Papua New Guinea has highest number of ‘living’ indigenous languages in world

Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea, Country in Oceania has highest number of ‘living’ indigenous languages in world (840). Living languages stands for languages that are still being used and spoken by people. India stands fourth in list with 453 languages.

In 2016, United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) highlighted that 40% of estimated 6,700 languages spoken around world were in danger of disappearing.

Key Findings of Ethnologue

Ethnologue is a directory of languages which lists 7,111 living languages worldwide.

According to Ethnologue-

3,741 languages (over half total) which have fewer than 1,000 speakers.

Some language families are very diverse and have several languages under them, but are spoken by only a small percentage of population. For example, Trans-New Guinea family, which has 478 languages, accounts for just 0.05% of total language speakers.

Indo-European family has 445 languages including Spanish, English, German, Punjabi and Bengali and has highest percentage of speakers- 46.31%.

Most Indian languages are derivatives of languages that are spoken in other parts of Asia as well, for example- Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken across Northeast India, China, Bhutan, Nepal and other South East Asian countries. One of outliers to this trend is Andamanese language family, which is confined to India alone.

Greenberg’s Diversity Index

As per Ethnologue, ‘Greenberg’s diversity index’ is the probability that any two people of country selected at random would have different mother tongues.

Value ranges from: 0-1, where ‘0’ indicates no diversity i.e. everyone has same mother tongue and ‘1’ indicates total diversity i.e. no two people will have same mother tongue. Therefore higher diversity index would mean more languages spread across country.

Global Distribution of Languages

Most widely spoken languages worldwide: English, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and Spanish are most widely spoken languages worldwide when only 1st-languages are considered. These 5 languages account for what is spoken by over 40% of people worldwide.

Number of Languages by Region– Asia (2303) and Africa (2140) account for highest number of indigenous languages (over 70% of total), Pacific (1322) and Americas (1058).

Widely English-speaking nations- United States (335 languages) and Australia (319) are among countries where highest number of languages are spoken this is because they have small and rapidly declining pockets of indigenous language speaking populations.

Languages in Decline

As per UNESCO’s ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger‘-

Since 1950 228 languages have become extinct.

About 10% of languages are classified ‘vulnerable’, while another 10% are ‘critically endangered’.

In India, 5 languages have become extinct since 1950, while 42 are critically endangered.

Several languages are now “endangered” and in case of languages such as Tiniguan (Colombian origin), there is just a single native speaker left.

International Year of Indigenous Languages

The year 2019 is designated as United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages. It aims to promote native tongues in 5 key areas-

  1. Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation
  2. Integration of indigenous languages into standard setting
  3. Empowerment through capacity building.
  4. Creation of favourable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to indigenous languages
  5. Growth and development via elaboration of new knowledge


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