“I can order my coffee in seven different languages!” This sentence sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? But if you were to say that you can order your coffee in 0.1 percent of all the languages in the world, it suddenly sounds a bit more lackluster. If you’ve never bothered to ask, “How many languages are there?”, this statistic can sound improbable. But the fact is that seven languages only make up about 0.1 percent 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 are there in the world, by their estimation. 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 Ethnologue, there are approximately 7,111 languages being spoken today, but this number is constantly fluctuating — and this does not include dialects either!
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 267 million inhabitants are scattered across more than 17,500 islands. It makes sense that centuries ago, there were numerous distinct languages being spoken throughout the archipelago 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 of Spain and Portugal divided the territories among themselves and consequently spread both of their languages. Today, there are over 700 languages spoken in Indonesia.
Papua New Guinea has the most languages in the world, however, numbering over 800. That’s more than twice the number of languages spoken in the entire continent of Europe.
Where are the rest of the roughly 7,000 languages hiding though? Many of these lesser-known languages (some of which are centuries old) are being kept alive by a handful of speakers. One example is the language Pemón, which is a Caribbean Native American language spoken alongside Spanish and Portuguese in parts of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana by about 24,000 people. Or Chukchi, an old Siberian language used in the northeast of Russia by more than 5,000 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. Roughly half of the world’s living languages are actually expected to die out by the end of this century, and it’s estimated that languages are dying at a rate of one every 14 days. But does it have to be that way? Can’t we do anything about it?
Will Minority Languages Disappear?
The answer is simple, but not that straightforward: yes and no. Roughly 40 percent of languages are currently endangered, many of which are being sustained by handfuls of less than 1,000 speakers. That’s a total of roughly 2,895 endangered languages.
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 more or less the reality in today’s world that some languages are more prominent and more institutionally supported than others, which makes them more essential for the fulfillment of basic survival needs.
Whenever 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 persecution and 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. There have been many other examples of genocide and forced assimilation throughout history that have placed minority language speakers in even more oppressive circumstances.
Language And Identity
But even if a local language is not regarded as inferior, increased mobility and globalization are contributing toward the disappearance of languages — and by the way, so is climate change.
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, 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. It’s possible that they may learn neither and may learn English instead, which is a common lingua franca (common language) for international work environments and cross-cultural couples.
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.
How Many Languages Are There…That Are Extinct?
It’s probably impossible to know for sure how many languages have gone the way of the dinosaurs since the dawn of language. Call it a case of faulty record-keeping or merely linguistic field research that remains to be done, but many languages began as oral traditions that weren’t ever written down, let alone written down using materials that would stand the test of time.
However, one academic database currently lists 573 extinct 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 it remains a second language in this region thanks to these kinds of initiatives.
This is hardly the only instance of a language being brought back from the brink of extinction (or even brought back from the “dead” — Hebrew is a great example of this). There are also numerous organizations deep in the trenches of language revitalization work, such as Wikitongues and the Endangered Langauge Alliance.