In our world there seem to be 7,000 languages, give or take. Nobody can say certainly because separating languages from similar dialects can be arbitrary, and also because many minor languages are rapidly dying off.
One thing most linguists have been convinced of is that children all learn their native tongues naturally and pretty much at the same pace. This conviction has been challenged by new research suggesting that Danish children have trouble learning their vowel-rich language.
English has between 13 and 17 vowel sounds, depending on dialect; Danish has about 40, even though their alphabet (which they share with Norwegian) only has three more letters than English does — “æ,” “ø,” and “å.” Compounding that, Danes “swallow” parts of words and also turn consonants into something like vowels.
Norwegian is a very similar language, but they pronounce consonants, and their children seem to learn the language more quickly than their Danish cousins. Some studies suggest that Danish toddlers struggle to learn words when they are surrounded by many other vowels.
With so much phonetic ambiguity, Danes rely on context more than Norwegians do. Context is an important aspect of conveying meaning.
Other than just being interesting in itself, these studies suggest that language learning is a dynamic process of interacting with the requirements set by particular languages.
It’s well known that children will grow up speaking like a native if they immigrate to a foreign country when very young. The later they learn a new language, the more their previous learning interferes with their acquiring the accent of their new language.
I once taught a boy from India who must have come to America as a child. His English was perfectly enunciated and flawlessly colloquial, with one exception. He could not say the letter “v,” preferring to slip into “w” when necessary.
I also knew a woman from Mexico, well educated, who didn’t have the “z” sound. “Racer” and “razor” sounded alike to her.
On a personal level, I’ve been told that my East Texas roots come out in a lack of discrimination between “pen” and “pin.”
After the age of language plasticity, people often cannot even hear the difference between sounds. I struggled mightily with Japanese long vowels. They are not stressed, but held just a tiny fraction of a second longer. Their word for “grandmother” differs from “aunt” only by a long vowel.
I could enunciate the vowels by holding them for what must have been an interminable drawl for a Japanese, and often I couldn’t even hear the difference even when I concentrated hard enough that I could have heard a pen drop.
Perhaps much of what we know about language acquisition is based on how people learn English. There might be more going on than we realize.
Even more oddly, there seem to be languages that do without vowels, at least for some words. The Tashlhiyt Berber language of North Africa contains all-consonant words like “ssrksxt,” which means “I hid him.” A Salish language of British Columbia, Bella Coola, also uses vowelless syllables.
Hmmmm. I wonder if we ever do this in English? Pffft!
We often find patterns, such as what words are made of, and expect them to be universal. What works generally cannot account for every case. For example, a magnetic compass (not the one on your iPhone) can be useful except near the poles.
The more we look into things, the more interesting exceptions we find.