Linguae Francae: A Look at Commonwealth’s First World Languages Day

By our last count, about forty percent of Commonwealth students are multilingual. Four languages—French, Latin, Mandarin, and Spanish—enroll ninety percent of our student body in their classes, as students acquire both new speaking skills and cultural understandings (and adventures abroad). At least one polyglot is chatting among us. And from that foundation, like the Indo-European roots that gave rise to Hindi, Spanish, Persian, and Slovak tongues, we celebrated our first-ever World Languages Day.

Organized by Sophia ’24, students, faculty, and staff spent the day in a wide variety of student presentations on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Inspired by her experience in neurolinguistics and longstanding interest in languages, Sophia recruited her classmates to share their own linguistic expertise with our community. (She also created her own presentation exploring how physics and linguistics work together.) 

Sophia invited her mentor from internships at MIT's EvLab, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Halie Olson, to kick off the day as our assembly speaker. At Professor Evelina Fedorenko’s EvLab, Dr. Olson studies how early life experiences and environments impact brain development. “[Toddlers] have to use all of these cues in the world around them to learn language,” Dr. Olson says. “And so we could imagine that the brain might have to use different resources or adapt in different ways in order to solve this problem.” She explained how biological constraints can shape an individual child’s language development, plus the science of actually measuring brain function (spoiler: it’s more about tracking blood flow than neurons firing!)—as well as some of the “less glamorous” parts of research, like cajoling two-year-olds to sit quietly in their “rocket ship,” aka MRI machine. There, they watch Sesame Street clips, like Elmo and Abby Cadabby chatting normally, then backwards in unintelligible gibberish, to measure differences in brain activity. In children just learning their first language, that activity is “sparser” and “messier” but activating similar parts of the brain, compared to adults. This is “super exciting” to Dr. Olson “because it suggests that even for toddlers that are still learning their first language, they don't have language fully developed, yet, they're already engaging some of the same gems that we're seeing in adults.” 

Our student presenters then filled our free periods with drop-in mini lessons throughout the day. Hanna ’25 and Rimas ’25 had the heady task of teaching their teachers the basics of Arabic, patiently helping them pronounce the alphabet, common greetings, and numbers up to twenty while explaining the language’s technical and cultural underpinnings. Both speak Arabic at home, and they reflected on how talking in their native tongue can spark instant connection, even with strangers. Spoken in twenty-five countries, mainly around North Africa and the Middle East, Arabic dialects differ by country—often a relic of colonization—from the French-tinged Moroccan to the Coptic Egyptian Arabic. Modern texting has shaped Arabic, too, Rimas and Hanna explained, into “Franco Arabic,” with adaptations like the number seven standing in for the Arabic letter ح (“haa”). Islam is deeply woven into the language as well, with common greetings like assalamu alaikum, “peace be upon you,” making it a deeply lyrical language, known for its effusive poetry and praise. 

During “Languages for International Communication,” senior Henry ’24 introduced listeners to the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) and how they were chosen. He discussed how geopolitics, colonization, and imperialism led to our current “supercentral” languages—such as Arabic, Russian, and Spanish—and the sole “hypercentral” language, English. These languages connect broad swaths of similar “peripheral” languages, and their widespread use enables global communication and collaboration. But that homogeneity exacts a price. The most peripheral of those languages fizzle out, with little or no political will to preserve them and their native speakers dwindling with each generation. “Linguistic diversity exists until it’s taken away,” Henry says, as “nations create language and shift language.” Countries teach a canonical version of their language in schools to foster an often useful common understanding and sometimes at the expense of regional dialects. Even if those languages live on in writing, they transform from cultural touchstones to anthropological artifacts; “there’s a loss in that,” Henry says. “I hope the next time you go to a foreign country and everybody’s speaking English, you ask yourself, is this a good thing?”

Other presentations included “Language & Attitude,” with Nora ’27 leading a discussion about the ways in which languages affect how we think about ourselves and interact with others. Dava ’24 revived the now-dead Proto Indo-European (PIE) language, considered by linguists to be the earliest known ancestor of many modern languages, from English and German to Urdu and Hindi. And alumnus and Linguistic Club co-founder Moe ’23 even returned to discuss how “Words Get Around,” tracking terms as they hopped across the ancient Mediterranean. 

Today, thanks to World Languages Day, a curious new tree now grows in Commonwealth’s lobby, a language family tree, each leaf a reminder showcasing not just the languages spoken by our community but the deep linguistic roots uniting us all. 

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