In one of my first sociolinguistics lecture at Birkbeck University. I read in my lecture notes “Linguists – consider all varieties to be equal – equally complex; equally able to express meaning; marker of identify”. In particular, this is referring to the dominant idea in linguistics that all human languages are equally complex. Having studied mathematics and computer science up to Master level, I somehow have a strong belief that complexity can be quantified and measured in some way and that this must apply to human languages as well.
The following will be my main arguments:
- In Child Language Acquisition, it takes the child different number of years to acquire the basics of his mother tongue
- In Second Language Acquisition, some languages are easier to learn than others even taking language similarity into account
- In Child Language Acquisition, some sounds are acquired much later than others.
- Some grammatical structures are simply much more succinct and expressive
For a start, grammar in different languages are not the same. Some languages have complex inflection and derivation whilst others don’t. For example, Russian, being a fusional language has many cases and tenses and aspects. However, Malay, being definitely an analytic language, have no inflections at all. It’s generally agreed in the online language learning community Malay, at least at the beginning stage, is by far one of the easiest languages to learn as a foreign language. So, even taking into consideration the degree of similarity being the native language and target language of the language learner, some language are simply easier to learn.
It is true and it is the general impression that almost all children learn to speak their mother tongue by around age 3 to some degree of general competence. However, this is actually not the case for all languages. For example, in some Caucasian languages, it takes the child around 7 years to master even the basics of the language, the reason is that the grammar is indeed far too complex. There is a general observation in linguistics that the complexity of a language negatively correlates with the degree the language has interacted with other languages in history. As an example, many foreigners tend to find learning Mandarin much easier than learning Cantonese, the reason why? Cantonese has more tones than Mandarin and more pragmatic sentence-ending articles. These factors do add to the complexity of the language. Interestingly, this is mainly because, historically, many non-Chinese was essentially forced to learn Mandarin, e.g. in the 7th century, in the process of learning a complex language, the learners would, in the process, simplify the language, when the native speakers interact with these new speakers, the language does eventually simplifies over time. This is actually one of the main reasons for relative simplicity of the English language as a foreign language to learn. (English has no way a simple orthography, but let’s not forget that this is more due to socio-political reason.)
“Though it is increasingly accepted in the behavioral sciences, the evolutionary approach is still meeting resistance in linguistics. Linguists generally cling to the idea that alternative linguistic features are simply gratuitous variants of one another, while the advocates of innate grammars, who make room for evolution as a biological process, exclude the evolution of languages. The rationale given is that today’s languages are all complex systems. This argument is based on the failure to distinguish between complexities of form and function. The proper analysis reveals instead that linguistic features have consistently decreased their material complexity, while increasing their functionality. A systematic historical survey will show instead that languages have evolved and linguistic features have developed along a Darwinian line.” (Bichakjian, 1999)