[I am writing a series of articles on Languages and Linguistics for a magazine for school kids, EducationEdge, that a friend of mine has started recently. These articles are targeted at students of classes VIII to XII. I will keep posting those articles on Linguistrix once they are published. Here's the first in the series.]

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Every human possesses an innate ability to acquire language. Linguistics is a fascinating field that studies how languages work and explores the underlying similarities between languages. This also gives us a lot of understanding about how the brain works. Although languages come in all kinds, you can find many patterns that suggest that the underlying machinery of languages is the same. A Linguist, therefore, is not a person who learns many languages—rather, he is concerned with studying how languages work.

Phonetics and phonology, for example, deal with the sounds used by the speakers of a language. Let’s examine a very common rule of English—you have been taught that an appears before vowel sounds while a precedes consonant sounds. Can you think of any other language with a similar rule? Look at the Hindi prefix अ- that is often added to words to negate them. For example, हिंसा changes to अहिंसा. Now, apply this prefix to अर्थ. अअर्थ doesn’t quite sound right, does it? The correct word is अनर्थ! Before a vowel sound, the अ- changed to अन्. But wait, that’s exactly what English does! Looks like the rule isn’t as arbitrary as we previously thought! As it is difficult to pronounce two vowels when they come together like this (try it!), many languages try to resolve this problem, called hiatus, by inserting a consonant or removing one of the vowels. Now look at all the स्वर-संधि rules you learnt in Sanskrit/Hindi… all they do is remove this hiatus. Recall यण् संधि. It asks you to change a sequence of इ and अ to य. Why not to any other consonant? Test it out yourself. Speak a sequence of इ and अ sounds continuously without giving a break (इअइअइअइअइअ…). You will hear yourself saying यययय… Such rules, therefore, merely document what really happens during speech production.

When we learn Grammar in school, we are given the impression that the grammar of a language defines what it is and what it should do. The truth is actually the opposite. Grammar textbooks merely attempt to describe what native speakers of a language speak. You may have noticed that you were fluent in your mother-tongue long before you were taught its grammar in school. If you lost marks in grammar, it was not because you didn’t know your language, but because you couldn’t care less about what nouns, adverbs or clauses were. It is interesting to find out why people speak the way they do and how they acquire rules regarding the same. By age 3-4, most kids acquire almost all commonly used rules of their language which usually take foreign speakers years to master. Acquiring does not mean merely listening and memorizing—my 2½ year old nephew, for example, says मैं जाया instead of मैं गया, despite hearing the correct form from his elders. This is because he has acquired the rule that makes regular past forms in Hindi (eg. खाना—खाया, लाना—लाया). As गया is an exception, it is specially learnt later.

The field of Historical Linguistics studies the changes that occur in languages over a period of time—word meanings change, some words drop out of usage while new ones are created. Linguists believe, for example, that Indian languages and European languages had a common ancestor. You can see how the word for the number 3 has very similar words in these languages (three, tres, tre, trois, teen, treeni etc.). English first had two second person pronouns—thou (informal) and you (formal/many), similar to तुम and आप.  Slowly, thou dropped out of usage, just you was left.  But it is still preserved in German—compare thou goest **(Old English) with _du gehst**_ (German).

The study of Language and linguistics is very enriching and fun-filled. Apart from opening our door to cultures, it makes us more broad-minded and helps us appreciate the similarities in the fascinating diversity of our languages and thought-process. Several studies have shown that bilingualism/multilingualism has several cognitive benefits. Its practical/social benefits are well known—speaking to people in their language warms them up and knowing the local language can often be a tourist’s biggest asset.

If you haven’t tried to learn any language other than your mother-tongue and English, give it a shot. You won’t regret it! If this article interested you, do read up on this on the internet.

[The second article of the series can be found here]