42. Which Country has the Most Languages? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

There are thousands of languages in the world. Some are spoken by billions of people, others by less than one hundred! Which country has the most languages? In this episode I’ll answer that question, look at some of the languages spoken in that country, and try to explain why there are so many!

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VOCABULARY LIST

Diversity (n) – a range of different things or people

The wonderful diversity of our country’s wildlife is now under threat

Inhabitant (v) – a person or animal that lives in a particular place

That city has 5 million inhabitants 

Linguistically (adv) – in a way that is connected with language or the study of language

Apparently Silicon Valley has become one of the most linguistically diverse places in America

Dialect (n) – a form of a language that people speak in a particular part of a country, containing some different words and grammar, etc.

The poem is written in northern dialect

Descend from (Phrasal v) – if one thing descend from is descended from another, the later thing develops from the earlier thing

Romance languages are directly descended from Latin

Ancestor (n) – a person related to you who lived a long time ago

There were portraits of his ancestors on the walls of the room

Indigenous (adj) – existing naturally or having always lived in a place; native

The Navajos are among the indigenous people of North America

Colonist (n) – someone wh0o lives in or goes to live in a country or area that is a colony

The first American colonists arrived in the 17th century

Creole (n) – a language that has developed from a mixture of languages

Many Afro-Caribbean Englishes are creoles 

Tribe (n) – a group of people, often of related families, who live together, sharing the same language, culture, and history, especially those who do not live in towns or cities

The Masai tribe live in Africa


Language is the main way we communicate with each other. It’s not the only way, of course. We also use body language, facial expressions, and other sounds. However, language is our main method of communication. Without language we would have no stories, no history, no culture, no science. Without language we would be no different from other animals. Even though almost all humans can speak a language, we definitely don’t all speak the same language. That’s why you are listening to this podcast, right? To learn another language! There are so many languages spoken in the world. According to Ethnologue, there are 7117 languages spoken in the world right now. There are even more languages that have existed in the past, and others that will exist in the future. Furthermore, that figure does not include the dialects and regional accents across the world. Although there are over 7000 languages, 23 languages are spoken by 50% of the world!

How many languages are spoken in your country? Some countries only have one or a few languages spoken, while other countries have a large amount of language diversity. The UK is famous as the origin of the English language. All across the UK you can hear English spoken. Nevertheless, it is not the only native language from the UK. You can also find the Welsh language in Wales, Gaelic and Scots languages in Scotland, Irish and Ulster Scots languages in Northern Ireland, and Cornish in the southern English county of Cornwall. In addition, there are over 300 international languages spoken across the UK! How about a larger country like India? With around 1.3 billion inhabitants of India, a long running history, and a massive size, India naturally has a lot of diverse languages. Actually, there are 22 official languages in India as well as many unofficial languages – it is definitely one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. It is not, however, the most linguistically diverse country in the world!

If India is not, what country is? Have you ever heard of Papua New Guinea? Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern part of the world’s second largest island (the island of New Guinea) and is covered in mountains and rainforests. It borders the Indonesian province of Western Papua and is immediately north of Australia! With a population of only 7.6 million, Papua New Guinea is smaller than many cities around the world. However, this country is the most linguistically diverse in the world. There are nearly 850 languages spoken in the country. 850. That is 12% of all languages in the world. Spoken in a country of less than 8 million people. And doesn’t even include dialects or unknown languages! The rest of the episode will look at the languages of Papua New Guinea, and try to explain some of the reasons why there are so many languages on the island!

The oldest group of languages in Papua New Guinea are the “Papuan” languages which were introduced by the first human settlers 40,000 years ago. That’s right – people have lived on the island of Papua New Guinea for at least 40,000 years! Although these ancient languages are all considered “Papuan,” they are not necessarily part of the same family. A language family is a group of different languages that all descended from a common ancestor! As an English speaker, my language falls under the Indo-European language family – which includes most of the languages of Europe, as well as Iran and Northern India. This means French, English, and Hindi, for instance, all came from a single language. Languages can also be ‘isolates’ – this means that they have no known connections (like Japanese or Korean)! Basically, most of the languages of Europe are related. However, the languages of Papua New Guinea are not all part of the same family. In fact, there are at least 42 different language families that form the “papuan” languages. I’ll say that again – there is 1 language family spread across Europe; there are 42 on the island of Papua New Guinea. This means that two groups of people living only a few kilometers from each other could speak languages as diverse as Japanese and Italian.

In addition, there are also newer languages spoken on the island. There are a number of Austronesian languages spoken in the country. Austronesian languages are spoken by the indigenous people of Taiwan, and it is thought that these languages arrived in Papua New Guinea about 3,500 years ago from a Taiwanese source. Things became even more diverse in the 1800s with the arrival of English- and German-speaking colonists! After independence, Papua New Guinea chose three official languages. English is the first. Tok Pisin, a creole, is the second; Hiri Motu, a simplified version of Motu, an Austronesian language, is the third. Like any country, Papua New Guinea has a few native languages that are the most popular. Enga is the most commonly spoken language, with approximately 165,000 speakers. Next up is Melpa with 130,000 speakers and Huli with 70,000. Although these are native languages, nearly 4 million Papua New Guineans speak the creole language named Tok Pisin. Creole languages develop when groups of people who don’t share a common language but need to communicate. Since its formation, Tok Pisin has grown to be the most commonly spoken language in Papua New Guinea!

The total amount of speakers from each of the three most common native languages in the country only add up to approximately 365,000 people, so you might be thinking “What about the other 7 and a half million?” And why does the country have so many different languages? The geography of the country is one reason! It has caused the indigenous people to separate and spread out, forming different languages over time.There are massive mountains, thick jungles, deep valleys, large rivers and swamps. This makes it incredibly difficult to travel around the country! And most Papua New Guineans actually live in rural areas – only about 13% of Papuans live in towns. So the different parts of the country don’t often mix or interact with each other, so neither do their languages. 

Papua New Guinea is also a tribal country. The fact that most Papuans live in tribes, not unified national states, has played a big role in building their long list of languages. Many tribes in the isolated mountainous part of the country have little contact with one another, and almost no contact with the outside world. Most Papuans actually live in societies without money or a modern economy, instead relying on farming and hunting for everything they need. This means there is no need for trade between different tribes! Relationships between different tribes are often not peaceful. Fierce tribal rivalries also encourages people to be proud of their own languages and cultures.

A third reason for so many different languages in the country is time. The first people moved to Papua New Guinea about 40,000 years ago. The languages they spoke at that time have had thousands of years to change, develop, and adapt! According to the linguist WIlliam Foley it takes about a thousand years for a single language to split in two. With 40,000 years to evolve, Papuan languages have had plenty of time to change naturally.

FINAL THOUGHT

The most linguistically diverse country in the world is Papua New Guinea. The geographical conditions, isolated tribes, and a long history are the perfect ingredients to create a huge range of languages. However, as time goes on and communities come together, smaller languages could either become extinct or rarely used. Even now, most of PNG’s languages have less than 1,000 speakers! This is what has happened to other parts of the world. In the modern world, it is useful to speak the same language as other people – for trade, relationships, and information! 

In the future, what do you think will happen to the language we speak? As the world becomes more connected, it is more and more useful to speak the same language. And you need to speak certain major languages to be able to use some modern technology! Will smaller languages disappear? Is it a bad thing if they do? Or should we try to protect the world’s different languages? What do you think?

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS

Q. Apart from English, what languages are native to the UK?

A. Welsh, Gaelic, Scots, Ulster scots, Irish, and Cornish!

Q. How many languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea?

A. About 850

Q. Why are there so many languages in Papua New Guinea?

A. The geographical conditions, isolated tribes, and a long history are the perfect ingredients to create a huge range of languages.


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