Why do Languages Sound the Same?

Across the world there are thousands of languages, some of them living, some of them dead. Each is incredibly complex with its own grammar structure, vocabulary, phonetics, semantics and idiosyncrasies.

Arabic is unlike French, which is unlike German, which is unlike Russian, which is unlike Mandarin and so on. But just how unlike one another are they?

That might initially seem a strange question, but the more languages you hear and learn, the more similarities (rather than differences) you notice*. Perhaps most obviously you will find cognates. For example…

English and German – Learn & Lerne, Bed & Bett, Beer & Bier, False & Falsch

Russian and English – гитара & Guitar, Европа & Europe, субъект & subject

French and Spanish – respectable & respetable,  aquatique & acuático, préparation & preparación

German & Russian – вода́ & wasser, сестра́ & schwester

But some similarities run deeper than mere sound. Not only can certain languages be incredibly similar grammatically speaking, but inevitably there are groups of languages that share the same linguistic origins (also known as ‘language families’).

As different as they might sound, Russian and other Slavic languages have the same Indo-European background as English, French, German. The Sino-Tibetan language family also links Chinese, with Burmese and some Thai dialects. Whilst  Austroasiatic languages stretch across India, Bangladesh, Nepal and beyond.

Will this make learning a new language any easier? No, but for a nation that has a reputation for poor language learning, it can make it seem a lot less daunting, and hopefully a little more interesting!

Heck, you probably know more Russian/Spanish/French/German than you thought you did, without even trying!

*Polygots often comment on this, claiming that learning a new language is easier the more languages they have under their belt.

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