There are thousands of languages that most people have never even heard of. The number of unique dialects with their own specific attributes, words, and classifications has grown exponentially as humans have migrated and adapted.
For many people, learning a language or two which are different from their mother-tongue is relatively simple. For others, learning another language, even one from the same family as their own, is a very challenging task.
Knowing how to communicate in more than one verbal form seems to dramatically expand your horizons. That is, until you realise this extra form is only a tiny drop in a large sea of possibilities:
It might surprise you to learn that there are in fact 83 different languages each spoken by more than ten million people worldwide.
How many languages are there in the world?
Words, phrases, and conversations start merely as sounds, and are largely unique to the circumstances and situation of their birth. Language, as a method of communication, is extremely variable depending on location and other aspects that affect a given culture. Sometimes individual dialects can spring up and be spoken by different communities within only a couple of miles of each other.
In the world today there are more than 7000 human languages. Each one originates from a linguistic family that has adapted local dialects over many generations. As a group of people move away geographically, idealistically, spiritually, or culturally from the origin language, a new dialect develops like a branch on a tree. Every time there is a shift in linguistics, the origin becomes further away and less connected. This can make communication more complicated. Often, languages in a region are close enough for minimal interaction. But when there are many dissimilar dialects spoken by only a few people, barriers exist.
In Papua New Guinea, for example, there are 832 different languages spoken in a country of 3.9 million people. This is a huge obstacle in such a relatively small society. And there are other regions in the world with similarly high rates of altered languages found within a short distance.
What makes a ‘language’?
It can be difficult to ascertain or agree upon what defines a language. In many cases, different dialects can be very similar in structure and style. One of the most common definitions relates to whether different dialects can be mutually understood. This does not hold up in reality however, because true understanding is difficult to measure.
Many complicated aspects of language, including class, religion, politics, and cultural values, can shape words, phrases, structure, and rules. There may be similarities between languages, expressions can be borrowed, but variations occur that make them individual enough to be classified as a unique entity.
Are there fewer languages in the world today?
Now though, the number of languages seems to be dropping every day. In some cases they are spoken-word only, and have no written version or comparable translation. Therefore when people using spoken-word only communication encounter and want to interact with modern technology or the global marketplace, they must switch to a language that they can communicate in.
Some languages are very close to dying out, and are spoken by only a few thousand people in total. Colonised countries, for instance, have often quickly seen use of their native languages fall by the wayside. This has wide ranging implications, as certain cultural traditions get lost in translation. As adaptions are made, the more prominent ones gain momentum, with the majority of the world’s population speaking only a fraction of the total number of languages.
The amount of diversity in speech remains staggering even though the total number of languages is falling. It is amazing to think of the vast number of languages which up until relatively recently, the Western world largely didn’t know existed. In Asia alone there are more than 2000 languages. By contrast there are only twenty-four languages recognised by the entire European Union.
Languages becoming other – translation and globalisation
Languages are subject to human influence – words from one language are often borrowed by those who speak another. As well as this, many books and documents are translated into a vast array of different languages. The Bible is the most translated book on record, with copies or parts being printed in more than 2000 different languages.
Of course not all countries keep records of who speaks which language, and exact numbers are rare and hard to come by. This means the information may not be 100 percent accurate, but the available statistics are enough to get a good idea of what is happening to language as the world becomes more densely interconnected.
The following is a list illustrating some of this statistical information. These are languages that are spoken by 10 million people or more:
Languages spoken by 10-24 million people
Languages spoken by 25-49 million people
Languages spoken by 50-100 million people
Languages spoken by more than 100 million people
* Note that while the Wikipedia article on the subject lists Malay and Indonesian under a combined heading, they are in fact two separate languages. For more information on the subject, check out our article on Bahasa
This list is not exhaustive, but it does show something of the breadth and diversity of contemporary language.
Although some of those listed here are not recognized as official, and therefore numbers may not have been reported accurately, these unofficial languages are still spoken by many millions of people. Thus, they are included in the list above.
What is the future of language?
In the end the numbers speak for themselves. They paint a picture of the wonderful diversity of worldwide communication that exists today.
It’s intriguing to note that of all the thousands of available languages, only around ten are being spoken by 100 million people or more. It will be interesting to see if these ten languages gain ground as others die out.
In twenty years’ time, will the top ten languages be spoken by an even larger portion of the world’s population?