How Many Languages Exist?

In 1999, a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) resolution recommended February 21 be celebrated as International Mother Language Day. International Mother Language Day was first observed in 2000, but not formally approved by the United Nations General Assembly until 2002. This resolution is not unique, as there has been a significant effort to preserve all languages1.

  • 1999: UNESCO proclaims 21 February (Ekushey February) as International Mother Language Day
  • 2000: Inaugural celebration of International Mother Language Day
  • 2002: Linguistic-diversity theme, featuring 3,000 endangered languages (motto: In the galaxy of languages, every word is a star.)
  • 2004: Children-learning theme; the UNESCO observance included “a unique exhibition of children’s exercise books from around the world illustrating the process by which children learn and master the use of written literacy skills in the classroom”.
  • 2005: Braille and sign languages
  • 2006: Languages and cyberspace
  • 2007: Multilingual education
  • 2008: International Year of Languages
  • 2010: International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures
  • 2011: Information and communication technologies
  • 2012: Mother-tongue instruction and inclusive education
  • 2013: Books for mother-tongue education
  • 2014: Local languages for global citizenship: spotlight on science
  • 2015: Inclusion in and through education: language counts (with an event in Paris)
  • 2016: Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes
  • 2017: Sustainable futures through multilingual education
  • 2018: Our languages, our assets.
  • 2019: International Year of Indigenous Languages
  • 2020: Safeguarding linguistic diversity

Counting the number of languages in the world is difficult, as some languages go extinct, or what was previously thought to be a dialect of a language is determined to be a new language. I was able to find two different numbers, but there was only a small difference between them. Wycliffe Global Alliance estimates there are 7360 languages in the world2Ethnologue: Languages of the World estimates there are 7,117 languages 3. These are languages that are formally recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 639-3:2007)4.

ISO 639-3:2007 attempts to provide as complete an enumeration of languages as possible, including living, extinct, ancient and constructed languages, whether major or minor, written or unwritten. As a result, ISO 639-3:2007 deals with a very large number of lesser-known languages. Languages designed exclusively for machine use, such as computer-programming languages and reconstructed languages, are not included in this code.5

Constructed languages are ones that are made up, often in books, movies or TV shows. The Star Trek language Klingon is registered as ISO 639-3 tlh. I found two of J. R. R. Tolkien’s languages are registered: Quenya (ISO 639-3 qya) and Sindarin (ISO 639-3 sjn)6.

This part of ISO 639 also includes identifiers that denote constructed (or artificial) languages. In order to qualify for inclusion the language must have a literature and it must be designed for the purpose of human communication. It must be a complete language, and be in use for human communication by some community long enough to be passed to a second generation of users.7

It’s probably not difficult to guess some of the top 10 languages in the world, but other surprised me.89

  1. English – 1.268 billion speakers
  2. Mandarin Chinese – 1.12 billion speakers
  3. Hindi – 637 million speakers
  4. Spanish – 537 million speakers
  5. French – 280 million speakers
  6. Standard Arabic – 274 million speakers
  7. Bengali – 267 million speakers
  8. Russian – 258 million speakers
  9. Portuguese – 252 million speakers
  10. Indonesian – 199 million speakers

Languages: Total Speakers

English is just barely on top for the total number of speakers, but both Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers than English does.10

Languages: Native Speakers

 

Almost every language is related to other languages. For example, English is related to German, and more distantly related to French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. This is just a small section of a chart showing the major language groups11.

Indo-European Language Group
Indo-European Language Group

See the Language of the Day on Ethnologue.com.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. International Mother Language Day (Wikipedia) Accessed 16-Jan-2021
  2. 2020 Scripture Access Statistics (Wycliffe Global Alliance: 2020; website) Accessed 17-Jan-2021)
  3. How many languages are there in the world? (Ethnologue: Languages of the World: 2020; website) Accessed 17-Jan-2021.
  4. The Ethnologue: Languages of the World, published by SIL International, is the registration authority for ISO 639-3.
  5. ISO 639-3:2007 Codes for the representation of names of languages — Part 3: Alpha-3 code for comprehensive coverage of languages (International Standards Organization: 2007-02) Accessed 26-Jan-2021
  6. Both Quenya and Sindarin are Elvish languages.
  7. Types of individual languages (SIL) Accessed 11-Feb-2021.
  8. Ghosh, Iman. Ranked: The 100 Most Spoken Languages Around the World (Visual Capitalist; February 15, 2020) Accessed 19-Jan-2021.
  9. What are the top 200 most spoken languages? (Ethnologue) Accessed 19-Jan-2021.
  10. What is the most spoken language? (Ethnologue) Accessed 19-Jan-2021.
  11. Ghosh, Iman. Ranked: The 100 Most Spoken Languages Around the World (Visual Capitalist; February 15, 2020) Accessed 19-Jan-2021.

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Comments

  1. […] out the top 10. There are far more languages in the world than that. In last week’s article, How Many Languages Exist?, I used the estimate of 7,139 languages, from Ethnologue: Languages of the […]

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