Fun Facts About Foreign Languages
There’s no getting around it: if you want to interact with other people in a society, language is essential.
A culture's language is often the key to its soul. It might not be necessary to know Spanish to get to the top of Machu Picchu, after all, but it does make the whole cultural experience way more fun and interesting.
Languages are, of course, incredibly complicated structures and, thus, full of all sorts of hidden surprises and interesting factoids.
Here are a few that’ll blow your mind.
Languages Have Life Spans
Have you ever heard of Pémeno? How about Apiaká? Pazeh? No?
Chances are that pretty soon, no one else in the entire world will either. That’s because there are currently a full 20 languages worldwide with a mere one speaker left.
A perfect storm of factors combines to make languages go extinct. Generally, these languages are only spoken by small, isolated groups. They may be pushed out by other more dominant languages, like Spanish, French or English. Children may be taught these new dominant languages as their native tongue so that over time, the only native speakers left of the old languages are the elders.
Eventually, sadly, the language dies with them too.
That's a Lot of Words
Although you may statistically still have a good 50-70 years ahead of you, a 2016 study out of Ghent University shows that you’ve likely already come a long way on your English language journey.
That’s because the average person already knows 42,000 words and 4,200 phrases by the time they’ve hit 20.
It ain’t easy to learn a new language. But research suggests that it may be a form of virtual aerobics for your brain.
Numerous studies have shown that bilingual people are less likely to suffer from dementia, age-related cognitive decline and even low intelligence scores.
So, the next time you see yourself facing a copy of the French version of "Game of Thrones," make sure to tackle it with gusto. Your brain will thank you years down the road.
Undoing the Tower of Babel
An intrepid man, L. L. Zamenhof, had a bright idea back in 1873. It seemed like a lot of hostility between countries was due to the language and cultural barrier. So, why not create a brand-new, easily learned language that could be used worldwide to break down these barriers and foster world peace?
And thus, Esperanto was born.
Since then, it’s become the most widely spoken constructed language in the entire world, with around two million speakers. But WWI and WWII (and every war since 1873, basically) will attest to the fact that it did not, after all, usher in world peace.
Fantasy Is Real
Speaking of constructed languages, Esperanto launched a whole new trend: brand-new languages constructed entirely for fantasy fiction.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages are probably some of the best early examples of this. But today, if you wander the halls of any Comic-Con, you’ll also likely hear mutterings of other languages like Klingon and Atlantean.
Constructing fantasy languages even has some serious academic muster behind it, with linguists like David J. Peterson (the mastermind behind the "Game of Throne’s" Dothraki language) even penning books on the topic.
Mandarin Chinese is No. 1
A Chinese child growing up probably has a pretty easy time learning Chinese since everyone around them is speaking it, too.
But for native English speakers? This tonal language full of subtleties and ancient phrases is consistently ranked by native English speakers as the most difficult language in the world to learn.
In fact, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, which ranks the difficulty of learning other languages, has judged Mandarin Chinese among the most difficult (along with Arabic, Japanese and Korean). You can expect to spend at least 2,200 classroom hours before you’re capable of speaking this language well enough to navigate a solo walkabout along the Great Wall of China.
In case you thought you’d be able to scoot by as a cultured worldwide traveler without learning Mandarin Chinese, consider this: with well over a billion speakers (or nearly 20 percent of the entire world), it’s the most widely spoken language in the world.
Asia is a big place with lots of people, after all — something people who tend to stick to traveling around the Western world often forget.
Believe it or not, there really are some languages that use clicks.
The Xhosa and Khoisan family of languages, originating with bush tribes in southwest Africa, are probably the most well-known. These languages use clicks as consonants.
Here’s a cool quick tutorial so you can try it for yourself.
Which Country Has the Most Languages?
By far, the prize for most linguistically diverse country goes to Papua New Guinea. This tiny country has a record-setting 840 languages packed into its tiny footprint.
To understand why there are so many languages here, you first have to look at the topography. This mountainous, forested country is the perfect sieve to stratify and isolate groups of people from each other. Under these conditions, each band of people eventually develops its own language over time.
These days, most Papua New Guineans speak the country’s official language, Tok Pisin. But many of these diverse tribal languages still live on in communities within the forest.
Languages Are Alive
There’s a lot of similarity between biology and languages. Many evolutionary principles also apply to languages. There’s even a name for this academic discipline: evolutionary linguistics.
According to one such scientist, William Foley, you can expect it to take about 1,000 years for one language to separate into two languages, under certain conditions.
This means that scientists can actually create evolutionary trees — sort of like genealogical trees — showing how different languages evolved from each other.
How Many Noun Genders?
If you thought German with its three gender classes was confusing, try learning Tuyuca. This language is only spoken by about 1,000 people living in rural parts of the Amazon.
One of Tuyuca’s defining features? It has an estimated 50-140 different noun classes. While they’re not really considered genders per se, it does still make many of the European languages with their confusing gender rules seem like a piece of cake.
The World’s Oldest Language
Although there’s some debate about the “oldest” continually used language, many scholars still point to Tamil. Specific languages start to get fuzzy the further back you go (you try playing a multi-thousand-year-old game of telephone). But, one study shows that the Dravidian language group, of which Tamil is a major part, goes back at least 4,500 years.
Today, there are currently about 76 million Tamil speakers worldwide. It’s even still an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore.
A Linguistic Mystery
Well, you could say that the Basque language comes from the Basque people, living in a tiny footprint along the Spanish/French border in the Pyrenees Mountains.
But linguists interested in studying the history of languages are stumped by Basque. It’s not related to any other languages at all, such as how French, English and Spanish are offshoots of Latin.
As far as scientists know, it arose completely spontaneously, and is still spoken by about a third of Basque people today.
Words and Words and Words
You shouldn’t feel bad if you run across a vocabulary word you don’t know. That’s because this very language — English — is deemed by many people to have the most words of any language.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are over a quarter of a million words in the English language. And that’s even before you get to all of the informal regional and local words that make all the crevices of the English-speaking world unique.
Most Europeans Speak Multiple Languages
It’s relatively easy to get by in the United States your whole life without knowing any other language than English. We often take it for granted. Not so much in the European Union, however, which has 83 different official and unofficial languages scattered among its member countries.
In fact, according to a European Commission report, about half of Europeans are bilingual, a quarter are trilingual, and 10 percent can speak at least four languages. A mere 11 percent of people in the EU are monolingual (Americans, by contrast, are about 75 percent monolingual).
Language in Space
One of the interesting side effects of the Cold War was the American/Russian race for space, which the Russians dominated early on. Even today, if you go into space, there’s a good chance you’ll need to know enough Russian to make your way around.
That’s why NASA and the space agencies of other countries require astronauts to have a comfortable grasp of the language before they send them up to the International Space Station. In fact, according to a 2015 article, British astronaut Tim Cooke rated learning Russian as the toughest part of becoming an astronaut.
Latin Lives...Kind of
Most people learn Latin these days as a challenge, since the language is officially dead. No one in the entire world speaks it as a primary means of communication anymore.
Except, that is, for a few isolated pockets. People working in the translation department within the Catholic church in the Vatican reportedly still speak Latin around the office water-cooler to keep their skills sharp, as do students in Rome’s Accademia Vivarium Novum school.
Language Ability Is a Limited Time Offer
Thankfully, it’s pretty rare for children to reach adulthood without being exposed to language. But in cases where this does happen, such as with feral children, these individuals almost never will go on to reach a full grasp of any language.
Researchers think that there’s a certain “critical period” during childhood for children to learn a native language. If it doesn’t happen, scientists hypothesize that those brain parts don’t ever fully develop.
Formerly-feral children may be able to communicate with simple words like “eat” and “sleep,” but they’ll never be able to read and understand the nuances of a full language system.
Lots of O's
Anyone who’s ever tried to learn French quickly realizes that it’s almost like learning two separate new languages, since the written version often looks very different from the spoken version.
One reason for this is the liberal sprinkling of vowels among French words. In fact, there are 13 different ways to spell the “o” sound in French:
A Close Call
If extinct languages intrigue you, try this one on for size: Ayapaneco is a native Mexican language that almost died out. The reason? Its last two living speakers — Isidro Velazquez and Manuel Segovia — had a decades-old quarrel and refused to speak with each other.
Happily, the two speakers recently made up, and with the support of dedicated linguists, even opened an Ayapaneco school and began recording their language for future generations.