Study Explains How the World’s 6000+ Languages Came into Being
Mon, April 19, 2021

Study Explains How the World’s 6000+ Languages Came into Being

There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today and about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers / Photo by: Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock

 

There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today and about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. But how does a language begin? A team of researchers from Leipzig University (Leipzig Research Centre for Early Childhood Development) in Germany and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology recently provided new insights into how different languages come into being.

The Origin of Spoken Language

Their study, which appeared in the peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, explains that human cultural and social life rests on communicative abilities. However, in terms of the origin of the thousands of natural languages now used in different parts of the world, the answer remains mostly a mystery. They just gradually developed over time, just like the human species.

The Birth of a New Language

It is also fascinating to see how deaf people develop sign languages in a spontaneous way to communicate with others, apart from lip reading. Previous observations show that when deaf strangers convene in one community, they can come up with their sign languages in just a short period. Nicaraguan Sign Language is a sign language that was spontaneously developed since the 1980s by deaf kids in various schools in western Nicaragua, a country in Central America. People know little about how a new language is born from simple social interaction. “This is where our study comes in,” co-author Manuel Bohn from Leipzig Research Center for Early Child Development said.

It is also fascinating to see how deaf people develop sign languages in a spontaneous way to communicate with others, apart from lip reading / Photo by: Pixel-Shot via Shutterstock

 

Simulating the Process of Creating a New Communication System

Bohn and the team simulated the process of creating a new communication system. The first challenge they had to overcome in the simulation process was to make kids communicate with each other without the kids talking. Their solution: use the telecommunication app Skype. The researchers from Germany and the US used different rooms for Skype conversations. After the children got familiarized with how the video set-up worked, the researchers secretly muted the sound and observe how the kids found new methods of communication beyond spoken language.

Before the audio was turned off, the kids in the children's laboratory were instructed to describe an image on the picture board. A photo was selected by putting a red arrow next to it, but the photos were not visible to their partners. In the first part of the experiment, they had to describe concrete things, such as a fork or a hammer. Participants quickly gestured the corresponding actions, such as eating to describe the fork. 

Then, the researchers challenged the participants with more abstract images. For example, they introduced a plain white paper, which means “empty” or “nothing.” Nevertheless, the kids mastered the task even without audio. The sender first attempted different gestures, but the partner expressed that they did not understand the gesture. Suddenly, the sender pulled her clothes to the side and pointed to the white-colored dot. That’s when they both had a breakthrough. 

When their roles were switched, the recipient didn't have a white spot on her shirt but she imitated what her partner did. Within a short time, her partner already knew that she was trying to convey.

In terms of the origin of the thousands of natural languages now used in different parts of the world, the answer remains mostly a mystery / Photo by: bbernard via Shutterstock

 

The Creation of a Small Local Grammar

As the images became more complex, the number of gestures produced also increased. There are separate gestures for actions and another set of gestures for actors. Thus, the participants created a “small local grammar.”

Based on their findings, researchers concluded that languages emerge through these steps: First, people create a reference to objects and actions through signs that resemble those objects or actions. Second, partners or people communicating imitate each other, wherein the same signs will be used by the partner if they want to convey the same things. Gradually, the signs gain interpersonal and conventional meaning between the two people communicating. Furthermore, as the things and signs become more abstract, the signs also become more specific and grammatical structures in the communications system are introduced.

The researchers shared that the process of creating the small local grammar occurred within 30 minutes and it could be observed while the subjects were in controlled circumstances.

Language: Statistics and Facts

While all languages should be celebrated, some are much more widely spoken than the rest. According to annual reference publication Ethnologue, the most widely used languages in the world by the number of native speakers are the following: Mandarin Chinese (native: 873 million, as a second language: 178 million), Hindi (native: 370 million, 2nd: 120 million), Spanish (native: 350 million, 2nd: 70 million), English (native: 340 million, 2nd: 510 million), Arabic (native: 206 million, 2nd: 24 million), Portuguese (native: 203 million, 2nd: 10 million), Bengali (native: 196 million, 2dn: 215 million), Russian (native: 145 million, 2nd: 255 million), Japanese (native: 125 million, 2nd: 1 million), and German (native: 101 million, 2nd: 128 million).

Other languages that followed German include Panjabi, Javanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, French, Urdu, and Italian.