In the article, “Testing the role of convergence in language acquisition, with implications for creole genesis,” Marlyse Baptista et al. write:
The main objective of this paper is to test experimentally the role of convergence in language acquisition (second language acquisition specifically), with implications for creole genesis. . . . Our experiment is unique on two fronts as it is the first to use an artificial language to test the convergence hypothesis by making it observable, and it is also the first experimental study to clarify the notion of similarity by varying the levels and types of similarity that are expressed. We report an experiment with 94 English-speaking adults . . . A miniature artificial language was created that included morphological elements to express negation and pluralization. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: congruent (form and function of novel grammatical morphemes were highly similar to those in English), reversed (negative grammatical morpheme was highly similar to that of English plural, and plural grammatical morpheme was highly similar to that of English negation), and novel (form and function were highly dissimilar to those of English).
A miniature artificial language! Cool.
And here’s what the researchers found:
Participants in the congruent condition performed best, indicating that features that converge across form and function are learned most fully. More surprisingly, results showed that participants in the reversed condition acquired the language more readily than those in the novel condition, contrary to expectation.
It’s funny they find this result surprising. Speaking as an outsider to this field of research, based only on introspection and experience, I’d’ve thought that the novel condition would be more difficult than the reverse condition. To me, reversal’s pretty trivial; but an entirely new system, that sounds hard. For example, in our apartment we have a backwards clock (the gear is flipped so the hands go counter-clockwise), a clock with the minute and hour hands switched, and a 24-hour clock. I’ve never had any problem reading the backward clock—once you realize it’s reverse, reading it is automatic—but the other two clocks still give me difficulty and I have to consciously work it out each time I read them.
Sure, language is verbal and clock-reading is visual. Still, as Phil would say, I’m surprised that Baptista et al. are surprised that learning something reversed is easier than learning something new.
If the result really is a surprise, I’d like to see a replication study. Also some graphs of the data.