There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken in the world today (let’s just take a moment and let that number sink in). While that fact alone is truly astounding, it’s implications are only that much more interesting: there are roughly 6,500 groups of people in the world representing that number of cultures, stories, norms, and histories.
Amongst other things, this number means it can’t be too difficult to encounter new languages and cultures if we only want to. By acknowledging the importance of introducing ourselves to other cultures and how this enables us to understand others, worldwide, we’ll be sure to want to make this happen as soon as possible.
Language has been a debate in itself for centuries. In globalized reality, there are strong arguments urging to move towards the direction of a monolingual world; but such a reality would surely strip entire communities of their own special wisdom and unique nuances that have formed over years and decades of living on this earth and creating a language to help them survive while doing so.
Our offhand response to a foreign language can unfortunately be far from great. We organize our life around it, trying to diminish our encounter with foreign tongues. Especially when as travelers, for example, we plan to travel to a country that speaks a foreign language we initially feel hesitant, worried, concerned and perhaps even annoyed at the thought that managing to interact with the locals and to successfully understand everything will be that much more confusing and difficult.
But, International Mother Language Day coming up on the 21st of February, is a great reminder to why we should replace such initial negative feelings and instead celebrate and welcome any opportunity to hear a new language. First announced in 1999, this day of celebration promotes linguistic and cultural diversity, and invites people worldwide to bask in the wonderfulness of a multilingual world.
Let’s try and look at Language and Culture like our best friends growing up, those we’ve known since kindergarten and never grew apart. They’re entirely dependent on one another, complete each-other’s sentences, share the same outlooks on life, have the same goals. They are so much alike that by meeting one of them well enough- you basically feel like you’ve met them both.
Yes – language and culture are exactly like that, which is why instead of shying away from the idea of learning a new language, we should actually be really really excited at the prospect that by learning a new one we will begin to discover a new culture in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
To make this a little clearer it can be explained that culture is described through language, and that language is formed around one specific culture. By learning the language of a new travel destination for example, and by paying close attention to the various ways which that language is used to describe and explain various aspects, we can learn all the unique cultural traits of that specific place.
Better yet, it can be noted that certain concepts and ideas that are specific to a culture, influence that culture’s language. In other words – each language is a product of its own culture, people and history. For example, the Amazonian Indians can describe the color green in a variety of different shades in comparison to American English which basically describes only one type of green. To the Amazonian Indians who live in the jungle and form their entire lives around what nature has to offer, it is clear why their language would form to describe such colors, and green in particular, in so many specific ways. This color is far more vital and important to them than it is to other cultures that are much less connected to nature.
Another example takes us to Goulburn Island’s inhabitants whose language is packed with “…words for the area’s plants and animals in ways that capture seasonal subtleties of how these are interrelated; some of these nuances are untranslatable.” This community needed to survive within their plants, animals and ecosystem, and their language is a true testament of exactly that. The Inuit family of languages proudly boasts tens of various ways to describe snow. More specifically, their language has at least 53 different words to describe different types of snow. To the Eskimos-Inuit people, being able to differentiate between ice that can hold their weight or ice that would break was a life or death situation, and their language grew and evolved to portray such crucial distinctions.
Though these few linguistic examples of different cultures only scratch the surface of the myriad of ways in which languages grew to speak the ideas of cultures, it hopefully has succeeded in sparking that urge of interest to continue to learn and appreciate what multilingualism has to offer.
When you begin to prepare for your next adventure abroad, take a daring step out of your comfort zone and choose a destination with a spoken language different from you own. As you explore and wander around – take a deep breath, sit with the locals, ask them questions, and discover a new culture and community.
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