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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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Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

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: The rate of acquisition of a first language is the same across
languages. Nevertheless, some areas that might be particularly
complex in one language might take children longer to master than
that same feature in a language in which those features are not
complex. For example, English-speaking children acquire the
ability to indicate the plural of nouns pretty early ["more than
one" is cognitively fairly simple], but the fine details of
making a noun plural takes English-speaking children quite a
while--that is, they add -s to all nouns, even words like "mouse"
and "goose." [I should add, however, that children are often
aware of the irregular plural but cannot use it in the process of
"online" speaking. When I asked my 3-year-old daughter "What are
mice?" she answered, quite confidently, "Mice are mouses!"] The
same phenomenon occurs with irregular English verbs, with
children applying -ed to many irregular ones [e.g., "The bell
ringed."] For a language that indicates plurality in a more
straightforward fashion, children acquire that feature perfectly
without the "mistakes" that English-speaking children make;
children learning that language will seem precocious. If the
plural in a language is more complex than the English system,
children will lag in expressing plurality when compared to their
English-speaking counterparts.

Chinese acquisition provides an interesting example for us
English-speakers. As you may know, Chinese is a tone language,
one which uses pitch to differentiate words that are identical in
every other respect. For adult English speakers learning Chinese
as a second language, this feature can be quite difficult to
master, but for a child reared in a Chinese-speaking environment,
it is quite simple. They master the tone system quite
effortlessly.

In short, languages present about the same level of overall
complexity to the children acquiring them, though each language
provides unique challenges; what is simple in one language is
difficult in another and vice versa.
Reply From: Marilyn N Silva      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    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (21-Aug-2013)

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