Whether you live in Paris or are just passing through as a visitor I highly recommend a visit to Mundolingua, the Museum of Languages, in the city’s 6th arrondissement. It’s a treasure trove that invites you to discover the secrets of language and linguistics via objects, games, as well as documents and recordings on touchscreens.


Part of the playing with language continent (the scrabble board is actually a rug)

The museum covers 170m2 over two floors and is divided into five ‘continents’: on the ground floor are the Language (definitions, animals, sounds, meaning, words and grammar) and Learning continents. In the basement are the Languages (myths and origins, religion, etymology, ethnolinguistic, dead languages, dialects, alphabets, sociolinguistics, etc.), Playing with Language and New Technologies continents. Even the staircase is put to use, with depictions of Babel through the ages, and a micro cinema at halfway level.


One of the themed areas with a height-adjustable touch screen; note the Morse Code alphabet painted on the wall.

Almost all displays have information in the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), or at the very least in French and English.


Part of the New Technologies area; the museum also has an Enigma machine.


This area was all about linguistics


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been printed in 500 of the 501 languages into which it has been translated.


Language acquisition

Language Issues in the Brain

Language issues in the brain


A corner on taboo words.

I spent less than two hours there, mainly because we were on a flying visit to Paris and arrived after 5pm (the museum closes at 7pm), but I could have spent much, much longer. My husband (a non-linguist) also greatly enjoyed himself.


This Chinese typewriter, from about 1970, never caught on. Apparently a good typist averaged 20 characters per minute.

On the  third Thursday of every month at 7:30pm Mundolingua holds an evening event with special guests – past speakers include David Crystal. (The founder of the museum, Mark Oremland, describes it as a three-dimensional representation of the former’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language).


This hanging curtain shows examples of different alphabets from around the world (a small world map at the top of each slat shows where the alphabet is used).

For more details (price, opening hours, address, etc. visit the website: Mundolingua).

See also “My Adventures at the Mundolingua Language Museum” on Superlinguo.


The Languages of Namibia

Namibia is a large country in south-west Africa that has been independent from its neighbour South Africa since 1990. Before that it was a German colony between 1884 and the First World War, and pre-colonially it was inhabited by Khoisan tribespeople, later joined by Bantu. With less than 2.5 million inhabitants in a country covering more than 800,000 km2, it’s also one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.

Himba woman, Namibia

Himba woman, Namibia

Ethnologue lists 27 individual languages for Namibia, all of which are classed as living, and 22 of which are indigenous. Almost half the population speak the Bantu language Oshiwambo, or one of the eight dialects thereof. Other Bantu languages spoken include Kavango, (Otij)Herero and Caprivian (aka Lozi, whose spoken form places strong emphasis on social status),  TswanaGcirikuFweKuhaneMbukushu, and Yeyi. Khoisan dialects spoken include Nama (aka Khoekhoe and formerly known derogatorily as ‘Hottentot’),  NaroKung-Ekoka, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein.


Map of language distribution in Namibia

Linguistically Namibia’s colonial heritage means that both German and especially Afrikaans are spoken and understood (especially by the white population), as they were the country’s official languages until 1990; Afrikaans is somewhat of a lingua franca. Portuguese is also spoken in the far north due to proximity with Angola. Although only 1% to 3% of the population speaks English as a mother tongue, at independence the ruling party decided to institute English as the sole official language in order to avoid tribal divisions and the colonial overtones which stigmatise German and Afrikaans. The idea was to harmonise the country and avoid “ethnolinguistic fragmentation”. English is widely used in the civil service, education and the broadcasting system and it helps with international relations, as English-language materials are the most easily available; it’s also the language of instruction in schools from secondary level onwards. However this monolingual policy has resulted in a high rate of school drop-outs and in individuals whose academic competence in any language is low.


Driving across Namibia

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists Khwe (Kxoe) as a ‘definitely endangered’ language, with only 5,000 speakers in 2000, however Ethnologue considers it as ‘developing’ and lists Mashi, Mbalanhu and !Xóõ as threatened languages.

A pup at Cape Cross seal colony

A pup at Cape Cross seal colony

Incidentally Khoisan dialects feature clicking sounds (created by slapping the tongue against the teeth, palate or side of the mouth). In writing these are represented by ! ,/, //, or ‡. On my recent visit to Namibia I found it fascinating to listen to; here’s a short video of a San bushmen explaining how to capture a porcupine.

Further reading:

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My travel blog articles about Namibia can be found here.

The Languages of Oman

Although Arabic is the official language, you don’t need any language other than English to travel in Oman, a country I recently spent two weeks visiting. However as a linguist  I couldn’t help but take an interest in the country’s languages. Modern Standard Arabic is the country’s institutional language, but a number of distinct local Arabic dialects are spoken colloquially: Omani, Gulf, Shihhi (spoken in the Musandam peninsula), Bahrani and Dhofari. This being my first stay in an Arabic country I was interested to see that although the language is written from right to left, numerals are read from left to right.

Roadsign in Oman

Road sign in Oman

Additionally you will hear Baluchi, an Indo-Iranian language with eight vowels, also spoken in Pakistan, eastern Iran, and southern Afghanistan; and Swahili, due to the shared history of Oman and Zanzibar.


Endangered indigenous languages in Oman include five South Arabian Semitic languages: Jibbali (also known as Shehri), MehriBathari (nearly extinct), Harsusi (unwritten, and reportedly similar to Mehri but usually considered a separate, albeit moribund, language), and Hobyot (spoken near the border with Yemen by approx. 100 people); and two Indo-Iranian languages:  Kumzari (spoken in the Musandam peninsula), and Luwati, which has 37 consonants.

Language families in Oman (source: Ethnologue)

Language families in Oman (source: Ethnologue)

English is widely spoken, and is taught at school from an early age; virtually all signs throughout the country are bilingual in Arabic and English.


A significant number of residents also speak Urdu and various Indian dialects due to the influx of Pakistani and Indian migrants during the late 1980s and the 1990s. Oman also has its own sign language.


Further reading: