How many languages are there in the world? More than you might have thought. When you look at past data, estimates escalate over time. The 1911 (11th) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, implies a figure somewhere around 1,000, a number that climbs steadily over the course of the twentieth century.

That is not due to any increase in the number of languages, but rather to our increased understanding of how many languages are actually spoken in areas we had little information about in the past. Most of the initial work documenting the languages of the world was done by missionary organizations such as SIL International. These organizations were primarily interested in translating the Christian Bible. As of 2009, portions of the bible had been translated into 2,508 different languages.

The most extensive catalog of the world’s languages, generally taken to be as authoritative as any, is that of Ethnologue (published by SIL International), whose detailed list as of 2022 included 7,168 distinct languages.

In Kenya, the number of established languages listed on is 69. Of these, 68 are living and 1 is extinct. Of the living languages, 61 are indigenous and 7 are non-indigenous. In here you will find Maasai, Kuria, Borana, Bukusu, Chichonyi, Chidigo, Dahalo, Dholuo, Ekegusii, English, Gikuyu, Hindi, Kamba, Kiembu, Keiyo, Kigiryama, Kimeru, Kipsigis and 50 others.

The Average Kenyan is a Polyglot

The average Kenyan speaks three languages by their teenage years, typically the mother language, English, and Swahili. However, some Kenyans speak more than one indigenous language, and this pattern repeats across Africa, and in many other parts of the world where many people speak more than one language. Embracing linguistic diversity has numerous social benefits. It allows for better communication and understanding among individuals from different cultural backgrounds and by doing so, fosters empathy, respect, and appreciation for other cultures and promotes social cohesion. Linguistic diversity also enhances language skills and opens up opportunities for language learning, which is a vital tool for personal and professional development.

Global Citizens

Being a global citizen means more than just having a passport. It means being able to communicate with people from diverse linguistic backgrounds, understanding their cultures, and appreciating their perspectives. To truly be a global citizen, one must speak the world’s languages. Linguistic diversity is not just a cultural asset but a social and economic one as well. In our globalized world, speaking multiple languages is a valuable skill that opens doors to job opportunities and collaboration with people from different parts of the world. But the benefits of a polyglot world go beyond personal growth and professional development. In a world where borders are becoming increasingly blurred, speaking multiple languages is becoming essential for maintaining social cohesion and promoting peace.

Whole New Worlds

While receiving Parasite’s Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020, Bong Joon Ho told the audience, “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. Parasite is another(see Snowpiercer and Okja) brilliant Bong Joon Ho movie examining the structural inequity that has come to define the world. The film is in Korean, hence Bong’s comment about overcoming the fear of subtitles. You should not shy away from learning new languages. Embracing linguistic diverisity in our globalized world opens up many new opportunities for connection.

I’m eager to see how the latest AI features will be integrated into our lives to improve how we have conversations with people in various languages simultaneously. AI models of today can translate not just semantics, but context as well. Semantics and context are related, but they are not the same thing. Semantics refers to the meaning of individual words and phrases, while context refers to the broader circumstances surrounding those words or phrases. In other words, semantics focuses on the literal meaning of words and phrases, while context takes into account the social, cultural, and linguistic factors that affect how those words and phrases are used and understood. For example, the word “bat” can have very different meanings depending on whether it is used in the context of baseball, wildlife, or a piece of sporting equipment. AI models that can understand both semantics and context are better equipped to provide accurate translations that take into account these subtle nuances of language.

Soon we might get a device which you use in the same way you do earphones, except this new device will perform real-time translation of a conversation happening between two or more people speaking different languages. This reality is not far. Mimi kwa kweli, nina hamu ya siku hiyo kufika.