A bifurcation threshold for contact-induced language change

by   Henri Kauhanen, et al.

One proposed mechanism of language change concerns the role played by second-language (L2) learners in situations of language contact. If sufficiently many L2 speakers are present in a speech community in relation to the number of first-language (L1) speakers, then those features which present a difficulty in L2 acquisition may be prone to disappearing from the language. This paper proposes a mathematical model of such contact situations based on reinforcement learning and nonlinear dynamics. The equilibria of a deterministic reduction of a full stochastic model, describing a mixed population of L1 and L2 speakers, are fully characterized. Whether or not the language changes in response to the introduction of L2 learners turns out to depend on three factors: the overall proportion of L2 learners in the population, the relative advantages of the linguistic variants in question, and the strength of the difficulty speakers face in acquiring the language as an L2. These factors are related by a mathematical formula describing a phase transition from retention of the L2-difficult feature to its loss from both speaker populations. This supplies predictions that can be tested against empirical data. Here, the model is evaluated with the help of two case studies, morphological levelling in Afrikaans and the erosion of null subjects in Afro-Peruvian Spanish; the model is found to be broadly in agreement with the historical development in both cases.


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