Language Education Policy Studies
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World Languages 

The magnitude of the potential complexity in language-in-education policies is revealed on this page. The focus here is on world languages in terms of linguistic diversity, which entails counting- an often-debated endeavor. Estimates range from 6,000 (UNESCO) to 7,000 (Ethnologue, Terra Lingua) to critics who claim many fewer, with the majority being endangered, not counting 6,000 sign languages. The main reason for discrepancy in numbers is the mixes and variations (See Variations). When a dialect becomes or is counted as a language, what causes languages to evolve through contact- is it natural or oppressive, for example- these are key and controversial questions. Perhaps percentages are less controversial, at least for numerical indicators- an oft-quoted figure is that 96% of world languages are spoken by 4% of people, an indication of the status of Indigenous languages (See Indigenous languages). The study of diversity patterns historically, ecologically, and socially- including causes for language shifts and disappearance -- crosses many disciplines in addition to linguistics, such as biology, psychology, sociology, political science, and education. Biology shows us the coevolution of humans, languages, the environment, and biological species. Psychology addresses how languages are learned cognitively and what causes shifts. Sociology shows us the forces of society on individuals through domains or discrimination. Political science shows us the national frameworks that shape language policy, language governance through citizenship or educational requirements. Education crosses all of these and is hopefully rising to the challenge of linguistic diversity- its maintenance, its threats, potentials for thriving- is the focus of this website.


An important point to remember when studying languages is that they are not abstractions that exist in themselves- ie languages need speakers. Therefore the focus must be on the speakers as much as on the languages. Addressing language without considering the people who speak them is incomplete.


Currently English is believed by many to be the global lingua franca for numerical reasons, although the reasons relate more to hegemony in many wide-reaching and influential domains—internet, media, education (See Domains). As a species we have choices to make, and economy as it is currently defined in terms of short-term goals and benefits may not be the seat of the highest wisdom. Among the arguments raised were the following: English is and will be spoken by about 15% of the world population and it is not sure that it will be the language of tomorrow (Tochon, 2009); attrition in the number of second language learners is important as, in many countries, languages are taught either by native speakers with no education training or by non-proficient speakers with education training; languages are constantly being reshaped and redefined: broadly shared languages may soon split in numerous sublanguages. The world assimilationist project is not feasible nor is it appropriate.


According to numbers or changing political forces or revolutionary pedagogies being worked on, Spanish, Chinese or thousands of different Indigenous languages could easily take its place! The notion of a lingua franca that transverses the entire planet is indeed something to consider critically, as regional lingua francas seem more realistic (See Lingua Francas, Globalization, ELF). Great Britain and the U.S. have played and continue to play a large role with the perpetuation of this hegemony (See Linguistic Imperialism, English Language Teaching).


Harper, S. (2011). Counting the Costs of a Global Anglophonic Hegemony: Examining the Impact of U.S. Language Education Policy on Linguistic Minorities Worldwide. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(1), 515-538.


Nettle, D. (1998). Explaining global patterns of linguistic diversity. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 17, 354-374.


Posey, D.A. (2001). Biological and cultural diversity: The inextricable, linked by language and politics. In Maffi, L. (Ed.). On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 379-396.


Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove, Maffi, Luisa, & Harmon, David (2006). Sharing a world of difference. The earth’s linguistic, cultural and biological diversity. Terra Lingua,


Tochon, F. V. (2009). The Key To Global Understanding: World Languages Education. Why Schools Need to Adapt. Review of Educational Research. 79(2), 650-682. 2010 AERA Review of Research Award.

Tochon, F. V. & Karaman, A. C. (2009). Critical reasoning for social justice: moral encounters with the paradoxes of intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 20(2), 135-149.



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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as


Harrison, K. M., & Tochon, F. V. (2013). World Languages. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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