World Diversity Patterns

There are more than 6.5 billion people in the world today.  Nearly 2/3 of them are Asians living on less than 1/3 of the land.   Only about 5% of the world's people live in North America.

  Asia   3,518,000,000  56.4%
  Africa    839,000,000 13.5%
  Europe (including nations that
    were part of the Soviet Union)
   803,000,000  12.9%
  Latin America and Caribbean    539,000,000   8.7%
  North America (U.S. and Canada)      320,000,000   5.1%
  Near East    179,000,000   2.9%
  Oceania (Pacific Islands)      32,000,000    .5%
Source: Global Population Profile: 2002, U.S. Census Bureau 2004
map of North America with Quebec Province in Canada highlighted

Just how many different societies, cultures, and ethnic groups make up the world's population is not certain.  This is due, in part, to the fact that these social entities are not always distinct enough to clearly warrant their being considered as separate groups.  For instance, Canada and the U.S. are separate nations but culturally and linguistically similar almost to the point of not being distinguishable by outsiders (except for French speaking Quebec Province).

Contributing to the problem of counting the number of societies, cultures, and ethnic groups is not only the overlapping nature of many of these groups but the fact that they are now changing rapidly as mass media and relatively inexpensive long distance travel increasingly blur cultural differences.  We are experiencing culture change on a scale and at a pace that is unprecedented in human history.

A good indication of cultural survival is the continued use of traditional languages and dialects.  People who are unable to readily communicate because of language differences are more likely to maintain cultural differences as well.  Linguists estimate that the world's peoples speak 5000-6000 languages.  The most common "native" language is Mandarin Chinese.   English is a distant third.

  Spoken as "Native" Language    TOTAL
  1.    Mandarin Chinese 874,000,000
  2.    Hindi (India) 366,000,000
  3.    English 341,000,000
  4.    Spanish 322-358,000,000
  5.    Bengali (India and Bangladesh)   207,000,000
  6.    Portuguese 176,000,000
  7.    Russian   167,000,000
  8.    Japanese 125,000,000
  9.    German (standard) 100,000,000
 10.    Korean   78,000,000
Note: If the 15 major variants of Arabic are considered one language, Arabic is the 6th most common language in the world having 198-201,000,000 native speakers.
Source:  Ethnologue Volume I: Languages of the
, 14th ed. (2000).  These statistics are only
rough approximations in most cases.

While English is not spoken as a native language by the largest number of people, it is the most world wide in its distribution.  It has become the second language of choice in most countries.  About 1/4 to 1/3 of humanity now understand and speak it to some degree.  As English and a few other major languages grow in popularity and as cultural diffusion accelerates, many of the languages of smaller ethnic groups are dying.  As many as 1/2 of the languages in the world are no longer spoken by children.  This is a major step in the direction of language and cultural extinction.  The languages that are becoming extinct are not doing so because they are "primitive" or unable to allow adequate communication.  They are dying because their speakers find it more useful to speak other languages.  This is largely a result of the growth in influence and power of nation states over their indigenous minority populations and of the increasing globalization of our economies.  The culture homogenizing effect of mass media should not be underestimated either.  Much of the television programming viewed around the world originated in Western Nations.  It is startling to realize that the most popular television shows world wide in recent years have been stereotypical American sitcoms such as "Will and Grace" and "Friends."

The rapid global growth in the importance of the English language and of Western culture (especially American) has not been as straight forward and simple as it initially may seem.  Cultural traits have not only diffused from the Western Industrial societies to the rest of the world.  They have gone the other way as well.  American society, culture, and language have become far more diverse.  For instance, English now contains words from more than 240 other languages.  In less than a generation, the cultural influences of Asia and Latin America especially have dramatically changed life in the U.S. and Canada.  This has been particularly true of the food preferences in urban areas.

Countering these rapid globalization trends in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been the dramatic resurgence of tribalism.  While many small indigenous societies are disappearing into national societies, many larger ethnic groups are violently reasserting their presence and even independence from the nations that they have been integral parts of until now.  The breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnically "purified" areas in the 1990's is a prime example.  Similar "tribal" reemergences have occurred throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Tribalism also recently has spawned genocidal conflicts in Africa, especially in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Congo.


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This page was last updated on Thursday, July 06, 2006.
Copyright 1997-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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