in the next section and focus solely on immigrant languages here.
The Top 10 Most Spoken Languages in South America
How many people speak Spanish in South America?
Around 210 million people speak Spanish in South America, making it the main language of the continent.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering nine of the 12 countries are primarily Spanish-speaking.
Spanish came to the continent back in the late 1400s with the first Spanish colony in Venezuela. In the beginning, it was unsure if the Spanish language would take hold because the indigenous languages were vastly different from Spanish.
However, the Catholic Church began teaching Catholicism in Spanish to the children. As a result, the language quickly infiltrated the community. Over time, Spanish became the main language for trade and communication.
However, due to the influence of the already present indigenous languages, certain words and pronunciations, from the indigenous languages mixed in with the Spanish language to create a new dialect of Spanish.
This is why the Spanish of Latin America is slightly different from the Spanish of Spain.
How many people speak Portuguese in South America?
Although only one country in South America lists Portuguese as its official language, there are almost as many Portuguese speakers in South America as there are Spanish speakers.
About 206 million people speak Portuguese in South America. 205 of those 206 million live in Brazil.
Portuguese became the main language in Brazil after a man named Pedro Álvares Cabral docked there in 1500. After finding Brazilwood and sugarcane, the Portuguese decided to colonize the area.
How many people speak English in South America?
There are about 5.4 million English speakers in South America.
English came to South America with British explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Although Guyana is the only country in South America where English is listed as the official language, you can find large amounts of English speakers in Argentina, Columbia and Chile.
There are about 2 million English speakers in both Argentina in Columbia and around 1.5 million English speakers in Chile. In addition, you will find some English speakers in Brazil and Suriname.
The English spoken in South America is more similar to American English than to British English.
How many people speak German in South America?
Around 2 million people speak German in South America. German speakers live in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.
The first Germans came to South America in attempts to colonize certain regions.
For a time, there were German schools and communities in South America. However, the two world wars brought hardships to those communities and many ceased to exist.
Although German ancestry is still celebrated in parts of South America, most German communities have assimilated with the majority culture.
How many people speak Italian in South America?
Around 1.5 million people speak Italian in South America.
During the early 1900s, due to the rise of fascism, many Italians decided to leave their homeland. Drawn by the linguistic and religious similarities, South America was a popular choice for Italians looking for a new start.
As a result, South America has the largest population of Italians outside of Italy.
Most immigrated to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Argentina received arguably the biggest influx of Italians. It is estimated that around 1/3 of the population has Italian ancestry. Consequently, the Spanish spoken in Argentina is largely influenced by the Italian language.
How many people speak Arabic in South America?
Latin America has more Arabs than anywhere else in the world, outside of the Middle East, with numbers between 17 and 30 million.
The first Arabs came to Latin America back in the 1400s, due to religious persecution, and then formed their own communities for support and as a way to learn and preserve their home languages. This lead to about 1.1 million current-day Arabic speakers across two different dialects.
How many people speak French in South America?
French Guiana, which is not the same as Guyana, is the only territory in South America that lists French as its official language. They are about 250,000 French speakers in French Guiana.
However, the territory is very diverse, populated with people from a mixture of backgrounds and ethnicities. Therefore, many other languages are spoken in French Guiana, including Guianese Creole and several indigenous languages.
How many people speak Dutch in South America?
Dutch is the official language of Suriname, although it is only the mother tongue for about 60% of the population, or 475,000 people.
Dutch is used in government, schools, and as the common language between people groups. However, much of the country speaks Sranan in their communities which is a Dutch-based Creole.
The Dutch language came to Suriname in the 17th century, when Paramaribo became a Dutch colony.
How many people speak Chinese in South America?
Around 535 thousand people speak some form of Chinese in South America.
In the mid-1800s Chinese workers were sent to Peru to work on sugar plantations, help build the Andean railroad or work in mines. In the 1870s, free and escaped workers began building Chinese communities in the Amazon.
However, since most of the people coming to work in South America were men, the Chinese communities never grew very large. Eventually, most Chinese-Peruvians assimilated into the majority culture.
How many people speak Japanese in South America?
Around 412,000 people speak Japanese in South America. 380,000 of them live in Brazil.
Many Japanese immigrants came to Peru and Brazil in the 1900s as migrant workers, similar to the Chinese. However, the Japanese government also helped women immigrate so that families could stay together.
As a result, the Japanese were able to maintain their own communities while also integrating into the community culture.
10 Common Indigenous Languages of South America
There are about 350 indigenous languages in South America.
The most common are Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní, which all have long histories and are still spoken by millions of speakers.
Due to the fluidity and lack of precise information about indigenous languages, it is very difficult to put together an accurate top 10 indigenous languages list.
Numbers vary greatly across sources. However, here are 10 commonly heard indigenous languages in South America.
How many people speak Quechua in South America?
Quechua is actually a family of about 45 related indigenous languages. It is the third most commonly spoken language in South America with about 8 million speakers.
Quechua is spoken in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
Quechua is listed as an official language in Peru and Bolivia. Since it is a mostly oral language, education is generally still conducted in Spanish. Some schools have begun dual language programs with both Spanish and Quechua to help preserve the language.
Here are some common words in Quechua:
- Hello: Napaykullayki
- Thank you: Sulpaiki
The words cocoa, puma, and jerky all came to the English language from Quechua.
How many people speak Guaraní in South America?
Guaraní is the fourth most common language in South America, with about 6 million speakers. The language can be heard in Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina.
Guaraní is listed as an official language in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina.
In Paraguay, the constitution is even written in Guaraní and Spanish. Most textbooks in Paraguay are also bilingual. In fact, about 2/3 of the population speaks Guaraní.
Although there are several dialects of Guaraní, they are all mutually intelligible.
Here are some common words in Guaraní:
- Hello: Mba’eichapa
- Thank you: Aguyjevete ndéve
The words tapir, jaguar and tapioca all came to English from the Guaraní language.
How many people speak Aymara in South America?
Aymara is an indigenous language in Bolivia, Peru, Northern Chile, and Argentina that has over 2 million speakers.
It is believed that the original homeland of Aymara was Peru. The Aymara and the Quechua languages are sometimes grouped together since they share about a third of their vocabulary.
Linguists are unsure if this is due to borrowing between the two languages or a shared origin.
There are three main varieties of Aymara. They are mutually intelligible.
Even with 2 million speakers, Amayra is considered a potentially endangered language because older speakers often do not pass the language on to the younger generation.
In an effort to keep the language alive, some publications carry Aymara literature and Aymara-Spanish texts are used in bilingual education and literacy programs.
Here are some common words in Amayra:
- Goodbye: Jakisiñkama
- Thank you: Yuspagara
The word alpaca also came from the Aymara language.
How many people speak Mapuche/Mapudungun in South America?
Around 500,000 people speak Mapudungun or Mapuche. Mapuche means “language of the land”.
When the Spanish arrived, Mapudungun was virtually the only language in central and southern Chile. Today, it is still spoken in Chile and Argentina.
However, the Mapuches have lost control of their territory and have become a persecuted minority in Chile and Argentina.
As a result, many had to move to the cities, which led to a loss of their language and traditions.
Here are some common words in Mapuche:
- mother: ñuke
- face: ange
- sun: Soleil
- moon: Lune
How many people speak Wayuunaiki in South America?
Wayuunaiki is spoken by just over 300,000 people on the Guajira Peninsula of South America.
The Wayuu, known as the people of the sun, sand, and wind, are the largest indigenous ethnic group of both Venezuela and Colombia.
The Wayuu people have faced discrimination from both the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.
As a result, they have lost rights and raw materials from their land. Due to climate change that made it impossible for them to farm, they struggle with malnutrition and access to employment among the tribe.
Here are some common words in Wayuunaiki:
- Jamaya: hello
- Ajaa: goodbye
How many people speak Kuna in South America?
Kuna, the language is of the Kuna Tribe, is spoken by around 58,500 people in Panama and Colombia.
There are technically two varieties of the Kuna (or Cuna) language. One is called San Blas or Island Cuna, spoken by those who live on the San Blas Islands of Panama.
The other is known as Border or Mountain Cuna, spoken in northwestern Colombia. There is some disagreement between linguists about whether they are different dialects or different languages altogether.
Here are some common words in Kuna:
- Nuwedi: Thank you, Good morning
- Takeimalo: Goodbye
How many people speak Emberá in South America?
Over 70,000 people speak Emberá in Panama and Colombia. The Emberá tribe is the third largest group of indigenous people. The name ‘Emberá‘ means ‘people’.
The tribe is mostly nomadic, which has led to five different dialects of the Emberá language.
Within the tribe, members label themselves based on the general geographic location where they live. There are three distinct groups, the people of the mountains (Eyebida), rivers (Dobida) or sea (Pusabida).
Here are some common words in Emberá:
- mukĩrã: man
- wẽrã: woman
How many people speak Páez in South America?
Páez is spoken by the Páez Indians who live in Northwestern Colombia. There are roughly 60,000 Páez speakers. They live in rugged, mountainous areas, which has helped them preserve their lifestyle and language.
Children generally do go to school from 1-3rd grade, occasionally up to 6th grade, unless they are needed to help on their families’ farms sooner.
Some of the schools teach in both Páez and Spanish to help the tribe preserve their language.
Here are some common words in Páez are:
- Pihc: Man
- U’y: Woman
How many people speak Ashaninka in South America?
Although Ashaninka is one of South America’s largest indigenous tribes, spanning from Brazil to Peru, only about 23,000 to 28,500 people speak Ashaninka.
The tribe has been around for at least five thousand years but they have faced many trials that have threatened their population and language.
Although the tribe lives very spread out, scattered across hundreds of smaller communities, the language has remained relatively the same.
Here are some common words in Ashaninka:
- Shirampari: Man
- Tsinane: Woman
How many people speak Arawak/Lokono in South America?
There are around 16,000 Arawaks, living mostly in Guyana. The Arawak language is only spoken by about 2,400 people though, mostly adults.
Children are not learning the language as often, which puts the language in great danger of extinction.
Not only is Arawak the name of a language and people group, but it is also the name of a language family that includes at least 53 active languages.
Here are some common words in Arawak:
- anda: come
- aduka: see
- adonka: sleep
South American Languages are Diverse
The diversity of languages in South America is incredible. It’s definitely not just Spanish that you will hear while traveling the continent!
Many indigenous languages in South America are still widely spoken and influencing current languages. So, if you are planning a trip to South America, get ready for a linguistic adventure.