Reporting: Synthesis

Exercise 26

Read the articles below and, in a paragraph of not more than 250 words, answer the question: how many languages are there in the world?

There is no agreed total for the number of languages spoken in the world today. Most reference books give a figure of 4,000 to 5,000, but estimates have varied from 3,000 to 10,000. To see why there is such uncertainty, we need to consider the many problems facing those who wish to obtain accurate information, and also the reasons (linguistic, historical and cultural) which preclude a simple answer to the question "What counts as a language?"

(Written by David Crystal, on page 284 of The Cambridge encyclopaedia of language. It was published by Cambridge University Press, in Cambridge, UK, in 1987)


All speakers of English can talk to each other and pretty much understand each other. Yet no two speakers speak exactly alike. Some differences are due to age, sex, state of health, size, personality, emotional state and personal idiosyncrasies. That each person speaks somewhat differently  from all others is shown by our ability to recognise acquaintances by hearing them talk. The unique characteristics of the language of an individual speaker are referred to as the speaker's idiolect. English may then be said to consist of 400,000,000 idiolects, or the number equal to the number of native speakers.

Beyond these individual differences, the language of a group of people may show regular variations from that used by other groups of speakers of that language. When the English spoken by speakers in different geographical regions and from different social groups shows systematic differences, the groups are said to speak different dialects of the same language. The dialects of a single language may thus be defined as mutually intelligible forms of that language which differ in systematic ways from each other.

(From: An introduction to language, by Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman. The book was written in 1983 and was published by Holt-Saunders in New York. The extract comes from page 245.)


A further point that has become clear as a result of the investigation of regional dialects is the impossibility of drawing a sharp line of demarcation between dialects of the same neighbouring languages. In those areas of the world where there have been frequent changes of political boundaries or where the principal lines of trade and communication cross political boundaries, what is generally regarded as a dialect of one language may shade more or less imperceptibly into a dialect of another. For example, there are dialects spoken on both sides of the Dutch-German border which are equally close to (or equally remote from) both standard Dutch and standard German. If we feel that they must be dialects of either the one or the other language, we are victims of the traditional view of the relationship between language and dialect. It may be added that judgements on questions of this kind are only too frequently influenced by political or nationalist prejudices.

(From John Lyons: Introduction to theoretical linguistics, published in 1968 by Cambridge University Press in Cambridge. The extract can be found on page 35.)


The often-quoted dictum, "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy", attests the importance of political power and the recognised sovereignty of a nation-state in the recognition of a variety as a language rather than a dialect.

(From: The Oxford companion to the English language, 1992, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, by Tom McArthur, page 291.)


It should also be made clear here that, mutual unintelligibility is not evidence that the "native" language or mother tongue of two speakers is not the same. For, as in the case of Mandarin, Chung King and Cantonese dialects of Chinese, and many dialects of Arabic, it is entirely possible that people can be native speakers of the same language and yet not understand each other.

(From: An introduction to language and communication, page 137. This book was published in 1994 by MTI Publications. It was published in Cambridge, UK and was written by Ashley James,  Jane Richards and Harry Roberts.)

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