Main points of Dr Mike Tianqiao Lu's talk at ¡®Language we live by¡¯ conference at School of Arts and Social Sciences, James Cook University. 15/11/2009.





Mike's specialized field is the study of the languages spoken in Southern China and Southeast Asia, focusing on Kam-Tai languages spoken in Southwest China. He is currently working on Kam-Tai classifiers in an attempt to describe and analyze the cultural implications of people¡¯s choice of classifiers.


How many languages are there in the world?


l         Some statistics show that there are 5651 languages currently spoken in the world, 1400 of which not yet recognized as distinct languages.


l         There are around 250 languages in Australia spoken by around 40,000 indigenous people.


l         There are around 170 languages spoken in North America.


l         There are around 300 recognized languages spoken in China.


l         Now we are just talking about languages used in person-to-person interactions. If we want to expand our interest area, then this would include another 2500 languages used in man-machine dialogues, like Html, Visual Basic, Perl, Javascript, to name only a few. These programming languages have similar complex syntax and semantics as natural languages.


How language affects our behavior?


l         A language in the Amazon area call Piraha has only very limited words for numbers. According to Peter Gordon from Columbia University, Piraha has only the numbers 1 and 2, numbers more than 2 are named ¡°many¡±. He once asked the people from this tribe to complete some tasks. When he laid 1 or 2 objects on the ground, these people completed the task without difficulty. When the number of objects increased, many of these people made mistakes from time to time. It seemed that this is a hard job for them.


l         Another example is the names of the days in a week. An American scholar carried out an experiment to investigate how the naming of the days in a week can affect people¡¯s calculation ability. When asked to count how many days there still remain from today to next Saturday, the Chinese subjects gave quicker answers than their American counterparts. The reason might be that Chinese uses a numeric system to express the names of the days in a week, a native Chinese speaker has only to do a simple and quick subtraction to answer the question, that is, 6 minus 4 is 2, namely Saturday minus Thursday is 2 days.


How language reflects our outlook?


l         Some minority peoples in southern China call the Chinese language ¡°military language¡±, Han Chinese ¡°military people¡±. It is because many military colonies were set up in Guangxi to guard the southern frontier during the Ming dynasty about 500 years ago. The Han soldiers were the Han Chinese the minority people had most frequent contacts with. So naturally Han people became ¡°military people¡±.