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The four most common first languages The four most common first languages People first developed languages to communicate with one another. Languages spread and changed as people moved to new lands. There may be up to 7000 different languages spoken in the world today—no one is quite sure how many. Of these, 90% are spoken by just a few thousand people or fewer. Many of these languages may become extinct in the next 100 years. More than a third of the world’s population speaks one of five languages: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian. Languages fall into a number of different families. Most European languages and many of those of southwest Asia and India belong to a single family, known as the Indo-European language family. More than 80 languages in all, they developed from a single original language, probably spoken by farming peoples who lived in Eastern Europe about 5500 years ago. As these people spread out over a wider area, their language gradually changed as communities lost contact with each other.

Language families and groups of the worldLanguage families and groups of the world

A map of South Asian languagesA map of South Asian languages

Languages of the Indian subcontinent

The most widely spoken language in India is Hindi, but there are hundreds of others. Gujarati is the language of Gujarat, a state in western India. Spoken in Pakistan as well as five Indian states, Urdu, closely related to Hindi, is the first language of 65 million people. More than 20 million people in Gujarat and another state, Maharashtra, speak Gujarati. Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati, along with Marathi, Bengali (also the language of Bangladesh), Punjabi and Sinhalese (spoken by most Sri Lankans), are from the Indo-European language family.

Other language families represented in South Asia include Dravidian (for example, Malayalam, Teluigu and Tamil in the south and Sri Lanka) and Sino-Tibetan (for example, Bodo and Manipuri in the northeast). Austro-Asiatic languages are spoken by India's indigenous tribal peoples, the adivisis.

Schoolchildren from Ahmedabad, in GujaratSchoolchildren from Ahmedabad, in Gujarat

One quarter of the world’s 7000 languages are spoken by fewer than 1000 people each; a few dozen languages have just a single speaker.

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