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Papua New Guinea The Most Linguistically Diverse Country on Earth

August 10, 2016

Residents of larger nations such as the United States, China, and Russia are often surprised to find that their country does not hold the most diversity of language. Surprisingly, the tiny nation of Papua New Guinea features 820 spoken languages. This accounts for nearly 12% of the known living languages spoken in the world today. Only 462,840 square kilometers, Papua New Guinea encompasses the eastern half of New Guinea and its offshore islands. About the size of the state of California, Papua New Guinea has a population of 7.3 million. Why so many languages? The country's history is probably the biggest factor. People have inhabited the island for at least 40,000 years.

The language of original settlers, left alone in relative isolation, had time to change over countless generations. The territory itself is cut off from many nearby societies by mountains, swamps, dense forests, and rivers. The indigenous groups developed very different lifestyles as separate tribes throughout the country's history, another factor that lead to such diversity. As the country developed, even more languages were introduced to the Australian colonies.

While a large number of languages are spoken, there are very few native speakers per language living in Papua New Guinea. The largest spoken native language is Enga, used by the nomadic tribe of Maramuni, which has approximately 165,000 members. Enga, however, is not among the official languages of the country, which are Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and English. Tok Pisin is an English-based Creole, which has roughly 4 million fluent speakers. Hiri Motu, a pidgin language, is a combination of Motu , English, Tok Pisin and various regional languages.

Studies have shown unique living languages are lost globally at a rate of about one every two weeks. Though Papua New Guinea is comprised of many tribes, what they share culturally is the belief that they are part of their tribe first and their nation second. This has played a large role in protecting the linguistic diversity of the country and in preserving some of the world's most unique languages.

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