LENS Business, Law, and Policy

Counting Down Languages

How Many Will Survive into the Next Century?

Headshot of David Clingingsmith, Associate Professor

David Clingingsmith, associate professor

As the world shrinks through political and economic integration, David Clingingsmith, PhD, has raised an intriguing question: How many of the world’s 6,000 languages still will be spoken 100 years from now?

The associate professor of economics at the Weatherhead School published a paper—“Are the World’s Languages Consolidating?”—in The Economic Journal, examining the extent to which “small” languages, those with few speakers, are being abandoned in favor of more dominant languages spoken by many millions. Among his conclusions and projections:

  • Only languages with fewer than 35,000 speakers appear to be in decline.
  • Of those small languages, 40 percent could be extinct in 100 years.
  • 26 percent of all languages could be extinct by 2117.

But do recent geopolitical events—from the British vote to exit the European Union to the election of President Donald Trump—impact Clingingsmith’s projections?

“Parochial and local interests are asserting themselves against a global view,” he said. But that won’t change how or whether languages die out in coming decades.

“People who speak small languages tend to be bilingual,” said Clingingsmith. “You may have a family in Mexico, for example, that speaks a small, indigenous language and Spanish, and the children may pass only Spanish to their children. That’s typically how small languages die out.”

—Clint O'Connor