One of the challenges we face as a language solutions provider is covering demand for the languages that our clients request on a daily basis. So how many languages are there in the World and how do we go about providing translation and interpreting in all of them….?
The invaluable Ethnologue quotes 6909 living languages, that’s one language for every 862,000 people on Earth. Let’s look at some more figures from Ethnologue’s database.
Europe, with ¼ of the World’s population has only 234 languages spoken on a daily basis.
Although English does well as the World’s business language-at least for the time being- it is only 3rd in the league table of native speakers of a first language, with 328M, only 1m behind Spanish but a long way from the 845M Mandarin speakers.
94% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the World’s population, which tells us that there are hundreds of languages with just a few thousand [or hundred] speakers.
Many of these languages would be classified by some as dialects i.e. languages that have evolved from but are still quite closely related to another. This definition, of course, falls down very rapidly as most Western European languages can trace their roots to Latin but would not normally be described as dialects. Some of the African and Caribbean Patois are still seen as dialects, as was Ulster-Scots until fairly recently when it was recognised as a language. http://www.ulsterscotsagency.com/
The most famous phrase “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” is wrongly attributed to Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who was probably quoting an anonymous teacher from New York, but it is a neat way to make the definition.
So how many of these languages are regularly translated by Applied Language? Well, it’s a lot but not quite 6909…….we reckon that about 200 languages are translated regularly by our global offices into documents, websites, brochures and anything else you can imagine. The range of languages required by our interpreting team is rather smaller at about 100.
The difference is no mystery; companies that translate their promotional material may be selling into every part of the globe and therefore their need is very broad whilst a hospital in Manchester, for example, will only have to deal with the resident non-native speakers and unwell tourists that come through its doors. Although the interpreting requirement is significant, it rarely exceeds 100 different languages.
Some of the most difficult requests are for languages that unfortunately don’t exist; enquiries for “Indian” or “Eastern European” do pop up occasionally. Similarly, “African” or “South American” can have us scratching our heads.
As a final thought for those of you currently learning another language you might be slightly discouraged by a report from Swarthmore College linguist K. David Harrison who predicts that 90% of the World’s languages will be extinct by 2050. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4387421/
This might make finding translators a little easier, but would surely make our World a rather less interesting place?