- The Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea has the highest number of ‘living’ indigenous languages in the world (840), while India stands fourth with 453.
- 2019 is the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages. In 2016, the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues pointed out that “40% of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world were in danger of disappearing”. Several languages are now “endangered” and in the case of languages like Tiniguan (Colombian origin), there is just a single native speaker left.
- Ethnologue, a directory of languages, lists 7,111 living languages worldwide(languages that are still being used and spoken by people). Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic are the most widely spoken languages worldwide when only first-languages are considered. These five languages account for what is spoken by over 40% of people worldwide.
- Interestingly, the U.S. (335 languages) and Australia (319), widely English-speaking nations, are among the countries where the highest number of languages are spoken; small and rapidly declining pockets of indigenous language speaking populations contribute to these numbers. Among regions, Asia and Africa account for the highest number of indigenous languages (over 70% of the total).
Break-up of the number of languages by region.
- The second chart below captures a measure called ‘Greenberg’s diversity index’. According to Ethnologue, this is “the probability that any two people of the country selected at random would have different mother tongues.”
- The value ranges from 0 to 1, where 0 indicates no diversity (everyone has the same mother tongue) and 1 indicates total diversity (no two people will have the same mother tongue). Hence, a higher diversity index would mean more languages spread across the country.
- Countries with a higher number of languages and higher diversity are represented on the top right.
- According to Ethnologue, there are 3,741 languages (over half the total) which have fewer than 1,000 speakers. Certain language families are very diverse and have several languages under them, but are spoken by only a small percentage of the population.
- For example, the Trans-New Guinea family, which has 478 languages, accounts for just 0.05% of the total language speakers.
- Comparable in number to Trans-New Guinea languages is the Indo-European family. This family, which has 445 languages including Spanish, English, German, Punjabi and Bengali, has the highest percentage of speakers — 46.31%.
- Most Indian languages are derivatives of languages that are spoken in other parts of Asia as well. For instance, the Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken across Northeast India, China, Bhutan, Nepal and other South East Asian countries. One of the outliers to this trend is the Andamanese language family, which is confined to India alone.
- The below visusalisation bins the count of languages according to the number of first language speakers. For example, there are eight languages which have over 10 crore native speakers.
Languages in decline
- According to UNESCO’s ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger’, 228 languages have become extinct since 1950. About 10% of the languages are classified ‘vulnerable’, while another 10% are ‘critically endangered’. In India, five languages have become extinct since 1950, while 42 are critically endangered.
- The International Year of Indigenous Languages aims to promote native tongues in five key areas, including “creation of favourable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to indigenous languages”.