Mundolingua is a small museum devoted to a huge subject, namely “language, languages and linguistics.” Topics include definitions, phonetics, vocabulary, grammar, first language acquisition, foreign language learning, language problems, myths and origins, religion, etymology, ethnolinguistics, political linguistics, dead languages, dialects, sociolinguistics, alphabets, invented languages, codes, lies, humor, slang, tongue-twisters, proverbs and technologies, all crammed into 170 square meters of floor space on two levels, 70 m2 on the ground floor and 100 m2 in the basement.
This is very much a hands-on museum, with buttons to push, screens to touch and things that light up.
For instance, on the ground floor there is a large cross-section of the human vocal apparatus with buttons to push for various sounds, identified by their phonetic symbols. Each time you push a button you hear the sound and bulbs light up to show where the sound is made.
Preparation for Mundolingua began in 2010, when a team led by Mark Oremland, a New Zealander who studied linguistics at the Descartes University in Paris, started gathering documentary resources and designing the pedagogical material. The museum has been open to the public since October 2013.
When I went to Mundolingua on a cold weekday morning in 2018 I was unfortunately the only visitor. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I would have been curious to see how other people, with little or no background in linguistics, react to the various topics. I personally found them fascinating, but I’m not exactly a member of the ‘general public’ in this connection, since I have a doctorate in linguistics and spent several years studying linguistics in the 1970s.
For me Mundolingua was a blast-from-the-past kind of experience, since many of the exhibits recalled things I used to know a lot about but have neglected since completing my doctorate thirty-five years ago.
I don’t know why they chose this particular musical instrument to name in various languages, but for me it was strangely appropriate because I recently had a senior-moment when I couldn’t recall the English word for Bratsche, though English is my first language and German my second. By the way, the symbol near the lower left-hand corner is the ‘alto clef’ or ‘viola clef’ in musical notation.
On the spiral staircase leading down to the basement there is an Enigma coding machine from the Second World War, along with an explanation of how Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code.
Among the many exhibits in the basement is this one on ethnolinguistics and the study of minority languages. These are aspects of linguistics that I never learned about as a student, so the information here was just as new to me as to any other member of the ‘general public’. On the other hand, the exhibits on famous linguists (such as Noam Chomsky) and on language teaching methods (such as the notional-functional approach or the Silent Way) brought back memories of things I had studied intensively in earlier years.
In one corner of the basement there is a collection of old machines having to do with language, such as a typewriter that could be used for normal text and for phonetic symbols. I was amused to see that next to a wind-up phonograph from the early 20th century they have placed an overhead projector of exactly the same type that I still use today in my English and opera appreciation classes. (Even the electrical cord is the same color.) My children think I am hopelessly behind the times, since they all routinely use PowerPoint and a beamer for their presentations, but it happens that the building where I teach still has these overhead projectors in every room, so for me it is much simpler to print out transparencies at home for use in class, rather than going to the trouble of setting up and connecting a beamer for each lesson.
Mundolingua is located at 10 rue Servandoni in the 6th arrondissement of Paris,
between the Saint-Suplice Church and the Luxembourg Garden.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.
See also: Cutting edge technology… (of bygone decades).