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I don't see why this shouldn't be the case. Surely children around the world don't learn to speak fluently by the same age?

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    For spoken languages children become fluent around the same age regardless of the language and regardless of how difficult a foreign adult might find the language to learn. This is not the case with written languages which are of course less natural. Studying characters is a major part of education for Chinese and Japanese, and of course many English speakers never master spelling. – hippietrail Oct 12 '11 at 9:08
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    @hippietrail Great distinction. Pinker is found of saying that spoken language is natural part of our cognitive system, but reading and writing has to be laboriously bolted on. – Nathan Oct 12 '11 at 12:32
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    Yes, there are American Indian languages where people reported language competency kicked in about age 10. I'll update this comment to an answer as soon as I can track down my source, which is at home. To be really objective about this, one would have to work out some competency measures that are comparable between languages. And people would need to be comfortable with the idea that competency is something that isn't binary yes/no. I spoke better and better English for every year I was in grade school. – MatthewMartin Oct 12 '11 at 14:22
  • A strictly weaker related question about difficulty of acquisition for bilingual learning. – Artem Kaznatcheev Oct 29 '11 at 2:52
  • Way back in college, my language acquisition lecturer told us a joke about a guy who moves to a new town, goes to his new church a few days later, and sees a choir of children perfectly singing hymns with complex vocal arrangements. After the service, he tells the choir director how impressive it is that small children can master such complex music, and the director replies: "If you don't tell them it is difficult, they never act like it is". The same applies to language acquisition. – Koldito Jul 28 '16 at 13:09
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It is obvious to anyone who only knows one language and doesn't know anyone who is bilingual that their own language is simple and other languages have varying degrees of complexity and ease of learning. For an English speaker, learning as a second language, French and Spanish are relatively easy, but Latin and Chinese are much more difficult and require each a lot of special extra studying to get 'right' (this is ignoring the irrelevant complication of writing method and living/dead situations).

But the question is about first language learning. It turns out from seeing many children learning their first language and from bilingual children that they communicate perfectly fine in any of their first languages and communicate equally well in either if bilingual. (I have no reference for this but) they are also grammatical to the same extent at the same age (French children know the gender of all the nouns they use, with mistakes made in false generalization just like English speaking children might make the mistake 'getted' instead of the past tense 'got').

Language like Russian or German with long lists of conjugations and declensions with multiple forms for gender, person, mood, etc, etc with agreement and then there are all the exceptions, they seem so complex and need lots of study by people whose first language doesn't have such features (actually, they need lots of study by people whose L1 -does- have similar features, they don't realize their own language is complex in that way and even if you know the form of the rules you still need to know the specifics).

It just turns out that first language learners have no problem with what others perceive as complexity. Think of all the separable verbs in English: call out, call up, call in, call off, put away, put up, put up with, put out. It's just not obvious which preposition to use for which meaning, you just have to learn it. But native English speakers don't even get taught this at school.

So, it just turns out counter to intuition that children do learn to speak fluently -and- grammatically in their L1 at the same rate for all languages.

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    IMHO this answer would be much better if all instances of "it just turns out" could be replaced by references to peer-reviewed research (or even standard textbooks). – Anubhav C May 14 '14 at 13:54
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Yes, as far as we can tell, all children without cognitive or social deficits achieve fluency at around the same age. Moreover, there is remarkable consistency in the order in which children acquire different features of the language. There is some variance between individuals, but that's to be expected.

Language is an intrinsic part of what makes us human, and the need to communicate stretches across all cultures and people.

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    Why would you think it is easy? Have you seen the huge list of endings for Latin, by person, number, tense, aspect, mood, passive, and then by conjugation, along with exceptions and irregular verbs. And then ther are nouns. – Mitch Oct 12 '11 at 12:28
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    By the way, this answer's great, but I think it will be better if it includes some research-based facts. – Louis Rhys Oct 12 '11 at 16:53
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    @Louis: I fully understand the issues you bring up, I am just taking issue with the 'Why would you expect...'. One can very reasonably expect that say, an arbitrary gender for every noun would incur more learning time than if it were not there. But only after experience (with lots of first-language learners and lots of languages, one finds that people learn such features as a matter of course. – Mitch Oct 12 '11 at 21:22
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    @Nathan This is a good answer, but the last section seems to chide the asker for even posing the question. This isn't the type of environment for a healthy SE site. The answer may seem obvious to you, but remember that this site caters to amateurs as well, who carry their own preconceived biases, and shouldn't be struck down quite so harshly. – Alek Storm Oct 18 '11 at 5:51
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    I agree with the answer, but I think it should be accompanied with citations or at least some relevant facts. – Constantine Oct 19 '11 at 23:15
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I looked for evidence to back myself up here, but didn't find any, so here's a mere anecdote:

One of my professors who was working with the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin reported that, though the children seemed fluent at a young age to her, native speakers reported that they didn't consider children fluent until maybe 10 or 11 years old.

There are of course lots of caveats to this: Menominee is practically moribund (at best endangered) so the children were bilingual, and possibly reluctant learners. Who knows what criteria for "fluent" the native speakers were using (or my professor, for that matter). Maybe "fluency" is culturally related to "adulthood" in the native speakers mind or something.

Just thought I'd put it out there!

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  • Could that just be an indication of bias on the part of the native speakers, who don't consider that one achieves fluency until they speak practically error-free? My 3 year old daughter is certainly fluent in English but she also makes lots of errors. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Nov 17 '11 at 13:29
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When talking about first languages, language acquisition is around the same age given freedom from cognitive disabilities and of course adequate exposure to the language (i.e. was not raised in the wild by wolves). However, language mastery is quite another story. As in the comment by @MatthewMartin, a language such as Cree which known to be notoriously difficult can take nearly until the start of adolescence to get a firm grasp on. I believe I heard this statement made by John McWhorter in one of his lectures.

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To say that it takes longer for a healthy child to acquire naturally one language over another would implicate many more things than just sheer "complexity" of a particular language.

Let us make the assumption that for all natural languages, the expression rate of information is roughly equal; that is to say no human language exceeds another in how fast and efficiently information may be communicated via the language. If that were not the case, then speakers of languages with a much higher rate of information output (this is keeping in mind the economy needing in both coding and decoding a spoken utterance carrying some kind of meaning) would have an inherent advantage over language speakers with a lower output. All languages then would strive for the same strategies of communicating. But, as we see by looking at over the 5,000 uniqe languages of the world, that is not the case at all! There exist many many strategies to communicate over roughly the same meaning, each one with their own benefits and strengths which in the end should equal out to the same rate of information flow for every language.

So, if one accepts that language speakers communicate at the same rate regardless of which language they may be using, then why should one language take longer to gain fluency in than another? As said previously, different areas of language may be acquired sooner than others, but any difference should be minimal. The linguistic idea behind this is that all languages are equal and equally complex. We are only biased by our own native toungue(s) and the languages which we have learned as L2s, so yes indeed one might think a child would take longer to acquire say Latin than English but it is more of a subjective fallacy.

It does seem to be true however that there has been a general trend in language to "simplify" itself by removing case inflections, verb-subject agreements, etc., but this may just a subpart of the cycle of language change itself. Nonetheless, that would be a related topic to research which might shed light.

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  • While language tends to simplify itself, it also tends to complex-ify itself too, with neologisms and new homonyms (e.g. "Like, I like how people like us have, like, too much time on our hands")... I wonder if the new simplifications and new complexities tend to cancel each other out to produce a steady cognitive load. – Qwertie Nov 19 '11 at 1:24
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The way you worded your question implies some kind of comparison. We can't really say that acquiring Russian aspect is harder or easier than English tenses or Latin declensions. What is easier, learning Cyrillic or cuneiform or devanagari? You can only answer this question from the point of view of an L2 learner. In the case of L1 acquisition, it's all the same. All languages are learnable since their primary goal is communication.

If you need references, I suggest you start with "Crosslinguistic and crosscultural aspects language acquisition" (pp. 219-224) in Fasold & Connor-Linton (Eds.), An introduction to language and linguistics. After that you might want to have a look at Lust's Child language or Bavin 1995 review article "Language acquisition in crosslinguistic perspective" in Annual Review of Anthropology 24.

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  • Upvoted for providing sources. – Anubhav C May 14 '14 at 13:50
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It sounds like a matter that needs more study. It is plausible that most natural languages have nearly the same objective complexity (which could be defined variously, e.g. lexicon size + amount of morphological/inflectional rules), so that children earn proficiency at similar rates for most natural languages. But what if a child's L1 were an objectively simple language such as Ido (or Esperanto)? Has acquisition rate ever been studied for such a scenario?

And note that it is difficult to tell how well a child is acquiring language, because the ability to speak comes more slowly than the ability to understand, and perhaps more slowly than the mental ability to form sentences. It strikes me as difficult to tell how much a pre-speech child comprehends what has been spoken. Pre-speech toddlers can be taught baby sign, which you might use to tell how well they understand speech, but I wonder if having learned a sign language might speed up speech acquisition (thus biasing your study).

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The standard answer seems to be no, which is obviously true in some sense. After all, the amount of deliberate effort needed by any child to aquire any is precisely zero (assuming the child doesn't have any hearing problems/speech impediment/learning disability etc).

But I don't think it is quite so clear if we interpret "acquire language" as "becoming fully proficient". Most languages have a formal/literary form and a colloquial form. In some languages they may be nearly the same, or perhaps the literary form is never used. But in other languages a literary form is extensively used in everyday life and native speakers have to devote considerable effort to learn it.

An English speaker, for example, would not be able to function in modern society if he only had a primary school level vocabulary and was completely ignorant of the many more "advanced" Latin and French derived words. (This problem is not uniform across languages, since in some languages even the "advanced" words come from native roots. An uneducated Chinese speaker who hears the Chinese words for "diabetes" or "schizophrenia" would instantly have at least a vague idea of what they mean, while an English speaker who heard those English words would be clueless.)

This applies to grammar as well as vocabulary. For example Japanese has the honorific/humble form of speaking, which: 1) involves dedicated grammatical constructs like verb conjugations rather than merely vocabulary, 2) is still widely used today, e.g. in letters and by store and restaurant staff, and 3) is not picked up naturally by children; most native Japanese speakers have to formally study the honorific/humble form before mastering it.

(As an example/thought experiment, consider a fictional English speaking country where it is the norm to use Shakespearean style language in business situations. Children would not acquire the "business language" since they would not be exposed to it, at least not to a great degree. So in that situation there would be an added level that native speakers need to study before being fully proficient in their own language.)

Even if we only focus on "basic" language, there certainly are cases where some languages are more difficult than others, at least in certain aspects. For example, Chinese has a multitude of different words for aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins that can confuse even native speakers. A child will have to learn how to correctly address each of their relatives, and most Chinese children don't manage to do this totally effortlessly. A child acquiring English, on the other hand, would not have this difficulty.

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My unqualified conjecture is that a language would evolve to be easy to learn, especially in a pre-literate society. If the rules are too complex for a child to learn, the complex rules will eventually be destroyed by repeated failure of people to assimilate and follow the rules.

I think my view is pretty consistent with the theory that there is a universal grammar that all languages follow. All languages evolve to be ones that a child can master, based on a humans natural language to understand grammatical rules. I would add that languages can acquire some variance and some complexity, but they have to be master-able by children to survivor.

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    You are assuming that there is an "upper bound" on the level of complexity that languages can achieve. But what if a certain language were way below that upper bound? Then it would still be easier to learn than others, right? – Otavio Macedo Nov 24 '11 at 21:39

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