Languages are grouped into families, and one definition of a language family is simply a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestor, called the “proto-language” of the family. You might think of this like you and your cousins are all related because you share the same grandfather. One example of a language family would be the Romance languages (Spanish, Portugese, Italian, French, and others) which are all descendants of Latin.
As you begin your adventure of learning another language, it’s good practice to take a step back and understand how languages work and fit together. It’s actually quite incredible when you think of it and begin to grasp both the immensity and simplicity of language acquisition.
How many languages are there?
That’s a great question. When you think of learning a language, you might think of the most common, Mandarin, or one which you might use while traveling, Spanish or French, for instance. To answer the question, “how many” is a bit difficult because there are parts of the world, such as highland New Guinea or the forests of the Amazon, that have not been explored – so there may be people living there speaking in a tongue not yet realized. Linguists don’t all agree on this either, depending on how you might differentiate dialects of the same language. Suffice it to say, the answer to this question is probably “More than you might have thought”!
A reference work called Ethnologue presents the most extensive catalog of the world’s languages. Perusal of that website suggests there are over 7,000 languages in existence! Categorizing this many known languages shows the importance of discovering relationships and classifying a given language into it’s appropriate language family.
I also discovered a missionary organization called Summer Institute of Linguistics (now known as SIL International) which has been involved for many years with translating the Bible. According to their website, as of 2009, the Bible (or at least a portion of it) had been translated into 2,508 different languages! Of course, that still leaves a long way to go.
How are languages ‘related’?
Linguists use a variety of principles and tools to discern relationships between languages and to reconstruct the sounds, grammar, and structure of their proto-languages. But it’s not a simple process. If we try to distinguish languages from one another simply in terms of their words and the patterns of words we observe in sentences, problems may arise. Different languages may display the same sentence patterns, while a single language may display a great variety of patterns. In addition, very different languages may share words (through borrowing), while different speakers of the “same” language may vary widely in their vocabulary due to factors of education or speaking style or dialect.
If we know that typically existing languages are at least a thousand years old, and the languages they descended from are more than 2000 years old, to go back further to find the mother language family takes a lot of research and testing of theories. Linguists develop rules to describe the changes and make sure the rules are functioning in all the languages. It’s like writing a computer program that generates the modern languages based on the protolanguage. If the protolanguage is reconstructed correctly and the rules work then the resulting languages can be generated.
It helps to be able to test out these theories on languages where we know the history over an extended period of time. For example, Campbell explains:
The Roman Empire existed over a long period of time, so there are many stages of Latin that we can track. After the fall of the Roman Empire, communities were spread out over a very large area of land, and individual dialects started to form, eventually changing enough into their own distinct languages. We know that it takes about 1000 years for a language to become distinct.
The true descendants of Latin were these many regional languages, such as Sicilian, Tuscan, Venetian, Galician, and so on. What we know as Romance languages today – Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian – are standardizations invented more recently to unify people within countries. Given their common roots, however, once you know any one of these languages, the others are significantly easier to learn.
Why do languages go extinct?
Just as new languages develop, existing languages may become extinct – no longer spoken, but often discoverable from artifacts. Extinction is a natural process when a language ceases to be learned by young children and the remaining native speakers die out. The world’s linguistic diversity is very much alive, yet declining as the major languages of the planet’s civilization merge or converge. Yet it’s frightening that linguists generally agree in estimating extinction within the next century of at least 3,000 of the 7,000 languages listed by Ethnologue.
How many language families are there?
Linguists estimate there are approximately 141 language families. Six of these stand out as the major language families in the world, accounting for ~63% of the world’s languages, spoken by ~85% of the world’s population. These are
- The Afro-Asiatic language family,
- The Austronesian language family,
- The Indo-European language family,
- The Niger-Congo language family,
- The Sino-Tibetan language family, and
- The Trans-New Guinea language family.
For most of us reading this in English, the best known languages are in the Indo-European family – the one to which English belongs. There are approximately 437 languages in the Indo-European family, and they are widely distributed from a geographical standpoint. Of the six major families, the Indo-European family has the highest numbers of speakers. Roughly 3 billion people speak a language within this family. By contrast, the Trans-New Guinea family has 476 languages, yet only 3 million speakers.
To fully understand language families, it is best to think of a large tree, a family tree as it were, because each family is actually a group of languages that can be shown to be genetically related to one another. Within each family lies an interesting phenomenon called degrees of relationship. So take a close look at this Indo-European language family tree diagram.
Why are language families important?
Let’s begin by working backwards, as genealogists do, observing some relationships within the English language family tree. Thus we note that English is at the end of a branch within the Germanic language family tree. Another step back shows that English comes from the “European” trunk, which branches into the Slavic, Romance, and Germanic families. Yet another step back shows that English is – more distantly – related to the Indo-Iranian languages, such as modern Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, and Persian.
We might expect then that, for English speakers, the easiest European languages to learn would be those most closely related to English. Conversely, we might expect it to be harder to learn a language not on our tree at all, for instance the languages of Asia, such as Japanese, Mandarin, etc.
In fact, these expectations fit in nicely with data from a study by the Foreign Service Institute, an institute of the U.S. Federal Government which provides language training to the Department of State, , estimating how long it takes a native English speaker to reach a prescribed level of proficiency in a foreign language.
Category I: 24 weeks (600 hours)
Languages closely related to English, including: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Afrikaans, Danish, Swedish, & Norwegian.
Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
Languages similar to English: German
Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English, including: Indonesian, Malaysian, and Swahili.
Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English. Of the many languages in this category, a few examples are: Hebrew, Hindi, Persian, Russian, Greek, Tagalog, Pashto, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers, including: Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.
In general, then, we find it easier to learn languages that are more closely related to our own. Or, to put it another way, it will generally be easier to acquire a new language from the same language family as our mother tongue than to learn one from a different language family. For example, a German student would usually have an easier time learning English than a Chinese student.
How can we use this information?
We can use this information about language and language families of the world to help us understand and appreciate the complexity and wonder of international communication. It can help us understand which languages will be easier for us to learn and why. And knowing the relations between languages, together with some basic principles of how languages change over time, can dramatically speed up the process of developing vocabulary in related languages.
Languages are fascinating, and acquiring another language can be a wonderful, enriching experience. There are many benefits to being bilingual. Check out our reviews of Glossika, Rocket Languages, Rosetta Stone, and other language programs. Perhaps you want to begin with a language closely related to your own, or maybe you want to try one in another family. Whatever you decide – happy learning!
And please share your comments below so we can all learn from each other. We read and respond to them all.
~ David & Dana