1

Are there any languages which are objectively easier to learn from birth than others?

This might be broken into two parts - the spoken form, and the written form

For example, are African "click" languages simpler or harder than fully pulmonic languages to learn from birth to speak?

Or are pictographic languages simpler or harder to learn to write as a native speaker than alphabetic languages?

1

1 Answer 1

2

For spoken languages, it doesn't seem so. Barring outliers like developmental disabilities, every child exposed to a language will learn it. If they couldn't, then the language would die out! There are some things that can take longer to acquire than others—for example, Spanish-speakers will take longer to learn the trilled R than the other sounds, because it requires some precise motor control—but barring some sort of disability, they'll still do fine. (I believe clicks are actually acquired more quickly than trills, but I don't have a source for that. Anecdotally, a lot of English-speakers can do a click and can't do a trilled R.)

For writing systems, there are definite differences—Korean-speakers don't turn knowing their writing system into a competitive "sport", the way English-speakers do with spelling bees!—but interestingly, this doesn't seem to have a major impact on literacy rates. More than anything else, literacy rates depend on people having the opportunity and the motivation to learn to read, and making it easier for kids to go to school matters far more than simplifying the spelling.

3
  • 5
    On the other hand, there have been studies which have compared the phonetic, syntactic, morphological and lexical capabilities of larger groups of children of the same age across selected languages and found clear differences, with comparably central and important features being mastered significantly later in some languages than in others. From memory, I recall a study that showed that Danish children master plurals (of nouns and adjectives) and the past tense (of verbs) quite a bit later than their Swedish and Norwegian counterparts. There is also an argument to be made that if children → Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 17:41
  • 4
    → can’t learn the language, the alternative isn’t necessarily the language dying out, but perhaps rather significant grammatical collapse. This is in fact what’s hypothesised to have happened to Old Irish: the attested language is a clearly artificial, written standard, and a big part of the reason it didn’t survive as a vernacular for long is likely its insanely complex morphology, which even native children must have struggled with. (When the negated form of do·sluindi ‘refuses, denies’ being ní·díltae is regular, you know you’re in for a tough time…) Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 17:45
  • 1
    Yes...every spoken language "can be learned" - but if one is generally learned faster and/or to greater degree of mastery in less time, that would seem (to me) to indicate it is "simpler to learn".
    – warren
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 17:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.