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Interesting Way to Explore Languages of the World
Category: Social Studies
Tags: world languages languages of the world most spoken languages in the world how many languages are in the world

"What does Xhosa sound like?"

The question came up while my kids and I were reading aloud The Viper’s Nest, Book 7 of The 39 Clues series, which takes place in South Africa. Amid the adventure aspects of the stories, which make for a fun read -- the secret messages, escapes from enemy strongholds, and various close calls the characters experience -- the series also manages to sneak in some history, geography, and cultural information -- tidbits that, if spark an interest, we explore further.

On this particular occasion, my kids’ interest was piqued by two languages that are featured in the story: Afrikaans and Xhosa. My kids are somewhat familiar with Afrikaans because they’ve heard my son’s Boyscout leader (who’s from South Africa) shout at his two boys in Afrikaans plenty of times. But they never heard Xhosa, and were curious about the clicking sounds that are part of that language.

While it's easy enough to do a search on Xhosa or any other language, it's even easier to go to this website I came across that enables you to pull up information and audio files for all the world’s living languages -- nearly 7,000 of 'em. The site, called Langscape, from the University of Maryland’s Language Science Center, presents language information through an interactive map. Zoom in on any spot on the map to see a location's native languages and hear them spoken.

We tried it out with South Africa. We zoomed in and found Afrikaans and Xhosa. Click on the name of the language and a window pops up showing where it’s spoken and latitude/longitude. Scroll down under the map, and see all kinds of other information on the language, including dialects, related languages, and a linguistic sketch which tells you about a language’s grammar and phonemes. Click on the musical notes icon under the map, and you can have fun listening to common words and phrases like, "All the knives are sharp;" "You need five chairs;" and "How does this thing work?" If you want to get even more in depth, there are links to further resources and language experts.

A couple of other cool things about the site: there’s a language ID game where you listen to a language sample and have to identify the language by clicking on a flag. There’s also a 40-page, downloadable K-12 educator’s guide with instructions for using the site, and suggested activities. Some examples:

  • Use the map for a scavenger hunt, and have the kids find out how many speakers French has worldwide; how to say "hello" in Vietnamese; what language is spoken at (6.28, -1.25); etc.
  • Take a language like Spanish or German and compare how it's spoken in different places.
  • Explore Native American populations, comparing where they once lived to their linguistic distribution today. Click on different areas of the map to compare the sounds of different Native American languages.

Great site if you’re working on a nation notebook, or studying a particular language, or including information on languages as part of your other geography and social studies lessons -- or just satisfying a curiosity.

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