Linguists predict that within two centuries we could be left with just 200 (approximately one per country) and by 2300 we could all be speaking just one language. The last speakers of half of the world’s languages may already be alive today.1
- A country’s official language often has more to do with colonial or historical legacies and geopolitics than with what most people actually speak.
- 90% of Africans have no knowledge of the official language of their country.2
- At least 40-50 million EU citizens (10% of the EU population) speak something other than their country’s official language(s).3
- Fewer than 4% of languages have any sort of official status in the countries where they are spoken.4
The Global Players
Most of us speak the same languages already – just 4% of the world’s languages are spoken by 96% of the world’s population.
Six of the top 10 languages are those of colonizing countries – English, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, German, French.1
Nearly 500 languages have fewer than 100 speakers; around 1,500 have fewer than 1,000; 3,340 have fewer than 10,000.5
- To be taught in your mother tongue is a luxury, not a right, for most. Fewer than a third of the world’s languages have a written form7 – so the push for literacy tends to favour a country’s dominant, written, language.
- 87% of Africans have no access to education in their mother tongue.8
- Fewer than 10% of the world’s languages are used in education.8
The Digital Age
- Social media and the internet may help revitalize endangered languages by connecting diasporas and isolated groups.
- By the year 2000, there were at least 500 languages with an internet presence.5
- An iPhone App launched in 2012 by FirstVoices9 allows indigenous language speakers from North America, Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa to text, email and chat on Facebook and Google Talk in their own languages.
- Wikipedia has articles across 250 languages.10
- Microsoft’s Local Language Program allows users to customize software to their preferences in nearly 100 languages – but that’s still only 6% of written languages.10
Some countries are hotbeds of linguistic diversity. Papua New Guinea – with a population of just 6.5 million – tops the list. Europe is the poorest continent, linguistically speaking – only 3% of the world’s native languages are found within its borders.11
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Official recognition of minority languages is important, but is not enough on its own to ensure their survival. Government support is often little more than window-dressing.
- Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word, 2005
- WF Mackey, ‘Status of languages in multilingual societies’, in Status and Function of Languages and Language Varieties, 1989
- Suzanne Romaine, ‘Politics and policies of promoting multilingualism in the European Union’, Language Policy Vol 2 Issue 2, May 2013
- Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, Vanishing Voices, 2000
- David Crystal, Language Death, 2002
- David Harrison, When Languages Die, 2007
- Suzanne Romaine, ‘Keeping the promise of the Millennium Development Goals: Why Language Matters’, Applied Linguistics Review Vol 4 Issue 1, March 2013
- David Harrison, The Last Speakers, 2010.
- Council of Europe, nin.tl/1qz6ovw
- Indiana University, nin.tl/1klXTA3
- Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, 2005
- Creative Spirits, nin.tl/1gdmu4O
- Wikipedia, nin.tl/1iEyyUx
- Wikipedia, nin.tl/O6b7Wx
- Wikipedia, nin.tl/1lBYvBE