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If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language, you’ve probably been told that some really intuitive ways of phrasing things in your native language sound awkward in this new language. Why do languages have these maddening differences? Language researchers actually ask the opposite question—why isn’t there even more variety in the 5000+ languages in the world? It turns out that when we look at the different ways that languages can express ideas, some patterns are extremely common and others are incredibly rare within a language, and across languages, many common themes emerge.

These recurring patterns probably reflect something very basic about how humans represent and use language, but what? I argue that a major reason why languages are the way they are is because of the way language production works. In all languages, ideas can be expressed with a variety of different words and sentences. The picture above (from a wikibook for Icelandic speakers trying to learn English) illustrates how English has many different ways to convey giving something to someone. My researchinvestigates how people unconsciously choose among alternative phrases and sentences like these, and why they settle on one form and not others. Building on work in human memory and action planning, I show that certain kinds of sentences and phrases are harder to produce than others, and that speakers and writers unconsciously gravitate to the easier ways to convey their messages.

Three language production biases push people toward easier options: Easy First, the tendency to put easier phrases before hard ones in sentences; Plan Reuse, the tendency to repeat the same sentence structures from one utterance to the next; and Reduce Interference, the tendency to keep similar concepts or similar sounding words far apart in a sentence, because these similar words can interfere with each other while the speaker plans what to say. Across millions of conversations and texts, these three biases create strong patterns within languages, with relatively easily-produced options outnumbering harder ones. The biases don’t explain basic cross-language differences like the fact that English has a Subject-Verb-Object word order (as in “I saw him”) and Japanese has a Subject-Object-Verb word order (“I him saw”). But they do help explain why other patterns could develop in these languages, given these basic differences as a starting point. The ways to express an idea that are easy to produce in English, given that you have to work within the Subject-Verb-Object restrictions, can be different than the options that are easiest in Japanese, where speakers are operating under a different set of restrictions. So even though two languages may in principle have the very same types of phrases to convey an idea, these options may not be equally natural—in one language, Option A could be easier and more common than Option B, while the opposite is true in another language.  So part of what makes you sound natural in your native language is following the easier paths, and without a lifetime of learning those paths through a foreign language, it’s hard to know what’s the natural way to say things there.

image from http://japanese.about.com/library/weekly/graphics/balloon.gif

Not everyone agrees with my approach. Here are 11 commentaries on my paper and a reply from me.

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