Tower of Babel Aftermath

Following up a post from several days ago, the article and chart embedded above attempt to illustrate the major languages of the world in terms of how many people speak each one as their primary toungue. A few caveats are in order, though:

First, several of the illustrated languages are actually macro-languages in the sense that they are clusters of several related dialects. For example, the Chinese macro-language includes Mandarin, Cantonese, and many other local and regional dialects. The situation is even more complicated if you consider the mix of first, second, and third languages found in any given metropolis. You can find well over 100 different languages spoken in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, and this degree of complexity might be found in large economic centers world wide. If a person speaks English at work but some variation of Chinese at home, where do they show up in the tally?

Second, this is not a static picture. English, Spanish, and French, for example, were spread by extensive exploration and colonization over the course of two or three centuries. These drivers ended, yet English and Spanish continue to spread, driven by demographic and economic trends. How did so many languages arrive in the Bay Area? The people speaking those languages moved there! And trends change over time; as the article points out, the population growth of French-speaking countries in Africa will probably make that language more prominent over the next few decades.

Third, some languages may be at risk of diminishing as the populations that speak them decline. They may not entirely disappear, but losses will likely start with local dialects and spread from there. One can’t help but wonder about the long term effects of population declines on local dialects in some areas of China, Russia, or Japan.

So now that you have these caveats in mind, and have read the article and inspected the chart, what kinds of long-term trends do you think might affect the rack-up?

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