What’s Happening with the World’s Languages?
The Index of Linguistic Diversity Tells the Story
Linguistic diversity is part and parcel of the diversity of life in nature and culture. Any loss in linguistic diversity is a loss in the vitality and resilience of the whole web of life. Every time a language disappears, along with the cultural traditions and cultural knowledge it conveys, it’s a piece of the planet’s living fabric that gets torn off, leaving all of the living world more fragile, more vulnerable, and with fewer options for the future.
There are about 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. However, the numbers of speakers of these languages are vastly uneven. To put it simply, there are a few languages each with a lot of speakers, and a lot of other languages each with a small number of speakers. In fact, the distribution is so skewed, that half of the world’s population speaks one or other of only 25 “big” languages, while the other half of the world’s population speaks one or other of the remaining 6,975 or so languages. And these smaller languages are increasingly losing ground to the “big” languages.
Concern about the loss of diversity and vitality of the world’s languages has been building for over two decades. Yet, until recently, this concern was only based on anecdotal evidence, which suggested that many languages will become extinct in the coming decades. Now for the first time Terralingua researchers have gathered rigorous scientific data that reveal an alarming rate of decline in global linguistic diversity.
The Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) is the first quantitative study that tells us the world’s languages — not just their number, but also the linguistic and cultural diversity they represent — are being severely diminished.* The ILD shows that global linguistic diversity has declined 20% in just 35 years, between 1970 and 2005.
Languages spoken by indigenous peoples, which make up 80% to 85% of the world’s languages, have been especially affected. The global rate of decline for indigenous languages is slightly faster (21%) than the global average for all languages, with enormous variations between different regions of the world. Between 1970 and 2005, indigenous linguistic diversity declined by about 60% in the Americas, 30% in the Pacific, and 20% in Africa.
The dramatic decline in linguistic diversity is due to ever-growing social and economic pressures that are inducing or even forcing people to switch from generally smaller, more geographically restricted languages to larger languages, especially global languages like Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, English, or Spanish, or regionally dominant languages like Swahili. The top 16 languages spoken worldwide increased their share of the global population from 45% in 1970 to 55% in 2005.
The changes in the number of mother-tongue speakers are associated with shifts in the use of a given language in adult speakers, as well as with a decline in the transmission of that language to new generations.
The ILD data provide strong support to the claim that there is a global crisis of linguistic diversity loss. The ILD captures the magnitude of the problem in a way that is easy to understand and informative for researchers, educators, policy makers, and the general public.
Our work on the ILD continues. We aim to augment our data sources and to achieve complete coverage of the “vital signs” and trends of all 7,000 languages.
*Harmon, D. and Loh, J. 2010. The Index of Linguistic Diversity: A New Quantitative Measure of Trends in the Status of the World’s Languages. Language Documentation & Conservation 4: 97-151 (http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/ldc/2010/default.html#harmonloh).
Check out the interview with the ILD researchers on National Geographic News Watch.