Language as a barrier to communication

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Multiplicity of languages
Language barriers to transfer of knowledge
Language conflict

The multiplicity of languages is a major dividing factor in world society, reinforcing geographical, socio-economic (especially caste or class), political, ideological, professional and religious separatism. It prevents or hinders communication and the spread of education, and therefore aggravates international misunderstanding and mutual suspicion. Multilingualism within a country results in poor communications between members of different language communities and between those communities and the government. It can lead not only to mistrust and to political tension, but also to poor levels of literacy and problems in the judiciary when different languages may be used and transcripts required in order for a case to be heard at all.

Language barriers impede international communication in general and individuals in particular by rendering them unable to speak and correspond with whomever they wish, or read the periodicals and books they want to read. Bilingualism enables people to participate fully and directly in world culture and universal dialogue; monolingualism leaves the individual with a more parochial, and fearful, worldview.


The exact number of languages is not known because of difficulty in agreeing upon the distinction between a language and a dialect. The figure of 2,700 to 3,000 languages is frequently encountered. Of these approximately 150 (60 in developed and 90 in developing countries) have more than one million speakers. In Africa, for example, with approximately half the population of Europe, over 1,000 languages are spoken as against the 60 in Europe. In effect the average African language is spoken by less than 200,000 people. At the other extreme, languages such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese and German are each spoken internationally by a total each of from 100 to 350 million persons. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by some 650 million people internationally. Russian, Hindi, Bengali and Japanese languages have limited use outside their motherlands and thus their 660 million speakers do not have the advantage of belonging to an international linguistic community. On the other hand, the USSR and India each has a considerable number of languages spoken internally, which in India's case at least has caused a great deal of friction. Both India and Japan frequently resort to English for international communication, while Russia turns to French.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
Problem Type:
C: Cross-sectoral problems
Date of last update
08.03.2022 – 18:34 CET