Linguistic diversity – a global picture
Most countries have one or two official languages, but first nation peoples, multiculturalism and globalisation often mean many more tongues are spoken within a nation’s borders.
Australia has a particularly rich linguistic culture according to 2016 Ethnologue Data, with a total of 260 languages spoken – the world’s ninth most linguistically diverse nation.
Indigenous languages account for a large portion of these, with about 150 individual tongues still being spoken.
When European settlers first came to Australia, it is estimated that 250 Indigenous languages were in use, however now all but about 20 are considered either endangered, critically endangered or extinct.
The following are numbers of speakers of migrant languages in Australia listed alphabetically:
Afrikaans (35,000), Arabic (287,000), Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (21,500), Bengali (35,600), Bosnian (15,300), Burmese (12,300), Cantonese (244,500), Central Khmer (29,500), Classical Mandaic, Cook Islands Maori (4,640), Croatian (61,500), Dari (20,200), Dutch (37,200), Eastern Punjabi (71,200), French (57,700), Gujarati (34,200), Hindi (111,000), Hungarian (20,900), Indonesian (55,900), Iranian Persian (34,600), Irish (1,900), Korean (79,800), Macedonian (68,800), Mandarin (220, 600), Malay (16,600), Malayalam (25,100), Maltese (34,400), Maori (9,980), Min Nan Chinese (13,400), Nepali (27,200), Polish (50,700), Portuguese (33,400), Pukapuka (900), Romanian (12,300), Russian (44,100), Samoan (36,600), Serbian (55,100), Sinhala (48,200), Spanish (117,000), Tagalog (81,500), Tamil (50,200), Telugu (18,700), Thai (36,700), Tongan (16,000), Turkish (59,600), Urdu (36,800), Vietnamese (233,000).
Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Nigeria are the world’s most linguistically diverse countries.
While the small Pacific nation of PNG has a population of just over seven million, they speak 840 languages – more than twice the number that are used across the whole of Europe.
The country’s dense rainforests and difficult terrain has meant that many groups of people have remained in considerable isolation, preserving their unique languages.
The second most linguistically diverse country is another of Australia’s near-neighbours Indonesia where 707 distinct languages are spoken.
The majority of these are Indigenous, with some having an effect in shaping the nation’s official language, Bahasa Indonesian, which is a form of Malay.
Meanwhile in Africa, Nigeria boasts the most amount of spoken languages with 527. Their official one is English but Igbo – a language spoken by 24 million people – Hausa, Yoruba, Fulfulde, Kanuri and Ijaw are also very common.
A total of 7,097 languages are spoken across the world currently.
But that number is constantly in flux, because we’re learning more about the world’s languages every day.
And beyond that, the languages themselves are in flux. They’re living and dynamic, spoken by communities whose lives are shaped by our rapidly changing world, according to .
This is a fragile time: A full third of languages are now endangered, often with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. Meanwhile, just 23 languages account for more than half the world’s population.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist