Ni hao! Privyet! Aloha! Jambo! ¡Hola!
Do you know what that means? It is “hello” in five different languages—Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Hawaiian, Swahili, and Spanish. If you wanted to be able to say hello to everyone in the world in their own language, you would have to learn at least 3,000 different languages!
HOW DO WE SPEAK?
Talking is more complicated than you might think. In order to say a word, you need to let out a stream of air from your lungs, and then make sounds with it by using combinations of your vocal cords, the top of your mouth, your tongue, teeth, lips, and nose.
Here are just a few of the different sounds we can make. Some sounds are “voiced” (your vocal cords are used) and some are not. For example, the sounds “k” and “g” are produced in the same part of your mouth, but “g” is voiced, and “k” is not. Try saying “f” then “v”—which one do you think is voiced? You use your vocal cords in the back of your mouth to say “v”, so this is the voiced sound.
To say “p”, “b” or “m” you need to use your lips, and to say “t” or “s” you need to use the top of your mouth. Can you find a sound that uses your teeth? Your tongue slides between your teeth when you make a “th” sound, like in the word “this”. Now imagine how many different movements you make with your mouth every time you say just one sentence.
LEARNING TO TALK
The first language you learn to speak is called your native language. Babies learn to talk in a mixture of different ways. They listen to their parents speaking and then imitate the sounds that they hear. More importantly, they are born with an ability to learn the grammar and vocabulary of any language they hear as they grow up. A baby can learn to speak any of the thousands of human languages. But experts believe that within a few weeks of birth, babies are “tuning in” to the specific sounds of the language their parents speak and that they can tell the difference if they hear someone speaking another language.
Young children can learn a new language very easily. If their parents move to another country and they are surrounded by people speaking a different language, they will soon learn to speak it as well as their native language. But as people grow older, they gradually lose the ability to learn the grammar and to pronounce sounds that are not used in their native language, so it becomes more difficult to learn new languages. People who learn a new language as an adult are very rarely able to speak it without a foreign accent.
All human languages have a structure. We call this structure grammar. For example, “I went to the shops today and bought a new coat” is a clear sentence, but “I to shops today go coat new have bought” sounds wrong and is difficult to understand because the grammar is incorrect.
In grammar, words are divided up into parts of speech, such as verbs, nouns or adjectives. For a sentence to make sense, the words have to be put together in the correct order, adverbs have to go with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and verbs have to be used in the right form and tense. If you are a native speaker of English, you do all this without even thinking about it. You know instinctively that “I going bed” is wrong, but “I am going to bed” is right. If you learn a second language, you have to consciously learn the rules or grammar of that language, which is why it can be difficult.
WRITTEN AND SPOKEN LANGUAGE
There is often a difference between the way that people speak a language and the way that they write it down. Spoken language develops and changes all the time. New words and expressions, particularly the informal kind that we call slang, are added all the time, while other expressions fall out of use. People in different parts of a country may speak the same language with different accents and have their own local “turns of phrase” that they use when they are talking. These different versions of the same language are called dialects.
Written language tends to be more grammatically correct and more formal than spoken language. Just think of the different ways that you might start a letter or a phone call. In a letter you would write “Dear Mr Smith”, but a phone call could start “Hello David” or even “Hiya mate!” if you know the person well.
Written language changes less than spoken language over the course of time. Words are nearly always spelt the same way, even though the way they are pronounced when people are chatting may change. For example, we pronounce the word “light” as if it were spelt “lite”. The spelling “light” tells us how it was pronounced centuries ago when English was first written down and some letters had different sounds to those we use today.
But not all written language is formal. In fact, the language used in text messages and e-mails is very informal and is more like speech than writing. This is partly because it is a very quick way of communicating, almost like a spoken conversation. Text messages are often made up of words and sentences that are not complete. Also, text messages and e-mails are not meant to last for years, like a book is, and so can be less formal.
LANGUAGES OF THE WORLD
Experts in languages group the thousands of languages in the world into families. Members of a language family have a historical connection with each other and are descended from a common ancestor language. Languages in a family may share similar grammatical structures and have sounds or words that correspond. For example, the word for “mother” is similar in many European languages: “Mutter” in German, “Maman” in French, “Madre” in Italian.
Language families are often drawn like a family tree, showing different branches within the family. The languages on the same branch are the most closely related. One of the biggest language families is the Indo-European family. This family includes most of the languages of Europe and southern Asia. Indo-European languages are today spoken throughout the world, partly as a result of European colonization of certain countries. English is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family. The closest “relative” to English is Frisian, which is spoken in the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Dutch, German and Yiddish belong to the same branch of languages.
Other language families around the world include African language families, Pacific families, Asian families, Australian Aboriginal families and many Native American families. There are also several languages called “isolates” that have no known relations to any other languages. These language isolates do not belong to any language family. Examples are Japanese and Korean.
DO ANIMALS USE LANGUAGE?
Many animals use sounds to communicate with one another. They may sing or call in some way to attract a mate or have a special call to signal danger. A few groups of animals have more complicated communication systems. For example, chimpanzees communicate with each other using a wide range of vocal sounds. Scientists have managed to teach chimpanzees to use forms of sign language and even to communicate with humans using a computer.
So do animals have languages? No, they do not. Experts believe that although other animals do have forms of language, human language is still unique. Humans can put words together in a never-ending number of combinations, producing sentences that have never been said before. We can also use language to refer to things that happened in the past or will happen in the future, not just in the present, and we are born with the ability to learn any of the many human languages. Animals do not have these skills.
Did you know?
• There are hundreds of endangered languages around the world. These are languages with very few native speakers, which may soon die out altogether. In the UK, the Cornish and Manx languages are considered to be at risk. Cornish has some native speakers. Manx has no native speakers at all-just a small number of people who speak it as a second language.
• Deaf people use sign language to communicate. But there isn’t just one type of sign language used around the world-there are many different types, just like the many different languages used by hearing people. For example, British Sign Language is used in Britain, American Sign Language is used in America, French Sign Language is used in France and Ethiopian Sign Language is used in Ethiopia.
• The Khoisan African language family is also known as the Click family. This is because many of the languages in the family use click sounds as consonants, as well as some of the consonant, sounds that you use. The clicks are produced by holding the tongue in different positions and sucking air into the mouth.
• Esperanto is an artificial language-one that was invented to be used for international communication. It is based on elements from a number of European languages and is supposed to be easy for people all over the world to learn and pronounce (though this is not always the case).