Nearly all of the languages spoken in Southeast Asia fall into four language families: 1) Sino-Tibetan, which includes Mandarin, Cantonese and the other Chinese languages; 2) Miao-Yao, which includes the languages spoken by many hill tribes and ethnic groups scattered along half a million square miles in southern China and Southeast Asia; 3) Austroasiatic, which includes Vietnamese, Cambodian and languages spoken on the Malay Peninsula and India; and 4) Tai-Kadai, which includes Thai, Laotian and languages spoken in Myanmar, northern Vietnam and southern China.

Tonal Languages

Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and some other Asian languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone or pitch in which it is spoken.

Studies have shown that people who speak tonal languages possess a form of absolute pitch, something that had previously been thought to be possessed by people with unusual musical talent such as Mozart or Beethoven. One study at the Eastman Music School in Rochester, New York found that 63 percent of the Asians there had absolute pitch while only 7 percent of the non-Asians had it.

But the propensity towards absolute pitch by Asians is not explained by language. Japanese, for example, are more likely to have perfect pitch than Westerns and Japanese is not a tonal language. Perhaps a genetic predisposition for absolute pitch is more common among Asians. More likely the cultural emphasis on musical training at an early age---something that is true in Japan---is the determining factor.

Explaining why she had difficulty with non-tonal languages like English, Gong Li’s English teacher Michael Mann told the Los Angeles Times: “The difficulty is: in Mandarin, the muscles in your mouth aren’t used to make Rs and Ls. She never developed those muscles. It’s not just making a different sound. Her tongue is not conditioned to be behind her teeth and to breath in the same way. She had to do facial expressions just to be able to make these sounds. The degree of difficulty is high.”

Research by scientists as the University of Edinburgh found that two genes involved in brain development were common in speakers of non-tonal languages while a different genetic profile was found in speakers of tonal languages. Research also seems to indicate that the first human languages were non-tonal, and tonal languages emerged about 5,800 years ago. All humans have the innate ability to speak both kinds of languages fluently but research indicates genes may make it slightly easier to learn one or the other.

Sino-Tibetan Language and Austroasiatic Languages

Sino-Tibetan languages predominate in China and mainland Southeast Asia. They are broken into three main subfamilies: 1) Tibeto-Burman, 2) Tai and 3) Sinitic, including many of the language spoken in China.

One unique feature of all Sino-Tibetan languages is that most words consist of a single syllable. Multi-syllable words are as unthinkable to Tibetans and Chinese as words with only consonants are to English speakers. Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone of pitch in which it is spoken.

There are about 90 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages in the world today. They are also called Munda or Mon-Khmer languages. Although the language may have originated in China, very few people in China speak it today (a small enclave near the Myanmar border). Vietnamese and Cambodian are Austroasiatic languages. Enclaves of people that speak Austroasiatic languages also found in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and India.

Austroasiatic languages are characterized by an abundance of vowels. In contrast to English, which only has around a dozen vowel sounds, Austroasiatic languages have around 40 or so, including ones that are nasal, non-nasal, long, extra-short, creaky, breathy, normal, high-tongue, low-tongue, medium-high tongue, medium-low tongue, front tongue, back tongue, middle tongue and various combinations of these sounds.

Tai-Kadai and Miao-Yao Languages

There are 50 million speakers of Tai-Kadai languages in the world today. Most of the speakers live in southern China, Burma, Thailand and Laos. Thai and Laotian are Ta-Kadai languages.

Like Sino-Tibetan languages, Ta-Kadai languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone or pitch in which it is spoken. For example the Thai word “maa” means "horse" when pronounced with a high pitch, "come" with a medium pitch, and "dog with a rising pitch.

The majority of the 6 million speakers of Miao-Yao languages belong to hill tribes and ethnic groups that live in isolated areas scattered across southern China, Laos and Thailand. This family of languages consists of five languages associated the speakers clothing: Red Miao, White Miao (Striped Miao), Black Miao, Green Miao (Blue Miao) and Yao.

English in Asia

More than 350 million Asians speak English, more than the combined populations of the United States and Britain.

Many Asians use English to speak to one another rather than speak with native English speakers. One lingust told Newsweek, “When Asians use English, they are using it to express Asian, not American or British realties.” Wang Gungwum a professor at the University of Singapore told the New York Times, “Today, fewer and fewer people think of English in terms of either England of America. In a funny way, it is part of the identity of the new Asian middle class.”

Many English-speaking Asian countries, such as the Philippines, Singapore and India have developed their English words and expressions.

English taught in school tends to focus on reading and writing rather than speaking and listening and students approach grammar as of were a series of mathematical formulas.

Bye-bye is used all over Asia these days. Asians like to say “See you again--- rather than “see you later.”

The Macquarie Library in Sydney had put together an Asian English dictionary. is an amusing English phrases found on T-shirts, street sign and products,

Turkey, Ancestral Home of English

The origins of languages as diverse as Hindi, Russian, German and English have been traced to Anatolia, which is present-day Turkey, with researchers saying that this Indo-European family of languages spread out from the western Asian region about 8000 to 9500 years ago The researchers, led by evolutionary biologist at New Zealand's University of Auckland Quentin Atkinson, during a new study have used computational methods to analyse words from more than 100 ancient and contemporary languages. [Source: Mira Oberman, AFP, 2012]

Through this method, the scientists say they have identified Anatolia, an ancient region of western Asia which covers most of modern Turkey as the homeland of the Indo-European family of languages, spoken on every continent by a total of three billion people. The study, published in the journal Science said there are two competing hypotheses for the origin of the Indo-European language family.

The conventional view places the homeland in the Pontic steppes about 6000 years ago, while an alternative hypothesis claims that the languages spread from Anatolia with the expansion of farming 8000 to 9500 years ago. The researchers used a complex technique which studies the evolution and spread of disease as well as basic vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages to explicitly model the expansion of the family and test these hypotheses.

"We found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin. Both the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000 to 9500 years ago," the study said. Linguists have believed that the first speakers of the mother tongue were chariot-driving pastoralists who moved from their homeland on the steppes above the Black Sea about 4,000 years ago and conquered Europe and Asia. A rival theory holds that, to the contrary, the first Indo-European speakers were peaceable farmers in Anatolia, now Turkey, about 9,000 years ago, who disseminated their language by the hoe, not the sword.

While English, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Greek and Hindi may sound very different, researchers said there are several commonalities in a host of words in these languages. In the study, researchers examined cognates or words that have a clear line of descent from the same ancestral word. The word 'mother', which is 'mutter' in German, 'mat' in Russian, 'madar' in Persian, 'ma' in Hindi and 'materi in Latin are all cognates derived from the proto-Indo-European word 'mehter'. "These methods pave the way for reconstructing human prehistory in other parts of the world, using the legacy of our past that is documented in our languages," said Atkinson. "It allows us to place these language family trees on a map in space and time and play out histories over the landscape," he said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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