The Tree of Language

tree metaphor with language branches

Trees are a fascinating way to show relationships between languages. Minna Sundberg, a Finnish illustrator, used a tree very effectively to show how major European and many Eastern languages can be grouped into families. The whole image is dotted with languages, with bigger leaves representing those with the most native speakers. If you look at the whole tree you can see, for example, how English has Germanic roots. And surprisingly (to me), Finnish does not come from the same branch as Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian. Rather, Finnish belongs to the Uralic language family and shares roots with some indigenous tongues in Scandinavia such as Sami.

There’s a lot more to learn here … take a look!


Superstitions: Our Strange Beliefs

four leaf clover in glass of water

We often find ourselves stopping while we are talking to an exchange student in our group and asking, “do you know what I mean by what I just said? When I say “knocking on wood,” does that mean anything to you?” It’s really easy to just use terms like that and continue on with whatever we were saying, while the teenager from another country (or adult, for that matter!) nods politely.

At least half the time, they have no clue what “knocking on wood” or “toss some salt over your shoulder!” meant. They know it’s a saying of some kind, but it just doesn’t always translate into something meaningful. Understanding local sayings and superstitions may not be critical to understanding the meaning of a conversation in the host country’s language — but it could be helpful to understanding the culture.

Our own beliefs are not strange to us, of course, despite what the title of this blog post says! But to someone from another culture, a local superstition may come across as silly at best and perhaps bizarre. Here’s a sprinkling of a few superstitions from around the world that we found interesting, in no particular order:

  • Japan: Don’t whistle at night — whistling used to be a sign criminals would use to communicate with each other.
  • Brazil: It’s bad luck to leave scissors lying open for very long.
  • Italy: If your nose itches, someone loves you — or hates you.
  • Russia: You will get good news if a black spider comes down from the ceiling.
  • Nigeria: Walking over a person while they’re lying down will keep them from growing — unless you walk back over them again.
  • Australia: The number 87 is considered the “devil’s number”; it’s extremely bad luck in the game of cricket.

Some superstitions are common across many cultures; walking under a ladder is supposed to be bad luck in a number of places, it seems. But many are “locally grown,” resulting from some event 100 or 1,000 years ago and changing over time into odd pieces of good or bad luck omens. We often have no real idea where these odd sayings come from. Knocking on wood may come from early Christendom … or perhaps from the time of the Celts … or perhaps from a 19th century children’s game.

black cat looking up at you
Am I bad luck … or good luck?

Check out the map in The Totally Jinxed Map of Global Superstitions for a sampling of superstitions and good/bad luck omens from around the world. Ask yourself how any given omen might have come about — or find a way to travel somewhere to find out “on the ground”!


Black cat photo courtesy of Kari Shea on Unsplash

Time and Language: Can You See the Future?

old fashioned pocket watch showing watch insides

We recently watched the 2016 movie Arrival, which critics are calling one of the best science fiction movies in decades. We enjoyed it as a film that tries to envision how our planet’s politics might play into first contact with alien visitors. We also liked how the movie focused on how language intersects with culture. As regional coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year, a high school student exchange program placing 2,500+ students in the U.S. every year, we work all year long with students from around the world who are trying to understand our culture and speak our language. We know that to understand one, you need to understand the other.

We express our culture through language, and our language defines how we interact with our world. It’s hard to separate one from the other, or to determine “which came first?” Learning another language is not just about learning the words for “person,” “table,” and “animal.” Arrival shows us the truth of this statement. In the movie, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) works to translate words and concepts so that humans and the aliens can talk to each other. As she struggles to learn the aliens’ language, she realizes that the key is that the aliens view time very differently than we do. This view of the universe winds its way throughout the aliens’ language. The way they express time enables them to see pieces of the future; as Louise learns the language, she learns the culture — and so sees her own future.

Fantastical, beyond our reality, and make-believe — yes. It is, after all, a fictional story about meeting aliens from another world. But is it really so fantastical to think that people from different cultures will view abstract concepts such as time, place, and distance differently? In a way, Arrival describes the reality of language and culture on our own planet. It’s about viewing the entire universe the way the other person views it and realizing that this changes how you view your own universe.

Viewing time differently isn’t as fantastical as you might think. Some cultures (and, therefore, some languages) express time as a means of looking to the future — “future-in-front” languages as linguist Panos Athanasopoulos discusses in this article. Native English speakers visualize the future as being ahead of us and the past as behind us, already done and gone. But not all cultures on Earth look at time that way, as Athanasopoulos describes:

[F]or speakers of Aymara (spoken in Peru), looking ahead means looking at the past. The word for future (qhipuru) means “behind time” – so the spatial axis is reversed: the future is behind, the past is ahead. The logic in Aymara appears to be this: we can’t look into the future just like we can’t see behind us. The past is already known to us, we can see it just like anything else that appears in our field of vision, in front of us.

The study conducted by Athanasopoulos and colleagues implies that the language we speak will affect whether we believe that time is passing slower or faster. He submits that bilingual people “go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously.” I find the idea fascinating — that one can go between such different world views just by speaking another language. He also argues that going back and forth between different languages regularly “confers advantages on the ability to learn and multitask, and even long term benefits for mental well-being.” I like that idea, but I’ll leave that for others to debate.

What I want to leave readers with today is just this, whether you are the host family trying to understand the student in your home, the student trying to learn how to be part of a new environment, the teacher trying to help, or the parent back home watching your child from afar. If you really work at not just translating word by word but rather try to see the why and how of another language, you will come to view your own universe differently. That might be a bit unsettling … but it’s exciting, too. Moreover, seeing how the ‘other’ really thinks can only be positive in establishing friendships and long-term relationships. That seems like a good idea to me.


Scrabble word future