When you first start learning a new language, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of it. Different sounds and structures can be very confusing at first – it can feel as if you’re trying to learn to talk to people from another planet. But a new study shows that in reality, despite the wide array of human languages in existence, there are actually a few common threads that run through virtually all of them. The human brain organizes languages according to a particular set of patterns – and understanding them may make the whole process of tackling that new language a little easier.
In the 1960s, linguists Joseph Greenberd and Noam Chomsky came up with the idea of ‘language universals’ – characteristics that are shared by all or many languages. Up until recently, it was still unclear how accurate this theory was, but a new study has finally put the issue to bed by coming up with some measurable, concrete data on exactly what universals are and how they come to be. The study showed that the way the human brain functions has actually shaped the way languages developed, leading to common threads between a diverse array of languages – and making it possible for humans to learn virtually any other language which is based on the same patterns.
The study, carried out by researchers from Georgetown and University of Rochester, also found some interesting insights into how and why languages change over time. It’s common for language buffs to get up in arms over new developments in language – for example, the coining of new pop culture words or even adaptations of spellings. But the study has showed that these adaptations over time are natural as human brains attempt to shape language into forms that are clear, concise and straight to the point. In other words, collectively we tend to ‘edit’ languages over time to keep them up to date and make them as useful as possible for conveying information to each other about the world we live in.