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Transparency in language – a typological study of learnability

Are all languages equally learnable, or are some languages easier to learn than others, even for children acquiring their mother tongue? Recent studies (Leufkens 2015, Hengeveld & Leufkens 2018) have investigated this question by comparing genetically and typologically diverse languages on their degree of transparency, which I argue to be a strong determiner of learnability. In these studies, transparency is defined as a one-to-one relation between meaning and form, operationalized in the framework of Functional Discourse Grammar. Transparency can be violated in multiple ways: by forms that have no corresponding meaning, by meanings that are expressed in multiple forms, and by instances of fusion that obscure the boundaries between form. All languages turn out to violate transparency in one way or another, but they differ in the amount of non-transparent features and in the type of non-transparency exhibited.

In this talk, I will show that languages can be ranked on their degree of transparency, suggesting that some languages are more learnable than others, even from the point of view of first language acquisition. Furthermore, I will show how non-transparent features can be ranked into an implicational hierarchy of non-transparency. Both the language ranking and the feature hierarchy can partly be accounted for by sociolinguistic characteristics of the communities by which the languages are spoken, but some interesting questions about the role of language contact and the process of first language acquisition remain.

 

Hengeveld, Kees & Leufkens, Sterre (2018). Transparent and non-transparent languages. Folia Linguistica 52 (1), 139-175.

Leufkens, Sterre (2015). Transparency in language – A typological study [LOT Dissertation Series; 380]. Utrecht: LOT.