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December 10, 2019

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China’s first museum of language

Shanghai International Studies University, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary, has opened a Museum of Language on its campus in Songjiang District. It’s the first museum in China to focus on the diversity of language in the world.

Yi Yonggang, the university’s publicity office director, said: “Language is related to both the origin and future of human beings and is living fossil of the evolution of civilization. Universities have a responsibility to pass on and innovate culture while a museum is an important platform to do so. The Museum of Language is the latest attempt of our university to give full play to our strength and features in international studies in cultural inheritance and innovation. We hope it could be a platform for experts and scholars to carry out academic exchanges, for teachers and students to do research and teaching and for the whole society to carry out public scientific education.”

There are more than 7,000 known languages in the world, but only about 60 language museums. Gu Yiqing, chief director of the new museum, said: “Language is abstract, so exhibitions involve much interdisciplinary knowledge and how to explain profound knowledge in simple ways so as to fulfill its function of public scientific education. It brings huge challenges in exhibition planning.”

The museum covers topics from the birth of language to the evolution of language in the digital world, from the world’s major writing systems to translation and intercultural communication.

To make the intangible subject more visible, the museum has a lot of interactive installations. On entering, visitors will see a hemisphere digital screen showing a world map on the ground and a curved screen on the wall. By pointing to an area on the map and moving it into the middle, visitors will see an introduction to the language of the area on the curved screen.

There is also a huge map on a wall that shows the distribution of different language families around the world. 

Under the map, there is a pavilion where visitors can learn to say “Hello, nice to meet you” in different languages and record the sentence in the dialect of their homelands.

There are headsets for visitors to listen to poems read in the mother languages of the authors, such as “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare in English.

At international conferences, there’s always a black box in a corner where interpreters work. In the museum, visitors can go into such a box to try their hand at simultaneous interpretation.

There are 70 volunteers to guide visitors in Chinese and English, while other languages can be provided on demand as the university teaches 42 languages.


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