When learning about different countries and cultures as a child (all those years ago), I was taught that in China they speak Chinese, in Italy they speak Italian, in India they speak Indian and so on! Working in the languages industry I now know this to be very different.
In fact, most of the world is a lot more diverse than we think with so many regional languages present among the ‘national’ languages. In fact, monolingual countries are hard to find.
The Economist recently published a chart which highlights the number of languages spoken in a particular country in comparison to Greenberg’s diversity index, which scores countries on the probability that two citizens will share a mother tongue. If you investigate the chart (below) the results are quite interesting.
Although countries such as Australia, Mexico, Russia and the United States all have over 100 languages, they score relatively low on the diversity index. In comparison, the Philippines and Congo have a similar number of languages spoke but are near the top of the diversity index chart. So what causes such diversity?
One reason that has been suggested is that English, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish etc have grown to the point which they are destroying many tiny native languages.
Wealth/poverty of a country has also an influence in how many languages are spoken in a country. The countries which have more wealth invest in citizens to learn the ‘national’ language while countries in poverty cannot do this. According to The Economist ‘Linguistic rivalry and relative poverty have kept a single language from dominating countries like India and Nigeria’.
Another factor which contributes to where a country appears on the diversity index is Geography. As people say ‘location is everything’ and this is very true for languages. The islands of Indonesia and the Philippines shelter small languages due to their location.
History and loyalty to culture also plays a big part in keeping tiny native languages alive.
Of course it is great that the world is becoming increasingly capable of communicating with each other, however it is also great that so many languages are still alive. Do you agree?
The Economist, Speaking in Tongues, February 2012
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