There are many stories of a child speaking several languages when his parents speak different languages.

But languages can differ significantly, so I'm curious whether pairs of 'incompatible' languages exist.

  • 6
    No, as far as we know, all human languages have adapted to human learning systems -- and vice versa. Any child who is otherwise physically normal will learn to speak the languages in its environment. There may well be many, and they may well be very different; but they'll be learned, eventually. Multilingualism has been the normal state of humankind until very recently; monolingualism is pretty much a recent historical invention, probly one of the changes wrought by agriculture.
    – jlawler
    Oct 7 '14 at 20:27

There is no limit on how similar or different two languages have to be for bilingualism. The historical experience suggests that this is not even a very good question to ask. There are millions of people bilingual in languages with completely different lexical bases, different syntax and morphology as well as phonetics.

Also keep in mind that:

  1. Knowing a language is a not an on / off state. It is a continuous development and changes over a person's lifetime.
  2. Multilingual people most often don't know both languages in the same way because they learned them in different contexts.
  • > The historical experience suggests that this is not even a very good question to ask. If previous experience were the only drive to ask questions there wouldn't be any progress. The idea behind the question is more cognitive rather than linguistic. As far as I know semantic zones of different languages mainly overlap but do not completely match. In this video (youtube.com/watch?v=vuNGcVrh5B8) it is said that grammatical gender does not manifest itself by activating additional gender specific associations when compared with genderless languages. Oct 9 '14 at 8:44
  • So if significant differences really existed there could be a chance of 'not compatible' languages. That was my speculation and hence the question. Oct 9 '14 at 8:47
  • We know that multilingual speakers switch between conceptualisations as well as grammar. So any of the differences you mention would not have an impact. However, it is possible that bilingual speakers of two languages with radically different nominal classifications might perform differently on the sorts of tests Lera Boriditsky runs (see brainblogger.com/2013/11/07/…). But that does not impact the speakers ability to speak both (or more) languages with full competence. Also, those experiments have a long way to go still to eliminate noise. Oct 9 '14 at 22:16

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