Illustration by Theresa Grieben.
“I can order my coffee in seven different languages!” Hearing this sentence sounds pretty impressive doesn’t it? But if this same person were to say that he can order his coffee in 0.1% of all the languages in the world, it no longer sounds so impressive. But the fact is that seven languages only make up about 0.1% of the linguistic diversity on our planet!
So How Many Languages Are There In The World?
It’s hard to believe, right? Because I was so surprised, I began asking my friends how many languages they think there are in the world. I got different answers but they all had one thing in common: They were far off from the actual number. Some of my friends said 90 while others said 200 or “surely a few more.”
When I told them the answer, loads of them looked at me in disbelief: According to modern linguists there are approximately 7,000 languages — and this does not include dialects!
Although I work with languages and I am aware of this diversity, I still find it difficult to imagine who speaks all of these languages and where they are spoken. If almost a billion people speak Mandarin, and there are half a billion Spanish native speakers and if you then think how many millions of people speak English, French, Portuguese and German… How can there still be so many other languages out there?
From Language Mosaics To Small Language Pearls
Indonesia in particular is a real treasure trove for linguists. The 250 million inhabitants live on more than 17,000 islands — it’s quite clear that centuries ago there were numerous different languages, at a time when the inhabitants did not come into contact with one another. There was similar linguistic diversity in South America before the colonial powers Spain and Portugal divided the territories among themselves and consequently spread both of their languages.
Where are the rest of the 7,000 languages hiding though? Many of these languages (some of which are centuries old) are still spoken today, although often only by a few speakers. One example is the language Pemón, which is a Caribbean Native American language spoken alongside Spanish and Portuguese in areas of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana by about 30,000 people. Or Chukchi, an old Siberian language used in the north-east of Russia by more than 7,500 native speakers. Or Ainu, the language of the native inhabitants in Northern Japan, which now has barely 10 native speakers. As can be easily understood from these examples, most of these languages will die out over the next few centuries. But does it have to be that way? Can’t we do anything about it?
Will Minority Languages Disappear?
The answer is simple and straightforward at the same time: yes and no. Of course awareness helps enormously. In many countries, such as Spain and France, successful attempts are being made to preserve and to some extent revive the local languages and dialects. Nonetheless, it is an entirely natural change in today’s world that some languages are more prominent and more important (essential) than others.
Wherever states develop and governments set up education and health systems, one language will automatically be used as an official language. Therefore, it is absolutely essential for a speaker of Pemón in Venezuela to master Spanish. The descendants of the Ainu people learned and grew up with Japanese in order to have better access to education and therefore a better life.
Due to possible stigmatization, some languages die out faster than others: For example, Ainu has long been regarded as an inferior language and therefore speakers of Ainu in Japan were often excluded from society. In such cases population groups may decide to abandon their own language entirely and exclusively teach their children the majority language in order to ensure their social integration.
Language And Identity
But even if a local language is not regarded as inferior, increased mobility and globalization are contributing towards the disappearance of languages. Let’s take a male speaker of Pemón who also speaks Spanish and a female speaker of Chukchi who also speaks Russian: If these two decide to start a family together, the chances are high that their children will not grow up with all four languages. Depending on their place of residence and the parents’ common language, they would probably learn Spanish and Russian or even only one of these two languages as a first language.
Moreover, maintaining a language is also a question of cost for a nation. Not every country can afford to maintain an entire public apparatus and mass media in two languages, let alone several languages. We only need to think of all the public signs, forms, applications, administrators, police officers, doctors, newspapers, television channels… the list is endless. All of these things would have to be multilingual or the people concerned would at least have to have extensive knowledge of the other languages.
A Successful Rescue Attempt
A great example of preserving a language can be found in Toulouse in the south of France. As the capital of the region of Occitania, the metro system was set up in two languages: All stops are announced in French and then in Occitan, a Romance language with only about 100,000 native speakers left in France. And Occitan often does not sound so different from French, perhaps a bit like a mix of French and Spanish. Although in the future fewer and fewer people will grow up learning Occitan as their native language, it is still at least possible this way to ensure that the language remains a second language in this region thanks to these kinds of initiatives.