One of the first things many people learn in introductory linguistics classes is that there are about 7,000 languages in the world, plus or minus 1,000, depending on whether or not you’re only counting living languages or dead ones too, and how you divide the line between languages and dialects. Counting languages is difficult, even for professional linguists. But what about for laypeople? Does average Joe even realize how many languages there are in the world? Are linguists doing a good job of educating the public? To find out, I assigned my Intro to Linguistics students some ethnographic research last summer. They had to interview three friends or family members (who have never taken a linguistics class) and ask them “How many languages do you think there are in the world?” Not everyone completed the task, but this gave me a rather unscientific sample of 77 datapoints. On the whole (without outliers removed), the mean average guess was 34,959 languages. But the median was just 800. Half of all participants guessed 800 or fewer — just 10% (or less!) of the real number! Two people guessed 1 million, one guessed 500,000, one 50,000, and one 25,000. These are what brought the mean up so much, and also made for some ugly graphs in R. So I threw these 5 data points out, and came up with much cleaner, more normally distributed graphs. Without these five outliers, the mean guess drops to 1623, and the median drops to 700. Here’s a boxplot of the data:


As you can see, nearly all the guesses are below 4,000, and 75% are below 2,000. While several people did guess in the 5,000 to 10,000 range (roughly the correct answer), these are still considered outliers by R, even after the more egregious outliers were taken out.

So what’s this mean for linguists? It means about half the population thinks there are 700 or fewer languages in the world, when in fact the real answer is 10 times that many. It means pretty much everyone except for a few outliers is off by several thousand. It means linguists aren’t doing a very good job of educating the general public about language diversity or language endangerment. This in turn means the public is probably not willing to fund linguists, since they don’t realize how monumental the task of documenting 7,000 languages really is!

Here I’ll insert a shameless plug for my TwitterBot, @AllTheLanguages, which is doing its part to educate the twitterverse on just how many languages there are. As of this writing, the bot has tweeted nearly 3,000 languages, and has over 4,000 more to go! Go little bot, go!!

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