By Dana McDaniel
People often find learning a new language difficult because the new one seems very different from the language they’re used to. But people who study a lot of languages see that the languages are all similar to each other. This sense of similarity isn’t just an illusion or a coincidence. Languages really are similar and there are three main reasons for it.
Some languages are similar to each other because they’re related historically. Languages change and they change all the time, but they change slowly, so we often don’t notice the changes. But as time goes by, languages change a lot – the English language of today is very different from the English of Shakespeare’s time.
When a community separates into two or more communities, you end up with different languages. For example, Latin speakers invaded different regions during the Roman Empire and gradually the languages changed in different ways. These became the “Romance” languages – like French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. These languages have very similar words and grammar because they all come from the same language.
Here’s how to say Fish swim in water in different Romance languages: Les poissons nagent dans l’eau (French), Los peces nadan en el agua (Spanish), I pesci nuotano nell’acqua (Italian), Peixes nadam na água (Portuguese) – which are all also similar to their parent language, Latin: Pisces in aqua natant.
When two communities interact with each other, speakers “borrow” from one language into the other. Words and grammar from one language start being used in the other language. When French speakers invaded the British Isles in 1066 (the Norman Conquest), lots of French words were borrowed into English. Some examples are: accuse (accuser), beef (boeuf), error (erreur), liberty (liberté). So this is another reason languages are similar.
Lastly, the human brain is set up in a certain way for language, with centers that specifically function for language. This causes all human languages to have the same basic structure. For example, think about how to ask a question in different languages. In English, you usually put the verb, like is, at the beginning: Is the child here? In French and Lingala, you just say the sentence with a rising pitch, like this: L’enfant est ici? Mwana azali awa? In French, you can also start with a question marker, est-ce-que: Est-ce que l’enfant est ici? All the languages in the world form questions in one of these general ways. No human language would form a question by saying the words in backward order, like this: Here child the is? or by moving the first word to the end, like this: Child is here the? That’s because the language system in the human brain only handles certain kinds of rules.
Dana McDaniel is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Southern Maine. Her research focuses on syntax/sentence structure and child language acquisition. She’s most interested in the nature of language in the human mind.