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Voices of the World. Language Families of the World Today, the people of the world speak more than 6,000 distinct languages, which are grouped into language families.

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Language Families of the World

Today, the people of the world speak more than 6,000 distinct languages, which are grouped into language families.


The Indo-European family represents about 1.6 billion people and includes most of the languages of Europe and northern India, Australia, the United States, and parts of South America. Seeded around the world by Colonialism, this family sprang from a tongue spoken on the Russian steppes approx. 6000 years ago. This influence continues to grow with widespread adoption of English as a second language.


Native American languages are spoken throughout the Americas, although the precise number of languages in this classification is not known. More than 300 native languages were once spoken in the U.S. and Canada. Two-thirds survive, but the few speakers left are aging. Even as native languages fade, their sounds echo in place-names such as Chicago and Massachusetts.

        • Survival of Native American Languages Today
  • The arrival of European culture was not kind to the indigenous cultures of the Americas. The population of the native civilizations of the current territory of the United States fell from about 20 million to the present level of less than 2 million. Beyond the shrinking size of the ethnic populations, the languages have also suffered due to the prevalence of English among those of Native American ancestry. Most Native American languages have ceased to exist, or are spoken only by older speakers, with whom the language will die in the coming decades.
  • Only 8 indigenous languages of the area of the continental United States currently have a population of speakers in the U.S. and Canada large enough to populate a medium-sized town. Only Navajo still has a population of greater than 25,000 within the U.S.

American Indian Languages Spoken at Home by American Indian Persons 5 Years and Over in Households: 2000

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. The American Indian languages shown above are the major languages. NOTE: Data are estimates based on a sample.

american indian meso
American Indian - Meso

Quiche (or K’iche’) and Yucatec, Mayan languages, are the region’s strongest indigenous

tongues. Most languages faded after European contact, but a few were documented by missionaries.


The most widely spoken Sino-Tibetan language is Chinese, with over 1 billion speakers.

This family includes eight mutually unintelligible Chinese languages, often mistakenly called dialects. The Chinese government promotes the standard use of Mandarin.

Mandarin sample

I am a teacher.

Wǒ shì lǎoshī



African languages are grouped into four families: Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Khoisan, and Afro-Asiatic.

Niger-Congo: With more than 1400 languages – almost one-fourth of the world’s total – Niger-Congo is one of the largest language families. It includes Swahili, used by 35 million East Africans as a lingua franca.

Swahili: Where are you going?

Nilo-Saharan: About 200 Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken by ethnic minorities in their home countries. Only Dongolawi, a Nubian language of the southern Nile in Sudan, has a long written record.

Khoisan: Famous for clicking sounds, Africa’s Khoisan languages may be the continent’s oldest. Several have vanished; most have fewer than a thousand speakers.

Afro-Asiatic: The languages of ancient Babylon, Assyria, Egypt and Palestine belonged to this family. Still thriving, the largest living Afro-Asiatic language, Arabic, spreads in tandem with Islam.


Languages that do not belong to any of these families include language isolates such as Korean and Japanese, the languages of New Guinea, and the Athabascan and Algonquian languages of sub arctic Canada. There are dozens of other rare languages, such as Basque in Spain and France, Burushaski in Pakistan, persist as linguistic islands. Despite decades of research, links to known language groups have yet to be verified. Chukchi, spoken in Siberia, is an example of a member of an isolated small language family. Kam-Tai, now mostly spoken by Thai and Laotians, may have come from southwest China.

Korean and Japanese: Both of these languages may be related. Both were influenced by Chinese. Many words are Chinese loans, and Japanese writing still uses Chinese characters.


Basque is a language with no known linguistic relatives spoken by about 660,000 people in Spain and France, mainly in the Basque country

australian indigenous languages
Australian-Indigenous Languages

As many as 250 of Australia’s Aboriginal languages may have slipped into

Extinction since Europeans arrived. Only five of the remaining 250 languages

have more than a thousand speakers.


top ten world languages
Top Ten World Languages

Chinese Mandarin – 845 billion (1.2 billion if all Chinese dialects are included)

Spanish – 329 million

English – 328 million

Hindi – 240 million

Arabic – 232 million

Bengali – 181 million

Portuguese – 178 million

Russian – 144 million

Japanese – 122 million

Punjab – 109 million

German – 90 million

Seven of the ten languages with the most native speakers are Indo-European.

They are dwarfed by Mandarin, the mother tongue of nearly one in six humans.

The top ten languages account for more than half the world’s population.