Linguistic diversity in Africa and Europe

Jun 16, 2011 by

As can be seen from the map below, Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s hotbeds of linguistic diversity. Indeed, the Niger-Congo language family, spoken in the largest part of Sub-Saharan Africa, is the largest language family by the number of languages, with over 1,500 languages (by the number of speakers, Indo-European language family is the largest in the world).

But let’s examine this diversity a bit more closely, using states on a political map as a unit. According to the Ethnologue, 13 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding the southern portion of the continent, where Niger-Congo languages coexist side by side with Khoisan languages) are listed with 50 or more living languages. This list includes such countries as Chad (131 languages), Tanzania (128 languages), Ghana (79 languages), Côte d’Ivoire (78 languages), Central African Republic (71 languages), Kenya (69 languages), Burkina Faso (68 languages), Congo (62 languages), Mali (57 languages) and Benin (54 languages). Number three on this list is Democratic Republic of Congo with nearly twice as many languages as Chad (215 languages). Number two is Cameroon with 278 languages. And the top of the list is Nigeria with 514 living languages!

For comparison, the only country in Europe with more than 50 languages listed is Russia (both its European and Asian portions): there is 100 living languages still spoken in Russia (sadly, this number is constantly decreasing). Other highly multilingual countries in Europe are Italy (33 languages), Germany (27 languages), and France (23 languages). But as you can see, these numbers are very modest by African standards.

One problem with just listing the number of languages spoken in a given country is that it masks the degree of linguistic diversity in smaller countries. Here some very interesting and perhaps surprising facts emerge.

While it is easy for Nigeria with its over 140 million people to be the leader in linguistic diversity by the sheer number of languages, what about smaller countries such as Equatorial Guinea or the Gambia? While they boast fewer languages (14 and 10 respectively), there is another measure which shows how highly multilingual such countries are. This measure is the average number of speakers per language (i.e., the total population of a state divided by the number of living languages listed). When this figure is calculated, many smaller African countries emerge as highly multilingual, alongside such multilingual countries as Cameroon (278 languages), Congo (62 languages), Central African Republic (71 languages) and Benin (54 languages). In fact, 12 Sub-Saharan African countries (again, I am excluding the southern portion of the continent from consideration) have the figures of 1 language per less than 200,000 people. Here’s the list:

  • Gabon 30,738 (42 languages)
  • Equatorial Guinea 34,571 (14 languages)
  • Congo 58,225 (62 languages)
  • Central African Republic 59,028 (71 languages)
  • Botswana 63,310 (29 languages)
  • Cameroon 64,010 (278 languages)
  • Guinea-Bissau 76,047 (21 languages)
  • Chad 77,450 (131 languages)
  • Liberia 114,733 (30 languages)
  • Benin 157,222 (54 languages)
  • Togo 159,974 (39 languages)
  • Gambia 161,700 (10 languages)

While some of countries included here are small and that’s why they have small numbers of speakers per language, all of them have at least 10 languages listed, and most have more than 20.

In Europe, the situation is completely different. As we have seen above, only Russia can boast more than 50 living languages (and many of those are spoken in the Asian part of the country). Moreover, the figures for the average number of speakers per language are on a completely different scale, as you can see from the list below:

  • UK 5.035 million (12 languages)
  • Spain 3.099 million (14 languages)
  • Germany 3.061 million (27 languages)
  • France 2.651 million (23 languages)
  • Italy 1.777 million (33 languages)
  • Romania 1.441 million (15 languages)
  • Russia 1.439 million (100 languages)
  • Hungary 1.133 million (9 languages)
  • Belgium 1.039 million (10 languages)
  • Serbia 704,500 (14 languages)
  • Bulgaria 704,090 (11 languages)
  • Croatia 650,142 (7 languages)
  • Switzerland 618,666 (12 languages)
  • Slovakia 538,700 (10 languages)
  • Slovenia 488,508 (4 languages)
  • Norway 463,900 (10 languages)
  • Latvia 460,400 (5 languages)
  • Finland 437,166 (12 languages)
  • Macedonia 230,134 (9 languages)

While Russia has a long list of languages spoken, it is also huge, so the average number of speakers per language is 48 times that of Gabon! Most other larger and medium-sized European countries — Italiy, Romania, Hungary, even Belgium — have more modest lists of languages and comparable average numbers of speakers per language. Larger countries of UK, Germany, France and Spain have even higher numbers of speakers per language, hence even less linguistic diversity by this measure.

Even smaller, more diverse countries in Eastern and Northern Europe — Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Switzerland, Norway and Finland — have have 4 to 7 times less linguistic diversity than Liberia in West Africa, as measured by the average number of speakers per language.

But what of even smaller European countries? They indeed turn out to be “the most linguistically diverse” by this measure. This list is below:

  • Luxembourg 152,333 (3 languages)
  • Iceland 148,000 (2 languages)
  • Montenegro 121,600 (5 languages)
  • Malta 100,750 (4 languages)
  • San Marino 15,000 (2 languages)
  • Liechtenstein 11,666 (3 languages)
  • Monaco 11,000 (3 languages)
  • Vatican 1,000 (1 language)

As you can see, the list of European countries with the smallest average numbers of speakers per language, with 1 language per less than 200,000 people, includes tiny states like Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Malta. And Iceland! Multilingual Iceland? Really?! There are two languages listed for Iceland, but the total population of the country is so small that each of the two languages — one oral and ther other a sign language — gets a mere 148,000 speakers on average. The Vatican is “the most linguistically diverse country” by this measure, with an average of 1 language per 1,000 speakers — but there is only one living language with native speakers and only one thousand people in the Vatican! In fact, the only country in this list that can really pass for a truly multilingual one is Montenegro, where a whole five languages are spoken!

The conclusion: the European countries with a small number of speakers per language are small, not multilingual. But the same is not true in Sub-Saharan Africa, where smaller countries are in some way no less multilingual than bigger countries.

Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below:

  • Miguel Trina

    It is incredible the way you have explained this article, congratulations again, because I did not know that more than two hundred languages could be spoken in just one country!

  • Rudy Vanhalewyn

    Interesting calculation, but based on what? E.g., in my country, Belgium, 3 language are officially recognised. You mention 10? Of course many more languages are spoken there by immigrants, and many dialects, but the Ethnologue you cite with 10 languages seems to use completely arbitrary criteria.

  • Hans Baas

    I have to agree with Rudy – in Italy we have four languages, loads of dialects and obviously languages spoken by immigrants. But where do you draw the line? There are quite a lot of dutch who live in Italy – does that mean you can include dutch? Which are these 33 languages?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Rudy Vanhalewyn and Hans Baas: As mentioned in the posting, the figures I used for these calculations come from the Ethnologue website, which uses mostly linguistic criteria for dividing languages. The same criteria are used for various countries and continents. As you can see here (, Belgium's 10 languages include Dutch, French, Flemish Sign Language, French Belgian Sign Language, Standard German, Limburgish, Luxembourgeois, Picard, Vlaams and Walloon. While some of these are sometimes considered "dialects", that's mostly a reflection of their non-national status rather than linguistic distinctiveness. As you can see, this list does not include languages of immigrants at all.
    When it comes to Italy (, the list includes Albanian, Bavarian, Catalan-Valencian-Balear, Cimbrian, Corsican, Croatian, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Franco-Provencal, Friulian, French, Standard German, Greek, Italian, Italian Sign Language, Judeo-Italian, Ladin, Ligurian, Lombard, Mócheno, Napoletano-Calabrese, Occitan, Piemontese, Balkan Romani, Sinte Romani, Vlax Romani, Sardinian, Campidanese, Gallurese, Logudorese, Sassarese, Sicilian, Slovene, Venetian, and Walser. Once again, these are sufficiently distinct linguistically to be counted, despite their non-official status.

  • Hans Baas

    Here we see why you should always have several sources when you want to draw conclusions, and why you should always describe your definitions. "" may be an authority to Americans, Dutch linguistics do not consider Vlaams to be a language, and only few think Limburgish is – not sure about the French dialects you name. The Italian list seems far-fetched as well. I will refrain from touching sign languages (nor will I include Cobol, Pascal, JavaScript, etc.).

    This said, I do appreciate your blog; I'm as mad about linguistics as you seem to be!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Hans: thanks for your comment. First of all, I don't agree with you that using just the Ethnologue data is flawed. In order to do cross-country (and even cross-continent) comparisons, as I do here, one has to make sure that the same criteria are used. Using one source allows to control for that (somewhat). There are of course many disagreements about what to consider a separate language or a dialect, and the Ethnologue purposefully takes the "splitter" approach, based on linguistic criteria of mutual comprehension, as flawed as such criteria might be. Crucially, however, they use the same criteria for Belgium and for Nigeria, and that's what's important for me here. If a couple of languages listed are not valid, it doesn't change the point that West Africa is far more multilingual than Europe, does it?

    As for sign languages, I didn't say that I am talking about oral languages only. Sign languages are natural human languages and they do not correlate with national boundaries any more than oral languages do (some countries have more than one sign language used), so why not count them as well? On the other hand, Cobol, Pascal, JavaScript, etc. are NOT natural human languages, so naturally they are not counted.

    The only real problem with the Ethnologue data is that for some (most?) countries it lists only "indigenous" languages, while for others languages of immigrants are listed as well (most notably, for the US).

  • Hans Baas

    Despite our different views on what to regard as natural human languages, you have a very good point there, Asya. For comparative purposes it would be impossible to consider different sets of definitions.

    I wish you all the best with your research and your very interesting blog!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Hans: I am not sure how we can have different views on what to regard as natural human languages, but thank you for your praise of the blog!

  • Hans Baas

    Dear Asya, here are what I feel to be the differences: where I live we do not regard dialects to be different languages, as they share too many elements. If Ethnologue list what we regard dialects as languages in European countries, then why should we be awed by the amount of "languages" listed in certain African nations/cultures? They might all be dialects (many I grant you) of the same language.
    As to sign language, it is highly arbitrary in my point of view to see them as natural rather than artificial, as they derived from the standard language in constructed form (even if they developed their own ways of expression and dialects afterwards).
    What do you reckon?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Hans: Whether a certain two linguistic varieties are separate languages or dialects is a tricky question as there is no one good, objective measure of language differences. The Ethnologue relies on grammatical differences, rather than purely lexical or pronunciation differences. But even if the Ethnologue counts certain varieties as languages where others may consider them dialects, the point remains: there is a lot more linguistic diversity in West Africa than in Europe. Even the most modest language counts for Nigeria that I've seen list around 250 languages…

    As for sign languages, they are not derived from oral languages, nor are they gestural counterparts of oral languages. Even where the initial sign language may have been constructed artificially, being acquired natively, sign languages mutate into natural languages. The same way as Esperanto did (in very small communities, where it is a native language).

  • Pakistani

    @Ms Pereltsvaig do you plan on writing any posts on the Nostratic theory? I'd be keen to see your opinion on those. By the way my anthropology blog address is humanhistoryandanthropologydotblogspotdotcom

    Replace dot with .

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Pakistani: Thank you for your comment and the link to your blog. I wasn't planning to write about the Nostratic theory, although if there's interest in the topic, I will add it to my list of topics to write about. Hopefully, I will be able to get to it soon.

  • Pakistani

    Welcome and thanks for the reply.

  • Mark

    Thanks for posting this overview. Here’s a bit more background on why Africa’s linguistic diversity matters: