WHY WE SHOULD LEARN TO SPEAK AT LEAST FIVE LANGUAGES
A New Guinea Campfire,
And Why We Should Want To Speak Five Languages
by Barbara J. King
Chances are they already speak more languages than you: children from Papua New Guinea's Andai tribe of hunter-gatherers wait for their parents to vote in the village of Kaiam. Over 800 languages are spoken in PNG, a country of about six million people.
Some years ago, Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, was sitting around a campfire in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. He'd recently had a conversation with a New Guinea friend who spoke a total of eight languages: five were local to the friend's village and the friend had just picked them up as a child, the other three he learned in school.
Diamond tried a simple experiment. He asked the number of languages spoken by each of the 20 New Guineans gathered around the fire with him. The smallest number, he reports in his new book The World Until Yesterday, was five. "Several men," he wrote, "spoke from eight to 12 languages, and the champion was a man who spoke 15." These weren't dialects, but mutually unintelligible languages.