250? 1,000? Or more?… Do you know how many languages are spoken around the world? To be honest, even experts don’t really know. Some say that there are about 5,000 different languages while others claim that there are around 10,000 languages! Either way, one thing is certain: there are a lot of them. Some, like English and Chinese (Mandarin) are very common, while others are spoken only by a handful of people.
How many languages in the world? Hard to tell…
Around 7,000 languages: a figure that seems to be a consensus
Not all experts agree on the number of languages spoken in the world. However, in recent years, almost everyone seems to agree on one figure: there would be approximately 7,000. Depending on the studies, this data varies a lot. Some say there are less than 5,000 languages while others say there are 10,000.
Why is it so difficult to quantify the number of languages in the world? There are several reasons for this.
First of all, not everyone has the same definition of what a language is. Indeed, there is no clear difference between a language and a dialect for example. That is why studies with a strict definition of language count much less than those with a broader definition. According to the ENS of Lyon’s website Géoconfluences, a language differs from a dialect mainly according to “the degree of official recognition of their status, decreed by the State (…)».
Then, we must also take into account the fact that some languages are only spoken by very few people, and sometimes in very remote areas exclusively. It can therefore be difficult to include them in scientific researches.
Finally, there is a third and sad reason: some languages are disappearing. Therefore, a figure given in a 2015 study, for example, may no longer be true at the time when this article is written.
Languages are distributed differently depending on the continent
The website Ethnologue, expert in linguistic intelligence, has studied the distribution of languages in the world(1). Out of 7,099 languages included in their study:
- 2,294 are said to be spoken in Asia (32%);
- 2,144 on the African continent (30%);
- 1,313 in Oceania (18.5%);
- 1,061 in North and South America (15%);
- and “only” 287 languages are estimated to be spoken in Europe (4%).
Interestingly, Oceania has over 1,000 languages on its own, but these are only spoken by very few people. In reality, 84% of the world’s population uses a language of Asian or European origin.
The country with the most languages spoken within its territory is Papua New Guinea, with 840 languages. Nevertheless, with only 9 million inhabitants, people speak 3 times more languages there than in Europe!
“Whoever does not know foreign languages knows nothing of his own language.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The most common languages in the world… And those in danger
In the world, not all languages are in the same boat. Some are spoken by more and more people, while others disappear in silence …
Languages spoken by billions of human beings
Still according to l’Ethnologue, the 200 most spoken languages in the world are used by 88% of the world’s population (as mother tongue or second language).
By the way, do you know which languages are the 10 most spoken in the world in 2021? No? Here is the answer with their number of speakers:
- English (1.348 billion)
- Mandarin (1.120 billion)
- Hindi (600 million)
- Spanish (543 million)
- Arabic (247 million)
- Bengali (268 million)
- French (267 million)
- Russian (258 million)
- Portuguese (258 million)
- Urdu (230 million)
✨ Do you want to start learning a new language? Find out which languages are the easiest to learn for French speakers.
The phenomenon of language extinction is not something new. Latin and ancient Greek are particularly striking examples. On his website, Jacques Leclerc, the famous Canadian linguist, indicates that during the last 5 millennia, apparently, more than 30,000 languages were born and disappeared.
He also explains that a language should have at least 100,000 speakers to be “sustainable”. However, it seems that nearly half of the languages listed in the world have less than 10,000 speakers(2). This information leaves little hope for their survival.
If you are curious to know which languages are at risk of extinction in the coming decades, UNESCO has listed them on an interactive map: The Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
In France alone, 13 regional languages are considered as “seriously endangered”. For example, among them, there are Picard, Poitevin-Saintongeais, Languedocien and even Franc-Comtois. Hopefully they will not experience the same fate as Auregnais, a Norman language native to the island of Alderney (Aurigny), which ceased to be used in the 1960s.
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(1)Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (Eds.). 2021Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-fourth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International.
(2)LECLERC, Jacques. « La mort des langues » dans L’aménagement linguistique dans le monde, Québec, CEFAN, Université Laval, 3 février 2020, [https://www.axl.cefan.ulaval.ca/Langues/2vital_mortdeslangues.htm], (30 avril 2021).