Linguists need preservation of languages to study human language

February 23rd, 2019 by In a recent article here at ScienceNordic, we argued that this year’s UN initiative International Year of Indigenous Languages is urgently needed in light of the global decline of minority and indigenous languages. In this article, we will delve into how and why we study these languages. Besides the human rights aspect of language extinction explained in the previous article, linguists are generally also concerned with the very loss of languages themselves. This is because we study languages in a scientific fashion, just like animals, fungi, neutrons and tectonic plates are studied by other scientists. Language is an everyday miracle Language is in fact a remarkable phenomenon: by producing sequences of sounds with your mouth (or by using gestures in the case of sign languages), you can declare your love for someone, explain quantum theory or order a drone strike. Language is an everyday miracle, as the Danish linguist Hans Arndt called it, and this miracle is exclusive to humans: while some animals like whales, chimps and bees exhibit a fairly complex form of communication, no bee will ever be able to signal to another bee that a movie they saw yesterday didn’t quite live up to their expectations. Only humans do this, and — barring physiological disorders — all humans do this. Linguists study why we have language, how language works, what the limits of linguistic variation are and how language develops. If linguists are to advance our collective knowledge of language as a uniquely human phenomenon, we need to learn about as many languages as possible. You can never get a good understanding of what language actually is if you only compare a handful of them. If we based everything we know about language on, say, English, Danish, and German, we would miss so many insights about the structural flexibility and diversity of language as a global phenomenon. Read more:

We still have no idea why humans speak over 7,000 languages

January 26th, 2019 by The thatched roof held back the sun’s rays, but it could not keep the tropical heat at bay. As everyone at the research workshop headed outside for a break, small groups splintered off to gather in the shade of coconut trees and enjoy a breeze. I wandered from group to group, joining in the discussions. Each time, I noticed that the language of the conversation would change from an indigenous language to something they knew I could understand, Bislama or English. I was amazed by the ease with which the meeting’s participants switched between languages, but I was even more astonished by the number of different indigenous languages. Thirty people had gathered for the workshop on this island in the South Pacific, and all except for me came from the island, called Makelua, in the nation of Vanuatu. They lived in 16 different communities and spoke 16 distinct languages. In many cases, you could stand at the edge of one village and see the outskirts of the next community. Yet the residents of each village spoke completely different languages. According to recent work by my colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, this island, just 100 km long and 20 km wide, is home to speakers of perhaps 40 different indigenous languages. Why so many? We could ask this same question of the entire globe. People don’t speak one universal language, or even a handful. Instead, today our species collectively speaks over 7,000 distinct languages. And these languages are not spread randomly across the planet. For example, far more languages are found in tropical regions than in the temperate zones. The tropical island of New Guinea is home to over 900 languages. Russia, 20 times larger, has 105 indigenous languages. Even within the tropics, language diversity varies widely. For example, the 250,000 people who live on Vanuatu’s 80 islands speak 110 different languages, but in Bangladesh, a population 600 times greater speaks only 41 languages. Why is it that humans speak so many languages? And why are they so unevenly spread across the planet? As it turns out, we have few clear answers to these fundamental questions about how humanity communicates. Some ideas, but little evidence Most people can easily brainstorm possible answers to these intriguing questions. They hypothesize that language diversity must be about history, cultural differences, mountains, or oceans dividing populations, or old squabbles writ large—“we hated them, so we don’t talk to them.” The questions also seem like they should be fundamental to many academic disciplines—linguistics, anthropology, human geography. But, starting in 2010, when our diverse team of researchers from six different disciplines and eight different countries began to review what was known, we were shocked that only a dozen previous studies had been done, including one we ourselves completed on language diversity in the Pacific. These prior efforts all examined the degree to which different environmental, social, and geographic variables correlated with the number of languages found in a given location. The results varied a lot from one study to another, and no clear patterns emerged. The studies also ran up against many methodological challenges, the biggest of which centered on the old statistical adage–correlation does not equal causation. We wanted to know the exact steps that led to so many languages forming in certain places and so few in others. But previous work provided few robust theories on the specific processes involved, and the methods used did not get us any closer to understanding the causes of language diversity patterns. For example, previous studies pointed out that at lower latitudes languages are often spoken across smaller areas than at higher latitudes. You can fit more languages into a given area the closer you get to the equator. But this result does not tell us much about the processes that create language diversity. Just because a group of people crosses an imaginary latitudinal line on the map doesn’t mean they’ll automatically divide into two different populations speaking two different languages. Latitude might be correlated with language diversity, but it certainly did not create it. Read more:

The Small Island Where 500 People Speak Nine Different Languages

November 27th, 2018 by On South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together. There’s the Mawng language, but also one called Bininj Kunwok and another called Yolngu-Matha, and Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English. None of these languages, except English, is spoken by more than a few thousand people. Several, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, are spoken by groups numbering in the hundreds. For all these individuals to understand one another, one might expect South Goulburn to be an island of polyglots, or a place where residents have hashed out a pidgin to share, like a sort of linguistic stone soup. Rather, they just talk to one another in their own language or languages, which they can do because everyone else understands some or all of the languages but doesn’t speak them. This arrangement, which linguists call “receptive multilingualism,” shows up all around the world. In some places, it’s accidental. Many English-speaking Anglos who live in U.S. border states, for instance, can read and comprehend quite a bit of Spanish from being exposed to it. And countless immigrant children learn to speak the language of their host country while retaining the ability to understand their parents’ languages. In other places, receptive multilingualism is a work-around for temporary situations. But at Warruwi Community, it plays a special role. Ruth Singer, a linguist at the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity Project of the Australian National University, realized this by chance, and wrote about receptive multilingualism at Warruwi Community recently in the journal Language and Communication. In 2006, for one of her trips for fieldwork on South Goulburn, Singer and her husband had a Toyota truck shipped from Darwin by boat. Though the island’s not very big, there aren’t many cars, so having one is a social lubricant. Singer and her husband became friends with a local married couple, Nancy Ngalmindjalmag and Richard Dhangalangal, who had a boat and trailer but no car, and the two couples ended up going fishing and hunting, and digging up turtle eggs on the beach. That’s when Singer noticed that Nancy always spoke to Richard in Mawng, but Richard always replied in Yolngu-Matha, even though Nancy also spoke fluent Yolngu-Matha. “Once I started to work on multilingualism and tuned my ear into how people were using different languages,” Singer wrote in an email, “I began to hear receptive-multilingualism conversations all over Warruwi, like between two men working on fixing a fence, or between two people at the shop.” There are a variety of explanations for this, Singer says. In the case of her married friends, Richard didn’t speak Mawng, because he wasn’t originally from Warruwi Community. If he did so, it might be perceived as a challenge to rules that exclude outsiders from claiming certain rights. Also, Yolngu-Matha has more speakers, and those speakers tend to be less multilingual than speakers of smaller languages. Read more:

On a Mission to Save Languages From Extinction

November 5th, 2018 by NEW YORK—There are 800 different languages spoken among New York’s 8.5 million residents, and unfortunately, that number may be decreasing. One man is on a mission to make sure the city and the world don’t lose their linguistic diversity. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger states that 230 languages have died since 1950. According to Ethnologue, approximately a third of extant languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers alive today. When a language becomes extinct, a community collapses. That group loses the ability to speak their mother tongue, and pass it on to their children. A whole culture is ultimately lost. “A community loses bonds to their heritage. A community loses the kind of glue that binds them together,” Daniel Bögre Udell, director of Wikitongues, told The Epoch Times. Learning a Language Udell is a sixth-generation American. His mother’s family came from Scotland and Hungary, and his father’s side were Ashkenazi Jews. As he was growing up, English was spoken at home in rural Pennsylvania. When Udell turned 13, he got his first job as a busboy at a local restaurant. Many of his coworkers were Spanish speakers, and Udell made an effort to learn their language. By the time he was 16, he had conversational proficiency in Spanish. Initially, he saw language as just a practical tool. “I think that at that time I still understood language as a primarily utilitarian phenomenon, something that could just get us through the day, help us in business, help us in travel,” Udell said. “But like most majority language speakers, I think I still understood language as something to be taken for granted, not something that was necessarily integral to my identity, my culture, who I was.” During high school, Udell had the opportunity to study abroad in Zaragoza, Spain. Immersed in the Spanish-speaking city, he thought that Spanish was the only language spoken in the country. Read more:

Switzerland’s invisible linguistic borders

July 3rd, 2018 by It was one of the shortest train rides I had ever taken: just 10 minutes and one stop from the Swiss city of Neuchâtel. Yet when I disembarked in the small municipality of Ins, everything seemed, somehow, different. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something about the architecture perhaps? People’s body language? Even the air, crisp and ridiculously fresh in that distinctively Swiss way, felt somehow changed. I walked for a while, befuddled. I was still in Switzerland, that much I knew. I had not crossed any international border. Then I glanced at a street sign, and I knew. I had unknowingly crossed the Röstigraben, the amusing term for the invisible line separating German- and French-speaking Switzerland. Röstigraben means literally ‘rösti ditch’ or ‘rösti trench’ (in French, it’s rideau de rösti, or rösti curtain). The term dates to World War I, when Switzerland’s loyalties were divided along linguistic lines. Rösti is a traditional Swiss-German meal consisting of pan-fried potatoes, and, well, more potatoes, sometimes with bacon, onion and cheese. Geographically, the Röstigraben roughly follows the Saane river (Sarine in French). You won’t find it on any map, though. It is a border of the mind, albeit one imprinted on the Swiss mind from a young age. Like other types of borders, the Röstigraben is not crossed lightly or unwittingly, except by foreigners like myself. Nearly half of all German-speaking Swiss cross the divide only once a year, and 15% have never crossed it, according to a recent survey conducted by the research institute Sotomo on behalf of telecommunications company Swisscom. Crossing the Röstigraben “seems more like temporarily emigrating to a dangerous place, where you will not understand what people say,” Swiss non-profit executive Manuela Bianchi, told me, only half joking. Her story is typically Swiss, which is to say not typical at all. With an Italian-speaking father and a German-speaking mother, she grew up speaking both languages at home, adding French, as well as English, at school. Yes, Switzerland’s multilingualism can be burdensome at times – most food products list the ingredients in three languages – but overall she considers it “a wonderful blessing”. Multilingualism is to Switzerland what politeness is to the British or style to the Italians: a deep source of national pride. It is, though, in typical Swiss fashion, an understated pride. It is considered ‘un-Swiss’ to brag about one’s linguistic abilities, or anything else for that matter. Read more: BBC Travel

How Wikitongues is saving world languages from linguicide

June 24th, 2018 by “In the next 80 years, 3,000 languages are expected to disappear.” That’s what it says on the homepage of the Wikitongues website. And then it adds: “We won’t let that happen.” Last week, ‘we’ was Daniel Bogre Udell, one of two original founders of Wikitongues, and Kristen Tcherneshoff, its volunteer-in-chief. The frontline of their fight: Bedford. They were there to open a new ‘chapter’ of their non-profit organisation at Bedford School. It would be the first of its kind in Europe. Wikitongues is a young company (founded in 2014), powered by an ever-expanding volunteer base that seeks to envelope the globe in its all-encompassing embrace. While we were talking in Bedford the news came through that three more recruits had come on board, from three different points in Kazakhstan. The brief is to provide a refuge, a safe space, a home, for all the world’s languages. Especially, but not only, the endangered ones. Wikitongues volunteers are building an exhaustive database of audiovisual testimony, but Daniel and Kristen, and fellow co-founder Freddie (Federico Andrade) are as much activists as archivists. They are less interested in preserving dead languages for the academic interest of posterity than in protecting and growing living ones, and helping to sustain the communities that speak them. Increasingly, Wikitongues is motivated by educational imperatives. Daniel and Kristen want people even younger than they are (mid-20s) to appreciate the vital importance of linguistic diversity. The next day they would be teaching Català and Kiswahili to the Bedford boys and opening their minds to a host of possibilities. Contrary to the idea that post-Brexit Britain is going to be strictly monolingual, they stress the truth that the United Kingdom, and in particular the south of England, is already one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth Read more: The Independent

Why it’s okay for bilingual children to mix languages

June 21st, 2018 by Few would consider mastering more than one language a bad idea. In fact, research points to a number of cognitive, economic and academic advantages in being bilingual. Parents who speak different languages understand the family home is an important setting to learn both, and seek various ways to help their children thrive bilingually. One of the best-known approaches is the “one-parent-one-language” strategy (OPOL). Each parent uses one language when communicating with their child, so their offspring learn both languages simultaneously. OPOL emphasises consistency – sticking to one language each – as key to its approach. But this creates the myth that mixing languages should always be avoided. My recent study, part of a new wave of multilingualism studies, would suggest this received wisdom is just that: a myth. My research looked at Japanese-British families living in the UK with pre and early school-age children who were following a more-or-less strict OPOL language policy. I was particularly interested in examining the impact of OPOL in the family home – how does this unique language environment affect the way children use languages? Most of the Japanese mothers who participated in my research were fluent in Japanese and English, while the fathers possessed an elementary grasp of Japanese. This made English the primary language of communication between the parents and outside the home. For this reason, the mothers were careful to carve out additional space for more sustained Japanese language learning with their children. In other words, this dedicated space for communicating in Japanese (the minority language) was time children would spend exclusively with their mother. This seemed to create a connection between “Japanese language” and “motherhood” in the children’s perception. This link became apparent in how children used Japanese as a means of emotional bonding with their mother and adopted a much broader behavioural “repertoire” than usually associated with language. For example, switching to Japanese could sometimes serve as a method to appease mum when she seemed unhappy. At other times, refusing to communicate in Japanese was a useful means of defiance, even when the dispute was not related to language. Language can never be a neutral communication tool. How it is used at home and beyond – socially, at school, in the workplace – brings additional connotations and meanings which are used consciously or unconsciously in communication. Read more: The Conversation

More than 2,000 of the world’s languages are dying out

May 24th, 2018 by As a child, Kanako Uzawa treasured her school vacations, when she traveled from Tokyo to her family farm in Nibutani, a remote village in northern Japan. “There were rice fields extending into the distance,” she says. “It was all very green with fresh air… It was paradise for kids.” Uzawa, who was born in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, is a member of the Ainu, an indigenous group from northern Japan. The story of this small community is one of erasure instigated by the state. In the late nineteenth century, the Meiji government sought a unified, cohesive vision of Japan; the very existence of the Ainu and other indigenous groups threatened Japan’s national myth of homogeneity. In 1899, the government passed an act now known as the Former Natives Protection Law, which stripped the Ainu of their identity: names were changed, language was curbed, and they were forced to give up hunting and gathering and begin farming on poor land. As long as humans have formed shared identities around ethnicity, religion, race, language, and culture, those identities have been subject to erasure, from colonialism to war to economic globalization to linguistic homogenization to environmental change. Just look to the island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, preparing to sink beneath the sea, or to Greenland, preparing for its ice to melt away. In the previous episode, we explored how asylum seekers struggle to define their identities, caught in limbo between their home countries and their adopted ones. Governments define official, legitimized forms of national identities, the structures into which new arrivals should be integrated. But these same structures are applied to groups who have long resided within countries’ borders—or, in the case of many colonized nations, predated the groups that currently hold power. How can a given group retain a sovereign identity within those national constructs? The map of the world has never remained static. Right now, there are secessionist movements from Scotland to Kurdistan, each with their own particular historical origins and degrees of success. The ways and forms in which groups assert themselves might differ, but what unites them all is a clear sense of communal identity: one that demands to be seen, heard, and acknowledged as legitimate. Read more: Quartz

Why teachers shouldn’t be afraid of other languages being spoken in the classroom

May 23rd, 2018 by More than 20% of all primary school and 16% of secondary school children in the UK speak languages other than English. And there are now more than 360 languages spoken in British classrooms. But more often than not, in mainstream schools in the UK, the “home languages” of children can be sidelined at best, and prohibited at worst. English is the language of the classroom – this is despite the fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that children from linguistic minorities should not be “denied the right” to use their own languages. In my recent research, I found there was often a lot of fear associated with the use of “home” languages among the typically white, monolingual demographic of the teaching profession. In my study, which looks at educator’s attitudes towards multilingualism, one teacher I spoke with explained how she likes children to respond to the register in whatever language they choose, but anything more than this is frowned upon. She also spoke about what she called “the inappropriateness of language” – claiming that children only use other languages when they want to be rude or exclude others. Not encouraged This teacher is not alone in thinking classrooms should be exclusively English speaking – and it isn’t just the case in the UK. Researchers have observed prohibition of the home languages of children in France, where the thought of using any language other than French in the classroom was likened to “anarchy”. In Greece, Albanian speaking children are told that “here, we speak this language [Greek] that we all understand”. Part of the problem, is most likely down to the fact that losing control of aspects of the learning process can be challenging for teachers. And it can take a significant investment of resources (both funding and time) to gain enough confidence to allow for other languages in your classroom. Read more: The Conversation

How Do Languages Evolve? This Game Is Finding The Answer!

May 21st, 2018 by A team of researchers led by Dr. Olivier Morin at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany have released a mobile app, the Color Game, designed to study how human languages evolve. Dr. Morin's team identified a problem in how traditional language studies are conducted; participants are often given pre-designated, artificial tasks to be completed in a limited amount of time. Unfortunately, that isn't how language works in the real world. Language is a universal human experience and is an entirely unique mechanism for communication. From behavior and cognition to culture, it permeates every single aspect of human life. In the field, languages are less predictable than their laboratory counterparts. They take convoluted, varied evolutionary paths influenced by culture, neurology, cognition, and sociological intermingling. Even the eventual result of linguistic evolution is disputable: do languages evolve towards disorder or order? Irregularity or regularity? Where does language even come from? Although it is a ubiquitous component of human life, the origin of language isn't exactly clear. A study published in April and led by Dr. Mellissa DeMille at Yale University discovered a connection between the regulation of a specific gene and the number of phonemes, or linguistic units of sound, in a given language. DCDC2, a gene previously associated with dyslexia and phonological processing, has an element called READ1 that controls how DCDC2 is expressed. When Dr. DeMille and her collaborators investigated READ1's distribution in 43 human populations across 5 continents, they uncovered an association between READ1 and the number of consonants in a given language. Incredibly, this relationship is entirely independent of language family, geography, and population genetics. The study suggests that READ1 laid the cognitive foundations, augmented by cultural transmission, that molded consonant usage in human language. Whereas it's clear genetics play a role in language development, there are numerous studies that also reveal biological and sociological contributions. A study conducted in 2012 found that humans have evolved a biological adaptation that allows them to cope with rapid changes in language. In contrast, a book published last year by Princeton University Press argues language developed for purely social usage. Read more: Forbes

How I discovered there are (at least) 14 different kinds of love by analysing the world’s languages

March 10th, 2018 by No emotion, surely, is as cherished and sought after as love. Yet on occasions such as Valentine’s day, we can often be misled into thinking that it consists solely in the swooning, star-crossed romance of falling deeply “in love”. But on reflection, love is far more complex. Indeed, arguably no word covers a wider range of feelings and experiences than love. So how can we ever define what love really is? In my new study, published in the Journal for the Theory of Social Analysis, I’ve made a start by searching the world’s languages for words relating to love that don’t exist in English. Most of us use the word love fairly liberally. I use it for the deep ardour, care and respect I have for my wife. But I will also call upon it to describe the unshakeable bonds of kinship and history I share with my family, and the connections and allegiances I have with close friends. I’ll even use it in relation to our cheeky dog Daisy, the music of Tom Waits, Sunday morning lie ins and many other things. Clearly, whatever love is, it spans a great deal of emotional and experiential territory. Needless to say, I’m not the first to notice this. For instance, in the 1970s, the psychologist John Lee identified six different “styles” of love. He did so by studying other languages, in particular the classical lexicons of Greek and Latin, which boast a wealth of precise words describing specific kinds of love. Lee identified three primary forms of love. “Eros” denotes passion and desire, “ludus” refers to flirtatious, playful affection, and “storgē” describes familial or companionate bonds of care. He then paired these primary forms to produce three secondary forms: ludus plus storgē creates “pragma”, a rational, sensible long-term accommodation. However, eros combined with ludus generates “mania”, signifying possessive, dependent, or troubled intimacies, while eros and storgē form the charitable, selfless compassion of “agápē”. This analysis seems like a good start, but an incomplete one. After all, it mostly just concerns romantic partnerships, and doesn’t account for many of the feelings that fall within the ambit of love. Read more: The Conversation

These Sámi Women Are Trying to Keep Their Native Skolt Language Alive

March 4th, 2018 by Tiina Sanila-Aikio isn’t your everyday president. The 34-year-old is the head of the Sámi people in Finland, the only indigenous population recognized in the European Union. She is also the creator of the world’s first Skolt-language rock albums. Skolt is a Sámi language spoken by just 300 people. Although the Sámi population numbers at least 75,000, their languages are dying out. The Sámi are made up of nine different tribes across Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland and speak various dialects. The lack of Sámi language education means young Sámis are growing up not speaking their mother tongue. “I’m very sad to say the number of people who speak a version of Sámi as their first language is going down, and fast,” Sanila-Aikio said. “At the same time, the Sámi population is growing.” In the 1960s, 75 percent of Sámis spoke the language as their mother tongue, according to records at the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos. Research from 2007 revealed only 24 percent of Sámis were native speakers, and some dialects have already disappeared. Out of the 11 dialects, nine are still spoken, and Ter Sámi is spoken by just two people. Sanila-Aikio is a Skolt Sámi and grew up in the village of Sevettijärvi, where the Skolt culture and language are still very much alive. She was so passionate about reviving her language she became a teacher and taught at the Sámi Education Institute in Inari, a unique vocational upper secondary education school, which teaches in Finnish and Sámi and promotes Sámi culture throughout the area. “I was very worried about the trend, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said. “We have the Sámi Language Act — which covers situations where Sámis have the right to use their language when dealing with authorities. First of all, the authorities should have staff who speak the Sámi languages, and secondly, they can have interpreters if they don’t. But in reality, this doesn’t happen. “It is a big struggle.” Read more: Global Voices