820 languages in one country

Which country has the highest number of different languages within its borders? Surprisingly, the answer is not China, India or any other large country.

Tiny Papua New Guinea is all of 462,840 square kilometres in size, about as big as the state of California. Despite its small size, it is the most linguistically diverse country on the planet. According to the Ethnologue website, there are approximately 6,912 known living languages in the world today.

The exact number is subject to change as new languages are discovered and other languages become extinct. Of those 6,912 languages, 820 of them are spoken in Papua New Guinea. Can you imagine 820 languages being spoken in one country?

Why so Many?

There are a couple of reasons that New Guinea has so many different languages. For one thing, the island has been occupied by human beings for a long time-at least 40,000 years!

This means that there has been plenty of time for the language or languages spoken by the original settlers to change and mutate. In fact, even though the same group of people populated New Guinea and Australia, after 40,000 years there are very few similarities between native Australian languages and native New Guinea languages. Over the millennia, they have grown so far apart that they are not even considered part of the same language family.

The territory of New Guinea is also extremely fragmented. New Guinea villages are cut off from their neighbours by a variety of obstacles, including steep mountains, dense forests, rivers and treacherous swamps. Because of this fragmentation, New Guinea has many small indigenous groups with vastly different lifestyles, all having lived in relative isolation from each other for thousands and thousands of years.

Small tribes of people live by fishing on the coasts, by farming at higher elevations, and by gathering sago palms for food in the lowland swamps. Over many centuries, each of these tiny groups has developed its own culture and in many cases its own language.

In New Guinea, most languages have a relatively small number of native speakers. The native New Guinea language with the highest number of speakers is Enga, spoken by approximately 165,000 members of a nomadic tribe called the Maramuni. In so many cases, countries are only held together by a common language. In New Guinea, shared land and a shared history as an Australian colony create a tenuous bond between the citizens.

Still, how do they communicate?

New Guinea has 3 official languages: Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and English.

Tok Pisin is an English-based Creole, a language that started out as a combination of two different languages and evolved into a distinct language of its own. In New Guinea, around 121,000 people grew up speaking Tok Pisin as a first language, but 4 million of the country’s residents are fluent in it.

If you need to be able to communicate in New Guinea, Tok Pisin is probably the best language to learn. Hiri Motu is a pidgin, a combination of the Motu language with English, Tok Pisin and various other regional languages. Very few people grow up speaking Hiri Motu, but approximately 120,000 New Guineans understand it as a second language. Because it is not spoken as a first language, it cannot be considered a Creole language at this time.

According to the New York Times, one of the world’s languages is lost forever every two weeks. New Guinea’s linguistic diversity has so far been protected by the inaccessibility of much of the country, as well as the fact that many people in New Guinea think of themselves as members of their tribe first and their nation second.

Hopefully, as New Guinea becomes more and more modern in the years to come, its rich linguistic heritage will remain intact.

Free Translations of Happy Birthday

Whether it’s a colleague’s birthday or you just want to impress one of your friends, you can use the free translation of Happy Birthday below to give them your best wishes in their own language.

Happy Birthday in Afrikaans: Gelukkige Verjaarsdag

Happy Birthday in Albanian: Gëzuar ditëlindjen

Happy Birthday in Aleut: Raazdinyaam Ugutaa

Happy Birthday in Arabic: عيد ميلاد سعيد

Happy Birthday in Armenian: Ծնունդդ շնորհավոր

Happy Birthday in Azerbaijani: Ad günün mübarək

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Speaking With Cars

Language is more than just a set of vocabulary words. For example, think of how two different people can say the same thing two different ways. This complexity is what makes it so hard to create adequate machine translation programs, or even to teach machines to recognize spoken commands.

In an attempt to build cars that people can more easily control with their voices, Ford is teaming up with a company called Nuance Communications to address this issue using a technique called “statistical language modeling,” or SLM.

Ford’s SYNC system is one of the car company’s major selling points, allowing drivers to call people, control the stereo and more, without having to take their eyes off the road. However, at the moment, it’s pretty finicky when it comes to the commands it will accept. Ford programs the car to recognize specific recorded commands. If you try to give the car a command in a different format, it won’t respond. Read more

Teaching Deaf Children

There is a long-standing debate in the deaf community over the best way to educate deaf children. Should they be taught with other deaf children, in classes that emphasize sign language? Or should they be “main-streamed” into classrooms with hearing children, taught spoken language as much as possible and encouraged to take advantage of new technologies like cochlear implants?

Now, some sign language advocates in Indiana fear that budget shortfalls will determine the answer to that question. For example, Naomi S. Horton, executive director of Hear Indiana, which supports educating deaf children in mainstream classrooms, told the New York Times that:

“Kids in the mainstream save society, taxpayers, a significant amount of money in the short-term and in the long-term when it comes to being integrated into the hearing world,” though she added “There is a financial benefit, but at the end of the day it has to be a parent’s choice.”

Read more

Recovering Aboriginal Languages

In Australia, English is by far the most commonly spoken language. Of course, that wasn’t always so.  According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, before Europeans set foot there, about 250 languages were spoken, divided into at least 500 different dialects.

Many of those languages are completely extinct. As it stands now, only about 15 of them are still taught to children, which is necessary for any language to survive long-term.

However, indigenous activists like Diane McNaboe are leading an effort to recover some of these lost languages. McNaboe is a member of the Wiradjuri people, an indigenous group living in New South Wales. Although their language was once effectively dead, Ms. McNaboe is one of a group of activists trying to piece it back together. In an interview with, she explained her efforts to recover the lost words her ancestors spoke by asking for help from local communities: Read more

Bremen, Germany Hosts World's First Festival of Languages

Bremen, Germany is holding a “Festival of Languages” which started on the 18th September. The festival celebrates all of the world’s 6,500 languages. According to this article it is the first of its kind in the world and will last 21 days.

So, what does one do at a “Festival of Languages?” The events scheduled include music, theater and art exhibits, as well as chances to learn important phrases in a variety of languages.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the festival is the construction of a “Pyramid of Language” out of 6,500 cubes of wood. Each cube represents one of the world’s languages, and will be decorated with a word or phrase from that language before being placed onto the pyramid.

The finished product will be 6 meters high, and festival organizers say it will take a week to complete. Pretty impressive…but why go through all the trouble?  According to Professor Thomas Stolz of the University of Bremen:

“The idea behind the pyramid of languages is to give the spectators something more concrete and tangible to watch, which helps to convey the enormous linguistic wealth of our world.”

The goal of the festival is not only to celebrate linguistic diversity, but also to raise awareness about threatened and endangered languages. According to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, half of the languages spoken today will probably die out within the next century. In fact, endangered languages are disappearing at the rate of one every 14 days!

In the “Pyramid of Language,” all of the wooden cubes are of equal size. As Professor Stolz explained, one of aims of the festival is:

“to show that all languages are equal, no matter how large, politically or economically potent their speech-communities are.”

Biologist May Have Discovered the Origin of Language

Everyone who’s ever studied Shakespeare knows that languages change over time. And if you look at the vocabulary, it’s obvious that language like French and Spanish are related. Professional linguists classify languages based on how closely they are related, and try to uncover how ancient languages evolved and branched off to form new languages over time.

But looking at how words from different languages are related to each other will only take you back so far. 9,000 years to be precise, which is how old the Indo-European language tree is.

According to the New York Times, biologist Quentin D. Atkinson, working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, decided to take a different approach: looking at phonemes instead of words. For the non-language geeks out there, phonemes are the smallest elements of language that are capable of changing the meaning of a word. Think consonant sounds and vowel sounds, or, in certain African languages, clicks. Read more

An (Updated) Harry Potter Vocabulary Guide

This year, Harry Potter fans are thankful for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The new movie, released last week, gives fans a chance to revisit the wizarding world. But this time, the action happens on the other side of the pond, in  1920’s New York.

If you have friends who love Harry Potter, you might have noticed them lapsing into “Harry Potter-speak,” even in casual conversation. J.K. Rowling created a rich vocabulary for her fantasy world. But what if you don’t speak the language? What’s a muggle to do?

Read our Harry Potter vocabulary guide, of course! This handy glossary will make it easier to converse with your Hogwart’s-loving friends.

Harry Potter Vocabulary Guide – Words From the Original Series 

Animagus (plural: Animagi): Wizards who can transform into animals.

Auror: A magical detective who hunts dark witches and wizards.

Butterbeer: a favorite boozy drink of wizards, butterbeer is usually served warm and is described as tasting of butterscotch.

Muggles: normal, non-magical humans. This word has actually escaped the confines of Rowling’s fantasy universe and is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. According to, Rowling claims the term is based on the insult “mug,” but it was first used as the name for a villain in a short story by Lewis Carroll, and was also used as slang for marijuana back in the 20’s.

Apparate/Disapparate: to “disapparate” is to disappear. After disapparating from a particular location, a wizard can then “apparate” somewhere else, no matter how far away. From the Latin “appareo,” to become visible. Read more

Brain of a Bilingual Baby‎

New parents are bombarded by well-meaning advice about how their parenting techniques could affect their child’s developing brain. A lot of this advice is exaggerated, like the potential benefits of showing your tots “Baby Einstein” videos. However, there’s a scientific consensus that infancy and early childhood is the best time to become bilingual, and that early exposure to two languages can have lasting, generally positive effects on cognition.

But why is it that? Scientists are just beginning to understand how bilingualism affects brain development in infants, and a new study from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences adds another piece to the puzzle. Read more

Huh: A Universal Word?

There are few, if any, words that are the same across all languages and language families, but a team of linguistic researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands think they might have found one:

Wait, huh? Huh? Is “huh?” even a word? I’d always considered it more of a verbal tic, but the researchers argue that it is, and that it’s one of the only words that needs no translation. They listened to recordings of people speaking ten different languages from different language families around the world, and analyzed written texts from 21 more. They’ve concluded that “Huh?”(or a very similar sound) is used in all of these languages in the same way: as an attempt to clarify meaning when one person isn’t quite sure they heard what the other one was saying.

While they have not yet verified the existence of “huh?” in all of the world’s almost 7,000 languages, but head researcher Mark Dingemanse told, “We are ready to place bets.”

As for whether or not “huh” is a word, the researchers argue that it is:

“A true word is learned, and follows certain linguistic rules, depending on the language spoken. Huh? fits this definition: For one thing, huh has no counterpart in the animal kingdom; for another, unlike innate vocalizations, children don’t use it until they start speaking. Moreover, in Russian, which doesn’t have an “h” sound, huh? sounds more like ah? In languages using a falling intonation for questions, like Icelandic, huh? also falls. All in all, Dingemanse concludes that huh? is a bona fide word with a specific purpose “crucial to our everyday language.”
Why does “huh” or something very close to it appear in so many unrelated languages? In an article published on the PLOS ONE website,  Dingemanse calls it  “the result of convergent cultural evolution: a monosyllable with questioning prosody and all articulators in near-neutral position is the optimal fit to the sequential environment of other-initiated repair.”
In other words, its such an easy way to stop someone and indicate that you might need them to repeat whatever it is that they just said, that it’s evolved to sound the same in almost every language.
Interesting, huh?