Combining different disciplines, Leiden University researchers work together to formulate innovative solutions to societal problems. Below is an example from the field of languages, cultures, and societies.

Overview Research in the spotlight

Language Diversity

Language as key to understanding humanity

Language offers new insights into our history, cultural differences, migration, and the way in which our brain processes information. This knowledge can in turn help us understand what it means to be human, as well as opening the way to many practical applications. In order to realise these goals, linguists at Leiden University work closely together with researchers from other disciplines, such as biologists, psychologists, archaeologists and historians.

<p>Birch bark letter, written in Cyrillic in the Karelian dialect of the archaic Finnish language (13th century)</p>
Birch bark letter, written in Cyrillic in the Karelian dialect of the archaic Finnish language (13th century)

Knowledge from thousands of years ago

Approximately 6,000 languages are spoken worldwide. The study of language gives us information on the history and migration of different nations from thousands of years ago, even when we have no archaeological or written sources available to us from that time. Communities that are geographically remote from one another sometimes use the exact same words. These similarities must somehow have been ‘transported’. By following the journey of language, we can find out more about the journey of the people who spoke it, and about the other communities they came into contact with. Through studying similar words and concepts in different languages we learn about the socio-cultural background of peoples.

Cultural differences are recorded in the language

The study of language systems teaches us that cultural information is recorded in the grammar. Many Amerindian languages encode how a person obtained a given piece of information. Did they hear it somewhere, did they see it with their own eyes, or did someone else tell it to them directly? Other languages, such as Dutch, do not have this kind of coding. We can say: ‘There was a fair’ without having to specify the source of this information. In some languages and cultures, it is considered very important to indicate the source of information, while in others it is not.

Language in our brain

The study of language diversity also provides insight into human biological and psychological development, including how we learn language, what languages our brain accepts, and how our brain processes language in reading and speech.

Multidisciplinary collaboration

Leiden University has an exceptional range of expertise in the field of language diversity, as well as knowledge of a great number of languages. Leiden researchers specialise in Africa, Native America, South and Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania, East Asia and Siberia, or Europe. Leiden’s language researchers are also known for their collaboration with experts from other disciplines such as medical scientists, psychologists, education experts, biologists, geneticists, archaeologists and historians.

More information:
Leiden University Centre for Linguistics