Why so many languages?

When asked to talk about what we do, I often give the number of languages spoken in the world today. That number stands at 7,105. In response, people often ask me why there are so many languages.

EthnologueUnderlying that question might be doubt that 7,105 is an accurate number. After all, it seems quite high. You can find the full list of all 7,105 languages at ethnologue.com. That list, by the way, is recognized by the International Standards Organization. It contains information about each language, including where it is spoken, which would make it easy for anyone to verify by going to that place. So there is good reason to believe that 7,105 is a valid and accurate number.

There are lots of theories about why there are so many languages and they are still being debated. I hear people say that it might be because of geography. Mountains or rivers might cut people off from each other, leading to the development of many languages. That might explain why there are so many languages in mountainous areas like Papua New Guinea or the State of Oaxaca in Mexico. But it does not explain why there are so many languages on the plains and plateaus of Nigeria.

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

For those of us who take the Bible seriously, it holds the answer. The book of Genesis contains the story of the tower of Babel. In that story we learn that God thought that it was better for us to speak many languages, even though it might seem to us that speaking one is much more practical.

In the book of Acts, we are told of the Apostle Paul speaking to the people at Athens. In that address, he said:

“From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be. God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him.” (Acts 17: 26-27 CEV)

The word translated “nations” could also be translated “peoples” because it is the word εθνος (or ethnos), from which we get our word ethnic. So Paul is saying that God made all the different peoples (ethnic groups) so that they would look for him, reach out to him and find him. Apparently, all the different linguistic and ethnic identities people have, help us to search for, and hopefully find, the one true God.

Now that is a really good reason to have lots of languages.

If you want to read more on this topic, I recommend the article “Why We All Should Care About More Tongues” by Ed Stetzer. If you liked this post, you might also like The Will to Read, Language Policy to Live by, or Translation and Democracy.

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