Estimate of the number of native Polish speakers

by Jakub Marian

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Different sources give very different estimates for the number of native Polish speakers, ranging from 39 million to 55 million, and they virtually never explain the methodology they used to arrive at a particular number. Because most of these numbers seem to be highly exaggerated and there does not seem to be any currently available published study with an acceptable methodology, I decided to publish my own.

Most census data that are currently available (as of 2018) were collected in 2011, which is why I have estimated the number of native speakers in 2011, with the following conclusion:

There were around 42 million native speakers of Polish in the world in 2011, and this number likely remains virtually unchanged as of 2018.

Considering the birth and death rate in Poland between 2011 and 2017 and assuming the same rates among the Polish diaspora, there should be around 170 thousand native speakers less in 2018 than in 2011. Since the data below, which may not be entirely accurate, add up to 42.17 million native speakers in 2011, this implies that the current number should be nearly exactly 42 million.

The countries in which Polish speakers live have changed somewhat in the last 7 years due to migration, but the total number of speakers should remain relatively stable. Combining the data below with more recent surveys (showing higher number in the UK, for example) would be inappropriate because this would not take into account the decreasing numbers elsewhere.

Native speakers of Polish by country

I was able to find the following census data on the number of native speakers of Polish by country (this includes all European countries with large traditional Polish minorities that would not be included in the second table below):

CountryNative speakers
(thousands)
Source
Poland37,6562011 Census (p. 82)
US5802009–2013 census.gov
Canada2012011 Census
Lithuania1582011 Census
(original no longer available)
Ireland1202011 Census (p. 35; language used at home)
Czech Republic342011 Census (p. 21)
Ukraine212001 Census
(original no longer available; no recent data available)
Belarus182009 Census

For other countries, I used the 2010 UN migrant stock data on the number of people born in Poland living in the given country. These may be either underestimates (in most countries) because children born to Polish parents outside Poland are likely native speakers of Polish too (but do not show up in the statistics), or overestimates (especially in Germany), because some of those born in Poland currently living in another country may be native speakers of another language (there was a sizeable German-speaking community in Poland after WWII).

Unfortunately, there do not seem to be any census data on native languages for Germany available (which is the largest possible source of inaccuracy of the estimates).

CountryBorn in Poland
(thousands)
Germany1,866
United Kingdom626
Italy119
France103
Spain74
Sweden70
Australia59
Netherlands58
Israel57
Austria56
Norway50
Belgium43
Russia29
Denmark27
Kazakhstan27
Switzerland22
Greece16
Iceland10
South Africa10
Other (<10)64

The total of both tables combined is 42,172 (in thousands), i.e. 42.172 million. However, due to the uncertain nature of the data, I advise against quoting the decimal part. I believe it is reasonable to say that there are around 42 million native speakers of Polish at this point (as of 2018).

In conclusion, the high estimates that can be found on the internet seem to be completely unfounded and should not be perpetuated (for example, the English Wikipedia at the time this article was published gave “55 million native speakers”, based on a Swedish encyclopedia from 2010).

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