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Smaller cultural groups are better at learning difficult concepts

Giang Thi May teaches a first grade class at the primary school of Van Chai in Dong Van district, on the border with China, north of Hanoi, Vietnam, September 21, 2015. There is no electricity and no books. She teaches the children in the local Hmong language. Nearly three years after Taliban gunmen shot Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, the teenage activist last week urged world leaders gathered in New York to help millions more children go to school. World Teachers' Day falls on 5 October, a Unesco initiative highlighting the work of educators struggling to teach children amid intimidation in Pakistan, conflict in Syria or poverty in Vietnam. Even so, there have been some improvements: the number of children not attending primary school has plummeted to an estimated 57 million worldwide in 2015, the U.N. says, down from 100 million 15 years ago. Reuters photographers have documented learning around the world, from well-resourced schools to pupils crammed into corridors in the Philippines, on boats in Brazil or in crowded classrooms in Burundi.
Spreading the culture.
  • Nikhil Sonnad
By Nikhil Sonnad


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Languages change as they gain more speakers. When a language grows, its expressiveness expands and contracts at once: Its vocabulary expands, but its grammar becomes simpler. This paradox in language can help us understand why simple ideas take hold rapidly in large cultures, while complicated ones tend not to become mainstream.

Small, isolated languages tend to have (pdf) relatively complex grammar. Linguists think that’s because small groups form linguistic niches, with language structures specific to their community’s uses. As more people learn to the language, and its uses broaden, esoteric and difficult-to-learn grammar becomes less useful to the larger group. That causes the grammar to become simpler.

But if that’s the case, shouldn’t vocabulary get simpler, too?

Researchers developed a computer model to try to untangle this paradox. The results of their simulation, published in a recent paper, suggest that the main difference between vocabulary and grammar is how easy or difficult they are to learn. In large groups, easily learned concepts—like new vocabulary words—flourish, according to the simulation, and challenging concepts like grammatical rules do not. In smaller communities, difficult concepts spread more readily.

The simulation works by rating different concepts’ easiness-to-learn (measured by the number of times a simulated user would need to be exposed to it to adopt it as a “convention.”) This is trying to emulate the real-world fact that, while you can start using a new word correctly after hearing it just a couple times, learning how to properly conjugate a verb might require weeks of practice. The latter requires more exposure to the concept.

As the researchers increased the size of the network, these “hard” concepts made up a decreasing proportion of the conventions learned by at least 10% of the population, even though they were introduced at the same rate.

Smaller groups were better at learning tricky things like grammar, but worse at spreading the simpler stuff. (For the statistically interested, the researchers’ code is all freely available.)

This explains the vocabulary-grammar discrepancy. But it also has implications beyond language.

Large cultural groups, the research suggest, provide a boost for easy ideas while creating friction for difficult ones. A meme can take over the internet instantly, becoming a familiar part of culture for millions of people overnight. The complicated structures of bebop music, on the other hand, had to be forged in small communities. Trying to bring bebop to a large group quickly would have resulted in its simplification, akin to what happens to grammar, thus stripping it of the complexity that made it novel.

The internet has had the dual effects of connecting people to a single, massive collective culture and allowing tiny niche communities to develop. It turns out language has been doing the same thing for thousands of years.

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