“Same thing either way.” “Same difference.” “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.”
Humans are constantly inventing ways to express their thoughts, and as you can see by our opening examples, we can even say the same thing in multiple ways in a single language. Over our history, we’ve created, molded, combined, and even eliminated countless spoken and written languages.
Let’s examine the amazing diversity of language across the world and the United States.
How many languages are spoken now?
As you might imagine, linguists are like other scholars, and tend to disagree on a wide range of subjects. But that doesn’t mean authoritative sources don’t exist. The annual publication Ethnologue is compiled by researchers at SIL international, a non-profit that exists to study and document the languages of the world. The latest edition of Ethnologue identifies 7,139 living languages currently in use.
That large number shows off the amazing diversity and ingenuity of humans. In fact, some linguists believe we’ve spoken more than 50,000 unique languages over our history.
The problem? We have a tendency to consolidate and eliminate languages, a trend that is picking up speed in the age of mass media and easy telecommunication. Over 40% of languages are endangered, meaning few people (often less than 1,000) still speak them. The world’s population is also tending to homogenize their language. More than half the world’s population speaks one of approximately two dozen languages, and 88% of us speak the top 200 languages, according to Ethnologue
What are those two dozen languages?
Scholars tend to agree on the rough number (between 22 and 25), but not on the exact list! Plus, lists of the most spoken languages look different depending on classification choices, such as whether to list a person as an English speaker if it’s not their native tongue.
Ethnologue lists English as the most spoken world language, with 1.35 billion people speaking it. However, English only wins because versions of Chinese are considered separately; Mandarin Chinese has 1.1 billion speakers by itself, with other types of Chinese such as Cantonese/Yue and Wu each spoken by tens of millions.
Others on the list include Spanish, Arabic, French, Persian/Farsi, German, Russian, Malay, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Lahnda, Tamil, Urdu, Korean, Hindi, Bengali, Japanese, Vietnamese, Telugu, and Marathi.
What about the United States?
As you might expect from a country that is both the world’s melting pot and a modern center of mass communication, America speaks many and few languages, depending on how you look at the situation.
Around 430 languages are spoken or signed here, with 176 of them being indigenous languages spoken before Europeans arrived. Many of those indigenous tribal languages are endangered, some with fewer than 1,000 native speakers.
Around 78% of Americans only speak English at home. For those who speak a foreign language at home, the most common are Spanish (with over 41 millions speakers as of 2020) Chinese, French, Tagalog, Vietnamese, German, and Korean.
Though the number of those who are less proficient in English seems small when expressed as a percentage (8.4%) it adds up to nearly 28 million people who need language interpretation and translation to fully participate in American life.