Are some languages easier than others?

‘Long time no see’ is something I heard repeatedly in Britain even though it totally violates all the English grammar I learned at school. Clearly, Brits should correct this expression originating from Chinese Pidgin English rather than adopt it. The reason it entered common usage anyway is at the heart of why you might find English a lot easier to learn than the other British languages like Welsh or Gaelic. In a nutshell: when you learn English, it learns something from you as well.

Three years ago Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale published a (freely available) paper in which they looked at over 2,000 languages across the globe and quantified how difficult they are, e.g. by looking at their morphological complexity. Morphological complexity refers to how difficult it is to say a word in its correct form (‘went’ rather than ‘go-ed’). Its simpler counterpart is usually the use of more words to say the same thing (compare the sometimes irregular past like ‘gone’ with the always regular future ‘will go’). Using these principles Lupyan and Dale could show that languages which are spoken by more people tend to be simpler. Why?
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When languages grow big, they tend to get simple.
When languages grow big, they tend to get simple.
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Lupyan and Dale hypothesise that languages with more speakers also include more people who learned it when they were no longer children. As an adult, when you are not that good at learning a language anymore, you make yourself understood without speaking perfectly. Over time, these mistakes and simplifications are adopted by the language simply because difficult things never get learned by a new generation of learners. They are just forgotten. In some sense, the language learns what it can expect from its learners and what not. This drive towards simplification is a lot less strong when only expert language learners, i.e. children, are responsible for language transmission.
This year, a new study got published which directly looked at the proportion of adult second language learners in a given community rather than just assume it from the community size, as Lupyan and Dale did. Christian Bentz and Bodo Winter looked at case marking which is another pain to learn. In many languages around the world the Who does What to Whom pattern is not expressed through word order, like in English, but instead through case marking on words (similar to difference in roles marked by ‘he – him – his’). It turns out that on average languages which managed to retain a case system only have 16% of its speakers learn it after childhood, while the comparable number for no-case languages is 44%. Adults are bad at learning grammatical case systems, so it is forgotten if many adult learners speak the language.

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Melting Pot, English, Foreign Language, L2

His forebearers shaped English. As does he.

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So, yes, some languages are indeed easier. Learning them is a lot simpler. The reason being that language is not an invention of a single person. Instead, it is a communication tool shaped by the people using it. When Chinese people started using English they made many mistakes, some of them got adopted like ‘Long time no see’. Notice how it uses very little morphology, i.e. the words are all like you would find them in a dictionary, and no case at all (by that time English no longer had a full case system).
Follow the path of other adult language learners and you will meet with less resistance.
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Bentz C, & Winter B (2013). Languages with more second language learners tend to lose case Language Dynamics and Change, in press

Lupyan G, & Dale R (2010). Language structure is partly determined by social structure. PloS one, 5 (1) PMID: 20098492

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Figures:
1) adapted from Lupyan & Dale, 2010, p. 7
2) By Eneas De Troya from Mexico City, México (Melting Pot  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

ResearchBlogging.org

6 comments

  1. It is correct that “language is not an invention of a single person”. Even Esperanto, launched into life by Dr Zamenhof, has become the language of its speaker population..

  2. This is a great article and is have to agree some languages are easier then others. Once I came to the U.S I found English to be very easy.

  3. I find this interesting but not incorrect. Adult learners have already fully developed cognitively. So learning a new language would be extremely difficult to learn perfectly. Children on the other hand, could learn a different language with ease. This is because they are still developing their brain, so having them practice the native tongue would help them be perfect in the accent and pronunciation of the language. This article would have been more intriguing if the child aspect of learning a new language had been adressed.

  4. It’s important to note that when we’re children, we tend to use the language development method called “motherese”, which is characterized by very distinct pronunciation, a simplified vocabulary, short sentence, high pitch and exaggerated intonation and expression. This could explain the ability in which we simplify a language and in turn make ourselves accessible to saying the language in a simplified but a very incorrect way. Motherese is a very good example of that, making a language very easy to understand, but can be grammatically incorrect in the particular language they’re trying to learn.

  5. Every language has their own unigue grammar rules and such. It is recommended not to wait until adulthood to further your language development. Instead, parents should begin teaching their children different languages when they are babies, as they can distinguish between the speech sounds of all of the world’s languages. Every child is born with a biological predisposition to learn language. They have a basic understanding of language organization. The key to language development is to learn a set of grammar rules that allows the child, or adult, to produce many different sentences. It is important to teach your child the different languages before the age of ten months because that is when they lose the ablity to distinguish between different speech sounds.

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