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Language gets people talking

Studying languages enables you to unearth a lot of valuable information about humans: it reveals our history and explains cultural differences and it even illustrates the process of learning new information. The University is sharing its knowledge of and passion for languages in various new ways, including through the MOOC on Miracles of Human Language and the on line dossier on Language Diversity.

Participants from all corners of the world

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Miracles of Human Language is a free online course provided by the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. It’s the first time this course has been organised, and it consists of five classes given over the period 30 March until 11 May 2015. An astonishing 43,000 people from all over the world – from Africa to Japan and from Turkey to the US – and from all age groups participated in this MOOC. Through a set of five classes, Professor Marc van Oostendorp taught them how and why your mother tongue shares many similarities with other languages, while remaining distinctly different. Participants also learned more about how your way of thinking is determined by the language you speak.

Heated discussions about the concept 'word'

These different ways of thinking can clearly be seen in the heated discussions on the MOOC’s web forum, according to Marten van der Meulen, who was involved with the MOOC as an educational assistant. ‘There were, for instance, very firm personal convictions about what the concept ‘word’ entails. Lots of people interpreted this in a very different way from how we in the field of Linguistics define it.’ This edition of Miracles of Human Languages is currently in its concluding phase.

Leiden language research

An important component of the MOOC was language diversity, which is also a prominent theme within Linguistics in Leiden. Scientists are currently working on groundbreaking research involving the most diverse issues within the field, such as: ‘Is there a "source" of all languages?’ and ‘How do the languages of minorities influence a country’s standard language?’ To find out more about the current research on language diversity in Leiden, take a look at the   online dossier on Language Diversity.

Language continues where written sources stop

Around six thousand languages are spoken throughout the world, all of which are fantastic sources on the history and migration patterns of people thousands of years ago. Even when there are no surviving historical or archaeological sources from those periods, language contains a lot of clues. Tribes living far apart from each other sometimes use exactly the same types of words or phrases, so those similarities must have been ‘transported’ one way or another. By following the trail of linguistic clues, you can find out a lot about the migration patterns of a tribe and about the people they came into contact with. Studying similarities in words and phrases in different languages can, in short, tell us a lot about the social-cultural backgrounds of people we otherwise know very little about.

How our brains accept languages

Studying the diversity of languages also gives us new insights into man's biological and psychological development. This focuses on aspects such as how we learn a language, what languages our brains accept or refuse and how our brains process language when we are reading or speaking.

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