Review : languages in the world

How many languages do you think exist in the world? 500? 999? 3,456? Ethnologists have established that there are currently around 7,100, and that is without counting dialects and variants.

Richness and diversity 

Even if you are fortunate or skilled enough to master a language other than your mother tongue, you will still only be using 0.03% of the world’s linguistic possibility. 

Ioannis Ikonomou, the record holder for multilingualism with 32 modern languages under his belt, only reaches 0.45%. Linguistic diversity does not start and end at the border. 

The United Nations recognizes 197 countries, meaning that there are 36 times as many languages spoken as there are countries. Multilingualism is also local: within a single country, common and minority languages coexist with one or several official languages. Faced with such numbers, knowing only one language seems remarkably isolating. 

This rich multilingualism did not happen overnight. It is the result of thousands of years of history and continues to evolve. Languages as we know them are the result of countless mutations, influences and melting pots. But, if we go back in time, it appears that languages, though infinitely diverse, share more similarities than it might seem. Beyond the fantasy of an Adamic language (the original language spoken by Adam), they can all be linked to a large linguistic family defined by a common ancestor language. From this matrix, no less than 24 language families have been derived, which are themselves divided into subfamilies and even sub-sub-families. 

The Indo-European language group, which includes Romance languages like Spanish and Portuguese, represents the most widespread language family on Earth, Unsurprisingly, these two languages show a lexical similarity of 0.89 (1 being the maximum): this is why it is commonly accepted that Spanish speakers find it easier to learn Portuguese, and vice versa. 

The same phenomenon is true for Italian and French (0.89): this historical proximity facilitates the transition from one language to the other. In comparison, English (Germanic subfamily) and French (Romance subfamily) have a coefficient of 0.27.

The culture behind languages

It seems that this remarkable linguistic diversity is under threat. Two languages are estimated to disappear every month. At this rate, more than half of humanity’s linguistic heritage will disappear by the end of the 21st century. Some researchers are more pessimistic and fear that only 300 to 600 living languages will survive by 2100. 

This phenomenon raises many concerns, one of the reasons being that the death of a language means the disappearance of a part of humanity’s cultural heritage. This is true even when it is only spoken by a hundred people. 

Learning a foreign language is about learning a new culture, lifestyles, attitudes, ways of thinking, a new and different logic; it’s about entering a mysterious world, understanding individual behavior, broadening your knowledge and your own level of understanding

Jeanine Courtillon, La notion de progression appliquée à l’enseignement de la civilisation, 1984

There can be no doubt that language and culture are organically linked. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss summarized this relationship in his book Structural Anthropology (1958). A language cannot be reduced to a set of acronyms assembled on the basis of established grammatical rules, nor is it a matter of being perfectly familiar with various pedagogical concepts. 

Learning a language is first and foremost learning the culture behind the language and how to communicate in different ways: expressing oneself, exclaiming, living, eating, ordering a loaf of bread, joking and working together. In this sense, learning only one language in one’s life could be considered a form of cultural impoverishment.

Languages continue to adapt to new uses in the present day. Far from being monolithic and unchanging, they blend and influence each other. Languages have become established over centuries through multiple exchanges and absorptions. In particular, French has been enriched by many words belonging to other cultures: “brainstorming” from English, kawa (coffee in Arabic), pareo (Tahitian), lama (Tibetan) or kamikaze (Japanese). 

Every year, dozens of neologisms make their way into monolingual dictionaries. For example, in 2020, the Oxford English Dictionary embraced the terms chillax, whatevs and nomophobia. In 1990, the French Academy simplified a (small) number of spelling standards. 

Although this reform was limited in scope, it had the merit of demonstrating a real need for the language to be reappropriated by its users. Modernization for some, leveling for others: being subject to the controversy is an intrinsic feature of a living language.

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