Skip to main content

The Q? Blog

Our Language, Ourselves

by Devin Reese -- May 10, 2017

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

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. Photo by Gibrán Morales Carranza.
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. Photo by Gibrán Morales Carranza.

Every sentence we speak reveals something about who we are as humans. Even people speaking the same language have distinct dialects that are rooted in their history and culture. Whether you say “soda” or “pop” may reveal 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 over centuries.

While we might think of language as having a fixed set of words and rules that we learn in school, in fact language is always evolving. New words emerge while others fall out of use. Pronunciation changes over time as does the meaning of words. 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, such as 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 by the end of this century. Why? The reasons are complex but boil down to social inequalities and disrespect for others.

Linguist Gabriela Pérez Báez researches Zapotec languages, which are indigenous to Mexico. Learn more about her work to recover an endangered Zapotec language. Watch the "Smithsonian Science How" webcast on Thursday, May 25, 2017 entitled Recovering Voices - Sustaining Global Linguistic Diversity (airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EDT). She will answer your questions live (in both English and Spanish), and you can get teaching resources to use before or after the live show.