Linguistic Structure: the Result of L2 Learners?

Wray and Grace (2007) propose that the structure of a language is dependent of the social structure of the population who speak it. Lupyan & Dale (2010) later showed this using statistical analysis. This has been discussed extensively on this blog before:

One of the proposed reasons for why large population size is thought to affect linguistic structure is that larger populations will have a larger ratio of second language (L2) speakers to first language (L1) speakers.

Languages within exoteric niches (large population and geographical spread with many language neighbors) have been shown to be more more morphologically isolating and, as a result, regular. This has proposed to be because of the biases of adult second language learners.

Esoteric languages are more irregular and morphologically complex and idiosyncratic. This is thought to be because of the biases of child learners.

There are studies which show that adult learners have a tendency to regularise languages but only under some circumstances. Hudson Kam & Newport (2009) show that adult learners will regularise unpredictable variability but only if it exists above a certain level of scatter and complexity.

As for the learning biases of children, Wray & Grace (2007) cite only one study which looked at children who were ‘native’ speakers of Esperanto (Bergen, 2001). Bergen (2001) found that the language that the children learnt displayed a loss of the accusative case and also displayed attrition in the tense system. Although Wray & Grace (2007) suggest that this explains patterns seen in esoteric communities, it may not be as straight forward as they suggest. The evidence suggests that esoteric conditions are going to display more morphological strategies in their languages which is the opposite to the biases the child learners of Esperanto are displaying. The children are rejecting morphological strategies in favour of attrition and word order.

I wanted to point out in this post that there is evidence to suggest that adult learners preserve irregularities and idiosyncrasies, while children learners regularize (suggesting the opposite to Wray & Grace).

Studies which have addressed these problems include Hudson Kam & Newport (2005) where adult learners of an artificial language preserved unpredictable variation and child learners of the same language regularized it. Hudson Kam & Newport (2009) show in a similar study that child learners of an artificial language will regularise unpredictable irregularity but, as mentioned above, adult learners will only do this where the irregularity passes a certain level of complexity.

However, some evidence does support Wray & Grace’s (2007) proposal about adult learners.  Smith & Wonnacott (2010) show that despite there being a tendency within individual adult learners to maintain the level of unpredicted variability within the language learning process, when put into a diffusion chain of adult learners the language regularises.  Smith & Wonnacott (2010) suggest that gradual processes such as this can explain the regularisation of languages over time. While this fits nicely with Wray & Grace’s (2007) theory there is still the problem that children are just as liable to regularise as adults if not more so.


This is just some relevant experiments which I thought lent something to the debate. I know there are other factors which have been proposed to have an effect on linguistic structure. I was just curious about people’s opinions on quite to what level L2 speakers have an effect.

7 thoughts on “Linguistic Structure: the Result of L2 Learners?”

  1. I think you’re right to question the role of second language learners. Although it is generally true that ultimate attainment in language acquisition is correlated with age of first exposure, the cause of this is difference is contested. For instance, the linguistic output of a second language learner (and so the input to the next generation) may be affected by social aspects. At the individual level, second language learners may avoid constructions that they find difficult to avoid embarrassment (e.g. Schachter, 1974). Output may also be affected by lack of motivation, low self-esteem or anxiety (Krashen, 1982), which may result from social factors. Furthermore, adults and children differ in the way they interact with others in their society in terms of the number of interlocutors, frequency, context and function of the interaction (Kuhl, 1997).

    Also, second language learners may have a high functional attainment in the specific domains involved in cross-linguistic contact (Hyltenstam,2003; Bialystok, 1999) and age of acquisition may affect different aspects of language to different degrees (e.g. Eubank & Gregg, 1999). Acquisition in second language learning may also be affected by non-linguistic cognitive development such as the development of analytical thinking (Penfield & Roberts, 1959; Newport, 1990)

    At the society level, ultimate attainment is effected by the linguistic distance between the first and second language (e.g. Lado, 1957,Kellerman, 1986). This means that it’s not just the number of other languages a community has contact with that should affect its evolution, but the properties of those languages. The picture is complicated when considering that social groups split and merge and borrow linguistic features from one another.

    Although Wray & Grace have proposed a hypothesis, it still needs to be tested using experiments or case-studies to show exactly what affects the complexity of a langauge during transmission.

  2. In addition to Sean’s note: you should come along tomorrow for a talk on this very topic at 11am, 1.17, DSB. Virtual me will be present — looking overly self-aware of my digital existence via Skype.

  3. Thanks for the talk you two! Very insightful. Thanks for the comment Sean that was actually really useful, I’m really interested in this demographic factors affecting linguistic structure stuff and that’s largely what my Master’s dissertation is based on. I’ll have to talk to you about it at some point.


  4. Haha, I’m pretty sure my 9-minute talk induced bafflement rather than insight… 😉 What are you looking at exactly in your dissertation? I’m only asking because my dissertation is within the same area. Send me an email if you’re not too fussed on relaying all of your ideas to the web.

  5. I was finding it hard to hear but people seemed to ‘get it’, you should come up and do it irl some time.

    My dissertation is on accommodation to the hearer, or foreigner talk, and how this might effect languages where there is a large L2 population. I’ve sent you an email with the finer details.


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