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What makes language learning so slow?

Language learning takes a long time; usually much longer than any learner anticipates when they begin. 

At first, it seems pretty easy. Most people start with a bang, putting in the hours and achieving a basic ability in a few months. 

From there, everything seems to slow down. Suddenly, improving takes forever, and many people quit after months of no appreciable improvement. What’s going on? Do we just lack the ability to learn one language for a long period of time?


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As it turns out, starting a language is easy, but speaking fluidly and with the grammar of a native speaker is far harder and takes far longer than we imagine. What’s the deal with this discrepancy?

Anything we learn and master can become incredibly complicated if we want it to. Take art. Sculpting developed from simple scratches in rock to incredible lifelike statues that push the limit of human creativity, knowledge, and skill, culminating in the likes of Michelangelo creating David and Pietà. 

If skills can get more complex without being detrimental, then some inevitably will.

Languages aren’t hard by necessity. Take Esperanto. Esperanto has a very straightforward grammar and does a lot more with a smaller vocabulary. 

Conlangs (constructed languages) such as Esperanto are often easier to learn because all of the complexities of natural language have been taken out, and as a result they take a fraction of the amount of time to learn as a natural language.

The reason why languages get so complex is largely a mystery. But part of what allows them to grow so complex must be due to the fact they are arbitrary. There is no need to use any specific grammatical rule, word, or phonology in place of any other. 

This arbitrariness lets languages become unnecessarily complicated without interfering with their function. As long as it doesn’t cause a detrimental strain on adolescents to learn, there will be no strong pressure against complexifying a language.

The grammatically simpler languages tend to be those that were, at some point, learned by a large number of adults. Unlike children, adults don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to learning languages and usually learn them imperfectly as a result. 

Not coincidentally, these are often the larger languages.

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