Which Languages Are Spoken in Poland?
Poland is located in East-Central Europe and has a population of more than 38 million. This country has a long history of multiculturalism, with diverse ethnic groups that continue to exist today. Despite this diversity, this country has the highest rate of linguistic homogeneity in Europe. Its principal and official language is Polish. More than 38 million people speak Polish as a first language in Poland, which represents 97% of the population.
Polish is considered a West Slavic language and belongs to the Indo-European language family. Its development dates back to the 10th century AD, when the tribes of Vistula and Oder were united under Mieszko I. Because these indigenous peoples shared similar languages, a new standardized version began to form with the help of the adopted Latin alphabet. Between 1500 and 1700, Polish was a common language, or lingua franca, across large regions of Eastern Europe. It is the oldest, continuously used, non-Christian related Slavic language and has been used for both literature and governmental purposes without interruption since at least the 1500s.
Officially Recognized Minority Languages of Poland
The following are the minority languages of Poland, and their corresponding number of speakers: Kashubian (108,140); German (96,461); Belarusian (26,448); Ukrainian (24,549); Romany (14,468); Rusyn (6,279); Lithuanian (5,303); Armenian (2,000); Hungarian (1,000); Slovak (1,000); and Czech (1,000). Other officially recognized minority languages include Yiddish, Hebrew, Karaim, and Tartar.
Of these languages, the most widely spoken is Kashubian, which belongs to the Lechitic group of Slavic languages. It is believed to have originated from the language of the Pomeranian indigenous group, who are said to have arrived in the area prior to the Poles. Over time it has been influenced by Polabian, Old Prussian, and Low German languages. Kashubian is often considered a dialect of the Pomeranian language. The language itself has a number of dialects and Kashubian speakers from the north may have difficulty understanding Kashubian speakers from the south.
Unofficial Minority Languages of Poland
A number of languages spoken throughout Poland have not been officially recognized by the government. These include immigrant languages, foreign languages, Silesian, and Wymysorys. Silesian, interestingly, is the second most widely spoken language in Poland. Approximately 529,377 individuals report speaking this language at home. However, it has not been officially recognized by the government due to a dispute among linguists as to whether it is a distinct language or a dialect of Polish. It is often listed as a sub-language of the Lechitic language group, belonging to the Slavic family. Additionally, Silesian has been influenced by the Central German language. It is primarily spoken in the Upper Silesia area, which is divided between the southwestern region of Poland and the northeastern region of the Czech Republic. The Wymysorys language belongs to the West Germanic language group and is currently used only in Wilamowice, a town between Silesia and Lesser Poland. It is listed as an endangered language due to its small population of native speakers. Only 70 to 100 individuals report fluency in Wymysorys, all of whom are elderly adults.
Languages Used at Home in Poland
|Rank||Language||Number of Speakers in Poland|
Languages of Poland
The Languages of Poland include Polish – the language of the indigenous population – and those of immigrants and their descendants. Polish is the only official language recognized by the country’s constitution and the majority of the country’s population speak it as a native language or use it for home communication. Deaf communities in Poland use Polish Sign Language, which belongs to the German family of Sign Languages.
Languages other than Polish that have existed in the region for at least 100 years can gain recognition as a regional or minority language, which have appropriate rules of use. In areas where the speakers of these languages make up more than 20% of the population, the language can receive the status of auxiliary language, while Polish remains the official language.
According to the Act of 6 January 2005 on national and ethnic minorities and on the regional languages, 16 languages have been recognized as minority languages; 1 regional language, 10 languages belonging to 9 national minorities (minorities from another sovereign state) and 5 languages belonging to 4 ethnic minorities (minorities that do not belong to another sovereign state). Jewish and Romani minorities each have 2 recognized minority languages.
Language used in households by population as of 2011.
- Polish (37,815,606)
- Silesian (529,377)
- Kashubian (108,140)
- English (103,541)
- German (96,461)
- Belarusian (26,448)
- Ukrainian (24,539)
- Russian (19,805)
- Romany (14,468)
- French (10,677)
- Italian (10,295)
- Rusyn (6,279)
- Spanish (5,770)
- Lithuanian (5,303)
- Vietnamese (3,360)
- Other languages (31,800)
- Unspecified (519,698)
- Total (38,511,824)
National minority’s languages
Ethnic minority’s languages
- Rusyn, called Lemko in Poland (Polish: “Łemkowski”, see Lemko)
- Two Romani languages are officially recognised: Polska Roma and Bergitka Roma.
- Tatar, called Tartar by the act.
Official recognition gives the representatives of the minority under certain conditions the right to education in their language, having their language established as a secondary administrative language or help language in their municipality, financial support in the promotion of their language and culture, etc.
The bilingual status of gminas (municipalities) in Poland is regulated by the Act of 6 January 2005 on National and Ethnic Minorities and on the Regional Languages, which permits certain gminas with significant linguistic minorities to introduce a second, auxiliary language to be used in official contexts alongside Polish. The following is a list of languages by the number of gminas that have them as auxiliary languages.
- Kashubian (5)
- Lithuanian (1)
- German (33)
- Belarusian (5)
Languages of bilingual settlements
A settlement can use any officially recognised, regional, or minority languages in their name. Currently[when?] only 5 settlements have exercised this power. The following is a list of languages by their use in settlements dual language names.
- Belarusian (27)
- German (359)
- Kashubian (827)
- Lithuanian (30)
- Rusyn (9)
Languages of diasporas and immigrants
These languages are not recognised as minority languages, as the Act of 2005 defines minority as “a group of Polish citizens (…) striving to preserve its language, culture or tradition, (…) whose ancestors have been living on the present territory of the Republic of Poland for at least 100 years”:
- Greek: the language of the Greek diaspora in Poland of 1950s.
- Vietnamese: the language of the biggest immigrant community in Poland since the 1960s, having their own newspapers, schools, churches etc.
The Polish Sign Language is the language of the deaf community in Poland. It descends from German Sign Language. Its lexicon and grammar are distinct from the Polish language, although there is a manually coded version of Polish known as System Językowo-Migowy (SJM, or Signed Polish), which is often used by interpreters on television and by teachers in schools. In 2012, under the “Sign Language Act”, the language received official status and can be chosen as the language of instruction by those who require it.
Unrecognised regional languages
- It is disputed whether Silesian is either one of the four major dialects of Polish or a separate language, distinct from Polish. Ethnologue distinguishes the Silesian language from the Upper Silesian dialect of Polish language. There are efforts by some Silesian groups advocating for legal recognition to be granted (similar to that of Kashubian) and the topic is considered a political issue.
- Wymysorys is an endangered language with very few speakers. It is native to Wilamowice, but, unlike the similarly endangered Karaim language, it was practically unknown during the preparation of the aforementioned Act.
Dead and artificial languages
Among languages used in Poland, Ethnologue mentions one constructed language – the International Auxiliary Language Esperanto (created in Poland), and one dead language – Prussian, but does not mention two other known defunct languages: Slovincian, which consists of dialects of Pomeranian, died out in the beginning of the 20th century, and is closely related to Kashubian, and Yatvingian, which died around the mid-16th (or possibly end of 19th) century. As the result of the Nazi’s atrocities and the ensuing border shift at Germany’s expense and ethnic cleansing, various dialects of German historically prevalent in Poland’s western and northwestern regions have become endangered, such as Lower Silesian and Low German.
Eurobarometer studies in 2012 showed that 33%, 19%, and 18% of Poles declared to be able to have a conversation in English, German, and Russian, respectively. As of 2015, around 32% of Polish citizens declared knowledge of the English language according to the Centre for Public Opinion Research.
What Languages Are Spoken In Poland? (Other Than Polish)
Poland is a Central European country with over 38 million inhabitants. The country is bordering no less than 7 countries in addition to the Baltic Sea. This might be some of the reason why the country has so many minority languages.
15 languages are spoken by more than 3.000 people each in Poland. These consist mostly of regional languages that are also common in Poland’s neighboring countries, but immigration languages such as English, French, Italian, Spanish And Vietnamese are common too. In addition to that, Poland has around 14 smaller minority languages that different ethnic groups in Poland speak as their heritage languages.
The Polish Language In Poland
Despite the many languages spoken, the vast majority of the Polish population (98%) speak Polish as their first language. Polish is a West Slavic language, or more precisely a “Lechitic” language.
The Lechitic group consists mainly of smaller languages such as Silesian and Kashubian besides Polish, and the major languages that are related to Polish are found in other West Slavic branches. These are languages such as Czech and Slovak.
While Polish is a Slavic language, it isn’t written with the Cyrillic alphabet like Ukrainian and Russian and many of the other similar languages, but rather, it uses a variant of the Latin alphabet which has been adapted to fit Polish pronunciation.
The Most Spoken Languages In Poland
In the following, I’m going to go through some of the most commonly spoken languages in Poland. The below list includes regional, immigrant and foreign languages spoken in the country and it is based on numbers from 2011.
The numbers reflect how many speak the language regularly, and not necessarily as a first language.
- Polish (37,815,606 – 99.5%)
- Silesian (529,377 – 1.4%)
- Kashubian (108,140 – 0.3%)
- English (103,541 – 0.3%)
- German (96,461 – 0.25%)
- Belarusian (26,448 – 0.07%)
- Ukrainian (24,539 – 0.06%)
- Russian (19,805 – 0.05%)
- Romany (14,468 – 0.04%)
- French (10,677 – 0.03%)
- Italian (10,295 – 0.03%)
- Rusyn (6,279 – 0.02%)
- Spanish (5,770 – 0.02%)
- Lithuanian (5,303 – 0.01%)
- Vietnamese (3,360 – 0.01%)
While some numbers appear high, everyday speakers of other languages than Polish are extremely rare in Poland. This is illustrated by the percentage of the total Polish population. Some of the above languages are, however very regional, and in certain towns and regions they might be spoken by a much bigger proportion of the local population.
Silesian is a West-Slavic and Lechetic language closely related to Polish. It has been strongly influenced by German, and while some linguists consider it a dialect of Polish, others argue that it must be treated as a separate language.
Silesian is spoken mostly in the historical region of “Upper Silesia” in Southern Poland by over half a million Poles (and to a lesser extent, some Northern parts of the Czech Republic).
Like Polish and Silesian, Kashubian is a Lechitic language from the West Slavic branch of languages, and like Silesian, Kashubian is often considered a dialect of Polish.
Kashubian is said to be a language that developed from Pomeranian which was a Lechitic language spoken by the Pomeranians – a Slavic tribe that might have existed in the modern-day Polish region of Kashubia even before the Poles arrived. Kashubia is located in North Western Poland by the German borders.
The Kashubian language is divided into a northern and southern dialect, and interestingly, these are almost not intelligible between each other.
Like Polish and Silesian, Kashubian has a considerable amount of German loan-words, but unlike the other languages, Kashubian has borrowed a lot of words from Low-German dialects and slightly less from High-German as opposed to the others.
Kashubian is spoken by a little more than 100.000 Poles who’re mostly situated in the region of Kashubia.
While an important amount of Poles speak English as a second language, quite interestingly, around 100.000 Poles speak English at a regular basis. One would suppose this being due to the presence of many American or British expats living in Poland, but the total number of native English speakers in Poland only reaches 7.000.
Around 50% of Poles speak some level of English as a second language and I’ll get more into this later.
A little less than 100.000 Poles speak German as their first language, but there may be as many as 500.000 Poles of German descent.
The German minorities in Poland have been present in the country since the middle ages. Since the middle of the 20th century, High German (or standard German) has been the dialect spoken by the Polish Germans. Before that, however, the “Silesian German” dialect was the main language spoken by the German minority.
Most of the German minority live in the Silesia and Opole provinces in the South of Poland.
The Belarusian language is spoken by around 26.000 people in Poland as a first language. They are members of the Belarusian minority in Poland, a community of a little less than 50.000 people, and they mostly live in the Podlaskie province of North-Eastern Poland.
The Belarusian minority of Poland used to be much bigger, but due to an active assimilation effort, most of the Poles with Belarusian ancestry consider themselves Polish today.
The number of Poles with Belarusian descent might be as high as 250.000, but according to some sources, the Belarusian community is a victim of discrimination and political neglect, which makes the preservation of the Belarusian culture and language in Poland quite difficult.
Around 40.000 Polish citizens are part of the Ukrainian minority and 25.000 of them speak the Ukrainian language as their mother tongue. The number of Ukrainian migrant workers in Poland is much higher than that, however. Some 1,3 million Ukrainians currently work in Poland on temporary work permits which makes for a very significant population.
The Ukrainian minority (and not specifically Ukrainian migrant workers) mostly reside in big cities like Warsaw, where it wouldn’t be unlikely to hear the Ukrainian language spoken now and again.
Poland has some 19.000 people who speak Russian as their first language.
The number of people who speak Russian as a second language is much higher, however. Some statistics say 14% to 26% of the Polish population speak some level of Russian.
Russian used to be an important language in the whole of the Soviet Union, and especially educated Poles of earlier generations speak Russian to this date. Similarly, many immigrants from ex-Soviet countries in Poland speak some degree of Russian.
Poland has 14-15.000 native Romany speakers, who are part of the Romani minority in the country.
The total number of Polish citizens of Romani descent might be much higher, however.
The Romany language is an Indo-Aryan language that originally came from the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. The Romany language is spoken all over Europe with a higher concentration of speakers in central European countries.
In Poland, the Romani population are spread out geographically with only a slight concentration in the southern parts of Poland.
Surprisingly, the French language is spoken by almost 11.000 people as an everyday language in Poland, despite the number of first-language French speakers being very low.
Poland has around 10.000 everyday Italian speakers, some 5.000 of them living in Warsaw.
According to this article, the number of Italian migrant workers in Poland has been rising the last few decades. The Italians mostly immigrate to Poland to work in mulinational companies or in the catering industry.
The Rusyn language is spoken by some 6.000 Polish citizens as an everyday language. Historically, the Rusyn minority in Poland has been centered in the South-Eastern parts of the country, but today, speakers of the language are scattered all over Poland.
In Poland, Rusyn is often referred to as Lemko, and the language is considered to be a dialect of Ukrainian by many.
Rusyn is equally spoken as a minority language in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ukraine among others.
Much like it’s the case with Italian, the Spanish community in Poland is growing.,
Today around 6.000 everyday speakers of Spanish live in Poland, most of whom for professional reasons.
Lithuanians are a recognized minority of Poland and as many as 15.000 Poles have Lithuanian descent, while only about 6.000 of these speak Lithuanian as an everyday language.
The Vietnamese language is spoken by around 3.400 Polish citizens as an everyday language. At least that’s the official numbers. Estimates go as high as 60.000 and the big difference might be due to the number of illegal immigrants who don’t show up in the official statistics.
This makes the Vietnamese language one of the most spoken foreign languages in Poland. Add to that that the wast majority of Poland’s Vietnamese speakers reside in Warsaw, meaning that it most likely would be possible to get by in some parts of the capital while only speaking Vietnamese.
Polish Minority Languages
Poland used to be a multi-ethnic and multilingual country with big numbers of people speaking many different languages.
Today, Polish is the all-dominant language spoken by the vast majority.
The multi-ethnic history of the country is still visible when looking at the composition of the country’s minority languages, despite the number of speakers being low.
The official minority languages of Poland are:
Some of them have already been mentioned earlier in this article. Others have such a low number of native speakers that it isn’t part of the list.
They all have the fact in common, however, that the members of the minority who speaks the language has the right to education in the language as well as certain specific rights.
Foreign Languages And Second Languages In Poland
The three major second languages spoken in Poland are English, Russian and German.
Like it’s the case of most countries in the word, Poland has a growing number of English speakers, and English is generally taught in schools to the majority of students.
Different statistics put the number of proficient English speakers in Poland between 33% and 50% of the population.
Russian, on the other hand is not a foreign language that many Poles learn today, but due to Poland’s past as a member of the Soviet Union, earlier generations often speak Russian at a certain level.
Many immigrants from ex-soviet countries equally speak Russian, which is part of the reason why around 26% of the Polish population speak some Russian.
Lastly, German is spoken as a second language by around 19% of the Polish population. The proximity to Germany along with the big minority of Polish-Germans are part of the reasons for the importance of the German language in Poland.
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