Why is it important to speak multiple languages

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There are around 7000 languages ​​worldwide. But what for? And why do you speak a different language in every village in some places? We asked a linguist.

There are around 7000 languages ​​worldwide - my God, how complicated! Foreign words and sounds everywhere. And how laboriously we gesticulate our way through distant countries when English is not spoken. We think. Linguist Johann-Mattis List sees it differently. He loves language and languages, of course. And he explores them. He says: Most people speak several languages.

"In the world, multilingualism is more the rule than the exception: in most cases, people simply speak two, three, four different languages. If you learn this early enough, it is not a problem to communicate with it."
Johann-Mattis List, linguist at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man

But it is important that we have a language in which we can speak to each other - in addition to the language that we speak in our country, village or in our group.

Vanuatu - incredible language diversity

This is how it works on the island of Malakula. It is located in the South Pacific and belongs to the island area of ​​Vanuatu. The linguists at the Max Planck Institute conduct field research on the island, because there are 36 languages ​​and around 20,000 inhabitants. "So far nowhere else in the world have we been able to document so many languages ​​in such a small space."

"If we research that carefully, we may find one or more factors that drive language development, language diversification."
Johann-Mattis List, linguist at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man

On Malakula, the islanders know the language of their village and their surroundings. But they have an additional one where they can talk to people who come from far away.

Around 7000 languages ​​worldwide

All over the world there are regions where there is a great variety of languages, says Johann-Mattis List - in the Amazon region, for example. But there are also regions in which the diversity is less: in all of Russia, for example, there are "only" around 100 different languages.

Over time, English has become the world's number one lingua franca. Spanish and French are also world languages ​​in which one can now communicate far beyond their actual language area.

In the course of history, politics or religion have always played a role in the spread of languages: "Colonialism has led to the Indo-European languages ​​being very high in Europe," says Johann-Mattis List. Conversely, archaic forms of language have survived longer in remote mountain regions because they were less able to mix with other people and other languages ​​there.

"The mother tongue is something special, for personal communication and maybe also for poetry and things like that."
Johann-Mattis List, linguist at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man

As a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man, Johann-Mattis List and his colleagues try to keep in touch with linguists all over the world - in order to find answers to the big questions in linguistics. "Most of the languages ​​in the world are still completely undocumented," he says. All data is therefore digitized in Jena and brought into a uniform format.

And there are always new discoveries in field research: The number of documented languages ​​is slowly growing. Around 120 languages ​​are now recorded across Vanuatu. Some time ago the number was 106.

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