Language

The Decade of Indigenous Languages

The United Nation declared a “Decade of Indigenous Languages”, beginning on January 1, 2022. There are currently over 7000 languages in the world, but roughly 40% of those languages are endangered, as adults no longer speak the language to their children. According to the U.N., one language is lost every two weeks. 

Languages become extinct due to colonization, urbanization and globalization. Colonists may purposely try to eradicate the language and culture of the indigenous people. When indigenous people leave their homelands to find work in cities, they need to speak the dominant language to survive. And young people need to use it to participate in today's global world.

The most spoken languages worldwide

There are over 10,000 languages in the world. However, some languages are spoken by a very large number of people.

Over a billion people speak English—mainly people living in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former English colonies. Another billion speak Mandarin. Mandarin is mostly spoken in China.

Nearly 620,000,000 people speak Hindi. It is a language found mostly in South Asian countries such as India.

Over 530,000,000 people speak Spanish, mostly in Spain and Latin America. French and Arabic are spoken by nearly 300,000,000 people. French is spoken in France, Canada and France’s old colonies around the world. Arabic speakers mostly live in the Middle East and North Africa.

For in-depth information, click below to see a chart showing the most common languages spoken around the world.

Can language change culture?

Languages generally develop organically, following changes in culture. But sometimes we have to purposefully change our language to create the culture we need.

Take, for example, sexism. In English, seeing the masculine form of a word—e.g., adding "-man" to a job title, and using he/him/his pronouns—as neutral had been accepted as the norm since the 19th century and still often is. In the 1970s, however, women began to demand equal representation in all things, and that meant in the language, too. 

Studies have shown that people are influenced by the words they see. In one study, people were asked to read a story with the following sentences in it:

  • “The foreman reassured himself he had made the right decision.”

  • "The foreman reassured herself she had made the right decision.”

The benefits of bilingualism

According to CNN, learning a new language can rewire your brain and help stave off Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Ellen Bialystok, from York University in Toronto, Canada, found that bilinguals are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease four to five years later than their monolingual counterparts.

When it comes to the beneficial effects bilingualism has on the brain, education levels do not matter. In fact, the most profound effects were found in people who were illiterate and had no education. Bilingualism was their only real source of mental stimulation, and as they got older, it provided protection for their aging brains.

More experience with bilingualism leads to greater cognitive changes. The earlier you start being bilingual, and the more intense your bilingual experience is on a daily basis, the more changes happen in your brain.

Visuals: language speed & density

According to The Economist, languages face a trade-off between complexity and speed. Those packed with information are spoken more slowly, while simpler ones are spoken faster. As a result, most languages are equally efficient at conveying information.

For instance, a Japanese translation of this text would be longer and a Thai one would be shorter, but readers would finish reading it at about the same time.

Have a look at the graph below and discuss what you see with your teacher.

Cashing in on the Olympics

In 2017, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government estimated that the economic effects of the upcoming Olympic Games will be worth about $292 billion over a span of 17 years. In an attempt to cash in on this, a wide array of businesses in Japan have been ramping up preparations, including the taxi industry.

In January 2018, the Japan Federation of Hire-Taxi Associations formulated measures for the Olympics and Paralympics. The association set a goal of having 9,000 drivers taking English lessons by April, and over 16,000 have already completed them.

Only drivers who have completed at least a mid-level English course are allowed to pick up passengers at the international terminal at Haneda airport in Tokyo. To take the exam, which is designed to test communication skills, drivers must finish an advanced English course.

Simultaneous translator coming soon

Until now pocket translators have all followed the same steps: 1) you say something in your language; 2) the device turns your speech into text; 3) it translates the text to the other language; and finally, 4) the text-to-speech voice says it in the new language. A long process that makes for a frustrating conversation.

Enter two new devices—the “WT2 Plus Ear to Ear AI Translator Earbuds” from Timekettle, and the over-the-ear “Ambassador” from Waverly Labs. Both allow the speaker to continue speaking while the translation is taking place. You don’t have to wait after every sentence for the machine to catch up with you. This makes for a much faster conversation with a more natural flow. They aren’t simultaneous, but they’re pretty close. The WT2 Plus is already available, and the Ambassador is coming out soon. 

Saving "woman hand" with art

The 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book was written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life. Women in medieval Japan were discouraged from studying kanji, so they began using kana instead, which transcribe words phonetically. 

A standardisation programme at the beginning of the 20th century saw 90% of the 550 characters used in kana die out. But these forgotten characters are now being kept alive by the artist and master of Japanese calligraphy Kaoru Akagawa, who became fascinated with them after deciphering letters from her grandmother.