What are language families, and how they can help us in language learning

What are language families?

There are about seven thousand languages in the world, which are united in about two hundred and fifty language families. A language family is a set of languages that descended from a common ancestor or “parent”. Languages that share a large number of common phonological, morphological, and syntactic features belong to the same linguistic family. Subdivisions of the language family are called “branches”.

English, like most languages of Europe, belongs to the Indo-European family. Russian also belongs to the same family but comes from another branch – Slavic. In total, in the Indo-European family, there are twelve groups of languages, these languages are spoken by more than two billion people.

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Source: freepik.com

The Indo-European family of languages is the most studied language family in the world. Over the past decades, many researchers have worked in the field of Indo-European linguistics, in fact, more than in all other areas of linguistics combined. We know a lot more about the history and relationship of these languages than about any other language family. Some Indo-European languages, such as Greek, Sanskrit, Latine, Romance, Germanic, and Celtic languages, have ancient manuscripts, some of them are more than two millennia old, and excellent scientific sources, such as grammars, dictionaries, and reviews of ancient texts. All this is available for research and study, but unfortunately, this does not apply to non-Indo-European languages. It will take many years for scientists to reach the same level in research of other language families.

The reconstruction of proto-Indo-European languages (the supposed ancestors of those languages that we know today) and the historical development of the modern Indo-European languages provided the basis for almost all studies of other language families and linguistic history in general.

Each family has a different number of languages. The largest, Niger-Congo, has more than a thousand languages and about the same number of dialects. The smallest families consist of only one language, such languages are called isolated. These include, for example, Basque, an amazing language spoken mainly in Spain and France. On the American continent, there is one of the largest clusters of isolated languages – there are about thirty of them, these languages are spoken by the native Americans.

How can knowledge of language families help us learn foreign languages?

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Source: freepik.com

As you already know, languages form families and groups not because their speakers live next to each other, but because of grammatical similarities. It means that when choosing a new language for studying, you can pay attention to their kinship. Almost everyone knows that Italian and Spanish are relatives, and it is easy to learn one after the other because of their similarities. But did you know that English and Norwegian are quite similar? They both belong to the German branch of the Indo-European family, so knowledge of English should help you with the Scandinavian language.

Therefore, if you want to start learning a new language, but have not yet decided which one you would go for, pay attention to the languages that you know, and look at their sisters and brothers – what if one of them would be your best choice?

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