The European Union (EU) is a multi-national organization in charge of regulating immigration, the economic market, and other political aspects in the European region. To make communication fair and accessible to all members, there are 24 official languages that enable communication. In this article, we’ll go over the 24 official languages, the 3 working languages, and the role they play in the European Union.
What is the European Union?
The European Union is the economic and political alliance between 27 European countries. It was formed after World War II to ensure peace and prosperity in the European region. Since then, it has developed to fit modern times and match the interests of its members. Now, the European Union regulates trade, currency, migration, environmental issues, health, security, language diversity, and justice across borders.
To make trade easier, the European Union has a single shared market and a currency that most Eu countries have adopted: the Euro. Thanks to this, European citizens can transit and look for opportunities in other European countries without the need for visas.
These are the countries that belong to the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.
The 24 Official Languages of the European Union
For a language to become an official EU language, it has to be an official language in one of the countries of the union. To help you familiarize yourself with these languages, we have provided important facts about each of the 24 official languages of the European Union. Note that the languages listed below have been listed in alphabetical order and not by the number of speakers they currently have.
Bulgarian is the official language of Bulgaria and there are around 5.2 million people that speak it worldwide. This language became part of the official list of languages when Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Bulgarian is a Slavic language and is related to modern Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, and Macedonian.
Many people believe that Bulgarian is the most similar to Russian because of the time the country spent under the USSR. However, it’s closest to Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian. But it’s important to note that it was the Bulgarians who developed the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th century. Today, they still use the Cyrillic alphabet and even celebrate every year on May 24. Learning Bulgarian can help you learn other Slavic languages with ease, like Serbian or Ukrainian.
Croatian is the official language of Croatia, which joined the European Union in 2013. Currently, there are around 6 million people in the world who speak Croatian. This language is part of the Slavic branch of Indo-European languages, like Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian. While most speakers live in Croatia, you can also find speakers in countries like Austria and Italy.
Croatian is usually thought to be the same language as Serbian because both Serbia and Croatia were part of Yugoslavia. Note that Croatian and Serbian are mutually intelligible, which means that their native speakers can understand each other despite the linguistic differences. However, unlike Serbian, Croatian only uses the Latin script. Because of Croatian’s association with South Slavic languages, knowing how to speak it can serve as a door to languages like Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Slove.
Czech is the official language of Czechia (formerly known as the Czech Republic). Now, there are approximately 10 million people who speak it in the world. While this language is mostly spoken in its native country, you can also hear it in countries like Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Austria, and Ukraine in communities of Czech immigrants and their descendants. Czech is a West Slavic language and is closely related to Slovak and Polish.
Czech has been in use since the 12th century when it first appeared in Latin and Germanic texts. In the past, Czech used to be called Bohemian and it was spoken in the western regions of Czechia, then called Bohemia and Moravia. The Czech alphabet is written in Latin script but contains diacritical marks (such as á, č, and ů).
In the European Union, Danish is the official language of Denmark, but it’s also spoken in Danish language communities in Germany. There are around 5.5 million Danish speakers in the world, out of which approximately 5.52 million are native speakers. Outside of the EU, Danish is also present in schools and communities in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland.
Danish is a North Germanic language, derived from Old Norse and tied to the Indo-European family of languages. While it shares a similar vocabulary and pronunciation with Norwegian, its grammar has been greatly influenced by German. Because of this, you can group different Danish words to create a compound and more specific word.
Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands. But, it’s also one of the official languages of Belgium (known as Flemish), more specifically in the region of Flanders. There are around 23 million Dutch native speakers, with around 22 million of them coming from the EU and 6 million speakers who learned it as a second language. Dutch is a West Germanic language, which means that it shares similarities with languages like German and English.
There’s a large variety of Dutch dialects used in other parts of the world (like Central Dutch and Flemish). Like other Germanic languages, the Dutch alphabet has 26 letters and uses the Latin script. Note that while there are many similarities with the English alphabet, Dutch also has accent marks and diaresis (gein-stalleerd, co-ordinatie, cre-eren) used to stress and change the pronunciation of certain words.
There are more than 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, including people who learned it as a second or foreign language. Apart from being one of the most spoken languages in the world, English is also an official working language of the European Union. It became an official when the United Kingdom joined the EU in 1973, and kept its place after Brexit occurred in 2016 due to it also being an official language of Ireland and Malta.
The English language is very influential, but it has also adopted many words from other languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Most people learn English as their second language, which is why it’s considered the lingua franca for communication across borders in Europe. It belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language branch, so it shares characteristics with languages like German and Dutch.
Estonian became one of the official languages of the European Union when Estonia joined in 2004. It’s the official language of Estonia, and it’s spoken by approximately 1.1 million Estonian speakers in the world. Estonian belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family, along with Finnish. Estonia was part of the USSR until 1991 and, as a result, it acquired many loanwords from other countries that were part of the Soviet Union, like Russia or Finland.
Like other languages on this list, Estonian uses the Latin script but has diaresis to represent the sound of vowels like æ, ø, and y, accent marks, and other diacritics. The Estonian alphabet originally had 23 letters. However, due to the influence of German and Swedish, it’s added 9 extra letters that are used for foreign words.
Finnish is one of the two official languages of Finland. But, it’s also widely spoken in countries of the European Union like Estonia, Sweden, and Norway. In total, more than 6 million people speak Finnish. Many people think that Finnish is a Scandinavian language, but it belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages like Hungarian.
This language has complicated grammar where changing one letter in a word can change the whole meaning of your sentence. One fun fact is that Finnish has one of the longest words in the world: Lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas (Aeroplane jet turbine motor assistant mechanic, non-commissioned officer, in training). While it might seem intimidating, Finnish shares many similarities with Estonian. It can be relatively easy to learn if you already speak Estonian.
The French language is very popular, so it’s no surprise that it has around 321 million speakers worldwide. French is the official language of France, but it’s also one of the official languages of Belgium and Luxembourg. In the European Union, more than 20% of people speak French. This is another one of the three working languages in the EU.
French is well-known for being a Romance language, along with Italian and Spanish, and speaking it can help you learn another Romance languages with ease. Due to the French influence in fashion, art, and technology, many companies look to hire employees with a standard level of French. French has borrowed many words from English, which will come in handy when learning to communicate on a basic level.
German is the official language of Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Belgium. However, it’s also possible to find German-speaking communities in other countries of the European Union, like Italy, Denmark, or Czechia. This is the language with the biggest number of native speakers in the European Union, and there are around 135 million German speakers in the world. Like French and English, German is also a working language of the EU.
Germany has the biggest job market in the European Union, so learning this language can help you look for job opportunities and even scholarships. Along with English and Dutch, German is one of the three West Germanic languages that are on the list of official languages in the European Union. Plus, knowing German can help you move through most of the continent since it’s one of the most spoken languages across Europe.
Greek is the official language of Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. It was added to the list of European Union languages when Greece joined in 1981. Currently, there are more than 12 million people who speak Greek. Outside of Greece and Cyprus, you can also find Greek speakers in Germany, Hungary, and Italy.
While Greek is not the oldest spoken language in the world, it is the oldest recorded language. There is written evidence of Greek dating back somewhere between 1450 and 1350 BC. From its theater and mythology to its historic sites, the Greek language has a rich history and culture. It has influenced many other languages, and it’s also useful if you want to understand the different parts of a word in English. Now, it’s commonly used in medical and scientific language.
Hungarian is the official language of Hungary and there are around 12 million Hungarian speakers worldwide. Even though most can be found in Hungary, there are also significant numbers of Hungarian speakers in Austria, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, and Slovakia. Outside of the EU, you can also find Hungarian speakers in Serbia and Ukraine.
Along with Finnish and Estonian, Hungarian is the third language that belongs to the Finno-Ugric language group that has made the list of the EU official languages. Its alphabet uses the Latin script but has added diacritical marks so it has 44 letters instead of 26. Hungarian grammar can seem more complex due to its many differences from English. For example, Hungarian has no grammatical gender and uses suffixes instead of prepositions.
Irish was added to the list of official languages when Ireland joined the European Union in 1973. It’s one of the official languages of Ireland and there are approximately 1.8 million native Irish speakers in the world. Irish is a Celtic language that has been around since the 6th century when its initial form was first developed.
The Irish language is closely tied to the folklore, culture, and history of the Old World, and learning it can help you discover the way of living of early European communities. The Irish government is currently working to preserve the language. To do this, they are currently looking to hire employees who speak the language fluently, which means that knowing Irish could open many job opportunities for you.
There are 67 million native Italian speakers in the European Union and approximately 13.4 million EU citizens who speak it as a second language. Like Spanish and French, Italian is a Romance language that uses the Latin script. It’s fairly easy to learn Italian if you already know Spanish because the sounds and grammar of the two languages are similar.
Italy is the country with the most UNESCO heritage sites in the world, and knowing its language can help you immerse yourself in its rich culture and history. Knowing Italian can also be useful if you plan to visit other parts of Europe, too. While Italian is most commonly spoken in its native country, countries like Switzerland and San Marino also have regions where the language is widely spoken.
Latvian became an official language when Latvia joined the European Union in 2004. There are around 1.5 million Latvian speakers in the world. In the European Union, you can find Latvian speakers in Latvia, Sweden, Lithuania, Germany, and Estonia. However, it is also spoken by populations in countries like Russia, Ukraine, and even in the North American region.
The Latvian language is characterized by having complex grammar. There are no articles, its numbers 0-9 have feminine and masculine forms and seven grammatical cases for its nouns. Its alphabet has 33 letters in the Latin writing system, and three dialects: East (or High), Central, and West Latvian.
Lithuanian is the official language of Lithuania. There are approximately 2.96 million native Lithuanian speakers in Lithuania and around 170,000 speakers spread throughout other countries like Belarus, Latvia, and Russia. The Lithuanian language belongs to the Baltic branch of Indo-European languages, like Latvian.
The Lithuanian alphabet contains 32 letters including diacritical marks. While Russia tried to influence Lithuania to adopt the Cyrillic script during the times of the Soviet Union, the language retained the Latin script it has used since Medieval times. However, it is possible to write Lithuanian in the Cyrillic alphabet – but it’s not common.
Maltese is the national language of Malta, an island country in southern Europe. Malta joined the European Union in 2004, and so Maltese joined the list of official languages. Maltese is a Semitic language, and there are around 12 million people who speak it in the world today.
While most Maltese speakers currently reside in Malta, it’s also possible to find them in Italy and Spain. The Maltese language has been deeply influenced by English. Most Maltese native speakers speak a mix of both that they call “Maltenglish.” However, Maltese grammar has a foundation in Arabic languages, so it’s not the easiest language to learn if you’re an English speaker.
Polish is the official language of Poland but, due to migration and relocation, it’s easy to find Polish speakers in countries like Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Latvia. In total, there are around 43 million Polish speakers in the world. Polish is a Western Slavic language, closely related to Slovak and Czech. But, its overall pronunciation and grammar are different.
The Polish alphabet is written in the Latin script and has 32 letters including diacritical signs. Learning Polish can serve as a door to other Slavic languages like Slovakian, Czech, and Croatian. Overall, knowing Polish can be a valuable tool if you want to visit or move to the Eastern European region.
Portuguese is the official language of Portugal. There are around 200 million Portuguese native speakers in the world, out of which only 5% come from Portugal. In the EU, you can find Portuguese-speaking communities in France, Spain, and Germany. However, this is a widespread language with many more speakers overseas.
The Portuguese language plays an important role in the history of Europe and colonization, with Portugal being an important player in European commerce in the 15th and 16th centuries. Speaking the language can help you immerse in the country’s history while you explore its landmarks and landscapes. Portuguese is also a Romance language, so it can be fairly easy to learn if you already speak French, Spanish, or Italian.
Romanian is the official language of Romania, but it’s also spoken in Greece and Hungary. Outside of the European Union, the language has spread through countries like Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, and Montenegro. Today, there are around 24 million Romanian speakers spread across 25 countries in the world.
Believe it or not, Romanian is a Romance language similar to Spanish, Italian, and French. Its alphabet includes the traditional 27 letters of the Latin alphabet plus five used for specific Romanian words and diacritical marks. In total, the Romanian alphabet has 31 letters. This might make the language sound intimidating, but Romanian is fairly easy for English speakers to learn due to its Latin roots. Italian is the closest language to Romanian, but Romanian shares many similarities with other Latin-rooted languages like Spanish and French. You might have an easier time studying it if you already speak one of these languages.
Slovak is the official language of Slovakia, but it’s also spoken in Czechia and Hungary. There are approximately 5 million Slovak speakers in the world. While it would make sense that the majority of Slovak speakers would be in Slovakia, Czechia is the country with the biggest percentage of Slovak speakers in Europe.
Slovak is a West Slavic language, closely related to Polish and Czech. Due to their geographic proximity (and apparent similarity in their names), many people think that Slovak and Slovenian are the same or are mutually intelligible. But, these are completely different languages. The Slovak language uses seven different grammatical cases and has an alphabet that consists of 46 letters. Its pronunciation is also complex if you don’t know other Slavic languages. On the other hand, it’s very similar to Czech!
Slovenian is the official language of the Republic of Slovenia. Currently, there are nearly 2.4 million Slovenian speakers, out of which 1.85 million live in Slovenia. It belongs to the South Slavic branch of Indo-European languages like Croatian and has an alphabet of 25 letters.
The Slovenian language was the first one to take a written form out of all the Slavic languages. While it’s not the oldest in the world, it’s one of the oldest languages in Europe, dating back to the 9th century. Slovenian can also be incredibly hard to learn due to its grammatical particularities like the use of the dual number in nouns and verbs.
Spanish is the official language of Spain, and it became part of the EU in 1986. Currently, there are around 493 million native speakers in the world, with 47 million of them living in Europe. It might surprise you to know that Spanish is actually the fifth most spoken language in the EU.
While knowing Spanish can come in handy if you’re moving to Spain, it can also open many doors for you in other countries like France, Portugal, or Italy. Spanish is a Romance language so it can be easier to learn if you already know French or Italian. It can also be beneficial if you want to study Catalan and discover other aspects of Spanish culture.
Swedish is the official language of Sweden and Finland, and it’s spoken by nearly 10 million people. While many Swedish speakers live in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, there are also Swedish-speaking villages throughout Europe in countries like Ukraine. Swedish belongs to the North Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, which means that it shares similarities with Danish.
Like Norwegian and Danish, the Swedish language descends from Old Norse. The old forms of this language have been around since the Middle Ages. Swedish, like other languages on this list, uses the Latin script and has 29 letters including the å, ä, and ö letters that are basic for communication. Its pronunciation can be tricky at times, but most people don’t have difficulties learning its written form.
How Languages are Used in the European Union
The role of the 24 official languages in the European Union is to make communication fair and easy for all members. Each language represents the countries where it has been declared official and is used to communicate with representatives and citizens alike. The use of the 24 languages not only ensures diversity but also guarantees that each member country will have a chance to vote, express concern, propose changes, make claims, and more. However, the European Union has working languages that it uses to make communication more effective in certain scenarios.
Official Languages vs Working Languages
The difference between the official and working languages in the European Union narrows down to their role. While there are 24 official languages in the European Union, only three are used for work: English, German, and French. Here’s a short breakdown of the differences between both to help you understand the way language works in the EU.
The 24 EU official languages represent the countries that are members of the European Union. Inside the EU, all 24 official languages are accepted as a means of communication. As a rule, all official documents are translated into all 24 languages to ensure all EU representatives are well-informed. Interpreters are also provided during sessions of the European Parliament to help all members participate.
The European Union aims to be as transparent as possible and, to keep all the citizens of the member countries informed, they accept calls and letters so people can voice their questions or concerns. You can contact the European Union in any of the 24 languages with official status (and Russian and Ukrainian).
To make communication easier and effective, the European Union uses English, French, and German as the main languages of communication. These three languages are called official working languages. The difference in status became necessary because, even though all 24 languages are accepted in the EU, it would be nearly impossible to translate all the possible combinations of languages at a parliament meeting. English, French, and German are languages spoken by many people on the continent, so they help break the language barrier.
Note that these languages are not always used parallelly in different European Union institutions. For example, in the Court of Justice of the EU, the judge deliberates in French and all related documents like claims or defenses must be submitted using the French language. Meanwhile, English is prominently used in the European Central Bank to make international finances easier to handle. While German is not as frequently used as French or English, it’s still one of the most spoken languages of Europe and it’s used in the European Commission along with English and French.
The European Union promotes language diversity, peace, collaboration, and prosperity in Europe. With the union, all the members can participate in the international market and address priorities or interests without the risk of creating conflict on the European continent. The 24 official languages of the EU give voice to the representatives and citizens of each country. Meanwhile, the working languages provide a common way for speakers in the EU to communicate effectively. This way, the different EU institutions like the European Central Bank, the European Parliament, or the European Commission can reach decisions promptly without compromising their goal of keeping their members informed.