• According to Ethnologue.com, there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken across the world today. Only a fraction of these languages (359) are truly global, spoken by millions of people. These include Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Hindi. The remaining 6,550 languages have a much more limited scope, and many are in danger of being lost entirely. To put the dichotomy in perspective, 94% of the world's population speaks 6% of its languages, while 6% of the world's population speaks 94% of its languages.

    The Linguistic Diversity Index measures the diversity of languages spoken in a country. The scale ranges from 0 to 1. An index of 0 represents no linguistic diversity, meaning that everyone speaks the same language. An index of 1 represents total diversity, meaning that no two people speak the same language. No country has an index value of exactly 0 or 1.

    The Linguistic Diversity Index can provide insight into the multicultural nature of countries. Some have high linguistic diversity because of their geographic position along trade routes. This is seen in the relatively high linguistic diversity in Kazakhstan, which was part of the Silk Road. Other countries have high linguistic diversity due to the presence of multiple, distinct ethnic groups, as seen in Bolivia, India, and Chad. Nations with low levels of linguistic diversity, such as Japan and Norway, are often culturally homogeneous.

    The data source for this map is ethnologue.com, where the online version of the 16th edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World is found.

    1. According to the MapMaker Interactive, where are countries with the most linguistic diversity located geographically?

      Countries with the most language diversity are located in West and Central Africa and in South Asia and the Pacific.

    2. Using the MapMaker Interactive, compare linguistic diversity with climate zones. What correlations can you make?

      Warmer, equatorial climates have great linguistic diversity.

    3. Why do you think countries near the Equator have greater linguistic diversity than those farther away?

      Answers may vary. A stable, hospitable climate may enable people to stay in an area longer and develop unique languages. In areas farther from the Equator where climate is less certain, people may move around more and engage in commerce with others. This makes for the wider spread of languages.

      Source: Daniel Nettle, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology

    4. The United States has relatively low linguistic diversity, yet according to Ethnologue.com, 364 languages are spoken in the country. How might you explain this disparity?

      The majority of people in the U.S. (82%) speak English. Of the remaining 18%, 10% speak Spanish. All other languages (362 of them) are spoken by the remaining 8% of people, and include languages spoken by immigrants as well as American Indians who speak endangered languages.

    5. Do you think it matters that so many languages are endangered? Why or why not?

      Answers will vary, but students may say that when a language is lost, other cultural characteristics of a people may be lost forever, too. Others may think that it doesn't matter when a language dies because so few people speak it.

    • Languages from the Indo-European familysuch as English, Spanish, and Portuguesewere spread around the globe during the age of colonialism, when many countries in Europe established colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific islands.
    • Many languages are considered "endangered", which means they could vanish from use. Ethnologue identifies 473 languages as nearly extinct, with just a few living speakers. The region with the most endangered languages is the Americas, and it may be surprising to learn that the majority of these are in the United States. The languages of many American Indian tribes are vanishing as ethnic populations are blending into mainstream society and speaking English, while native speakers grow older and die.
    • Although the map specifies that no country has an index value of 0, meaning that everyone there speaks the same language, there are some places, such as the Falkland Islands, that come close. Nearly everyone in the Falklands speaks English, the language of the British settlers who arrived in the early 1800s. Vatican City is another linguistically homogenous place. This walled portion of Rome is the seat of Catholicism and ruled by the Pope. Nearly everyone in Vatican City speaks Italian.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    diversity Noun

    difference.

    equatorial Adjective

    having to do with the equator or the area around the equator.

    homogeneous Adjective

    uniform, or the same, in structure or composition.

    language Noun

    set of sounds, gestures, or symbols that allows people to communicate.

    latitude Noun

    distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.

    Encyclopedic Entry: latitude
    multicultural Adjective

    representing many different traditions or cultures.

    North Pole Noun

    fixed point that, along with the South Pole, forms the axis on which the Earth spins.

    Encyclopedic Entry: North Pole
    Silk Road Noun

    ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.

    trade route Noun

    path followed by merchants or explorers to exchange goods and services.

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