Second languages and sentence structure

Posted by Glenn Kempf on 00:45 6/19/02

In reply to: (none)


A language question: is there any information available on patterns of language learning--more specifically, the mistakes people tend to make when picking up languages very different from their own? I have some notion of how phonological differences and foreign accents can work (not to mention how hard they can be to get rid of), but I am also interested here in problems of grammar, word order, and sentence structure when people acquire a second language informally, or when two populations speaking different languages mix (both have a direct bearing on my own conlang projects).

An Almealogical example, to explain what I mean: Verdurian is basically an SVO language (and Cadhinorian before it an SOV one), but Dhekhnami, across the border, is VSO and head-first (Obenzayet, influenced by Western, is VSO too. :-) If a Dhekhnami was beginning to learn Verdurian (for spying, say...) or a Verdurian Dhekhnami, or an Obenzayet-speaker picking up Verdurian through dealings with Curians across the border, would their inclination be to put the "new" words in the familiar (to them) order? Does the learning process work that way? (I'm not sure, although I think it does to some extent.)

A real-world example from my own experience: here in Kazakhstan, when Kazakh-speaking children learn Russian, I'm told they often have a tendency to put the verb at the end, as in Kazakh, even where Russian would place it elsewhere. (Kazakh is a strictly verb-final language, chiefly SOV, like Turkish, Korean, and Japanese; Russian is more flexible, with SVO, OVS, or SOV, depending on context, although I think SVO would be considered the basic pattern.) This seems to be a less difficult issue, however; the bigger problem for some of the Kazakh children I worked with is that Kazakh has no grammatical gender (there is even only one word, ol, to signify both "he" and "she"), whereas Russian has three of them; the kids in question tended to mix up "he" and "she" a lot when speaking Russian (or use only one or the other).

So--any thoughts? I suspect that while it takes a great deal of skill to create a language and people who speak it well, it may take even more skill to create a language and then create people who speak it badly... ;-)

Ad onlelán and nende quralain,

Mark responds:

Plenty of work has been done on second language acquisition, but I'm no expert in it... I can't even say who you should read, though something like David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Linguistics will have some pointers.

First-language interference is certainly a problem, and moreover occurs at all levels: once you've mastered the big obvious differences, you're apt to get caught on subtle points. My favorite example is Spanish: American high school students forced to take foreign language course often seize on it, because it's reputed to be "easy". What this means, I think, is that the high-level features you first encounter aren't difficult: the orthography is sensible, there's no really difficult sounds, gender is almost entirely predictable, syntax on the whole resembles English. You have to get a good deal deeper into it before you find greater difficulties: the subjunctive, two past tenses that don't directly match anything in English, unsuspected faux amis, differing preposition usages. And deeper yet, there are so many fine points that I never expect to master them all... my wife works as a Spanish editor, and most of the points she and the writers argue about go completely over my head.

Neighboring languages do influence each other at all levels; an area where they've done so is called a Sprachbund; the classic example is the Balkans, but perhaps the most curious is the town of Kupwar, in India, where the population has been trilingual for centuries. The end result has been that the varieties of Marathi, Urdu, and Kannada spoken in Kupwar are virtually identical in syntax, differing only in lexicon; it's as if the three languages now serve as word-for-word codes for each other, though their standard forms (spoken outside Kupwar) are not at all similar.

(This is one reason that syntactic resemblances are of very little help in establishing language families-- they're too easily borrowed.)

If you're interested in modelling such things in a fantasy world, it helps of course to have enough languages (as I do on Almea) that some interesting influences can occur. On the other hand, don't overdo it; neighboring languages can also retain some striking differences.

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