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Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Language Diversity

The linguistic diversity of the world has depended on the world population and the number of languages in the world. The world population grew from about 300 million at the time of Christ to an estimated 1 billion in 1804, 2 billion in 1927, and 6 billion at the end of 1999, and is projected to reach 10 billion around 2183. In 1950 there were only four countries with a national population greater than 100 million persons. In 2003 the number of such countries had grown to eleven. The United Nations projects that in 2050 such countries will number eighteen. India, China, and the United States were the top three countries at each of these points in time.

The twentieth century was the highest growth period in the history of humanity, almost quadrupling the world population. The highest rate of growth occurred between 1965 and 1970 (2 percent per annum), and the largest annual increases in population occurred in the late 1980s, with 86 million people added to the world population annually.

One should keep in mind as well that the distribution of the population and its languages around the world is uneven, have changed over time, and are expected to continue such changes, at least into the near future. In 1750, for example, 64 percent of the estimated world population was located in Asia, while 21 percent was in Europe, 13 percent in Africa, and 2 percent in the Americas. By 1950, Asia had lost almost 10 percentage points and Africa about 4 percent; Europe remained steady at 22 percent, but the Americas grew to 14 percent of the total equally between the northern and southern countries. The United Nations Population Division projects that in 2150, Europe and North America will shrink in percentage from 22 percent to 7 percent and from 7 percent to 4 percent, respectively; Asia will remain steady at 60 percent, but Africa will more than double its proportion from 9 percent to 24 percent, and Latin America will increase slightly its portion of the world population from 7 percent to 9 percent. These changing distributions of the human population across Table 1. Top languages by number of speakers, 2000
(in millions)

Language Hub Number First Language
Chinese (Mandarin) China 16 874
Hindi India 17 366
English United Kingdom 104 341
Spanish Spain 43 322–358
Bengali Bangladesh 9 207
Arabic 207
Portuguese Portugal 33 176
Russian Russia 30 167
Japanese Japan 26 125
German Germany 40 100
SOURCE: Data from McGeveran, pp. 626–627

the world have had and will continue to have an impact on the numbers of speakers of specific languages in those regions, and urbanism and migrations will increase the probability of language contact between speakers of different languages. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than half of the world's population was considered urban. By the end of the twentieth century, about 4 percent of the world's population did not live in their country of birth.

The world's language diversity is only now being better understood and described. The sources of estimating the number of languages in the world vary in the quality of their data and methods, not the least of which is their varying definitions of language. Some authors estimate that somewhere between 30,000 and 500,000 languages have been created and died in the course of human history, indicating that languages usually have a short life span as well as a very high death rate. Only a few (such as Basque, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, and Tamil) have lasted more than two thousand years.

One of the more widely cited and consistent sources on the number of languages and speakers of those languages estimates that there were approximately 6,800 oral languages in the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some experts argue that the inclusion of manually signed languages would increase the estimate to 12,000 human languages. Chinese Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic have been identified as the languages with the greatest number of native speakers in the world in 2000 (see Table 1).

More often than not, the enumeration of speakers through government or organizational surveys only takes into account a single language per person, despite the normative multilingualism around the world. This current multilingualism has been promoted by the greater language contact of the twentieth century, in part the legacy of colonialism and the postcolonial practice of establishing new nation-states with populations that belonged to different ethno-language communities.

In many areas of the imperial colonial language (such as English, French, Spanish, Dutch) was spread as a second or replacement language among the colonized population, albeit with a wide range in the language proficiencies of these speakers. In some instances, the number of native speakers of these colonial languages is greater outside the metropole of the colonizing nation, and even the second-language speakers of these colonial languages may be larger than the native speakers of the same language. In 1999, for example, English was estimated to have 341 million native speakers around the world and 508 million second-language speakers; Spanish was estimated to have 358 million native speakers globally and 417 million second-language speakers.

In 2000, the enumerated languages were unevenly divided across the world in the various continents. Africa had 30 percent of the oral languages but 13 percent of the world's population; Asia had about 33 percent of the world's languages and 61 percent of the world's population. The Pacific Oceanic area had about 19 percent of the languages, the Americas 15 percent, and Europe had approximately 3 percent of the oral languages and about 12 percent of the world's population. The two most linguistically diverse countries, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, together had more than 22 percent (1,500) of the world's oral languages, most of which are not spoken in any other country. An overwhelming 83 to 84 percent of the world's languages are spoken in only one country.

The range in the numbers of speakers of a particular language is large, from several hundred to hundreds of millions. The median number of speakers of a language was probably around 5,000 to 6,000 at the turn of the twenty-first century. More than 95 percent of the world's spoken languages have fewer than 1 million native users, while some 5,000 (83 percent) spoken languages have fewer than 100,000 speakers, and more than 3,000 spoken languages have fewer than 10,000 users. About 1,500 spoken languages and most of the sign languages have fewer than 1,000 users. In 1999, some 500 languages had fewer than 100 speakers.

Ranka Bjeljac-Babic proposed that no language could survive unless 100,000 people speak it, and so estimated that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ten languages were dying each year. Michael Krause projected that 50 to 90 percent of the spoken languages would disappear during the twenty-first century. From one perspective these languages will "wither" by a "voluntary" failure to transmit the language from one generation to another. From another perspective, many of these languages are threatened and "murdered" by repressive nation-state policies and language majoritarian practices, not unlike what has been seen in the past. European colonial conquests, for example, eliminated at least 15 percent of all languages spoken at the outset of the colonial period. According to Bjeljac-Babic, "Over the last 300 years, Europe has lost a dozen [languages], and Australia has only 20 left of the 250 spoken at the outset of the colonial period. According to l, about 540 (three-quarters of the total) have died out since Portuguese colonization began in 1530" (p. 18).

These "heritage" languages will be replaced by another language, adding to the numbers of native speakers of that second language, which may be a regional language or a language of wider communication (an international or world language). If size is a significant factor in the robustness and continuity of a language, then the growth of some of the medium-sized languages with the addition of persons who otherwise would have spoken their heritage language might retard their demise.

It is more difficult to estimate the number of new languages created during any particular period, either from the "splitting" of a natural language into mutually not understandable varieties, the transformation of pidgins (reduced-language contact speech) into elaborated creoles by the acquisition of native speakers who complexify it for all required purposes, or the revival of "dead" languages, such as Hebrew's revival by the new state of Israel, which developed its vocabulary to reflect a modern and more complete range of functions.

Additional topics

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