Are some languages inherently harder for children to acquire?

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I don't see why this shouldn't be the case. Surely children around the world don't learn to speak fluently by the same age?

JohnJamesSmith

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 378

12For spoken languages children become fluent around the same age regardless of the language and regardless of how difficult a foreign adult might find the language to learn. This is not the case with written languages which are of course less natural. Studying characters is a major part of education for Chinese and Japanese, and of course many English speakers never master spelling.hippietrail 2011-10-12T09:08:49.923

4@hippietrail Great distinction. Pinker is found of saying that spoken language is natural part of our cognitive system, but reading and writing has to be laboriously bolted on.Nathan 2011-10-12T12:32:56.900

2Yes, there are American Indian languages where people reported language competency kicked in about age 10. I'll update this comment to an answer as soon as I can track down my source, which is at home. To be really objective about this, one would have to work out some competency measures that are comparable between languages. And people would need to be comfortable with the idea that competency is something that isn't binary yes/no. I spoke better and better English for every year I was in grade school.MatthewMartin 2011-10-12T14:22:04.810

A strictly weaker related question about difficulty of acquisition for bilingual learning.

Artem Kaznatcheev 2011-10-29T02:52:26.477

Way back in college, my language acquisition lecturer told us a joke about a guy who moves to a new town, goes to his new church a few days later, and sees a choir of children perfectly singing hymns with complex vocal arrangements. After the service, he tells the choir director how impressive it is that small children can master such complex music, and the director replies: "If you don't tell them it is difficult, they never act like it is". The same applies to language acquisition.Koldito 2016-07-28T13:09:17.433

Answers

12

[Note: I am not an L1 acquisition specialist.]

Although in public nearly all linguists will say “languages are basically equivalent and children learn them at about the same rate”, this is actually something of a little white lie. In my experience, linguists who work on Athabaskan languages will, after a few drinks, admit that the languages they study can’t possibly be learned at the same rate as say English or Swahili. The morphological complexity in these languages seems to be well beyond what is reasonable for children to fully acquire in the space of twelveish years. Unfortunately there has been almost no research done at all on first language acquisition of the languages in the Athabaskan family, at least partly because most of them lack first language acquirers nowdays.

Even for Athabaskan languages with new native speakers, like Navajo and Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan, there aren’t researchers studying their acquisition, so we can’t ask for empirical studies of this issue. But native speakers, particularly native speaker linguists, will affirm that there are parts of the grammar of the language that took a very long time for them to learn. Not vocabulary, which we know continues to be acquired through adulthood in basically every language, but actually grammar in the sense of morphosyntax, morphosemantics, and morphophonology. One example of a difficult phenomenon in this family is something variously called ‘superaspect’, ‘subaspect’, or ‘epiaspect’, whereby a fully conjugated verb that has person, situation aspect, viewpoint aspect, voice, plurality, duration, realis, lexical class, object shape, manner, distributivity, spatial disposition, and so forth all packed into it can then be stuck back into the conjugation system again to produce a verb that is conjugated for temporal properties twice. The result is that a verb can be on the one hand a ‘semelfactive occasional perfective’ and also be a ‘progressive habitual’ (“he would always occasionally be tapping his finger once” or something like that) with marking for both scattered discontinuously throughout the verb. Children seem to be unable or unwilling to produce such verbs and apparently have a hard time understanding them, usually only getting part of the temporal information. (With the more moribund languages, the problem of partial acquisition gets in the way here.) This phenomenon of incomplete early acquisition is regardless of exposure, since children in the various Athabaskan cultures usually get plenty of exposure to oratory and narrative where these complicated forms are often used.

Note that all of this complexity is in the morphology, either in morphophonology, or morphosemantics, or morphosyntax. It isn’t the case that other areas pose problems for temporal limits on acquisition, so that complete acquisition of syntax and of phonology seems to finish just like with other less gnarly languages. Only in the morphology does the Athabaskan family exhibit this prolonged acquisition requirement. In a sense, at least part of the grammar of these languages is actually an art or a craft rather than being a semi-innate function of human minds. Where the individual linguist draws the line between these parts of a language is unresolved, mostly because most linguists tend to ignore it or only speak about it in hushed tones over alcoholic beverages.

I eagerly await empirical studies that confirm or deny my and other Athabaskanists private hunches about the acquisition of these languages. Unfortunately nobody has stood up for the challenge yet.

James C.

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 1 042

12

It is obvious to anyone who only knows one language and doesn't know anyone who is bilingual that their own language is simple and other languages have varying degrees of complexity and ease of learning. For an English speaker, learning as a second language, French and Spanish are relatively easy, but Latin and Chinese are much more difficult and require each a lot of special extra studying to get 'right' (this is ignoring the irrelevant complication of writing method and living/dead situations).

But the question is about first language learning. It turns out from seeing many children learning their first language and from bilingual children that they communicate perfectly fine in any of their first languages and communicate equally well in either if bilingual. (I have no reference for this but) they are also grammatical to the same extent at the same age (French children know the gender of all the nouns they use, with mistakes made in false generalization just like English speaking children might make the mistake 'getted' instead of the past tense 'got').

Language like Russian or German with long lists of conjugations and declensions with multiple forms for gender, person, mood, etc, etc with agreement and then there are all the exceptions, they seem so complex and need lots of study by people whose first language doesn't have such features (actually, they need lots of study by people whose L1 -does- have similar features, they don't realize their own language is complex in that way and even if you know the form of the rules you still need to know the specifics).

It just turns out that first language learners have no problem with what others perceive as complexity. Think of all the separable verbs in English: call out, call up, call in, call off, put away, put up, put up with, put out. It's just not obvious which preposition to use for which meaning, you just have to learn it. But native English speakers don't even get taught this at school.

So, it just turns out counter to intuition that children do learn to speak fluently -and- grammatically in their L1 at the same rate for all languages.

Mitch

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 2 769

2IMHO this answer would be much better if all instances of "it just turns out" could be replaced by references to peer-reviewed research (or even standard textbooks).Anubhav C 2014-05-14T13:54:41.170

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Yes, as far as we can tell, all children without cognitive or social deficits achieve fluency at around the same age. Moreover, there is remarkable consistency in the order in which children acquire different features of the language. There is some variance between individuals, but that's to be expected.

Language is an intrinsic part of what makes us human, and the need to communicate stretches across all cultures and people.

Nathan

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 982

2Why would you think it is easy? Have you seen the huge list of endings for Latin, by person, number, tense, aspect, mood, passive, and then by conjugation, along with exceptions and irregular verbs. And then ther are nouns.Mitch 2011-10-12T12:28:52.183

@Mitch I didn't say it was easy. Obviously it is a demanding task; it takes a kid years to become fluent. I'm just saying that no language appears to be harder than any other.Nathan 2011-10-12T12:31:49.320

@Mitch as long as it's a natural language, those weirdness are there because of a natural process, and there is no reason that a kid can't naturally learn that as well. You think those things are difficult, because your native language isn't Latin and isn't familiar with themLouis Rhys 2011-10-12T16:52:26.467

10By the way, this answer's great, but I think it will be better if it includes some research-based facts.Louis Rhys 2011-10-12T16:53:57.263

1@Louis: I fully understand the issues you bring up, I am just taking issue with the 'Why would you expect...'. One can very reasonably expect that say, an arbitrary gender for every noun would incur more learning time than if it were not there. But only after experience (with lots of first-language learners and lots of languages, one finds that people learn such features as a matter of course.Mitch 2011-10-12T21:22:12.227

@mitch If you think Latin's hard, look up Anindilyakwa (Australian), Yimas (Papua New Guinea), or Athabaskan languages (North America). Now they're seriously difficult, but seem no harder for children to acquire as 1st langs than any other.Gaston Ümlaut 2011-10-13T09:38:47.613

@mitch The thing about systems such as arbitrary gender on nouns is that while it's a bit of a load for the memory it can facilitate processing in other areas (eg by providing a referent-tracking mechanism within discourse). So while it can seem a lot, memory is cheap, kids acquire vast amounts with surprising speed, and many elements that seem difficult in isolation can facilitate other aspects of language. In the end it (by and large) seems to balance out so that kids acquire what they need at roughly the same pace.Gaston Ümlaut 2011-10-18T05:09:28.397

4@Nathan This is a good answer, but the last section seems to chide the asker for even posing the question. This isn't the type of environment for a healthy SE site. The answer may seem obvious to you, but remember that this site caters to amateurs as well, who carry their own preconceived biases, and shouldn't be struck down quite so harshly.Alek Storm 2011-10-18T05:51:24.537

1@AlekStorm I wasn't trying to come across as chiding, and I apologize if I did. I was genuinely curious as to why the poster would think so.Nathan 2011-10-18T09:21:44.287

@Nathan: you last paragraph is a non sequitur (now that the chiding has been removed). If you are trying to say that the need for communication trumps complexity, that goes against the case that all human L1 learning goes at the same speed (it accepts that some languages are more complex than others).Mitch 2011-10-19T12:33:17.410

@Mitch I'm not arguing about complexity of languages at all, just how easily children achieve fluency. I don't think that the two are not necessarily related. Different language may be more complex than one another, but a child's cognitive capabilities are so powerful the differences get washed out.Nathan 2011-10-19T13:39:52.890

3I agree with the answer, but I think it should be accompanied with citations or at least some relevant facts.Constantine 2011-10-19T23:15:47.777

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I looked for evidence to back myself up here, but didn't find any, so here's a mere anecdote:

One of my professors who was working with the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin reported that, though the children seemed fluent at a young age to her, native speakers reported that they didn't consider children fluent until maybe 10 or 11 years old.

There are of course lots of caveats to this: Menominee is practically moribund (at best endangered) so the children were bilingual, and possibly reluctant learners. Who knows what criteria for "fluent" the native speakers were using (or my professor, for that matter). Maybe "fluency" is culturally related to "adulthood" in the native speakers mind or something.

Just thought I'd put it out there!

mollyocr

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 1 198

Could that just be an indication of bias on the part of the native speakers, who don't consider that one achieves fluency until they speak practically error-free? My 3 year old daughter is certainly fluent in English but she also makes lots of errors.Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 2011-11-17T13:29:29.757

6

When talking about first languages, language acquisition is around the same age given freedom from cognitive disabilities and of course adequate exposure to the language (i.e. was not raised in the wild by wolves). However, language mastery is quite another story. As in the comment by @MatthewMartin, a language such as Cree which known to be notoriously difficult can take nearly until the start of adolescence to get a firm grasp on. I believe I heard this statement made by John McWhorter in one of his lectures.

demongolem

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 314

4

To say that it takes longer for a healthy child to acquire naturally one language over another would implicate many more things than just sheer "complexity" of a particular language.

Let us make the assumption that for all natural languages, the expression rate of information is roughly equal; that is to say no human language exceeds another in how fast and efficiently information may be communicated via the language. If that were not the case, then speakers of languages with a much higher rate of information output (this is keeping in mind the economy needing in both coding and decoding a spoken utterance carrying some kind of meaning) would have an inherent advantage over language speakers with a lower output. All languages then would strive for the same strategies of communicating. But, as we see by looking at over the 5,000 uniqe languages of the world, that is not the case at all! There exist many many strategies to communicate over roughly the same meaning, each one with their own benefits and strengths which in the end should equal out to the same rate of information flow for every language.

So, if one accepts that language speakers communicate at the same rate regardless of which language they may be using, then why should one language take longer to gain fluency in than another? As said previously, different areas of language may be acquired sooner than others, but any difference should be minimal. The linguistic idea behind this is that all languages are equal and equally complex. We are only biased by our own native toungue(s) and the languages which we have learned as L2s, so yes indeed one might think a child would take longer to acquire say Latin than English but it is more of a subjective fallacy.

It does seem to be true however that there has been a general trend in language to "simplify" itself by removing case inflections, verb-subject agreements, etc., but this may just a subpart of the cycle of language change itself. Nonetheless, that would be a related topic to research which might shed light.

user432

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 41

While language tends to simplify itself, it also tends to complex-ify itself too, with neologisms and new homonyms (e.g. "Like, I like how people like us have, like, too much time on our hands")... I wonder if the new simplifications and new complexities tend to cancel each other out to produce a steady cognitive load.Qwertie 2011-11-19T01:24:12.423

3

It sounds like a matter that needs more study. It is plausible that most natural languages have nearly the same objective complexity (which could be defined variously, e.g. lexicon size + amount of morphological/inflectional rules), so that children earn proficiency at similar rates for most natural languages. But what if a child's L1 were an objectively simple language such as Ido (or Esperanto)? Has acquisition rate ever been studied for such a scenario?

And note that it is difficult to tell how well a child is acquiring language, because the ability to speak comes more slowly than the ability to understand, and perhaps more slowly than the mental ability to form sentences. It strikes me as difficult to tell how much a pre-speech child comprehends what has been spoken. Pre-speech toddlers can be taught baby sign, which you might use to tell how well they understand speech, but I wonder if having learned a sign language might speed up speech acquisition (thus biasing your study).

Qwertie

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 159

2

The way you worded your question implies some kind of comparison. We can't really say that acquiring Russian aspect is harder or easier than English tenses or Latin declensions. What is easier, learning Cyrillic or cuneiform or devanagari? You can only answer this question from the point of view of an L2 learner. In the case of L1 acquisition, it's all the same. All languages are learnable since their primary goal is communication.

If you need references, I suggest you start with "Crosslinguistic and crosscultural aspects language acquisition" (pp. 219-224) in Fasold & Connor-Linton (Eds.), An introduction to language and linguistics. After that you might want to have a look at Lust's Child language or Bavin 1995 review article "Language acquisition in crosslinguistic perspective" in Annual Review of Anthropology 24.

Alex B.

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 6 046

Upvoted for providing sources.Anubhav C 2014-05-14T13:50:07.593

0

My unqualified conjecture is that a language would evolve to be easy to learn, especially in a pre-literate society. If the rules are too complex for a child to learn, the complex rules will eventually be destroyed by repeated failure of people to assimilate and follow the rules.

I think my view is pretty consistent with the theory that there is a universal grammar that all languages follow. All languages evolve to be ones that a child can master, based on a humans natural language to understand grammatical rules. I would add that languages can acquire some variance and some complexity, but they have to be master-able by children to survivor.

Joe

Posted 2011-10-12T03:33:55.413

Reputation: 101

You are assuming that there is an "upper bound" on the level of complexity that languages can achieve. But what if a certain language were way below that upper bound? Then it would still be easier to learn than others, right?Otavio Macedo 2011-11-24T21:39:33.053