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(I am not a linguist, so please forgive any wrong term or concept)

This question comes from personal experience. I have studied in a trilingual university, so that each student knew at least three languages, usually more due to the high internationality. Most of us were not born bilingual and had to learn the L2 and L3 in school or by ourselves, ending up with different levels in each language. In fact, the L1, L2, and L3 were not the same for everyone, but could vary. As a result, when communicating with each other we had to adapt our vocabulary to the person we were talking to, that is, often simplify it if we had different L1s.

Overtime this ended up in us having poorer vocabularies in our mothertongue. I believe this has happened also because we often had to simplify the logic behind our reasoning so that the other person could fully understand us. We had to use simpler terms and simpler arguments, and finally we adopted these "thought structures" even in our everyday thoughts, having a loss or reduction of their complexity.

I was wondering if there are any studies on the matter. Could it be that a consequence of a multilinguistic society, where people are not all at the same language level, is a loss of complexity in language?

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  • Well, in my personal experience, knowing three non-mother tongue languages has never reduced my vocabulary in my mother tongue. In any event, there are many variables involved in this situation but I don't think loss of vocabulary in a mother tongue is necessarily a consequence of learning two other languages.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12 at 15:26
  • I suppose this would happen not just by learning a new language, but mostly by using your mothertongue not at a 'native speaker' level. And yes, maybe loss of vocabulary is a bit extreme, you would still be able to understand the same concepts and words, but you use less complex structures out of habit and therefore impoverish the language you actively use (and consequently the scope of your own thoughts I'd say)
    – Luchs
    Feb 12 at 16:20
  • It's mother tongue, two words. :) If you are alingual (not having any language be a dominant one or a mother tongue), that is problematic but I am not sure it comes from interference from learning two additional ones. As you put it, you already did not have mastery of a mother tongue. And by the way, this can happen when there are only two languages in play.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12 at 16:50
  • Do you mean something like the following? ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6168212
    – sundowner
    Feb 16 at 2:06

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It can be hard to quantify what exactly constitutes a "simplification" of linguistic structures. Linguists generally try to avoid conceptualizing language change as a simplification or as a complication, we try and think of linguistic change as just being that, change. Language is a dynamic and adaptive system, and individuals often adjust their communication strategies based on the context and their interlocutors. The impact of multilingualism on language complexity is likely influenced by various factors, including the nature of language contact, the linguistic diversity within the community, and individual language learning experiences. The variables which affect linguistic change are enormous, and usually occurring over long periods of time . That being said, there are plenty of observable and well-documented examples of languages convergence and languages affecting each other. You could think of the creation of pidgins, a rudimentary language created due to the need for a common language between two speech communities, you could think of things like Spanglish, a hybrid language that has developed in communities where Spanish and English speakers interact extensively, such as in the United States, and you can think of languages like Chiac in Canada which is often said to be a "combination" of French and English. Then, you have examples of more major structural change occurring between languages in (prolonged) mutual contact. One example that comes to mind is Greek. Greek is inherently an SVO language. There are Greek speakers in Turkey. Turkish is an SOV language. It is documented that Greek spoken in Turkey has become, largely, SOV due to its interaction with the Turkish language. Is this a simplification? Again, hard to define. But it is surely a result of the two languages' contact. There are plenty of examples of things like this. Now, getting a bit back to your specific question about multilinguals. It's highly unlikely that that your L1 was damaged in any way due to having to simplify your language in conversation with non-native speakers. I've seen longitudinal studies that show how overtime ones L1 can be changed due to language dominance (for example, I remember a longitudinal study on a Cuban-born L1 Spanish speaker who used significantly less subjunctive in her Spanish later in her life, they hypothesized due to the fact that she lived her life primarily in English after moving to Miami.) But the situation that you are describing would not facilitate such a change. As master's student in Applied Ling, and I have my bachelors in the same subject, and I have never come across a study of the sort which seeks to investigate the "simplification," or the loss of vocabulary, or the loss of any other linguistic feature, in multilingual speakers, besides ones along the lines of what I described with the Cuban woman.

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    You might want to put in some paragraphs as reading this is hard on the eyes...
    – Lambie
    Mar 17 at 14:50

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