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Lecture | LUCL Colloquium - Spring 2014

LUCL Colloquium: A Multilingual Approach To Language Learning and Change

  • Enoch Aboh (University of Amsterdam)
Friday 28 March 2014

A Multilingual Approach To Language Learning and Change


Studies on language transmission traditionally assume that children are perfect learners who develop a homogeneous grammatical system that faithfully replicates the langue of their native communities. This view is compatible with Wexler’s (1998:42) metaphor that children “are little inflection machines” or Weerman’s (2011:149) observation that “in ‘normal’ transmission from generation to generation children are simply too good to be responsible for transmission errors.” Here is the paradox: children are language-copy machines, but languages nevertheless change overtime; why? This question, central to acquisition studies, is often addressed by focusing on aspects of language change that can be related to external factors resulting imperfect learning (e.g. late or adult second language learning).

Adopting a learnability approach to language acquisition and change, I posit that learners are multilingual by definition. There is no qualitative difference between a child learning her language in a multilingual environment and a child raised in a monolingual environment. In both situation, children learn to master multiple linguistic sub-system which combine during their speech. This process generates subtle variations which may eventually lead to language change. This means that language acquisition and change is contingent on language contact. L1 acquisition involves contact of dialects or closely related variants of the same language. Here we are dealing with varieties that are genetically and typologically related. L2 acquisition, on the other hand, may involve two or more distinct languages not necessarily genetically or typologically related. Thus any learner, whether L1 or L2, develops her mental grammar out of contact. I propose that in such a contact situation, phonological, syntactic and semantic features of different language varieties or types re-combine into a new emergent linguistic system: a hybrid grammar. I further illustrate syntactic (and semantic) recombination based on examples from certain Atlantic creoles.


Weerman, F. (2011). Diachronic Change: early versus late acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 14: 149-151.

Wexler, K. (1998). Very Early Parameter Setting and the Unique Checking Constraint: a new explanation of the optimal infinitive stage. Lingua, 106: 23-17.

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