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Despite the complexities in distinguishing between languages and dialects, a survey of the languages spoken in the world today reveals a huge disparity in language sizes as measured by the number of speakers. The Ethnologue reports that while 389 (or about 6%) of the world’s 6,909 known living languages have more than a million speakers each and account for 94% of the world’s population, the remaining 94% (or 6,520 languages) are spoken by only 6% of the world’s people (Lewis, 2009). Over 40% of the world’s population are covered by just nine languages, each with more than 100 million speakers (see Table 3.1). In contrast, the great majority of languages are spoken by far fewer people—55% (or 3,801) of the world’s languages have less than 10,000 speakers each, and 26% (or 1,787 languages) have less than 1,000 speakers each.

Figure 3.3 shows a map of the world with each dot representing the geographic center of the 6,909 living languages in The Ethnologue database. Notice the highly uneven distribution of languages with some areas of the world dotted heavily and others more sparsely. One of the intensely dotted areas, the island of New Guinea, which the nation of Papua New Guinea shares with the Indonesian state of Irian Jaya, is home to just 0.1% of the world’s population,


Top Nine Languages in the World in Terms of Number of Native Speakers



# of Speakers (in Millions)

% of World’s Population


Chinese (Mandarin)



































Top 9 Total



Source: Adapted from Lewis, 2009

Languages of the World (Each Dot Represents the Geographic Center of a Language.) Source

FIGURE 3.3 Languages of the World (Each Dot Represents the Geographic Center of a Language.) Source: Lewis, 2009

yet its residents speak 1,100 languages, or one-sixth of all the world’s languages. More than 100 languages are spoken on the tiny archipelago of Vanuatu, home to about 190,000 people in the South Pacific Ocean near Australia. According to The Ethnologue, Europe is the least linguistically diverse continent with only 3.4% of the world’s languages. Asia, Africa, and the Pacific are the most linguistically diverse, with 33.6%, 30.5%, and 18.1% of the world’s languages respectively.

But linguistic diversity is decreasing rapidly around the globe. Nettle & Romaine (2000) estimate that about half of the known languages of the world have vanished in the last 500 years, and that at least half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken today will become extinct over the next century. As illustrated in Figure 3.4, many of the small languages are disappearing due to the spread of giant languages like Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, and Hindi, which, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) explains, are “killer languages." It’s not that languages themselves can kill other languages, but as Skutnabb-Kangas (2000: 46) argues, “the speakers of these powerful languages have arrogated to themselves and to their languages more structural power and (material) resources than their numbers would justify, at the cost of speakers of other languages." Language death is ultimately about speakers of weaker languages ceasing to use

“Killer Languages"

FIGURE 3.4 “Killer Languages"

Source: Sarah J. Shin; adapted from Lewis, 2009

their own languages altogether (either by choice or by force) and shifting to more powerful languages.

Why should anyone care that languages are dying? Crystal (2000) contends that the loss of any language is everyone’s loss because languages contain millennia of accumulated human knowledge that cannot be replaced once gone. Harrison (2010: 10) explains:

We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or in classical civilizations. But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small unwritten tongues. This web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity—epics, myths, rituals—that celebrate and interpret our existence .. . The fate of languages is interlinked with that of species, as they undergo parallel extinctions. Scientific knowledge is comparable for both domains, with an estimated 80 percent of plant and animal species unknown to science and 80 percent of languages yet to be documented. But species and ecosystems unknown to science are well known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things but also complex interrelations among them. Packaged in ways that resist direct translation, this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues.

Similarly, Nettle & Romaine (2000) argue that language survival and preservation of environmental resources go hand in hand. They point out that knowledge contained in indigenous languages has much to contribute to scientific theories by uncovering potentially very useful perspectives on a variety of ecological problems:

Through wandering the Australian continent for generations, Aboriginal people knew the land intimately and were able to survive in relatively harsh terrain. During World War II an American fighter plane returned from New Guinea into northern Australia, where it crashed. The four survivors had no compasses or navigational equipment, but proceeded to set out to try to find help. Three starved to death, with food all around them. Unlike the Aborigines, the Americans had no idea what was edible and inedible. Many of the trees and vines have parts which can be made edible if treated in certain ways. One plant, for instance, yields mirang,or “black bean.” After the beans have been gathered, the nuts are removed and placed in piles inside ovens dug in the ground. They are then covered with leaves and sand and a fire is lit on top of them. They are steamed inside in a matter of hours or for whole days. When they are taken out of the oven, they are sliced up with a knife made from snail shell and put into dilly bags in a running stream for a couple of days. Then they are ready to be eaten. If the beans are not sliced fine enough, they remain bitter. None of this knowledge is written down but is passed on orally from generation to generation . . . little serious effort has been made to tap this indigenous knowledge about local ecosystems.

(Nettle & Romaine, 2000: 70-71)

What is sad about this story is that before this sort of knowledge (which took generations to fine-tune) could be documented, languages are becoming extinct. Nettle & Romaine (2000: 14) aptly point out, “As a uniquely human invention, language is what has made everything possible for us as a species: our cultures, our technology, our art, music, and much more. In our languages lies a rich source of the accumulated wisdom of all humans." Readers interested in detailed accounts of the world’s endangered languages and what can be done about them are referred to some excellent books on the topic listed at the end of this chapter. But the imminent mass extinction of the majority of the world’s languages is a human tragedy. What is probably more tragic is that most people do not even know (or care about) what we stand to lose when languages die.

I will now turn to the sociopolitical forces that threaten small languages and peoples, and how some groups have defended their languages despite the pressures. But first, I describe diglossia, a central concept in our understanding of the power dynamics in multilingual societies.

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