There are over 7,100 languages in the world. In Europe more than 230 languages are spoken and more than 2,000 are spoken in Asian countries. In Papua New Guinea, with just 3.9 million inhabitants, more than 840 different languages are spoken! Of these languages, around 40% are threatened with extinction…
In all this diversity, how are the languages spoken in the world recorded? What future do they have?
Links between the world’s main languages
In order, the 5 most spoken languages in the world by native speakers are:
We can ask ourselves how these languages — which sometimes have very little connection, either in pronunciation or in meaning — can be related?
One of the main reasons is that some countries are officially multilingual, such as Canada (French and English), South Africa (Afrikaans and English), Israel (Arabic and Hebrew), Belgium (French, Dutch and German), etc. Languages influence each other and over time, they mix to create another language, another variation, another style.
All languages are linked to each other. They have, at one time or another in history, been crossed, declined, influenced. Even if this happens to different degrees. Take Spanish and Portuguese, for example. Some words are almost the same and mean the same thing. The link here is direct and the influence of one language on the other is obvious. On the contrary, the link between French and Chinese seems non-existent, yet it exists. But this requires going back in time. To an influence that dates back to the time of colonisation. The mixing and immersion of cultures has had an indirect and progressive effect on our languages.
The evolution of the main languages spoken today
The transmission of spoken languages is above all social. Their birth or disappearance is linked to linguistic policies or economic domination. The major trend today is towards the adoption of a language of international communication and a simplification of the major language areas.
However, we are tending towards the disappearance of many languages. An Anglo-Saxon researcher, Mark Pagel, has estimated that, since humans have had the faculty of language, between 31,000 and 600,000 different languages have been spoken on the surface of the globe, his average estimate being about 140,000 languages. Today, it is estimated that there are just over 7,000 languages.
As well as seeing changes in the number of languages, we also see changes in their structure. When new words enter our language, they are not yet fully formed or in their final state. The meaning of a word evolves over time, changing our understanding and perception of a term.
Therefore, languages move and change in number, but also in meaning and fundamental use.
What is the future for languages?
Languages are not immune to globalisation. Some are increasingly spoken, while others are disappearing. Depending on location, needs and policies, people look for those that are most useful or most profitable.
We can assume that a sorting out will gradually take place, leaving only a minimal number of languages spoken. This is indeed what current statistics seem to show, with 40% of languages threatened with extinction before the end of the 21st century.
Languages will gradually change, merge and become extinct… for hundreds of years to come.
In the relatively near future, French, for example, is expected to grow to almost 800 million speakers by 2050, i.e. almost 9% of the population, compared with only 3.5% today, due to population growth in Africa.
The number of speakers of each language is constantly changing. Of the 7,111 languages spoken in the world in 2019, only 8% are considered very stable and unlikely to disappear, as they are used by governments, schools, media, etc. English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and French are the top 5 languages with the most speakers in the world today.
But what will really happen in the years to come?