How Do Countries Count The Languages Spoken There?

Hint: it’s complicated.
A man knocking on doors to take the census, potentially counting languages along the way

Getting accurate population counts has always been an important task. The census is so central to human history, it’s even mentioned in the Bible. The census is also built into the founding documents of the United States, which state that the “Enumeration [of the American people] shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” The population count may not sound exciting, but it decides how people are represented both in their governments and in the world.

Beyond just getting the right number of people, countries also find ways to count other statistics, like age, nationality and, most relevant here, language. Counting the languages spoken in a region and how many people speak them helps governments decide how to translate resources to reach as many people as possible. It’s also invaluable to determine how many speakers there actually are for smaller languages — there are, after all, a lot of endangered ones out there. The problem is that this task is as difficult as it is important, and there are no international standards in place.

Counting Languages In The United States

In the United States, the count that gets the most attention is the U.S. Census, a questionnaire sent out once every 10 years. The census attempts to reach every single person in the entire country, and it’s the basis for congressional representation, as well as other government decisions. But if you look at the 2020 census questionnaire, you’ll see it’s pretty short. There are questions about age, sex and race, but nothing about language. In an attempt to streamline the process, the census tries to ask only the most important questions. There have been language questions on the U.S. Census in the past, but they were removed in the year 2000.

The United States uses something else for collecting language data: the American Community Survey. The ACS happens on a rolling basis, and they’re sent out on a monthly basis. Instead of counting every single person, it goes out to only about 3.5 million people throughout the states and territories; this amounts to a little over 1 percent of the population. From there, statisticians can extrapolate trends across the country. The ACS is also how the government collects information about average income, job types, marital status, internet use, fertility and more. While it’s certainly not as accurate as a total census would be, it can give a decent idea of how many people speak various languages in the country.

Counting Languages Elsewhere

The best data for languages comes from individual censuses. The United Nations Statistics Division compiles as much of this data as possible by sending out surveys to their 230 national statistical offices all around the world and publishing the results in its Demographic Yearbook. Currently, 86 countries report language data form the census to the United Nations. While that’s far from every country, it’s a decent percentage.

What do you do about countries like France, Denmark and Sweden, which don’t ask about languages in their censuses? You have to get a little more creative. The best approximation for the language count in the European Union, for example, comes from the European Commission, which is the executive branch of the union. Since 2001, the European Commission has put out a semi-regular language survey called the “Eurobarometer.”

Eurobarometers are not an extensive counting of every single person in the country, however, but instead ask several thousand people from across the continent to answer the questions. The numbers are extrapolated from there. Eurobarometers aren’t just for language, either; the EU has used Eurobarometers since the 1970s to survey Europeans on a whole range of topics. 

Even taking into account estimates like the Eurobarometer, there’s still a lot that’s not yet accounted for. The question is whether we really know what’s going on in the rest of the world.

The Missing Numbers

At any given time, the numbers we have for how many people speak a particular language are, at best, an estimate. Populations are constantly changing, so no census could ever truly determine the exact correct population. But even beyond that, it’s clear that language data is not necessarily always going to be accurate, because counting languages is not a huge priority for many countries.

The language resource generally considered to be the most complete is Ethnologue, which has been counting languages for decades. They, too, get their most up-to-date information from various censuses and the United Nations Statistical Division. But the website has been criticized for not always having accurate citations for its numbers. When you look at numbers from countries that don’t have language data from a census, you get much less accurate information.

Take, for example, Japanese. Ethnologue reports that there are 125 million speakers of Japanese in Japan itself, and next to that it has “(2018),” seemingly implying that a census was taken that year to find that number. But Japan doesn’t have a language question on its census. And if you search the internet for “number of Japanese speakers,” you’ll find some inconsistencies. Wikipedia, while not 100 percent reliable, also says there are 125 million native speakers, but the citation for that number is a 2010 edition of a Swedish encyclopedia. Another search result brings you to the 2003 International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, which says there are 125 million Japanese speakers in the whole world. Nowhere is there any exact data to show where this figure came from. While this number might be a rough approximation of how many speakers there are, it’s suspicious that it would be the same over almost two decades, and there is no way to confirm it without census data to back these numbers up.

The language data in the world is incomplete. Japanese is one of the largest languages in the world, and it’s still hard to figure out how many speakers it has. This doesn’t necessarily matter when making decisions in Japan — no one is about to argue that there aren’t that many Japanese speakers there — but it can be troubling in the case of smaller languages.

Getting a complete census of the world’s population is most likely a near-impossible task. Arguably, it would be worth it to at least try. The countries that do survey their citizens about languages are leading the way in mapping the linguistic geography of the world. During a time when languages are dying out at a startling rate, language data is vitally important for understanding the vast diversity of dialects and cultures on our planet.

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