Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Arturs Semenuks (University of California San Diego)

Title: When are simpler languages easier to learn?

Abstract: Languages with more L2 speakers tend to be morphologically simpler. The evidence for this comes mostly from qualitative and quantitative analyses of typological and diachronic data, as well as computational modelling. More experimental work, however, is necessary to (i) make causal claims about the influence of non-native speakers on language structure and (ii) fully understand the mechanism of that influence, i.e. how exactly does L2 speaker presence in the population lead to language simplification down the line.

One frequently entertained explanation assumes that morphological simplification is caused primarily by, in the words of Peter Trudgill, “the lousy language learning abilities” of adults and that languages adapt to become more learnable for L2 speakers. In the talk I will present results from four experiments testing common assumptions of this hypothesised mechanism. In experiment 1, we find that imperfect learning does amplify the erosion of complex features in an iterated artificial language learning setup. In experiments 2-4, we test the assumption that descriptively simpler languages are also more learnable using artificial language learning. Surprisingly, we don’t find evidence for that being the case, except when the participants’ L1 structure matches the artificial language structure. I discuss the seeming tension between the results of the experiments, argue that descriptively simpler languages are not always easier to learn and propose some conjectures for when they are.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

Mar 26 2019 -

Language evolution seminar

2019-03-26: When are simpler languages easier to learn?

Room G.07 (Lecture Theatre 2), Appleton Tower, 11 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9LE