What makes a language easy to learn? A preregistered study on how systematic structure and community size affect language learnability
Raviv, L., De Heer Kloots, M., & Meyer, A. S.
What makes a language easy to learn? A preregistered study on how systematic structure and community size affect language learnability. Cognition, 210
: 104620. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104620.
Cross-linguistic differences in morphological complexity could have important consequences for language learning. Specifically, it is often assumed that languages with more regular, compositional, and transparent grammars are easier to learn by both children and adults. Moreover, it has been shown that such grammars are more likely to evolve in bigger communities. Together, this suggests that some languages are acquired faster than others, and that this advantage can be traced back to community size and to the degree of systematicity in the language. However, the causal relationship between systematic linguistic structure and language learnability has not been formally tested, despite its potential importance for theories on language evolution, second language learning, and the origin of linguistic diversity. In this pre-registered study, we experimentally tested the effects of community size and systematic structure on adult language learning. We compared the acquisition of different yet comparable artificial languages that were created by big or small groups in a previous communication experiment, which varied in their degree of systematic linguistic structure. We asked (a) whether more structured languages were easier to learn; and (b) whether languages created by the bigger groups were easier to learn. We found that highly systematic languages were learned faster and more accurately by adults, but that the relationship between language learnability and linguistic structure was typically non-linear: high systematicity was advantageous for learning, but learners did not benefit from partly or semi-structured languages. Community size did not affect learnability: languages that evolved in big and small groups were equally learnable, and there was no additional advantage for languages created by bigger groups beyond their degree of systematic structure. Furthermore, our results suggested that predictability is an important advantage of systematic structure: participants who learned more structured languages were better at generalizing these languages to new, unfamiliar meanings, and different participants who learned the same more structured languages were more likely to produce similar labels. That is, systematic structure may allow speakers to converge effortlessly, such that strangers can immediately understand each other.