Alberto Javier Reyes García, biologist at the National Herbarium in Mexico (MEXU), collecting plants in the Zapotec community of La Ventosa, Oaxaca, Mexico as part of Smithsonian-led research. (Gibrán Morales Carranza)
Our language, ourselves
May 22, 2017
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Every sentence we speak shows something about who we are as humans. Even people speaking the same language have distinct dialects. These are rooted in their history and culture. Whether you say "soda" or "pop" may tell what country and what region you are from. What you call the night before Halloween may tie to your religious beliefs. What kind of slang you use may stem from the habits of the community you grew up in.
Language also sheds light on connections between us, and our natural environments. Plants and animals that are given names in any language are generally those that are relevant to people speaking the language. The relevance comes from the way that the people have interacted with the animals and plants. In some cases, this has happened over centuries.
We might think of language as having a fixed set of words and rules. We learn these in school. But in fact, language is always evolving. New words emerge. Others fall out of use. Pronunciation changes over time. The meaning of words changes, too. People also borrow words from languages other than their own to complement their own lexicon.
Our ability to learn language develops when we are young. Sounds heard as infants, or even in the womb, set the stage for language learning later. Baby cooing is the result of babies' analysis of the languages spoken to them. Babies are practicing the pronunciation and recognition of sounds that they need for communication. Children exposed to multiple languages early in life, and growing up multilingual, develop enhanced cognitive functions. These may include the ability to focus and ignore distractions.
Languages are as diverse as the communities that speak them. Each of the approximately 7,000 world languages is a testimony to a community's unique human experience. Yet, many languages around the world are endangered. As many as half of the world's languages could go silent. And it could happen by the end of this century. Why? The reasons are complex. But they boil down to social inequalities and disrespect for others.
Linguist Gabriela Perez Baez researches Zapotec languages. They are indigenous to Mexico. Learn more about her work to recover an endangered Zapotec language. Watch the "Smithsonian Science How" webcast. It airs Thursday, May 25, 2017. It is entitled Recovering Voices - Sustaining Global Linguistic Diversity. It airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EDT. She will answer your questions live. (In both English and Spanish). You can get teaching resources to use before or after the live show.
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do people from different regions have different words for the same things?
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