Languages Spoken in Ireland

Of the languages spoken in Ireland, English is the most used by far. However, Irish is the national language of Ireland and is used as a second language throughout the country. Scots, Shelta, and Irish Sign Language are also part of the linguistic landscape on the Emerald Isle.

Of the first five languages below, four are indigenous (native). Scots is non-indigenous.

Irish stamp, languages spoken in ireland, irish sign language

A 1922 postage stamp with the Irish words Éire (“Ireland”) and Dhá phingin (“two pence”).

A Ranking of Languages Spoken in Ireland

The list below ranks speakers by population size.

1. English

GB Shaw, languages spoken in Ireland, single biggest problem in communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), one of Ireland’s most famous Irish playwrights

4.2 million speakers (2012 data). The majority of people in Ireland—population 4.6 million, according to 2014 data from The World Bank—speak English as a native language. Another 300,000 people in Ireland speak English as a second language.

Despite the dominance of English, the Irish government doesn’t give it top billing. According to Article 8.2 of Ireland’s constitution, “The English language is recognised [sic] as a second official language.”

2. Irish

138,000 (2012 data). Though you may hear Irish called simply “Gaelic,” linguists call it Irish Gaelic because it is distinct from Scottish Gaelic.

Ireland’s constitution provides that “the Irish language as the national language is the first official language.” The bit about “national language” is important. In fact, there’s currently a strong push for children to learn Irish. It is taught in schools as an official language.

3. Irish Sign Language

21,000 (2014 data). There are several English sign languages; in fact, the accent is different in each and not all vocabulary is the same between one variant and another.

For example, in Irish Sign Language, the sign for please is the letter P moved in a circular motion in front of the shoulder. (See what it looks like here.) But in American Sign Language, a person signs please by putting his flat hand over his chest and moving it in a circular motion.

What’s interesting about ISL is that two different dialects arose from the fact that boys and girls used to be sent to separate schools. According to Ethnologue, however, these differences are now less pronounced.

4. Scots

10,000 (1999 data). You’re more likely to hear Scots in Scotland than in Ireland. In fact, only about 10% of the world’s Scots speakers live in Ireland.

5. Shelta

6,000. Also known as Gammon (by native speakers) and the Cant, Shelta is a cryptolect. In other words, speakers can use it to prevent others from knowing what they’re saying. See how Shelta is written and how it compares to English and Irish.

When a language community is so small, having digital content available in that language is no guarantee.

6. Other Languages

When you first think about languages spoken in Ireland, French, German, Spanish, and Arabic may not come to mind. This is perhaps because we tend not to think of Ireland the way that we think of the U.S.—as a melting pot.

But according to 2011 statistics from Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, tens of thousands of people in Ireland use a language other than English or Irish in the home.

For example, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that there are French ex-pats living and working in Ireland. Almost 40,000 people reported using French in the home in 2011.

This is a greater number than that for German (15,000), Spanish (11,000), or Arabic (just under 3,000.

languages spoken in ireland, cliffs of moher, irish sign language

The Cliffs of Moher, or how to say “stunningly beautiful” in Irish.

Sources:
“Ireland,” Ethnologue.
“World Development Indicators: Ireland,” The World Bank.
“Ireland,” UNESCO.
“Shelta,” Wikipedia.

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You can also read about French curse wordssee how many languages are spoken in Brazil, or learn about France’s regional languages.

Last, see if you can name the top 9 languages spoken in the world before you look at our infographic.