Mother Tongues

a journey through language


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This is Your Brain on Language

We all know it’s important to exercise regularly for optimal physical health. Similarly, our brains need a good workout to stay in tip-top shape. But forget that Lumosity brain-training crap.

Learning a language is a much more effective way to beef up your brainpower.

Buckle in for a whirlwind overview: This is Your Brain on Language.

Cerebral challenges

First of all, what exactly does your brain get up to when you’re imbibing a new language? It all starts in the ear, which transforms sounds waves into neural impulses. These are basically your brain’s way of encoding information electrically, kinda like an brain-radio.

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This info is conveyed to the first pitstop for processing sound: the auditory cortex. This region figures out when and where the sound originated from.

Next up is Wernicke’s area, which turns random sounds into meaningful words and phrases. You understand what is being said, nice work brain.

If you then wanna reply, Broca’s area of your brain starts formulating your response.

Finally, you need to physically move your lips and mouth to make sounds. This is where your motor cortex comes in – it controls voluntary movements. Now we’re talking!

It’s pretty mind-blowing to think that your brain does all this lightning-fast. Thank you, brain.

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Your brain does all this SUPER QUICK

So when you’re learning a new language, your brain has to learn how to distinguish which language a sound is coming from, so it can process it correctly. This requires a whole lotta memory. You have to use your declarative memory system – which deals with facts – to remember all those new words and grammar. Then there’s the procedural memory system – your lips and mouth have to remember which shapes to physically make. For tip-of-the-tongue fluency, you’ll have to subconsciously recall all this,  meaning it has to be part of your implicit memory.

Phew! No wonder languages are the ultimate workout. So why go through all this effort? Here’s a few rad results of language learning.

It can make your brain bigger

Yep, learning a language is literally the brain equivalent of bodybuilding.

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A 2014 study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the effects of language learning on the physical structure of the brain. They compared the brain scans of language students before and after three months of intense study. For comparison, they included a control group of medical science students.

Med sci brains remained unchanged, whereas those grappling with a new lingo exhibited growth in specific areas.

Hold up! A bigger brain doesn’t necessarily mean a smarter brain. So you might not be more intelligent.

But you may be healthier, since brain size may indicate brain health. As you age, your brain shrinks, leading to cognitive decline and diseases like dementia. In fact, research has shown that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia and can protect against Alzheimers disease. Maybe bigger is better?

It can also change the structure of your brain

Your brain is plastic. I don’t mean like a barbie doll – this is a good kind of plastic. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganise itself, forming new neural connections.

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Here’s an interesting tidbit: if you have grown up bilingual, then both the languages you speak are processed in the same part of the Broca’s area. But if you learn a language later in life, a new region develops in the Broca’s area, separate but close to your mother tongue.

But no matter your age, simply participating in language learning increases the density of your grey matter – the brain-stuff that incorporates everything from muscle control to decision making to sensory perception. Meanwhile, your white matter is strengthened. White matter is the tissue that connects different parts of your brain – kinda like a subway system for navigating the mind.

Essentially, the networks in your brain become more closely integrated. Consequently, you can learn more quickly and efficiently. Hell yeah!

How you learn a language – whether in a traditional classroom or by immersion – can affect how your brain is rewired, too.

You’ll be better at concentrating…

…and other things. A lot of other things. Seriously.

Researchers have found that bilingual people have enhanced attention – they’re better at shutting out irrelevant stuff and focusing on what’s important. What’s more, it doesn’t matter whether you learnt the language in childhood or as an adult, the benefit is the same. Similarly, being bi- or multilingual can make you a better listener.

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Being multilingual can help you block out the haters

Learning a language can help you develop qualities that underpin creativity. You’ll also be better at multitasking – perhaps the result of having to seamlessly switch between two or more languages.

You will think more analytically and be more considered in your decision-making, as well as being less susceptible to persuasive language (the sort you might find in political campaigns).

Some people even reckon that different languages change the way you perceive the world.

So what now?

If this is your brain on drugs…

Video via Retropile on Youtube

…then this is your brain on language.

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Ostrich egg via Mike Scott on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It doesn’t matter how old you are or how fluent you become – just try to learn a language and you’ll reap the cognitive benefits. Yeeww!


 

How has learning a second language affected you? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

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How many languages can a person learn?

If you’re reading this, you can speak English. Wicked.

Maybe you can speak another language too – perhaps your original mother tongue, or one that you learnt at school. Even better.

Maybe, just maybe, you have mastered a third or even fourth language – if yes, I am in awe of you.

Bu there are some scary-special souls out there whose minds soak up languages like a brain-sponge. They have an insatiable appetite for more, plus, lebih!

If a person can speak six or more languages, we call them a polyglot (meaning “many-tongued”).

If they’ve got 12 or more languages under their linguistic belt, we call them a hyperpolyglot.

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A polyglot can speak at least six languages, while a hyperpolyglot can speak at least 12.

This post, we’re gonna meet a few of these mad-awesome mofos, explore the science of polyglotism and answer the question: who is the greatest polyglot of them all?

The polyglot-est of the polyglots

To answer this question, I consulted the trusty Guinness Book of World Records, home of all feats weird and wacky. I typed “language” into the search bar on their website, returning 106 results.

I scrolled through record after record, past the longest alphabet (Khmer/Cambodian) and the loudest click of the tongue, all the way to the end. And there was no record listed for “the most languages known.”

Wat. Why?

Turns out, this whole kerfuffle is pretty controversial.

First we’ve got the problem of what the heck defines a language? That is, what’s the difference between a language and a dialect? Sometimes the distinction between the two can be blurry…

But even more difficult to pin down is what it means to know a language. Obviously, rattling off a few bonjours and je m’appelles doesn’t mean you can really speak French. So at what point do you become fluent?

Perhaps we could get a native speaker to judge how well you can hold a conversation – but this is subjective. Maybe we could define fluency by comparing vocabulary size to native speakers – but it turns out you can converse at a high level of perceived fluency with a much smaller vocab than native speakers.

And what about reading vs. writing vs. speaking? How do we compare someone who can read and write in 20 languages, to someone who can converse simply in 40?

So. The lack of objectivity in defining polyglotism means we can’t really crown the polyglot-est person on the planet. Still, anyone who can speak multiple languages is frickin’ amazing in my book.

Meet the polyglots

Guiseppe Caspar Mezzofanti

This Italian Cardinal was legendary for his language prowess. It’s reported he could speak 39 languages “with rare excellence” but some sources claim he could understand a whopping 72. Either stat is impressive considering he never even left Italy…

Mezzofanti had a super-charged memory when it came to words, but he complemented his natural aptitude with long hours studying. Lesson learnt: you gotta work yo ass off if you wanna become a language expert! Read more.

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Mezzofanti is reported to have known Algonquin – a language spoken by First Nations people in Ontario and Quebec. “Kwey” means “hello.” 

Emil Krebs

This German chap was passionate about languages. By the time he left high school, he could speak 12 of them. Throughout his life, he accumulated an astounding total of 65 languages – and he could tell you to “kiss my ass” in 40 of them.

After his death, Krebs’ “elite brain” was preserved and resides to this day at the C. & O. Vogt Institute for Brain Research in Germany. In 2003, neuroscientists examined his brain, and found it was wired very differently to monolingual people. But it’s unclear whether he was born with this set-up, or whether constant language learning changed the neural connections in his brain. Read more.

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Emil Krebs could say “kiss my ass” in 40 languages. Go here if you’d like to emulate Mr Krebs.

Alexander Argüelles

During his childhood, Argüelles had an innate interest in language. But apart from high school French, he didn’t explore this interest to any depth. At university, however, the ability to read his favourite German novelists in their native tongue led him down the rabbit-hole of language learning. He spent 16 hours a day filling his brain with words and grammar, and now he can speak around 36 different tongues but has studied many more. Read more.

“I’m increasingly drawn to dead and endangered languages… I do think the loss of so many quirks and colours would leave the world a less intriguing place. It would be like visiting a botanic garden where there was only one type of plant – that thought horrifies me.”

-Alexander Argüelles, linguist

Powell Janulus

This Canadian fellow was in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985 for “knowing more languages than any other human.” To earn this entry, he passed two-hour long conversational fluency tests with native speakers in 42 different languages. However at his peak, he claims to have known 64 languages. In 2006, Janulus suffered a stroke but has since resumed learning new lingos. Read more.

Dr Carlos do Amaral Freire

This Brazilian boss is considered perhaps the greatest modern linguistic scholar. He systematically studies two new languages every year, and has done so for the past 40 years. Consequently he has mastered 60 of them.

“I became captivated by the fascination of studying and discovering, through languages, so many other worlds, cultures and different ways of thinking.”

-Dr Carlos do Amaral Freire, linguist

Swami Rambhadracharya

Rambhadracharya is the ultimate slashie: a Hindu religious leader, philosopher, poet, educator… as my friend would say, he’s DA MAN. He can speak 22 languages and is considered a scholar in 14 of them. He writes poems and plays in a variety of lingos – but he can’t physically read or write. Rambhadracharya’s been blind since the age of 2 months, so he learns by listening and composes by dictation. Read more.

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Rhambhadracharya is an accomplished polyglot (among many other things).

Sir John Bowring

A former Governor of Hong Kong and a political economist, this high-powered Englishman had a penchant for literature and language. It’s reported that he knew 200 (!) languages and could speak 100 of them. Whether these numbers are accurate, it’s difficult to say. But even if they are exaggerated, he clearly had an extraordinary talent and passion for language. Read more.

I’ve just picked a few polyglots so this is by no means an exhaustive list. Check out good ol’ Wikipedia for more multilingual masterminds.

Where da ladies at?

You’ve probably noticed that the above list is a real sausage fest. It’s true: lady lingo-lovers are relatively hard to come by. Others have noted this gender-skewing in the polyglotism world, but they haven’t found a good reason for it yet.

I had a good dig around and unearthed a couple of female polyglots:

Susanna Zaraysky

Zaraysky has studied 11 languages and can speak 8 of them fluently, and she is a great believer in the power of music to teach language. She’s written a few books and travelled the world, plus she’s passionate about inspiring more women to become multilingual. Read more.

Lomb Kató (or the westernised version, Kató Lomb)

Leaving behind her physics/chemistry background, Lomb took up languages and learned at least 16 (and maybe as many as 28). Lomb’s love of languages took her around the world as an interpreter and she also churned out a few books. She was one of the first simultaneous interpreters. Her drive to learn was characterised by unwavering determination and self-motivation. Read more.

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Lomb Kató dedicated her life to languages and was one of the first simultaneous interpreters.

Savant or simply obsessive?

So what’s the deal with these tongue-twisting individuals? Are they wired differently from the rest of us?

Some have suggested that hyperpolyglotism is in some way linked to autism and/or savant syndrome.

But others believe that it’s simply a matter of hard work. Anyone can become a polyglot. (But certain personality traits and conducive life circumstances can help.)

And then of course, there’s those who reckon it’s a bit of both.

If there’s one thing you can take from these stories of polyglots, I reckon that it’s never too late to start. Wanna learn a language? Just do it!

Here’s an idea…

Here at Mother Tongues you’ll know we’re particularly interested in endangered languages. So ya know what’d be wicked? If polyglots could dedicate some of their burly brainpower to learning these disappearing tongues. What do you reckon?


 

Can you speak multiple languages? Let me know which ones in the comments!

PS – after researching this post, I’ve put Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners on my to-read list. Maybe you’d like to as well 🙂


UPDATE:

Global WordPress Translation Day is coming up on Sunday April 24th. If you’re a language aficionado who’d like to help translate WordPress, check out this blog post and get on board. Woohoo!

 


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Hotspots: Species Meet Languages in a Burst of Diversity

Scattered across the Earth, there are biodiversity hotspots – areas where Mother Nature flaunts her outrageous imagination like a peacock flaunts its magnificent tail. These places are hotbeds of evolution – not just for biological species, it turns out, but for languages too.

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We’ve had an inkling of this language-species affair for a while. But it’s only in the last decade or so that we’ve quantified this connection.

Researchers collated information on where species live, and then mapped this against where languages are spoken. Using statistics, they found that high biodiversity does indeed correlate with high linguistic diversity.

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(A) displays biodiversity hotspots around the world. (B) shows the geographic distribution of Indigenous languages. Reproduced from this paper.

They churned out some numbers for us to get a deeper sense of this link:

  • There are 35 biodiversity hotspots and five high biodiversity wilderness areas on Planet Earth – places like Amazonia, the island of New Guinea and the forests of Central Africa
  • These hotspots are home to 67% of all plants and 50% of all vertebrate animals (that’s A LOT)
  • They’re also home to 70% of the 6,900 languages spoken on Earth (whoa)
  • They used to cover around a quarter of all land on Earth – but this has dwindled down to just 8% (crap…)

Here are those numbers again, in visual form, if that’s more your thang:

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But why?

Why should language richness and species diversity mirror each other like this?

As we’ve explored in previous posts, language and ecosystems are both complex adaptive systems. So it makes some kind of intuitive sense that they should behave similarly.

But let’s dig a lil deeper. What’s going on here?

Generally, tropical regions are both more biodiverse and linguistically diverse than desert and tundra areas. Perhaps, both types of diversity depend on similar environmental factors – like temperature and rainfall.

One possibility is that the abundance of natural resources in tropical environments reduces the need for groups to share and communicate with one another. So they don’t need a common language and the local lingos diversify as a result.

Maybe landscape barriers prevent communities from interacting and so different languages develop. After all, if a rugged mountain range separates you and your neighbours, you’re unlikely to pop over to say hello that often. Similarly, it is well-understood in biology that topographic barriers enable the evolution of species richness (this is a discipline called insular biogeography).

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Topographic barriers may facilitate the diversification of both language and species.

It’s also possible that biodiversity sustains cultural diversity in a symbiotic relationship – the richness of one supports the other, and vice versa.

One kinda crazy-cool idea is that biodiversity provides a greater range of natural reservoirs for our imagination. We draw on our surrounding environment to construct metaphors that form the basis of our language. This enables different languages based on different metaphor-concepts to evolve. Language is infused with nature. Our culture is not purely a product of who we are – it’s also deeply rooted in our physical environment.

In turn, the metaphors used by many Indigenous cultures in biodiverse regions remind people that they cannot exploit their natural resources carelessly and endlessly. This allows high biodiversity to persist. What a beautiful cycle!

“For the forest people, nature is defended by culture. Many rules concerning hunting and the non-exploitative use of resources – blunt ecological truths – are encoded in myths and magic, tales and enchantments that make up a society’s culture.”

-Jay Griffiths, writer

It’s not simple…

It’s probably not just one of these explanations, but rather, some combination of them.

Take, for example, the rugged tropical jungles of New Guinea – home to a vast array of species, from birds of paradise to tree kangaroos. This island is also the habitat for nearly 1,000 distinct languages.

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The island of New Guinea is home to some crazy animals – like tree kangaroos and birds of paradise. It’s also home to nearly 1,000 languages: “wiyo” means “hello” in Melpa and “wa” means “hello” in Dani.

Researchers zoomed in on this mother-tongue-menagerie to examine the language-species connection on a finer scale. Like previous global studies, they found a link. But the strength of this relationship depended on the scale you chose – the closer you zoomed in, the weaker the correlation.

This suggests that the link is multi-faceted – a complex brew of sociocultural and biogeographical factors.

In the case of New Guinea, the authors noted that the isolated, rugged highlands supported high biodiversity but low linguistic diversity, while the coastal lowlands were the opposite.

They suggested that lower malaria incidence in the inland regions allowed larger societies to form and language to diffuse among them. Meanwhile, elevated biodiversity was a result of the harsh terrain.

Madagascar is another interesting example. Its geographic isolation means it has a large proportion of endemic species (like lemurs and frogs). However it was only settled by humans around 2,000 years ago, meaning languages haven’t had much time to diversify.

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Even though Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, it was only colonised by humans relatively recently, resulting in low linguistic diversity. The lemur says “how are you?” and the frog replies in Malagasy.

What this means for conservation

There are sad but thought-provoking parallels between species extinction and language loss. They are driven by similar phenomena: expanding human population, migration and globalisation. Some researchers have suggested that linguistic and biological conservationists should team up for even greater impact.

But the New Guinea study suggested that on a local level, threatened species and endangered languages do not necessarily overlap.

Nonetheless, conserving cultures is integral to saving nature. Indigenous people look after the land and so provide all of us with essential ecosystem services – clean air, pollination and fresh water. Their participation in conservation is vital – diversity ensures the future of humanity.

“When wild lands are lost, so is metaphor, allusion and the poetry that arises in the interplay of mind and nature.”

-Jay Griffiths, writer

 

If you’re interested in Indigenous cultures, nature and language, I highly recommend the book Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths.

 


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Endangered tongues

You’ve probably heard of the plight of the orang-utans and cries to “save the whales” but have you heard of Ixcatec or Tharkarri?

They’re not cute and cuddly animals you can touch, but they’re still capable of living.

They’re the vanishing mind-music of people: critically endangered languages.

Ixcatec and Tharkarri are just two of the 2,465 languages included on UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.  

Enveloped in silence

Languages can die out – just like plant and animal species can become extinct.

On an archipelago off the western coast of Canada, just 20 speakers of the Haida language remain – a mere fragment of the estimated 15,000 speakers at the time of European contact.

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In the Haida language, guusuwàa means “someone who likes to gossip or talk a lot.”

In a tiny town called Tabasco in central Mexico, the Ayapaneco language persists in the minds of two elderly men – who, until recently, wouldn’t speak to each other due to a decades-old quarrel.

In 2008, Marie Smith Jones passed away and took the Native Alaskan Eyak language with her.

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Marie Smith Jones was the last speaker of Eyak – iishuh means hello.

“What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors or anticipate the promise of the children?”

– Wade Davis, Anthropologist

What makes a language endangered?

A language is considered endangered if it is likely to die out in the near future – it’s estimated that 50-90% of all languages will have been lost by the end of this century. Even languages that may seem healthy, with thousands of speakers like Navajo, can be vulnerable – if the younger generations aren’t learning it, it won’t survive.

Language extinction can be a gradual process. Usually, a community will find itself under pressure to assimilate into a more socially, politically and economically dominant culture. Sometimes, a group of people may be forcibly  separated from their language – for example, Haida children were forbidden from speaking their language until well into the 20th century.

If you’ve ever learnt a language and then stopped speaking it, you’ll know how words begin to fade from memory. A language must be practiced – spoken or written – to live. Otherwise it becomes a tip-of-the-tongue figment, sounds lost in muffling brain-fog.

Sometimes, extinction can be sudden – like the Palawa languages that were decimated during the genocide of the Aboriginal people in Tasmania, Australia.

Why should we care?

Perhaps you may be wondering: who cares? What’s the point in saving a language that’s only spoken by a few old people anyway?

I care. Some say that language loss is simply inevitable cultural change – but I think this ignores the tragic history of oppression suffered by speakers of these minority languages. I’m a great believer in the beauty of diversity – just as we value biodiversity amongst our flora and fauna, so too we should value cultural and linguistic diversity.

Some people argue that languages carry distinct ways of thinking. Experiments have shown that speakers of different languages do in fact display tiny differences in thinking processes. But linguists question whether these slight variations constitute wholly unique world-views.

Language is about people

But at it’s heart, language is about people. Language by itself may not shape our life-perspective, but culture does. Language is a powerful symbol of culture and identity. It’s how people pass down their stories and traditions, and how they interpret the world around them. It’s how they connect and form communities. People feel the loss of their language very deeply. As one Ojibwe elder said,

“Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit.”

 

There’s also a scientific argument for saving languages. Not only are languages fascinating to study in and of themselves, they are also infused with the vast, accumulated knowledge of the people who speak them. There is a growing realisation that Indigenous knowledge has much to offer modern science: from plant-derived medicines to information about past sea levels.

A landscape of living languages

So I think it’s great that linguists continue to compile dictionaries and analyse grammar and record oral histories and traditions.

But I also hope that some languages will be more than preserved specimens in a forgotten linguistic museum. Humanity deserves a colourful landscape of living languages.

I’ll leave you with the inspiring words of Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and anthropologist:

Video: “Dreams from Endangered Cultures” on Ted