As a translations company, working with all languages spoken around the globe, we often get asked this question. How many languages are there in the world? The answer is, quite a lot!
Many more than most people would think, in fact.
With around 196 countries, depending on whose classification you go by, you might imagine that there were at least as many languages spoken worldwide. Even taking into account that many countries share the same language, there are others with several languages inside one geographic region. India, for example, has 22 official languages and hundreds more spoken by pockets of the population.
Okay, so, how many languages are there then?
A 2016 report by Ethnologue placed the count at no less than 7,120 languages spoken across the world!
You read that right. That’s an awful lot of languages for a significantly fewer amount of countries. How can the total be so high? Around 90 percent of these languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people. What this means is that as populations and communities die out, the language is taken with them. The total language count then, is diminishing all the time. A 2017 update to the report placed the new total at 7,097. That’s five fewer than last year.
Curious about the distribution of these languages? One might take a simple glance to a continent like South America, and see that most countries speak Spanish. Then look at all the different language countries that comprise Europe and make their own conclusions. But Europe is actually the continent with the least variety of spoken languages, at just 287! The Americas, conversely, house 1,062 languages, with 2,139 in Africa and 2,296 in Asia.
How Many Languages Are Dying?
For a language to be considered living, it should be constantly evolving and changing, as new words are added. This is brought about by technology and social changes. For example, with the advent of inventions that didn’t exist before, social media and impulses from the youth. Latin is considered by many as a dead language, as it is no longer contributed to. It is, however, still predominant throughout the legal and medical fields. Of the 7k+ list, many of the languages in question are slowly beginning to die out.
As with the survival of the fittest, certain languages take preference. English is now widely spoken throughout the world. And when countries place preference over some languages in schools, the survival chances for others are slim. When you stop teaching a language to children, there are no future speakers to preserve the language. As the current speakers age and begin to pass away, they take with them a world of knowledge, never to be recovered. This is how many languages disappear forever.
It might surprise you to know that in North America, for example, 165 indigenous languages actually exist. But now-elderly people exclusively speak most of them. More than 10,000 people speak these eight official language dialects. The survival outlook of these languages is grim. Many blame demographic shifts for the long term loss of languages over time. As European settlers took route around the world in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia languages have gradually become extinct. If we carry on at the current rate, Ethnologue predicts that at least 3,000 languages will be wiped out altogether come the next century. Almost half of the total list today!
How Many Languages Are Extinct?
Way back in the past (second millennium BC back), just seven languages became extinct. It’s quite easy to see why, as there was little or no movement of people between countries, much less continents and oceans. But as we move into modern times, languages become extinct far more quickly. At an alarming rate, in fact. As the years pass, the number of dead languages increases like wild fire. How many languages are extinct? In the 20th century alone, at least 110 languages died. In 2017, we’ve already lost another five languages.
Most Widely Spoken Languages
While English may top the list for being the most widely used official language around the world, it’s not the most widely spoken. Mandarin Chinese comes in first, with around 1.2 billion speakers. Next up is Spanish, with 400 million speakers. Pretty useful if you want to travel around the majority of Latin America, or spend some time in Spain.
But if you want to venture further afield, English is the new Esperanto; the language of travel, business and international negotiations. Many countries are making English obligatory on schools, or parents encouraging their children to learn it, as English is often synonymous with a better quality of life. Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Russian are all next on the list by number of speakers.
Can You Save a Language From Certain Death?
Preventing language extinction is hard. Especially as global tastes are merging and we become more homogeneous. But there are a few steps that make a difference. You can check out the Cultural Survival’s website to see ways to get directly involved in a language preservation project. This could be through monthly donations, volunteering in communities, or helping stand up for indigenous rights. You can also go to the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages website. In a similar style to the Cultural Survival, you’ll be notified when there are opportunities to support political action on endangered languages.
If you want to play your part in keeping languages alive, you could dedicate some time to learning a rarer language. Language learning has many benefits, beyond communicating better and advancing your resume. If you have some free time and want to try your hand, why not start learning an Asiatic or native American language? Apart from keeping culture and societies alive, you’ll reap the cognitive benefits of greater concentration and improved memory as well. Let’s keep the number from declining and help preserve global heritage for generations to come.