I believe the Czech linguist Karel Oliva mentioned it somewhere that analytic languages are like a hill - one can make a progress relatively easily from the beginning but there's always more to learn (phrases, idioms) while synthetic languages are like a table mountain - it starts with the need to learn all the conjugation and declension but perhaps requires less phrases and idioms later on to communicate on the same level. It sounds logical, however, I wasn't able to find any studies which would confirm or deny this notion. Are there any?

  • I have never heard of a modal language outside of formal logic. Is it a translation of a Czech term? If so it might not translate literally into English. Can you give a few examples of modal languages?
    – Tristan
    Feb 3, 2021 at 14:02
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    @Tristan Thanks, seems like "analytic" is the English term
    – Probably
    Feb 3, 2021 at 14:16
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    It always depends on the audience. It is easier for a Polish speaker to learn the synthetic language Czech than to learn Chinese.
    – user6726
    Feb 3, 2021 at 15:46
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    @Probably I thought that was likely the case, but didn't want to assume. I'd certainly be wary of any statement this broad. It seems to ignore the fact that languages with simple morphology tend to require more precise syntax, so overall there's a pretty similar amount to learn. It also seems to imply that morphology is the dominant factor in difficulty when in fact phonology is often much trickier. English is a pretty analytic language, but English speakers typically find fusional Spanish much easier than analytic Mandarin because the phonology is closer to English
    – Tristan
    Feb 3, 2021 at 16:20
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    @Tristan I think in a question of this kind, it’s fair to assume ceteris paribus – that is, that any two hypothetical languages being compared, as far as possible, are equally unfamiliar, unrelated and phonologically different to the speaker. Level the playing field as much as possible to make morphology and syntax the only really statistically significant differences. So, as an example (off the top of my head, not sure exactly how the phonetics work out), say it’s a Wolof speaker learning Indonesian (analytic) and Nahuatl (synthetic). Feb 4, 2021 at 4:58

1 Answer 1


Complexity in languages is usually designated with trade-offs. As shown in Complexity trade-offs between the subsystems of language by Fenk-Oczlon & Fenk (2008): Language Complexity

The difficulty of language learning, if viewed as an extension of the actual complexity of the language itself, may be considered impossible to quantify. They go on to state the following:

Menzerath’s (1954) law points to complexity trade-offs on the intra-language level, and our results (Fenk & Fenk-Oczlon 1993 and present study) point to such trade-offs in cross-linguistic comparison. Such cross-linguistic trade-offs or balancing effects gave rise to the attractive idea of something like an equal overall complexity in all our natural languages. We agree with the arguments by e.g., Miestamo (this volume) that there is no possibility to verify such a hypothetical equality and would like to stress the fact that this idea of equality is in no way supported by those correlations pointing to balancing effects.

  • Thanks! Although I don't think this argument provides much of an evidence. There are clear ways to put the hypothesis to test: 1. Track learning progress and control for the similarity 2. Test it on a made-up language 3. It could be calculated how much difficulty the different complexities create in standard language learning from the time learners need to get them. 4. One could create a program which simulates the regular training process and feed it the languages with no prior "knowledge".
    – Probably
    Feb 8, 2021 at 14:21
  • You'd have to start by assuming that individual differences were irrelevant and/or nonexistent. The result would be precisely what the experimenters would expect, given limited samples and arbitrary standards.
    – jlawler
    Feb 7, 2022 at 16:31

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