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Languages of the World

By: Celia Webb

Languages are rapidly changing as the world's population becomes more integrated through travel and communication. Some languages are increasing in the number of speakers and in the number of words as words from other languages are assimilated and new phenomena are described or named. Other languages are dying. There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken on earth today, but the prediction is by the next century only half of those will remain.

The distribution of language is greatly skewed to just a few of the known languages. Nearly half of the world speaks a top-ten language. In addition to the first-language speakers, millions of people learn these languages as a second language for business or travel reasons. The world's top 10 languages as measured by first-language speakers (in millions) are:

  1. Chinese - 1,213
  2. Spanish - 329
  3. English - 328
  4. Arabic - 221
  5. Hindi - 182
  6. Bengali - 181
  7. Portuguese - 178
  8. Russian - 144
  9. Japanese - 122
  10. German - 90

On the other hand, the smallest 3,524 languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people per language which amounts to just 0.1 percent of the world's population. Linguists have noted the disparity and are concerned about the potential loss of knowledge. Languages give names to things in the speaker's environment (think igloo, tepee, yurt - all indigenous people's names for their form of shelter) and to processes and practices unique to a particular culture. This knowledge provides valuable insight into the world around us and how it can be viewed, understood, and interpreted.

To understand which languages are under stress, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ranks the world's languages by degree of intergenerational usage. By this measure, 2,724 are endangered or extinct. UNESCO's categorization of languages under siege, including the number of languages in each category, is as follows:

Critical: 607 (Spoken rarely and only by older generation)
Severe: 554 (Spoken only by older generation)
Definite: 681 (Replaced as mother tongue by new language)
Vulnerable: 628 (Spoken by children but only rarely outside the home)
Extinct: 254 (No speakers since 1950)

An authoritative index of world languages is Ethnologue maintained by SIL International. First published in 1951 in 10 pages covering 46 languages, the current edition provides detailed information on 7,413 languages. These break down as 6,909 living languages, 55 macrolanguages, 28 languages used only as a second language, and 421 recently extinct languages. Ancient, classical, and long extinct languages are not listed. Macrolanguages are defined as "multiple, closely related individual languages that are deemed in some usage contexts to be a single language".

Another effort to understand and preserve languages under duress is the Enduring Voices Project launched by National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages which documents endangered languages and attempts to prevent extinction. Linguists on this project have identified language hotspots which have a number of least studied, threatened languages in close proximity. They visit these areas, record native speakers, and map the geographic dimensions of each language's distribution.

Efforts like the ones mentioned here, help document and preserve the rich legacy of human communication enabling us to better understand the world in which we live and those who share it with us.