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"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more



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Subject: Child Language Acquisition & Difficulty of the Language
Question: Hello,

There seems to be agreement that some languages are more difficult to learn as a second language. But I'm wondering if children born into environments where the more ''difficult'' languages are spoken take longer to achieve a certain level of linguistic competency (acquire vocabulary or master the syntax). I read on one of your FAQ's that it does take children longer to learn to pronounce, for example, words that have multiple consonants in a row. But I'm curious about comparative learning rates other aspects of language. Thank you very much.

Reply: It's a very sensible question, but personally I must say I don't know of any data about some mother tongues taking longer for children to master than others. One reason why not, I suppose, is that although it may be generally agreed, as you say, that some languages are harder to learn than others as second languages, there has on the other hand been a strongly held belief among academic linguists that there are no significant differences in inherent complexity among languages: it has often been claimed that if a language seems simpler than most in some particular respect, it will turn out to be more complex in some other respect(s) so that overall complexity will balance out. If you really believe that, you would not be enthusiastic about looking for differences in first-language acquisition times, because presumably you would expect there not to be any! I don't believe it myself; it is treated as an axiom that is never backed up with concrete evidence. But it is only in the last few years that the discipline in general has shown signs of accepting that some languages may be more complex than others, so that perhaps it is too soon for anyone to have thought to begin looking for the kind of differences you mention. Another issue is that it has again been widely seen as axiomatic that children acquire their mother tongue over a biologically-determined period of early life and then essentially stop learning, because a "biological alarm clock" has rung and shut down the first-language-acquisition faculty. Again, if you believe that, then you won't expect to find the sort of differences you talk about, because people's biological alarm clocks will be independent of the particular language surrounding them. Again I don't believe it – it seems to me that first-language-learning, like other kinds of learning, is a lifelong activity even if the rates of learning gradually slow with age. But again the discipline as a whole is only just beginning to admit that the axiom may be false.

I'm afraid the above makes it sound as though academic linguistics is a discipline which doesn't investigate its subject empirically but makes up its mind what the facts ought to be without looking at them. The horrible truth is that there has been quite a lot of that in the linguistics of the past half-century! The 1960s have a lot to answer for. But the situation is slowly improving.

Geoffrey Sampson
Reply From: Geoffrey Richard Sampson      click here to access email
 
Date: 21-Aug-2013
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Child Language Acquisition & Difficulty of the Language    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (21-Aug-2013)
  2. Re: Child Language Acquisition & Difficulty of the Language    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (21-Aug-2013)
  3. Re: Child Language Acquisition & Difficulty of the Language    Susan D Fischer     (21-Aug-2013)
  4. Re: Child Language Acquisition & Difficulty of the Language    Marilyn N Silva     (21-Aug-2013)

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