What are the fundamental words of any language? When can we say that we know a language, and can communicate our feelings, thoughts, and ideas? Branches of science like physics and chemistry have their own evolving standard models and any newcomer to the field starts learning by understanding the key features of this model. Is a similar approach in language learning feasible? Is it possible for humans to be polyglot easily? Can we reduce the language learning to some standard models?
When can we say we have learned a language? What exactly does it mean to learn a language? Is it just the capability to speak? Is it the capability to write in the language using any one of the scripts? Is it the ability to comprehend a conversation among persons? How about gestures? Are gestures part of the language learning? Or is it a combination of all of the above put together? Taking the languages with a very high number of speakers and considering the number of new words that are being added to the dictionary every year (or every few years) with some former or ancient words going to extinction, when can we say that we have become fluent in a language? Does being fluent correspond to knowing all the words and their meanings? Does it mean the capability to use the shortest possible word or phrase available for expressing one’s emotions or state of mind or the surroundings?
What do we mean by knowing a language? Is it the ability to comprehend and communicate, both orally and through writing? But is not the context of the person important as well? Knowing a language for daily usage is quite different from knowing a language in a scientific context. It is totally different from the literature context. It may mean understanding various similes and metaphors, which may differ from region to region.
Is it possible to talk about the fundamental words, the basic building blocks of a language? In any context, there must be an existence of certain basic words, the words that are enough to communicate the various processes, thoughts, and emotions for living and working in that context.
Recalling my school days, I sometimes feel that the science classes like physics, chemistry stayed simple, because we had some standard model to explain the fundamental nature of objects surrounding us. There were some basic elements, based on which new molecules, compounds are made. Even though these models evolved and are still evolving, there has been this quest for understanding the underlying model of nature. Yet in my quest for learning new languages. I am unable to find such a model for languages.
Why do we require such a model? In my opinion, it will make language learning easier. Though we say that languages are significantly different from each other, I am interested in finding common features among them, that I would like to call the basic building blocks. The obvious question may be why do we need to make language learning easy? In my case, it is to be able to easily learn a new language. Why do we need to learn new languages? One reason is to preserve our endangered languages. There is an increasing need to protect the endangered languages because languages can become extinct like the natural species if they do not have any more speakers. Languages played an important role in the evolution of human culture. They are living testimonies for understanding how some popular languages reached the current point, i.e., how many words were borrowed from other languages or to be more precise, for understanding the etymology of different words.
Which words should we learn first? What are those universally necessary words? For some reason, I do feel that pronouns are very important. Pronouns like I, you, they, etc. Then comes the state of being or emotions. One may also need to talk about possessions, like the objects of daily need. These may include food, drinks, and other household items. However, this list is quite varying, depending both on the place and the context, as discussed above. We do not have homogeneous food or drinking habits across the world.
One may even wonder what could have been the first words of the primitive people, our ancestors of long ago. Did they start from the five senses, i.e., talking about the hotness or coldness of a place, the strange smell, the sounds of some ferocious animals or the weird taste of food? Did they start talking about the objects around them?
Yet there are some people who study how children learn. What are their first words? We have come across situations where parents compete to hear their role from the mouths of their children. They tend to hear words mama, papa, ma, pa, when they hear their children first speak. But most of the time, they have the illusion of hearing something they just wished to hear. As adults, do we need to approach language learning as though we were children?
Is it possible to approach language learning with a standard model, i.e., a model that works across languages? Such a model must consider all the languages and dialects of the world, and not just the popular languages. It must also take into account the words, the grammatical rules, the phrases, similes, and metaphors. Will such a model give us a set of basic words, present in all the languages. Will this model help in building a dictionary using only the basic words, i.e., the meaning of all the words can be explained with these basic words, without any circular references.
Like the standard model in Physics and Chemistry, the standard model of language can cover all the language features. Most of us have gone through the parts of speech during language learning. Parts of speech like preposition, nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives may be considered as one of the building blocks of language, unless a more simplifying block is defined.
There are several current and former attempts to generalize all languages. One such example is the Swadesh List, which contains a very limited number of words (usually around 200 words) that are used to study the similarities among different languages.
Finally, it is also interesting to see the concept of constructed languages (conlangs), i.e., a group of persons may come together to start a new language. They decide to create the script, the grammatical rules, and the basic words for their new language. However, it is important to note that unknowingly they may have the bias of using the rules of their native languages or the languages they may know. They try to create words and phrases for all those expressions that they may say in the languages they know in this new language. Creating a conlang is interesting to understand about language and communication. It may be interesting to see which words are added to the dictionary of conlang. This may help in our studies to identify the basic words of languages. However, conlangs need speakers. A limited number of speakers may mean a very limited number of words, useful for very few contexts.
Identifying the basic building blocks of a language is a challenging task. Most of us have come across the special features of our native languages like tense, parts of speech, etc. But some of these may not be present in other languages or they may have additional features. Therefore, any standard model for languages must not be limited to certain popular languages and must consider the diverse linguistic spectrum of the world.
Originally published at https://johnsamuel.info.