Which country hosts the largest number of living languages?

It is estimated that nearly 7,000 languages are still alive on Earth today. In the United States about 330 languages are spoken or signed, with over half of those labeled as indigenous; English claims the most speakers, Spanish the second. In India there are an estimated 780 languages, and in China there are 129.

But these are huge countries with populations in the hundreds of millions (China’s passed 1.3 billion in 2013). Surprisingly, the country with the most living languages on the planet is one with just 3.9 million people. An island off the north coast of Australia, Papua-New Guinea’s population speaks 832 different languages!

Distribution of the remaining thousands of languages suggests fascinating histories of human choices and dynamics over millenia. For instance, the ongoing linguistic research project Ethnologue reports that while 230 living languages exist in Europe, there are 2,197 in Asia.

Often many of these are related; so what is the difference between a distinct “language” and a “dialect”? It turns out that this is a somewhat controversial subject involving not only linguistic features, but also political and social considerations. Tangled “families” of languages exist with branches across borders and time, and disagreements about labels continue. Yet from a biologist’s point of view, human languages are strikingly alike, according to a report by the Linguistic Society of America, with fundamental shared features that are completely unique among the communication systems of every other living organism on the planet.

J. McShulskis

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