A team of international researchers, led by Colorado State University’s Michael Gavin, have taken a first step in answering fundamental questions about human diversity.
Humans collectively speak nearly 7,000 languages. But these languages are not spread evenly across the globe. Why do humans speak so many languages, and why are there so many languages in some places and so few in others?
In a new study published in Global Ecology and Biogeography, the team was the first to use a form of simulation modeling to study the processes that shape language diversity patterns. Researchers tested the approach in Australia, and the model estimated 406 languages on the continent; the actual number of indigenous languages is 407.
The team – which includes linguists, geographers, ecologists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists based in the United States, Brazil, Germany, Canada, and Sweden – adapted a form of modeling first created by ecologists to study the processes shaping species diversity. The researchers began with a grid on a blank map. The computer model placed a population of people in one cell on the grid and then used a series of simple rules that defined how the population grew, spread across the map, and divided into separate populations speaking different languages.