It Might Surprise You How Many Languages Are Alive Today

How many languages are alive today? We could make an educated guess and say that if each country speaks on average on unique language, throw in a couple of indigenous languages, and come up with a number around 500. This might seem like a pretty accurate number, but actually there are more languages spoken just in Papa New Guinea (840), Indonesia (709), and Nigeria (527). Ethnologue, a highly respected and probably the most authoritative catalogue of living languages around the world has estimated that there are 7,099 languages currently spoken in the world.

According to Ethnologue’s figures, the number of speakers and the number of languages are incredibly lopsided:

  • Almost 2/3 of all languages are in either Africa or Asia, but 86 percent of people speak an Asian or European Language
  • Languages from the Pacific region account for 18.5 percent of the total number of languages spoken but together have less than 7 million speakers, or less than 0.1% of the global population
  • Only about 6 percent of languages have more than 1 million speakers, but the languages in this 6 percent are spoken by 94 percent of the world’s population
  • 90 percent of all languages have less than 100,000 speakers
  • Half of all languages have less than 10,000 speakers
  • A quarter of all languages have less than 1,000 speakers
  • 46 languages have only a single speaker

Working with Limited Data

While Ethnologue has done an incredible job tracking and compiling data, there are always limitations to how we count languages. With so many languages having so few speakers, it’s very possible that Ethnologue’s research missed some languages that slipped through the cracks. Remote parts of the world have small communities that might hold linguistic secrets that we didn’t know before. And this is why the number has risen by about 6,000 since the Encyclopedia Britannica announced in 1911 that there were about 1,000 living languages at the time. Of course, 6,000 languages didn’t come into being in one short century, but our resources, tools, and technology have developed to allow us to make more accurate predictions and measurements when it comes to deciphering languages.

But another issue that arises is the difference between a language and dialect. Arabic and Chinese are prime examples where often mutually unintelligible forms of communication are united under a single flag, ethnic definition, or national identity as well as method of writing. At the same time, many languages that are virtually identical, like Hindi and Urdu, or Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, are considered separate languages rather than dialects of the same language because of historical, political, or cultural reasons. Looking into the distinctions between forms of communication complicates the language-counting process by posing the question, “When does this stop being a version of the same language?”

Dying, Endangered, and Extinct

But while we most likely have knowledge or recorded information about nearly all languages on Earth, even if counting them is a challenge, there’s a different reason this number is changing: The languages are going extinct. Much like species of animals, languages can die along with ethnic groups and be forgotten altogether. The Endangered Languages Project has been working to keep track of all these languages that are at risk of being lost, and they calculated around 3,000 languages that are on the endangered list. Linguists say that by the end of this century at least 3,000 languages will have gone extinct.

But the extinction of languages isn’t a new idea. It would be unfair to blame all loss of language on globalism or colonialism or some other somewhat modern trend. While European powers did stomp out the cultures, languages, and oftentimes lives of indigenous people around the world, language extinction has been going on for thousands of years, albeit not this quickly. Ancient languages like Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform were long ago forgotten and hundreds if not thousands of languages have faded into history over the tens of thousands of years that humans have been communicating with each other.

In 2002, Population Reference Bureau made a semi-scientific estimate for how many languages have ever been spoken and gone extinct. The Bureau based its estimate on the idea that languages emerge and fade at a similar rate as human populations. Throughout history, an estimated that 108 billion humans have ever lived on Earth, or that 6 percent of the total historical human population is currently alive. At that rate, if 6 percent of the total number of languages are currently alive, then that means that 94,000 languages have ever gone extinct. Of course, there is not sufficient scientific evidence to back up this claim as we have “absolutely no demographic data for 99 percent of the span of the human stay on Earth.”

What Can We Learn from This?

Other than just being an interesting tidbit of information, we can learn a couple of things from these numbers and apply them to our lives today.

  • Knowing how many languages there are and where these languages are spoken can help businesses craft target marketing and advertising campaigns. By looking at the concentration of languages, we can determine which dialects work best to target which groups of people as well as which languages make the most sense among multilingual societies.
  • If we know which languages are about to go extinct or are spoken in remote places, we can use this information to try and preserve them so that even if all native speakers pass away, we still have the unique knowledge, insights, and perspectives that each language offers.
  • Using data about which languages are spoken least, endangered, or extinct, we can learn how languages go extinct and prevent this trend from continuing at such a high rate.

About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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