One continent, 49 countries and 2300 languages. Asia!

When referring to a language spoken in Asia, people often use the term “Asian language family”. Here’s an educational fact – there’s no such thing, nor is ‘Asian language’ a meaningful typology. Yes, the list of languages spoken on the continent includes languages that are related to them, but they fall into a variety of families just like European ones. Today, we`re going to quickly guide you through the vast and confusing family tree of the languages spoken in Asia.

More than 4.3 billion people are speaking nearly 2,300 living languages across Asia. That’s nearly six times the population of Europe (roughly 739 million). It should perhaps come as no surprise that there are also a lot more languages. Just imagine the diverse families all those languages come from. Most Europeans speak Indo-European languages, such as Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages. However, Asian languages span a much broader variety of families, including Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, Dravidian and many others.

This diversity of linguistic families and origins means that there’s less overlap between the languages as they’re spoken today. Asia`s diverse geography and nature are tightly connected with the diversity in the spoken languages. The continent is characterized by mountains, vast plains, islands, and jungles, a feature that allowed communities to isolate and develop languages without external influence. It is true that geographical isolation helps preserve ancient languages but flipping the coin on the other side, those languages are often classified as “endangered” as they slowly disappear together with the people that use them.
Today more than a dozen language families are ruling over Asia.

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Afro-Asiatic language family

2300 languages of asiaThe most widely spoken language from this family is Arabic. Arabic is the official language in the Middle Eastern nations of Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Arabic turns out to be a relative of Amharic, Hebrew and several other languages spoken primarily in the Middle East.

Sino-Tibetan language family

Sino-Tibetan includes Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, Karen and numerous languages of the Tibetan Plateau, southern China, Burma, and Northeast India. Even though Chinese is considered the most spoken language in the world, it’s actually composed of many distinct dialects, some of which aren’t mutually intelligible.

Indo-European language family

The Indo-European languages are primarily represented by the Indo-Iranian branch. The family includes both Indic languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, etc.) and Iranian (Persian, Kurdish, Pashto, Balochi, and other languages). An important branch in the Indo-European language group spoken in Asia includes the Slavic branch, which includes Russian in Siberia; Greek around the Black Sea; and Armenian. Though you might not think “Asian language” when you hear “Russian”, Russian is widely spoken in Asia. A lot of Russia’s landmass is located in Asia. Additionally, Russian is an official language in the Asian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Altaic language families

Several smaller, but important language families spread across central and northern Asia have long been linked in an as-yet unproven Altaic family. These are the Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic (including Manchu), Koreanic, and Japonic languages. Japanese is the national language of Japan, though it has no official status and Korean is an official language in North Korea and South Korea and an area of China along the North Korean border. Both of them are thought to be “language isolates” but there are still debates on this topic.

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Other important representatives of the language groups in Asia are Mon–Khmer, Kra–Dai, Austronesian, Dravidian, Siberian families, and Caucasian families.

Wow, what a ride! We`re sure that you`re overwhelmed by the information because so are we! But don’t let the language jungle of Asia scare you as it offers so much to discover that will make your linguistic journey worth the time.