How to show (and yet hide at the same time) linguistic diversity

There’s a great graphic making the rounds online:

Infographic: The Countries With The Most Spoken Languages | Statista

Which is fascinating: linguistic diversity lives in Papua New Guinea more than anywhere else in the world. Indonesia (boosted by West Papuan numbers as well as its own vast store of languages) holds down second spot. Nigeria, India, the USA and China are also leaders.

The graphic (and its source web page) shows something important: linguistic diversity. But it also conceals which are the most linguistically diverse regions by simply adding up the number of “living languages” spoken in each country. So the top countries, other than PNG, are mostly just the world’s largest countries (minus Japan, a country rarely accused of linguistic diversity).

Credit for the source data goes to Ethnologue‘s table of “living languages.” But scroll down and there’s a better measure of linguistic diversity that considers number of languages relative to the country’s size. PNG is still tops, cramming more than 10% of the world’s spoken languages into one country that takes up half of the incredibly diverse island of New Guinea. (The other half of the island is swallowed up in high-population Indonesia, though West Papua is also remarkably diverse – a factor that boosts its movement for independence from Indonesia.) But languages compared to total population? The most diverse list runs like this:

  1. Papua New Guinea
  2. Cameroon
  3. Vanuatu
  4. Solomon Islands
  5. Central African Republic

Run down the list further for many more African countries in high spots. Africa and the Pacific – and especially Melanesia, the “African Pacific” – dominate. The USA and China are well back, though India, Nigeria and Indonesia still display a high degree of diversity. In other words, the map like so many makes the world’s most powerful countries look more important on this measure than they really are. And of course it masks the dominance of a dominant majority language in both China and the USA.

Among “Western” countries, Canada is ranked with the highest linguistic diversity. Which raises another issue with the graphic: an erasing of Indigenous languages in the global North. The definition of “living language” is a language with at least one person speaking it as their first language. That, too, could begin to erase First Nations languages in Canada from the statistics even if they live on as the second language of significant numbers of people.

Ironically, Wikipedia maps it better (though small countries are still hard to see: Timor-Leste with a million people and at least 20 languages is invisible, for instance). Here’s their image of global linguistic diversity based on the same index used by Ethnologue:

Ethnologue_18_linguistic_diversity_index_BlankMap-World6.svg