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.

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