Language Profiles

This overview provides background language information for some of the major refugee groups in the UK.

Many asylum seekers and refugees speak more than one language but with varying degrees of fluency. Advisers working with them should check with which languages their clients are most comfortable.

The Language Identification Chart available on this site may help with this process.


There are about four to five million speakers of Albanian. About three million live in Albania, less than two million live in the countries of former Yugoslavia, mainly in the Province of Kosovo and smaller numbers in Italy and Greece.


Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia and is spoken by about 30 per cent of the population. Amharic is a Semitic language and is written in the Ethiopic alphabet. Other major languages in Ethiopia include Tigrinya, Tigre and Oromo.


The official language of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – making Arabic the mother tongue of about 215 million people in the world. Spoken Arabic varies from country to country, but classic Arabic, the language of the Koran, has remained unchanged since the 7th century.


More people in the world speak Chinese than any other language. Standard Chinese is known as Mandarin, which derives directly from classical Chinese. Two-thirds of China’s population speak and write Mandarin. Cantonese is the other main dialect spoken in Hong Kong and the province of Guangzhou by about 45 million people.


In Afghanistan, the Persian language is known as Dari. Although standard written Persian is taught in schools, spoken Dari is a different dialect to Farsi. Most Afghan refugees in Britain speak Dari or Pushto as their first language.


Farsi is the modern version of Persian and spoken by over 40 million people in Iran. In Afghanistan, the Persian language is known as Dari and spoken by half of the Afghan population.


French is not only spoken in France, but is also the official language of Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, Burundi and Rwanda. French is also the unofficial second language of a number of countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.


Kurmanji and Sorani are the two main Kurdish dialects. Iraqi Kurds speak Sorani as their first language. Kurmanji is spoken by Turkish Kurds. Kurdish is very closely related to Persian. Kurdish Sorani is the dominant written form of Kurdish as Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed greater cultural freedom than Kurds in Iran and Turkey, where Kurmanji is spoken but not widely printed and read. Official bans on Kurdish have existed in Turkey and Iran. In Iraq, Kurdish has never been officially banned, although in practice its use is being restricted.


In addition to Portugal and Brazil where Portuguese it is a national language; it is spoken in Portuguese colonies in Africa, in the Atlantic, and in Asia. Its total number of speakers is over 140 million. Portuguese is the official language in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.


Punjabi is spoken in the Punjab, the region divided between India and Pakistan. In Pakistan it is the daily language of about two-thirds of the population, or 80 million people, though Urdu is the official language of the country. In India, it is the official language of Punjab state. There are about 25 million speakers in India.


Pushto is the language of the Pathans, the indigenous inhabitants of Afghanistan. About ten million people in the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan speak it – this constitutes 35 per cent of the Afghan population. About ten million people in North West Pakistan also speak Pushto.


Russian is the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages. Of the 150 million people in the Russian Federation, about 125 million are native Russians, with many members of other nationalities speaking the language with varying degrees of fluency. About 30 million Russians also live in the newly independent states of Estonia, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus and Lithuania.


In 1973, Somali became the official language of Somalia after being transcribed into the Roman script. Somali is spoken by the vast majority of the seven million inhabitants of Somalia, but also by over one million people in Ethiopia and about 300,000 in Kenya.


Four million people in the North East of Sri Lanka speak Tamil. There are also about 50 million Tamil speakers mainly in India, but also in Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Trinidad and Guyana. Tamil is the standard written language, but there are a number of different dialects spoken in Sri Lanka and the South of India.


Tigrignia is the official language of Eritrea, although since 1991 English has been adopted as the medium of secondary education. Tigrinya is written in the Ethiopic script. Other languages spoken in Eritrea include Tigre, Afar, Beja and Saho.


Turkish is the national language of Turkey, but is also spoken by minority groups in Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, and Germany. Turkish is written in the Roman alphabet. Almost all male Kurds speak some Turkish, but Kurdish women often do not if they have not attended school. Most Kurdish people will speak some Kurdish although few will be literate.


Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and is also widely spoken in India. In Pakistan it is the mother tongue of about 10 million people and is spoken fluently as a second language by about 80 million more. In India, where some 50 million people speak it, it is one of the official languages.


About 65 million people speak Vietnamese in Vietnam. It is sometimes thought that Vietnamese is distantly related to Chinese.