[Intern Insights] How many languages can you speak?

How many languages can you speak?

Language (noun): “A language is a system of communication which consists of a set of sounds and written symbols which are used by the people of a particular country or region for talking or writing.” There are several definitions for the term: “language”, however, this one, I found the most complete.

Did you know that 7099 languages are spoken globally today?! 7099… that’s insane if you ask me. Although, this number would probably already be different tomorrow since we learn more about the languages of the world every day. Also, the number of languages themselves differ regularly. As most of these languages are spoken by tribes who live in isolated societies away from modern civilisation. Due to our rapidly changing world, some of these languages are now endangered. As roughly a third are indigenous, this means that less than a 1000 individual tongues speak it.

The population of Papua New Guinea speaks the most languages, 840 to be precise. That’s crazy as only 7 million people live there and this number of languages is more than twice the number of spoken languages across the whole of Europe! The country has very thick rainforests and tough terrain which results in groups of people living in significant isolation, preserving their unique languages.

How do we learn a language?

For it to be effective it should happen very early in life and the person should have a normal functioning brain (is this really necessary?) with a good hearing system. Particularly the hearing process seems to be important in the development of learning a new language. Since children who lose some of their hearing capacity will most likely have difficulties in learning a language. As they cannot hear themselves and will not get direct essential auditory feedback from parents for example.

Next, to this, recent studies found that infants have a very flexible brain, which allows them to obtain virtually any language they are exposed to. Also, scientist state that until the age of seven or eight, children can learn and speak a second language fluently without any accent. Further, it is also possible to start already exposing children to different languages during pregnancy. For example, when the parents speak two languages, the unborn baby can already hear the variety of sounds and this prepares the baby to learn two languages easier, once it is born.

The best way to learn a new language is to do it like a baby. I know this sounds very weird, but if you do it this way correctly with the differences between child and adult learning in mind, it is the most efficient way. You must understand these difference, as that can assist you in learning a language like your younger self.
Now you’re probably wondering what these differences are? Well let me elaborate further on those:

1. Adults can speak at least one language fluently already.

Now you might think that this is an advantage since you already have some language skills. However, the fall here is that we as adults are already so good at our mother tongue, that it confuses us easily with any other language. Also, how you’ve learnt your first language has an immense impact on the learning development of any other language that follows.

2. Adults react to social sanctioning.

Once you’re an adult you get “embarrassed” more easily and are more afraid to make mistakes. Since children don’t care if it takes them two or thirty times to get a grammar rule right, they keep trying until they understand it. Adults, however, are embarrassed quicker. We are afraid to look stupid in front of others. This results in protecting ourselves by only speaking the language we know or only use the new language conservatively.

3. Adults communicate in equal relationships.

The main conversations of a baby are with their parents and other adults who automatically adapt their speech to the level of the baby, which is most likely less advanced. But when we look at adults they usually communicate as equals. So, it forces you to engage on the same level of language as a native speaker in thus for you, a different language. As it would be kind of strange as that native speaker suddenly starts speaking like a baby to you. While this is actually better in the process of learning a new language.

4. Other things demand our attention.

Babies are not bothered yet with full-time jobs, cooking, cleaning the house and visiting friends and family. Which results in that they have absolutely all the time in the world for learning their first language. For adults, on the other, it is slightly different. Between our jobs, relationships and other things we need to do in a day, learning a new language don’t always fit.

5. Adults must try.

This is most likely the biggest and most difficult difference to overcome. A baby only needs to hang around for a couple of years not doing too much and their linguistically amazing brain takes care of the learning automatically. However, for adults, their brain is less flexible, which means that they must push themselves in learning a new language.

To conclude, in core the learning process for adults and children are the same. We observe native speakers, identify and recognise patterns in the language and then test them via interacting with others. Then the direct feedback we receive during interactions is used to improve ourselves. Basically, it is a combination between statistical learning and social learning.

This post is brought to you by one of AQ’s Undergraduates, Paula van Staalduinen. As part of our internship programs undergraduates and classic interns are encouraged to take part in company culture. Paula’s primary project focuses on training programs and eLearning and how best to adapt this to industries under pressure.