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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: There isn't agreement that some languages are more difficult to learn as a second language. The ease with which a person learns a second language depends on a number of factors including their personal motivation, whether they have already learnt a second language, how similar the new language is to the languages they already know, the quality of teaching, and their opportunity to practise.

As others have said, for native speakers the situation is also complex. You may want to look up the comparative studies done about 25 years ago by Dan Slobin and his team.

It appears that some things are easy for children to learn and others are hard. Anything to do with pitch is easy, so that children learn the right tone for words in Chinese without any error. On the other hand, inflections are hard, so that children who have to learn a language with a lot of them are still making mistakes (doing things an adult in their own community wouldn't) at the age of 10 or so.

In some languages, especially those with no inflections (such as Chinese), children make few grammatical errors in the process of acquisition. Acquisition seems to be incremental: utterances get longer and more complex rather than more correct. In others, children make many developmental errors (e.g. "Me do self") which show that they are working out grammar. In languages with a lot of consonant clusters (such as English) children make more errors in pronunciation in the process of learning, than do children who are learning languages with no consonant clusters (such as Chinese).

However, human beings are the same all over the world, and so, in all languages, there is a great deal of stuff to learn. But in some languages, learning is much more through error than it is in others.

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

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