Mapping the terrain of language learning

Language learning and language typology are often studied separately, and it is common for experts in one area to know rather little about the other. This is not merely an unfortunate historical coincidence; there are some powerful practical reasons why it is so. The detailed study of language learning typically involves the experimental investigation of groups of people who are at various stages in the learning process—i.e., children. Hence it prototypically takes place at university daycares in North America, where the children are usually learning English. In contrast, the study of typology is concerned with probing the full extent of the diversity that natural human languages can exhibit, and with finding and explaining any limits to that diversity that exist. As a result, it prototypically involves doing fieldwork with small numbers of fully competent adult speakers of less-studied languages. This fieldwork is made possible either by the researcher traveling to the often-remote areas of the world where these less-studied languages are spoken, or by finding speakers who have come nearer to the researcher through immigration. As a result, the contexts in which language acquisition can readily be studied and the contexts in which language typology can effectively be studied rarely overlap. Indeed, it is an unfortunate reality of the world as we have made it that a very large number of the “local languages” spoken by aboriginal populations, which are of great interest to typologists, have no children learning them at all (Hale, Krauss et al.
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