Why Are There So Many Different Languages?

Chloe Effron/iStock
Chloe Effron/iStock

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Did you know there are about 7000 languages in the world today? That’s a lot! Scientists who study languages are called linguists (LIN-gwists). They don’t know exactly when people began inventing words instead of just using a few sounds or body movements, like many animals do. But they know that human migration (my-GRAY-shun), moving from one place to another, played a big role in making so many languages. 

Over thousands of years, humans split off into groups that migrated in different directions. As that happened, one language could turn into many. People had to learn to live in very different places: hot deserts, freezing mountains, steamy rainforests. Each place had different kinds of weather, plants, and animals. Having new words to talk about these new things helped people adapt (change) to their new home and survive (live). After a while, new words and ways of living helped lead to totally new languages.

Once a group of people settled in a place, they were often isolated (apart) from other groups. When people didn’t mix much, their words didn’t either. On the other hand, people did sometimes learn and borrow some words from other groups. For example, people speaking different languages might meet to trade, or were forced to leave home and move closer to another group because of war. Over long periods of time, then, both things—isolation and a little mixing—helped create so many languages. 

Languages are related, just like family members are. Learn more in this video from TED-Ed. Watch with a grownup who can help you with some of the bigger words!


Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

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Duolingo’s Free Virtual Convention Will Cover How “Black Languages Matter” and More

Classrooms are especially important places to embrace language variations.
Classrooms are especially important places to embrace language variations.
SDI Productions/iStock via Getty Images

Last September, a few hundred language enthusiasts gathered in London for Duolingo’s first annual convention, or “Duocon.” They attended panels, decorated cupcakes to look like the Duolingo owl, and generally celebrated their love of language. In light of the pandemic, this year’s Duocon will be all-virtual—and while that means you’ll have to bake your own cupcakes, it also means you can attend without leaving home.

The free event, which takes place this Saturday, September 26, boasts an exciting list of speakers covering a wide range of language-related topics. Participants will get a behind-the-scenes look at Duolingo itself: illustrator Greg Hartman will talk about creating the app’s cast of characters, for example, and software engineer Joseph Rollinson will discuss how he gauges the program’s effectiveness. Other experts will focus on the broader implications of language. Among them is Dr. Anne Charity Hudley, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies how the language used in classrooms can (often negatively) impact the education of students from diverse racial backgrounds.

Her talk, titled “Black Languages Matter: Learning the Languages and Language Varieties of the Black Diaspora,” illuminates the influences of Black language on American culture as a whole. As Hudley explains, it goes beyond common examples from sports and entertainment.

“There is no U.S. without the harsh and real legacy of slavery and strength that enslaved people had to create culture in a new place, in contact with those around them. So, the language and culture are embedded in how we think about the U.S.” she tells Mental Floss. “The big influences [are] in the discourses about what key U.S. concepts mean to us—like liberation, freedom, and justice. Black people taught the U.S.—and the world—what it means to have a history of oppression and still be proud.”

Dr. Hudley's Duocon lecture is a must-see.Duolingo

When you learn about language variations, you’re gaining insight into the lives of the people who speak them—how they “eat, sleep, learn, work, and create community and identity,” Hudley says. Language can also help preserve those traditions when you’re unable to actually practice them.

“One aspect from Black culture my students and I have been talking about a lot during the pandemic is the language of Black cookouts [and] barbecues. We can’t safely have [them] in person, but we can talk about them—and that language helps keep our cultural memory alive and our cultural practices intact,” she says. “What we eat at the cookout, how we negotiate who brings and cooks what (and who is even allowed to cook, as in: who can make the potato salad) are all culturally situated and negotiated through language.”

And since language is so intimately linked to culture, teaching someone that a certain word or pronunciation is “broken English”—and forcing them to stop using it—is a harmful way of separating them from who they are.

“A person is their language and their culture—colonizers knew this,” Hudley explains. “By telling someone their language was broken, it was a very effective way to colonize their mind and make them very quickly and effectively ashamed of their entire being. We have to make people aware of this process and actively dismantle it.”

Learn more by tuning into Hudley’s Duocon presentation at 2:10 p.m. EST this Saturday, which you can register for here.