How many languages are spoken in the world?

Have you ever wondered how many languages there are in the world?

I asked friends to give me a quick answer without looking up on Google or Wikipedia: most of them gave me a number between 100 and 200…

The reasoning was simple: most people know that in the world there are about 200 states, between 190 and 206 to be precise, and therefore the most logical conclusion is that if in each of these a different language is spoken, there will be about 200 languages in the world…

Some, then, noted that in reality some languages are spread around the world, and that they are the official languages in several states, like English or Spanish, and their conclusion was that languages should be definitely less than 200…

After all, it seems a solid argument, right? But is the right answer between 100 and 200? Actually the answer is not as easy as it seems…

Official Languages

In fact, the number of languages changes depending on what we mean by language. Counting the states of the world and their languages is a good idea, but the result that you get is the total number of OFFICIAL languages in the world. In fact, there are about 141 official languages in the world. But an official language is the language chosen by governments to officially communicate with citizens, and therefore does not take into account other languages that people of that country use to communicate with each other.

Then,  there are great differences between states: some states, like the United States of America, do not have an official language, while on the other side Bolivia has 36!

Languages or dialects?

But the biggest problem is actually another one: what is the difference between a language and a dialect? We could talk about that for hours … Some states recognize only one official language, and consider all regional language as dialects, or regional variations of a central language. But this is not always true, and it’s never easy to know when a dialect is just a variation of a specific language and when it constitutes a separate language, but with regional character. For example, in China there is only one official language, Mandarin. But in reality, in China there are nearly 300 different languages, some of them very different from Mandarin, like Cantonese, which represent completely separate languages. Another example is Arabic: Arabic is the official language of 28 states, but often in each of these states different versions of Arabic are spoken, and often they can be completely unintelligible between them…

The truth is that it is very complicated to tell the difference between a language and a dialect, and too often the difference just politic or religious… in the words of Max Weinreich,

“A language is a dialect with an army”

and history teaches us that languages have always been politically used to cement the concept of nations.

So, a language is a language only if a government recognizes it as an official language?

Of course not. So, world’s languages are not just 141…

And the answer is…

The “Ethnologue” organization has been able to count  official, unofficial, minority, recognized and unrecognized languages: the final result? In the world, in 2017, there are about 7000 languages! An incredible number, right? Remember that the United States have no official language? Well, on the other hand in the United States today there are about 350 languages! And it is not even a record: in Papua New Guinea, they speak 840!

But unfortunately these 7,000 languages are decreasing: languages are alive, they change, evolve, and unfortunately many disappear… About one third of these languages are in danger of extinction, most of them are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, across one or two generations. And this means that without the right policies for conservation, about 25 languages disappear every year, and with them, their culture.

On the other hand, two thirds of the world’s population speak one of the 12 most widely spoken languages in the world …

All in all, you can choose to save one of the endangered languages, or to learn one of the most spoken languages in the world. But with 7000 languages to choose from, it would be a shame to speak just one, right?

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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About Raffaele Terracciano

Serial Language Learner, Blogger, Language Coach and Tour Leader. Travelling the world through books, languages, food and, you know, actual trips. Currently on a quest to gather the pieces of the Tower of Babel.