1. How many languages are there?
It’s estimated that up to 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world. 90% of these languages are used by less than 100,000 people. Over a million people converse in 150-200 languages and 46 languages have just a single speaker! Languages are grouped into families that share a common ancestry. For example, English is related to German and Dutch, and they are all part of the Indo-European family of languages. These also include Romance languages, such as French, Spanish and Italian, which come from Latin. 2,200 of the world’s languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has a mere 260. Nearly every language uses a similar grammatical structure, even though they may not be linked in vocabulary or origin. Communities which are usually isolated from each other because of mountainous geography may have developed multiple languages. Papua New Guinea for instance, boasts no less than 832 different languages!
2. What are the world’s most spoken languages?
The world’s most widely spoken languages by number of native speakers and as a second language, according to figures from UNESCO (The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), are: Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French.
3.Which are the hardest languages to learn?
The ease or difficulty of learning another language can depend on your mother tongue. In general, the closer the second language is to the learner’s native tongue and culture in terms of vocabulary, sounds or sentence structure, the easier acquisition will be. So, a Polish speaker will find it easier to learn another Slavic language like Czech than an Asian language such as Japanese, while linguistic similarities mean that a Japanese speaker would find it easier to learn Mandarin Chinese than Polish. Dutch is said to be the easiest language for native English speakers to pick up, while research shows that for those native English speakers who already know another language, the five most difficult languages to get your head around are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
4. Endangered languages
Globalisation and cultural homogenisation mean that many of the world’s languages are in danger of vanishing. UNESCO has identified 2,500 languages which it claims are at risk of extinction. One quarter of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and if these are not passed down to the next generation, they will be gone forever.
5. Languages in the world
When NASA launched the ‘Voyager 1 & 2’ spacecraft in 1977, they put on board golden discs containing the sights and sounds of Earth, including greetings in 55 of the world’s most widely understood languages. These are currently travelling through space! The United Nations uses six official languages to conduct business: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Arabic. Under the Romans, Latin became the lingua franca across Europe. As of 2010 the European Union has 23 official and working languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.
6. Artificial languages
Around 200 artificial languages have been created since the 17th century. The first were invented by scholars for communication among philosophers. Later ones were developed by less scholarly men for trade, commerce and international communication. They include ‘Interlingua’ (a mixture of Latin and Romance with Chinese-like sentence structure), ‘Ido’, ‘Tutonish’ (a simplified blend of Anglo-Saxon English and German) and the more commonly-known ‘Esperanto’, invented by Ludwig Zamenhof, a Jewish ophthalmologist from Poland, in 1887. Esperanto is a spoken and written blend of Latin, English, German and Romance elements and literally means “one who hopes”. Today, Esperanto is widely spoken by approximately 2 million people across the world.
7. “Ouch”, “Mama?” The origins of language
Some of the oldest languages known include Sanskrit, Sumerian, Hebrew and Basque. A study of macaque monkeys suggests that languages may have evolved to replace grooming as a better way of forging social ties amongst our ancestors. Another theory is that our ancient predecessors imitated natural sounds: e.g. the bird that made a “caw caw” sound became a ‘cuckoo’in a similar way to today’s children calling things by the sound that they make: “Look, there’s a moo, baa, choo-choo!”. Human communication might have been sparked by involuntary sounds such as “ouch” or “eek” or by communal activities such as heaving or carrying heavy objects, coordinated by shouts of “yo-he-ho”, etc. Another theory proposes that language evolved from the communication between mother and baby, with the mother repeating the baby’s babbling and giving it a meaning. Indeed, in most languages “mama” or similar “ma”-sounds actually mean ‘mother’.