NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

World's Languages Shrinking

August 6, 2001

An estimated 4,000 to 9,000 languages have disappeared over the past five centuries, reports Payal Sampat of the Worldwatch Institute. And many are continuing to disappear. In fact, the most endangered language, Alaska's Eyak, has just one remaining speaker -- and Idaho's Coeur D'Alene language has just five speakers left.

Here are some other interesting language facts:

  • The world's most widely used language by far is Mandarin Chinese, with 885 million speakers -- followed by English, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and German, according to the 2000 World Almanac.
  • Only 600 of the world's languages are considered safe from extinction -- because children still are learning them.
  • Only six of the 300 languages spoken in what is now the U.S. when Columbus arrived are still spoken by more than 10,000 people.
  • Eighty percent of the 260 native languages still spoken in the U.S. and Canada aren't being learned by children.

English is spoken by more people as a second language, 350 million, than as a native tongue, 322 million.

Scholars say that languages die as a result of wars, genocide, bans on regional languages and cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities. For example, hundreds of South American languages died as a result of the Spanish conquest.

Africa is believed to be the birthplace of nearly one-third of the world's languages.

Source: Joan Lowy (Scripps Howard), "Words Provide Clues to Humanity's Identity," Washington Times, August 6, 2001.


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