In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Linguistic Diversity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Ethnographic Monographs
  • International Reports on Linguistic Diversity
  • Journals
  • Data Sources
  • Policy and Planning for Linguistic Diversity
  • Language Revitalization and Endangerment
  • Heritage Language Education

Education Linguistic Diversity
Teresa McCarty, Ran Chen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0116


We live in a multilingual world. Approximately seven thousand spoken languages and innumerable spoken dialects and sign languages are in use around the world, some with millions of speakers and others with only a few. No matter how “big” or “small,” each language is capable of expressing infinitely generative concepts and ideas. Linguistic diversity is an inherently enabling condition to its speakers and humankind—a resource to be protected and promoted—as each language is the repository of immense knowledge built over centuries of development and use. Linguistic diversity is unevenly distributed across populations and regions. As noted in Austin 2008 (cited under General Overviews), 96 percent of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4 percent of the world’s people. Papua New Guinea, for example, has a population of about 6.4 million but is home to more than 830 spoken languages—17 percent of the world’s total—making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries on earth. At the same time, 96 percent of the world’s people speak at least one of the world’s “major” languages—about 275 in all—which constitute 4 percent of all languages spoken. Among the most spoken languages, Chinese Mandarin has more than a billion speakers, English has 760 million, Hindi has 490 million, Spanish has 400 million, and Arabic has 200 million speakers. There are abundant varieties of all of these languages. Even when a language is numerically dominant in its autochthonous region, it may have a subordinate status. This foregrounds a key issue in linguistic diversity in education: the status of a language mirrors the social, economic, and political standing of its speakers. Thus, official policies specifying the medium-of-instruction in schools are not necessarily or even primarily based on linguistic considerations, but are tied to larger power relations. Many children are denied an education in their mother tongue because they are members of socially repressed groups, despite conclusive international research showing the educational benefits of mother tongue schooling. Moreover, through policies that marginalize nondominant tongues and their speakers, and via processes of globalization, nondominant languages are rapidly becoming displaced by dominant ones. A 2003 report by the United Nations, for example (cited under International Reports on Linguistic Diversity), predicts the loss of 95 percent of all languages spoken by century’s end. The study of linguistic diversity encompasses all of these processes, including how languages are acquired; language pedagogy; individual and societal impacts of bi/multilingualism; policy and political issues; and language maintenance, revitalization, and loss. Addressing these issues requires multidisciplinary perspectives, and the references here reflect that multidisciplinarity.

General Overviews

A highly accessible entrée into the world’s linguistic diversity is Austin 2008, which covers the basics—locations and numbers of speakers, linguistic types and affiliations, writing systems, and statuses—aided by a wealth of visuals. Still highly relevant as a foundational text is Nettle 1999, which explains the “why” of humankind’s linguistic diversity and the uneven distribution of languages across geopolitical and ecological space. Skutnabb-Kangas 2000 is a prime sourcebook on threats to linguistic diversity, particularly in education. Written by one of the world’s preeminent language rights scholars and activists, this 785-page compendium details the history, development, and current state of legal protections and ethical issues concerning linguistic and cultural diversity. The chapters in Fishman and García 2010 place these global perspectives in their regional contexts, exploring the relationships among language and individual and collective identities across a broad disciplinary and geographic swath, including the European Union, the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. In Potowski 2010, readers can explore linguistic diversity within the United States, a multilingual nation lacking an official language policy but with a universally accepted national language, through cases that examine the historical, demographic, and social-political characteristics of immigrant, heritage, and Indigenous languages. Baker 2011, a seminal volume now in its fourth edition, examines the processes of learning and teaching second or multiple languages, turning toward the end of the book to political issues surrounding bilingualism and bilingual education. Ruiz 1984 is a foundational article that sets the stage for this latter discussion, arguing that prerational dispositions or “orientations” toward language(s) in society constitute the ideological mechanisms through which medium-of-instruction policies and pedagogies are constructed. Hornberger and McKay 2010 situates these issues in the context of globalization, paying special attention to the social aspects of language use, teaching, and learning. May 2014 is complementary to all of these sources, bringing together leading-edge international research that demonstrates the dynamism and multiplicity of languages and language varieties in students’ communicative repertoires in diverse classroom and community settings.

  • Austin, Peter K. 2008. One thousand languages: Living, endangered, and lost. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Lushly illustrated and highly accessible, this 288-page volume introduces readers to the approximately seven thousand languages of the world and to languages no longer spoken (e.g., Sumerian). Includes data on numbers of speakers, linguistic origins and key features of each language, information panels with linguistic examples, and twenty-two pages of language maps.

  • Baker, Colin. 2011. Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. 4th ed. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    This indispensable guide to terms, concepts, and issues in bi/multilingualism provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary introduction to the field, with international examples. Topics include concepts in minority and majority languages, childhood bi/multilingual development, bilingual classrooms, and political issues in bilingualism and bilingual education. Each chapter includes study activities.

  • Fishman, Joshua A., and Ofelia García, eds. 2010. Handbook of language and ethnic identity: Disciplinary and regional perspectives. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This 545-page handbook is useful as a general course text or for individual chapters on disciplinary and methodological approaches (e.g., psychology, anthropology, economics), topical approaches (e.g., diasporic languages, sign languages), and regional perspectives in the study of language and ethnic identity. Each chapter includes discussion questions and key readings.

  • Hornberger, Nancy H., and Sandra Lee McKay, eds. 2010. Sociolinguistics and language education. 2d ed. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    An up-to-date overview of the impact of globalization on language and identity, and the “social turn” in understanding language use within applied/educational linguistics. Research is international in scope and addresses language and ideology, language and society, language variation, literacy/biliteracy, language and identity, language and interaction, and language education.

  • May, Stephen, ed. 2014. The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and bilingual education. New York: Routledge.

    Based on international research on bi/multilingualism and language education, this volume critically examines still-prevalent notions of the idealized native speaker, subtractive bilingualism, and two-language dichotomies in second-language acquisition research. A valuable reference in whole or part as an overview of current issues in linguistic diversity in education.

  • Nettle, Daniel. 1999. Linguistic diversity. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Focusing on three types of diversity—number of languages, number of language families, and differences in linguistic structure—the author shows how linguistic, sociocultural, economic, and ecological forces interact to produce patterns of linguistic diversity. Includes maps, graphs, and charts that compare linguistic diversity within and across geographic regions.

  • Potowski, Kim, ed. 2010. Language diversity in the USA. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511779855

    A comprehensive overview of the most widely spoken non-English languages in the United States, their origins, speakers, uses, and functions: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, Polish, and Native American languages.

  • Ruiz, Richard. 1984. Orientations in language planning. NABE Journal 8.2: 15–34.

    This frequently cited treatment of the role of language in society discusses three language planning orientations and their implications for education: “language-as-a-problem” characterizes remedial approaches, language-as-a-right is concerned with the basic human right to education in the mother tongue and the language of wider communication, and “language-as-a-resource” promotes bi/multilingualism for all.

  • Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. 2000. Linguistic genocide in education—Or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    This massive text provides an overview of worldwide language endangerment, discusses the relationship between biodiversity and linguistic and cultural diversity, examines state policies toward minority and Indigenous languages and their speakers, and provides a framework for linguistic human rights in education.

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