The Complexity of Languages Does Not Necessarily Decrease with an Increase in New Adult Speakers, Research Suggests

In a recent study published in Science Advances, researchers analyzed over 1,200 languages to investigate the theory that languages spoken by non-native speakers tend to have simpler grammar. This theory suggests that as more people learn a language as adults, the grammar of that language should evolve to become easier to learn and use. However, the study found no evidence to support this idea, disappointing language learners worldwide.

The theory of grammatical simplicity and non-native speakers is based on the assumption that languages primarily spoken by native speakers become more complex over time. This is because children have a natural ability to learn arbitrary grammatical rules, and as a language becomes more familiar to a community, more information can be efficiently encoded into it.

For example, in Icelandic, a relatively isolated language, there are three different word forms for “the dog” depending on its role in a sentence. However, in Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, which have historically had more contact with each other, only one form is used in all scenarios.

To test the theory, the researchers used a global database of grammatical features called Grambank. They created two measures of grammatical complexity for each language: fusion, which measures the use of prefixes and suffixes, and informativity, which measures the amount of grammatical information needed for sentences to make sense.

Using these measures, the researchers analyzed the relationship between complexity, social and demographic factors, and language status. They also considered the historical origins of languages.

Contrary to the hypothesis, the study found that changes in grammatical complexity are too slow to be influenced by the influx of new adult speakers. The patterns of grammatical complexity observed today are more likely the result of historical language change and contact with other languages.

The study highlights the importance of large-scale datasets and rigorous methods in understanding the factors that contribute to grammatical complexity. While there was no evidence for the impact of non-native speakers on grammar, there are still many unanswered questions about how social and demographic changes influence communication.