How many languages are there in the world?

It´s hard to believe, but we don´t really know how many languages there ​​are in our planet. In fact, not only would it be impossible to find out, but the resulting figure would be ephemeral, since 90% of these are in danger of extinction.

In 2009, according to the study “The Ethnologue: Languages ​​of the World”, there were more or less 6,909 languages in the world, of which only 600 were spoken by more than 100,000 speakers, considered the minimum to guarantee survival of the language.

The most spoken languages ​​in the world are Chinese, Spanish and English, with Chinese in first place. Approximately 1.3 billion people speak some of the 10  varieties of this linguistic giant, among which Mandarin Chinese is the most widely known. The second place is more difficult to specify: if measured by native speakers, this would be Spanish with nearly 437 million people whose mother tongue is Spanish, located mostly in Spain, Latin America and the southern United States, compared to 390 million people whose mother tongue is English.

However, although it is not the most spoken language or the one with most native speakers, it is well known that English is the most widespread and international language in the world. English is the official language in 106 countries, versus 31 for Spanish and 37 for Chinese; as such,  it is the language of globalization and the second language for many people. In sum, if we include both native and non-native speakers of English, in other words, all the English speakers in the world, English comes in at second place, leaving Spanish third. This is very important, considering that half of the world’s population (and rising) speak two or more languages.

At the other end of the spectrum are languages ​​with a very few speakers; languages that belong to the 90% that are in danger of extinction or may have already become extinct without us realizing it. In regions such as the Amazon, Central Africa and certain areas of Asia and Oceania, many inhabitants live in towns or small tribes that rarely communicate with the rest of the world, which condemns their culture to disappear little by little as their number shrinks. One example of a language ​​with very few speakers is Lemerig. Lemerig is the language spoken on one of the 83 islands of the Vanuatu archipelago, located in Oceania, more than 994 miles from Australia. Although known to have had up to 4 dialects, it was only spoken by two of the island’s inhabitants by 2008 and, along with many others, has likely disappeared 10 years later. In fact, according to the results of studies carried out in recent decades, 90% of languages currently in use are expected to disappear by the end of the 21st century.

As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life”. This large number of languages, so different from one another, gives us a wealth that we should all be able to appreciate, as well as countless interesting anecdotes. For example, did you know that in Papua New Guinea, where there are some 8 million inhabitants, there are up to 850 different languages? In this sense, we can say the country’s motto “unity in diversity” is more than accurate. Or, have you heard about the Gomero whistle? This language is spoken on the Canary Island “La Gomera” and has only 4 consonants and 4 vowels and is articulated exclusively with a whistle.

Languages reflect the societies they belong to and undergo the changes and circumstances that their users are affected by. They are ideally suited to reveal the characteristics and culture of members of a society and a great source of wisdom from the past. Such a large number of languages helps us to understand a world that, although globalized, is multicultural and diverse and deserving of preservation and consideration.

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