Let’s travel to South America, specifically to the indigenous tribe called the Hi’aiti’ihi, who speak the Pirahã language deep within the Amazonian jungle. This tribe has been the source of much controversy and discussion among linguistics professors. Why? Because, as [linguist] Dan Everett’s research reveals:
“The Pirahã live from moment to moment, and the language reflects that. […] No stories exist that haven’t either been experienced by the speaker or by someone the speaker knew personally. If anything is spoken of that isn’t within that principle, it isn’t credible to the tribe and therefore is not accepted. Stories don’t travel more than one or two generations because one must experience subjects personally. No stories or fictional tales are passed on.”
Of even greater linguistic interest, however, is the fact that their language does not have any numbers. Let’s back up. I’m not sure you heard me. This language is unique in several ways, but primarily world-renowned in linguistic communities because it contains no numbers. None, whatsoever. Not a single one. Not even one. Sorry, what?
Can you imagine such a world? I look at the clock, and see digits. I do my taxes, and write numbers. I use an iPad, cell phone, desktop, laptop–essentially any device–and know that somehow, “01010101” and an enormous amount of coding lets me communicate with nearly anyone in the world. A world without numbers? What about synesthetes? What about birthdays? What about money? Or addresses? What about time? Does no time means no past or future? How many jobs would not exist if there weren’t numbers? I am speechless, wordless, number-less…
To clarify, these hunter-gatherers** do have smaller or larger amounts (the concept of more or less), but no numbers. I have read before that in order to barter, one might turn a palm skyward to indicate more, and downward for less–but there are no numbers, either to quantify what is being bartered or to exchange currencies.
**Some have suggested in recent years that our cyber habits closely parallel hunter-gatherer societies and thought, in the sense that we skim information quickly, only searching for what we want to catch, or gather. Hmmm.
My initial encounter with the Basque language (Euskara) was a bit of a shock, particularly since I was in Spain and, well, expected Spanish/ Castellano to be the default. I was hiking across the northern part of the Iberian peninsula and had not anticipated the, “How, what…?” linguistic shock. I didn’t even know the question. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Why don’t I see any common word roots in something like tabakalera?” was what my brain wanted to ask.
Or, better yet and upon later research, what are the root words in, “Euskararen Txantxangorria’ren“? (It means, “the Basque red robin“, in case you were wondering, and is a song–see below–as part of a campaign to encourage the use of the Basque language.)
Basque is, without a doubt, unrelated to any other Latin language, which would explain my confusion. In fact,
“[Atlanteans] believed that if something was written down, it encouraged forgetfulness and simultaneously discouraged the cultivation of memory.”
Talk about a different perspective! I admit that I get up in the middle of the night to write down a thought on a Post-It so that I won’t forget in the morning. Imagine how strong our minds would be if we did not write anything down! Ever. How would our understanding of history change? In what would our days consist? Certainly not blogging like this. Even the syntax is quite distinct:
It all began with a couch. If it hadn’t been for that blue couch, I don’t know what would have happened. You see, when I was small, I used to love to lay upside down on the cushions. I remember how the ceiling and the clock and the trees through the window looked foreign, somehow; everything was different, but it was also the same. Suffice to say, I have always been fascinated by different perspectives. At age 8 or 9, I read Alvin’s Secret Code, a book about spies, codes, and ciphers. I played ‘spies’ all the time after that and would invent my own codes.
This coding practice became a game of substitution when I stumbled onto Spanish class in high school. Little did I know that that was just the beginning. To this day, listening to languages–especially music–I don’t understand simultaneously awakens something in me and allows me to relax.
Many polyglots, or people who speak multiple languages, describe their relationship with languages as, quite literally, a relationship: personally, I am married to Spanish, seriously dating French, had a yearlong fling with both Russian and Mandarin, and have been on a few dates with Arabic and Swahili. I saw Hungarian in a bookstore once and was intrigued, and occasionally flirt with German and Italian on the street.
English and I have a fascinatingly complex but strained relationship. I am ashamed to admit that I cannot identify Swedish no matter how many times we meet out in public. Icelandic is beautiful but way out of my league (read: I can’t pronounce ANYTHING!!!!). I wish I had the opportunity to meet Japanese, Turkish, Greek, and Latin, but we can’t seem to make the long-distance thing work. That said, I have traveled to at least 13 countries now, including Iceland, China, and Argentina, and spent two summers hiking across northern Spain.
Point being, while I certainly don’t know everything, I do have a bit of a background and history with language(s), and therefore feel qualified to speak on the subject. (Then again, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky knows quite a bit more.)
If we are going to embark on a serious discussion about language and the brain, it is incumbent upon us to begin with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: “a hypothesis, first advanced by Edward Sapir in 1929 and subsequently developed by Benjamin Whorf, that the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience” (source).
This sounds a bit highfalutin, but it basically just taunts linguists with the following question: “Does your language shape or influence how you think?” You might have an immediate answer if you’re the decisive type, or perhaps you never considered the thought. I really don’t know what you’re thinking right now! But let’s take a look at a few different languages and cultures before deciding too definitively. After all, linguists argue about this all the time; it is unlikely that we will solve this query today.
Each of the following images below is a link to a brief article, exploring different perspectives of other languages and cultures. Click on them to explore–they are really interesting, I promise!–and then come back to this page to continue reading. I originally had all of this on one post, but it became too difficult to follow. (#dissertation!)
“The hyperpolyglot is someone who is both a gifted and massive language accumulator. They possess a particular neurology that’s well-suited for learning languages very quickly and being able to use them.” –Michael Erard
IN THE LATE 1500’s, a man named Thomas Coryat decided to hike across Europe. He ended up walking over 2,000 miles and “picking up” 14 languages along the way. He was a talented linguist and considered one of the world’s first backpackers and true tourists. With 14 languages under his belt, he is also considered a hyperpolyglot, or “massive language accumulator”.
In the 1800’s, there are legends that a Cardinal named Mezzofanti was fluent in at least 38 languages. According to linguist Michael Erard, when two prisoners were about to be put to death, Mezzofanti even learned the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”) overnight, heard their confessions and offered forgiveness in their language the following day, prior to the executions. Although seemingly impossible, there are numerous accounts of his unbelievable abilities, as well as boxes of flashcards stashed away in the historical archives of a library somewhere in Italy.
Modern-day hyperpolyglots include Timothy Doner, Alex Rawlings, Richard Simcott, Kató Lomb, and Alexander Argüelles, to name a few. All of these hyperpolyglots have different methods and beliefs in terms of how best to learn a language. Some imagine wearing different colored lenses when they study: red-tinted glasses for Chinese, blue for Russian, yellow for Portuguese, and so on and so forth to separate languages and facilitate in code-switching. Others walk through parks shouting unintelligible phrases, over and over again, until far on the horizon, their brain begins to pick apart the sounds, and suddenly, they have discovered a way in the back door.
Some listen to music on loop, ‘downloading’ and memorizing chunks of language, and then searching for translations after the fact, to see what they have learned and where they can apply said lyrics in everyday life. Still others rely on the old standby: the rote, drill and kill grammar of flashcards and verb conjugations. And some don’t necessarily learn the entire language, but have fun playing with accents and imitating foreign sounds (see Diego J. Rivas, SAARA, & Amy Walker). While the latter are not hyperpolyglots, their unique skillsets are certainly admirable.
Both translation and interpretation would seem to be prime examples of how language influences or shapes your thought–that is, when trying to navigate from one language and culture (and frame of reference) to another. I have the utmost respect and admiration for translators and interpreters, but cannot imagine such a task: how could my native or non-native language not influence me?!
If you would like to explore these topics in greater depth, check out the articles below. I spent some time on “Translations Gone Wrong” below for humor/ comic relief, but rushed through this section a bit during the presentation, due to time constraints.
For parents and teachers alike, let’s take a look at how it comes to be that I am able to communicate with you, and you with me. What is going on in the brain? And how, as language educators, can we best approach our lessons so that the information is retained?
Read the articles below for more information. I focused on “Linguistic Development” and “Rate of Speech & Spaced Repetition” during the presentation, but included the post, “When Will My Child Be Fluent?” here because I addressed this in the Q&A at the end with faculty.
There are about 7,000 languages in the world, but it really depends on how you define “language”. For example: do languages that are only spoken (and not written) count? What about dialects or slang? What about endangered languages that only have one or two speakers left– do they count? Suffice to say, there are many factors involved, but 7,000 languages is a fair estimate. How many can you name?
What are the best apps to start learning a new language?
There are a lot of language-learning apps on the market; really, any app that gets you into a habit and routine of practicing another language is useful. For both kids and adults, Duolingo and Memrise are very popular. Busuu and FluentU are also very well-known, but you do have to pay after the free trial. LinguaLift has a detailed commentary on each of apps in the infographic to compare and contrast them. If you are looking more for your child(ren), here is a list of 20+ Spanish Games and Apps for Kids, starting with toddlers. This article has even more ideas: 20 Amazing Apps for Kids in 2022.
Is English the most-spoken language in the world?
No, in real life, English is not the most-spoken language in the world. Chinese is number one, Spanish is number two, and English is number three. Online, however, English dominates the digital world.
**More Frequently Asked Questions and Answers on THIS PAGE.
So, what do you think? Does your language shape or influence how you think? I still cannot answer definitively, but I would tend to lean more towards yes than no. Regardless, if you’ve read this far, you know that language isn’t just a hobby for me. It’s #Obsession.
To put your new perspective taking into practice, try your hand at copying the non-Roman alphabets and languages below.
If people without numbers are not enough for you today, the Moken Tribe–living near Thailand and Burma–will fix that. They do not have a word for “want” in their language. Likewise, “worry” is not a concept in their language; nor are “take”, “hello/goodbye”, or “when” (no time/ages). This is the same tribe that knew a deadly tsunami was coming in 2004 and saved themselves. Aren’t languages fascinating? What we understand as reality is not always the case for the rest of the world. No time, no wants, no worries…
For beautiful photos that, due to copyright law I am not allowed to publish here, please visit THIS SITE.
“Baggage is not good for nomadic people. It ties you down. They have no notion or desire for wealth.”
To continue with the theme of grammatical and syntactical differences between languages, and whether or not that could possibly determine if language shapes or influences how we think, we travel to the far east. Now, the general character-based appearance is obviously different from alphabet-based languages, but let’s take it a step farther.
If I gave you six objects to categorize, as pictured below, how would you group them?
Arguably, this is highly dependent on which language(s) you speak. English-speakers are more likely to group by category, “pen and pencil” (for writing), “cup and plate” (for eating), “car and Legos” (for playing), whereas Japanese speakers might group more by material, “pen and car” (metal), “pencil and plate” (wooden), and “cup and Legos” (plastic).
Japanese and Mandarin both have classifiers, or “measure words”, which attach themselves to numbers–so how you say, “one tree” is different than how you would say, “one car”, since trees are in the “wood” category and cars are more in the “metal” category.
To learn more, check out the following linguistic studies:
Aymara and Quechua are spoken in the Andes mountains and highlands of South America. While many fewer people speak Aymara compared to Quechua (2.4 million to 8-12 million, respectively), both are relatively unknown to much of the world.
I love that learning about other languages and cultures always gives us new perspectives. It is like when you stand on a chair: the room is still the same room, but you notice different things about it. As we deepen our language study, we begin to notice new perspectives embedded in other languages and cultures. What is especially unique about Aymara and Quechua, is their understanding of time.
“[T]he Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.”
“The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or ‘past’, literally means eya and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.”
In other words, everything we can see is considered the past, and therefore in front of us; everything we cannot see and is therefore unknown, is the future and behind us. This is actually very logical when you think about. Could that one unique linguistic perspective influence how we think?
While Quechua still has a significant number of speakers, it is actually considered an endangered language. However, the internet is helping to popularize and revitalize Quechua (along with other endangered languages), so that more people learn to speak it.
Renata Flores, for example, sang a Michael Jackson song in Quechua to help her native language become more popular, and the video went viral. If you’ve never heard Quechua before, I recommend listening!
When it comes to colors, it is easy to assume that the associations we were once taught in art class–blue is paired with sadness, yellow with happiness, red with love, etc.–are true for everyone the world over. As we learn in the tables and video below, however, that is not always the case.
The color green, for example, signifies luck and progress in Western cultures (think: four-leaf clover!), and in Hindu, it is associated with love; whereas in South America, green is associated with death, and in Indonesia, it has such strong negative connotations that it is forbidden altogether. Wow!
(With that in mind, I cannot imagine the conversations that must be had when it comes to advertising for international companies and the colors on their logos.)
“About 3 months before birth, while still in their mother’s womb, babies start to hear. Consequently, every day of the last few months before birth, the baby can hear people speaking – this is the first step in language learning! This first step, in other words, is to learn the melody of the language.” –Source
“German word for daddy is “papa” with a stress on the first syllable: papa.
The French word for daddy is “papa” with a stress on the last syllable: papa.
Cry melodies of newborns follow these speech stress patterns!” –Source
Following learning the melody of a language, toddlers gradually begin to output language– initially, this is a word or two, but quickly afterwards they begin saying short sentences and then longer, more complex ones (evidence they are acquiring grammar and syntax, in addition to vocabulary). The curve is pretty exponential at a certain point, based on the data below.
If you were to graph it, it would look something like this, but the “receptive vocabulary” kind of throws it off. If graphs make more sense to you than tables, however, it does provide a pretty strong visual. Intense growth!
It’s slowing down.According to Hull, the average adult speaks at a rate of almost 170 words per minute. But the average 5 to 7- year-old processes speech at a rate of only 120 words per minute. […]
The average high-school student processes speech at a rate of about 140 to 145 words per minute, still slower than most adults speak. ‘So when an algebra teacher is speaking at 160 or 180 words per minute and is introducing a new math concept… that is a problem,’ Hull said.”
5-7 Years Old
High School Student
“[Mr. Rogers] kept children’s attention because he practiced speaking at a rate of about 124 words a minute. The pace may sound awkward, even ridiculous, to adults.
But to children accustomed to hearing only bits of sentences or garbled phrases, it is sheer relief. ‘Some children’s central nervous systems have matured, and they can do it. They can cope. But many can’t.’ ”
When it comes to teaching, the average language learner needs 70-150 reps before a word gets into long-term memory. Repetition can be presented in novel ways (reading, singing, etc.), but it must be the same information. The graphs below indicate just how important spaced repetition truly is.
1885 study by German psychologist, Herman Ebbinghaus
If you are reading this and a language enthusiast like yours truly, it is likely that you have established some sort of language-learning routine. Now, the race has truly begun. I would like to point out that after a few dozen times around the track (metaphorically speaking), you will begin to notice oddities, or so-called quirks in your target language. Similar to getting to know someone better, you come to appreciate said peculiarities: they enhance the relationship, rather than detract from it.
Many of these linguistic quirks will fall in the category of syntax–the arrangement of words and phrases; or, how language is organized–that differs from your native tongue. “Juice of orange/jugo de naranja” instead of orange juice (Spanish); “I doctor/Я доктор”, instead of “I am a doctor” (Russian); “Electric brain/电脑“, instead of “computer” (Mandarin Chinese). You may not be here yet, but when you arrive, try to be flexible in your thinking. “We” are not any more right than “they” are. This is where the beautiful flower of language begins to blossom.
In addition, there can also be more nebulous types of translations, or even completely untranslatable phrases. Regarding the former, Spanish does not have as many words as English, so one word can encompass numerous meanings and nuances; in English, we might have a more specific term. In fact, I have heard before that Swahili is, by necessity, incredibly metaphorical because it has fewer words than other languages. Spanish has many more words–rough estimates might say around 150,000. Below, see a few more thoughts on the subject:
This is still all comparing apples to oranges, though, because you can only compare the number of dictionary entries, not the actual number of words from one language to another. Consider that, “[Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovak?]” translates as ONE word in Turkish: Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız. Sorry, say what?! German combines multiple words together in the same way, which makes quantifying any of this nearly impossible.
With respect to untranslatable words and along the same lines, komorebi/木漏れ日 (in Japanese) means ‘sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees’; there is no English equivalent. Pisanzapra (in Malay) is the time needed to eat a banana. In case you are interested, Ella Frances Sanders has two books devoted entirely to this fascinating topic. Here is one of my favorite untranslatable words:
Interestingly enough, and while English does not have an equivalent for mångata, Turkish does:
“Yakamoz is that beautiful phenomenon that happens at night when the shimmering moonlight reflects on the water. It also describes the blue, fluorescent glow created by bioluminescent plankton in the water.”
On closer examination, yakamoz would seem to encompass more than the Swedish term, extending to bioluminescence. However, to be fair, I speak neither Swedish nor Turkish, and so cannot know with absolute certainty that the Swedish does not connect or allude to a florescent glow.
Regardless, how deep the ocean of a single word! How utterly magnificent, these layers of language(s)! How incandescently happy the linguist who chances upon them! If could compose an Ode to Language, I would. Until then, be sure to delight in the language learning process, in upside down syntax, in untranslatable phrases, in an ever-expanding linguistic relationship, in devouring sheets of our metaphorical tiramisu language cake.
To read another article about translation, please click HERE.
Learning a language–and mastering it!–allows for countless job opportunities and possibilities when entering the workforce. An obvious career is language teacher, but there is so much more available if teaching doesn’t suit or excite you. Translation and interpretation–[and translations gone wrong]–have always fascinated me, but they are oftentimes confused and very different careers: translation is written; interpretation is spoken.
In class, I like to give a demonstration with a regular classroom teacher of what interpretation looks like. We choose a mini lesson beforehand, and then s/he stops after each sentence or phrase so that I can repeat it in Spanish (not simultaneous). I remember one year being distracted when a student sneezed and I missed the sentence I was supposed to interpret (a math lesson on long division); so I stopped and pointed out how crucial 100% focus and concentration are for this profession and that I had #failed in that moment!
This simple exercise ignites a meaningful discussion among students–and there tend to be a lot of questions afterwards. The regular classroom teacher and I even memorized a page-long goat story to retell for second graders one year (video), which included small gestures, is a lesson on compromise, and was great fun! Students all wanted to learn it after we performed and interpreted it!
Have you ever wondered what music in other languages sounds like? Have you ever been stumped by how to Google search in a language you don’t speak or look up something in an alphabet you don’t know?
When I lived in China, I heard songs everywhere–out in public, on car radios, during fountain water shows, and at my host family’s home. The lyrics were completely inaccessible, and yet touched something deep within my soul: I quickly fell in love with the music. I desperately wanted to use the internet to find these songs, but not knowing more than a handful of Chinese characters, I had no idea where to begin. One day, I stumbled onto the name of a Taiwanese pop singer, Leehom Wang–whose songs I recognized–and the YT search algorithm did the rest.
Over the years, I’ve learned plenty of hacks to search in languages I don’t speak, but as it was a long process and steep learning curve, I thought I would save you the trouble and compile some of my research here. You might not love my song choices (primarily pop genre), but the suggestions on the sidebar will be in your target language, which is a great head start, particularly when you are dealing with foreign alphabets. If you speak another language and have any favorite songs to share, feel free to comment below. Enjoy!
Nowadays, the song Despacito is probably as well known as Dr. Seuss. What you might not think about are the translation jobs that allow this information to circulate worldwide. People dedicate their lives to adapting and translating books, songs, and more into other languages, which takes time. For example, they say that Red Fish, Blue Fishtook over a year to translate into Mandarin Chinese, mostly because Dr. Seuss had a habit of making up words: how do you transfer fictitious phonemes into another language? How do you make lines rhyme, when two words–directly translated–do not rhyme in another language?
Recently, students have been talking about translation (written) and interpretation (spoken) in Spanish class. This week, they focused more on translation, after taking a moment to differentiate the two. You see, translation and interpretation are often confused and used interchangeably. However, they are two very different professions.
In a nutshell… translation is written. You translate documents from one language into your native tongue, and have time to write multiple drafts of a document. Interpretation, on the other hand, is spoken. You interpret on the spot, and there is no going back. Precision in the moment is key. Interpreters often work in politics, and thus must be informed about current events, slang terms and new expressions. Today, we will focus on the job of a translator and the unanticipated ramifications of poorly translated signs and documents.
It has long been said that the work of a translator (or air-traffic controller) is only noticed when something goes wrong. These mistakes can range from chuckles and rolling on the floor laughing, to confusion, expensive marketing slogan recalls, and radical global consequences. Regardless, it is clear that the bots have not quite mastered this profession; then again, neither have humans. Just because a person speaks two languages does not necessarily mean that s/he can translate (written) or interpret (spoken) from one to another. Translation is a skill like any other, and must be honed. Unfortunately, and despite serious translation training programs and certifications, this practice is sometimes learned through trial and error.
Translation disasters occur for myriad reasons. Let’s begin with online translation. Here, an algorithm might not have sufficient information about a language: users have simply not provided enough input, due to a lack of internet access or cultural interest. For example, if you live three days away from civilization by canoe in the Amazon, the Internet is probably not in your vocabulary, nor a helpful tool against a giant beast ready to attack. When Google Translate attempts to translate this giant beast’s name into English, challenges arise. Moreover, what happens when Google translates a phrase literally, with no knowledge of slang or understanding of figurative language? Not everything is black and white, Robots–especially language!
In some cases, there are cultural differences, where a word that is perfectly acceptable in one language is confusing or seemingly offensive in another. The “Lamb of God” was translated to “Seal pup of God” in Inuktitut (language of the Inuit in the Arctic) because this is what made sense culturally; religious zealots might regard such a translation as disrespectful sans the full context.
Other times, maybe a translator tries to take a shortcut with a cognate that is not actually a cognate, or a word that sounds similar in both languages: for example, in Spanish, famous and famoso both mean famous, but embarrassed is not embarazada [pregnant]. While embarrassment may be an unintended side effect of a misguided translation in social settings, real embarrassment sets in when it is part of a multi-million dollar marketing slogan… and serious fiscal consequences.
Or, on a more serious note, have you heard about the $71 million dollar word lawsuit? How about the “Do Nothing” campaign? See images below.
Poor translations can be anything from goofy to life-threatening (we have not even touched on interpreters on the battlefield), but in any event, hopefully we can agree that there is more to language than initially meets the eye. For a good read on this topic, check out the book: Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the Worldby Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche… or surf the web.
Fun fact: in the aforementioned book, “Eva Aariak, Nunavut’s former languages commissioner (and later premier of Nunavut), chose the word [ikiaqqivik] as the Inuktitut translation for ‘Internet.’ It’s a traditional term that means ‘traveling through layers,’ and it refers to what a shaman does when he travels across time and space to find out about living or deceased relatives, ‘similar to how the net is used now,’ Julia adds” (32).
And what is the most difficult word to translate? Watch the video below!
There is an endangered language in the US called Wukchumni, that only has one living speaker remaining. Intent on preserving her language for future generations and documenting it for linguists, Marie Wilcox is working on writing a dictionary to compile all of the words in her language. Can you imagine such a task? Our challenge is ‘merely’ to download all of the words in a language into our brains; her job is upload them, eek! For more information, see the video below and this Ethnologue link.
“An endangered language, or moribund language, is a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language. Language loss occurs when the language has no more native speakers and becomes a ‘dead language'” (Wikipedia).
Please see below for links to articles about endangered languages. For a more academic source than Wikipedia, Ethnologue is a great place to start (e.g. see chart for numbers of living languages, by continent).
“The hyperpolyglot is someone who is both a gifted and massive language accumulator. They possess a particular neurology that’s well-suited for learning languages very quickly and being able to use them” (Michael Erard*).