Jared Diamond is a very erudite man. He has worked in diverse range of fields, including: physiology, ecology, ornithology, anthropology, evolutionary biology and geography. But one evening, around a campfire in New Guinea, this great polymath was the one being impressed by the learning of people who had never been to University. As he notes in The World Until Yesterday, after asking his hosts how many languages they spoke, he found that “[a]mong those New Guinean, the smallest amount of languages anyone spoke was 5. Several men spoke from 8 to 12 languages, and the champion was a man who spoke 15.”
In other parts of the world where tribal life was until recently the norm, such as in the Amazon and aboriginal Australia, similar levels of multilinguism also exist, so what Diamond found wasn’t unusual. But why and how is it so prevalent in tribal societies? What benefits does it bring? And in today’s increasingly monolingual English-speaking world, can we learn anything from it?
Why are there so many languages in tribal societies?
In regions of the world where tribal life predominates there are usually multiple languages co-existing. New Guinea, for example, is home to approximately 1000 of the world’s 7000 languages. Though these languages don’t usually have written forms, they are nevertheless both distinct from one another and at least as sophisticated as our own. In fact, the anthropologist Napoleon Changnon, a leading expert on the Yanomamo of the Amazon, points out that in at least one sense they are superior to modern languages: “The working vocabulary of most Yanomamo is probably much larger than the working vocabulary of people in our own culture (usually no more than 6,000 to 7,000 words). While it is true that the number of words in the English vocabulary greatly exceeds the number in the Yanomamo vocabulary, it is also true that we know fewer of them than they do of theirs. If you do not have a written language, you have to store more in your head.”
Tribal societies are often made up of many separate small groups of between 50 – 100 individuals, where, before modern transport, the next group’s village might be a day’s walk away. This helps create a rich but fractured linguistic landscape. However, these groups aren’t isolated: through trade, warfare, and other social activities (feasts, weddings, village meetings, etc.), they interact. And they must communicate clearly in multiple languages if they are to survive in a world where delicate political alliances can mean the life and death difference between agreeable and aggressive relationships with their neighbours.
With no schools, how do tribal people learn so many languages?
“I have never learned any language except by using it and I still do not know what an adjective is nor a subjunctive nor an ablative…” Michel de Montaigne wrote in the late sixteenth century. When Montaigne was a child, his father insisted that all family, servants and tutors speak to his son only in Latin, thus ensuring he was already so fluent in the language by the time he began school, that he startled his teachers. In a sense, this replicates the way tribal people learn languages: socially and through immersion. Diamond points out: “Except for English, which New Guineans often learn at school by studying books, everyone had acquired all his other languages socially without books.” This process starts from when they are children and often travel to other villages to meet children to play with, along the way acquiring new languages. And it continues into adulthood, for example when they marry out of their tribe, which is known as linguistic exogamy (something most tribal people do) and acquire the language of their partner and his/her family.
The above factors are coupled with the fact that tribal people are extremely talkative. “Ever since my first trip to New Guinea I have been impressed by how much more time New Guineans spend talking with each other than do we Americans and Europeans,” writes Diamond. He recounts how he still remembers the word for sweet potato in the Fore tribe’s language because of a seemingly endless conversation on the subject he once witnessed between two New Guineans. Though this may seem odd and perhaps trivial to us, there are two factors worth bearing in mind: first, constantly monitoring the environment (in this case, food supplies and people’s behaviour) can update tribal people’s knowledge in much the same way we do with our 24 our news cycle; secondly, in a pre-technology world, what other entertainment is there?
Social etiquette in multilingual societies
In P.G. Wodehouse’s The Luck of The Bodkins, a good example of how it can feel to attempt a new language is given: “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.” Later on, the same character develops a nosebleed when he reattempts this feat. Though speaking a foreign language outside of a classroom can be a daunting prospect, in my experience persisting in it soon helps shed that fear. In fact, the benefits of doing so, or even just attempting to, often reduce any awkwardness in a given situation.
Amongst tribal peoples, the use of different languages is often a social signifier. For example, what language someone addresses his neighbour in can signal his attitude towards them. When they are keen to present a favourable impression, addressing associates in the associate’s own language will obviously be a mark of respect, whereas not bothering to can signal the opposite. This is a lesson that can be useful for business. I am sure many of you have witnessed what a friendly signal even a simple hello in another language sends out. Making the extra effort to say a full sentence or two can often be a great way to create an even stronger good impression. And attempting to speak another language will, as those of you who have tried will know, at the very least (and very often) amuse your audience!
What can this teach us?
Speaking even a small amount of your host or guest’s language is often a mark of respect, and something that thanks to modern technology we can all easily learn to do. Of course, in the modern world, we can’t all be expected to master multiple languages solely in order to impress foreign business associates – even if tribal people are living testament to the possibility of doing so, and provide evidence of the way to go about it. However, a clumsy attempt to climb over the language barrier is better than no attempt at all – at the very least you will amuse those on the listeners on the other side!