“Relatives” and “neighbours” are two key concepts deeply rooted in the mind of Chinese people, at least for people at my age or a bit older (I’m in my mid-20s, if you are curious). I still vaguely remember the days before we finally moved to the flat purchased by my parents: we lived in the residential area built by my father’s academy, and most of the neighbours were from the same research department. Almost everyone knew everyone else, and in case of emergency, our neighbours were always willing to give a hand. Even in the primary school, we learnt some proverbs regarding the relationship of neighbourhood – “Distant relatives are not as good as close neighbours”, which means “neighbours next door may be more friendly and helpful than those relatives who live faraway”.

While I don’t want to waste more precious bytes on the importance of “neighbourhood” in Chinese culture, I did find that “neighbours” and “relatives” are rather important in the field of linguistics, or, to be more precise, second language acquisition. I should admit that this is not my own creation; almost forty years ago, Eric Kellerman from Radboud University Nijmegen and his colleagues suggested that the distance perceived by the learners between two languages (the native language of the learner, which is abbreviated as NL, and the target language that the learner is learning, which is TL) might influence the learners’ strategies in second language acquisition.

For those learners who acquire (or learn) a second language through formal education, when they start learning a second language, they have already acquired their native language and are able to use it grammatically. Some features of the grammar and vocabulary of native language might have some influence on the learners’ production and judgement of target language; for instance, some learners may translate the proverbs in their mother tongue to their second language in a word-to-word fashion, which leads to some weird and twisted expressions. Such a process is called “transfer” by Kellerman, while it is also known as “native language interference” or “cross-linguistic influence”. However, Kellerman’s research and analysis show that the learners are not that dumb; they do not transfer every feature of their native language to the target language, but judge the individual situation with some constraints. One of those criteria is the “distance” that I have mentioned in the last paragraph.

We are surrounded by a number of theories and myths about languages once we have the concept of “language”. From our parents, teachers or some prominent “folk linguists”, we have received some views of “relative languages” and “neighbour languages”. I guess British kids may hear something about the close relation between English and German, or sometimes between English and French, and then comes the conclusion – “it is easier to learn German and French, whilst Chinese and Japanese are more difficult”. Similar situation happens in China as well, because I have repeatedly heard about the “advantages of language learning” that European children have over Chinese students, such as “if your native language is English, you already know half French and half German and even some Latin”. Under the influence of these sayings and ideas, a learner will gradually construct a “language map” in her mind, on which different languages are listed with certain distance from her native language. The concept of such “distance” is called “psychotypology” by Kellerman, because it is psychologically constructed and sometimes only a little bit similar to the real linguistic typology map.

So how can psychotypology affect the strategies of second language acquisition? The mechanism is, actually, not that difficult – just as with other learning processes, if you believe that two things are similar, you always have the urge to adopt the methods with which you dealt with A to solve some problems regarding B. Kellerman proposes one possible influence of psychotypology. If one perceives that the “distance” between her native language A and her target language B are relatively close, which indicates that she believes that the two languages share a number of similar features, then she could transfer some features and use of A in the production of B. Ideally, the closer the psychological distance between A and B, more features could be transferred. If a learner believes that the distance between A and B is too far, she will give up any transfer from her native language to the target language, because she presumes that there is few similarity between the two languages. In a study with Jordens (Jordens and Kellerman 1981), Kellerman presents a comparison between Dutch students learning German and English: students are more willing to transfer the Dutch phrases and idioms to German than to English, because they believe that Dutch is closer to German but farther from English, although all of them are Germanic languages from the Indo-European language family.

We now see that psychotypology reflects the similarity between two languages perceived by the learner, and it could affect the transfer strategy from the NL to the TL. For linguists and people with a fair knowledge of linguistic typology, it is rather natural to suggest that languages from the same language family are perceived closer and more similar by the learners. Interestingly – and somehow unfortunately – the world does not follow our imagination. When it comes to languages, people still have the opinion that “distant relatives are not as good as close neighbours”.

This summer I went back to Beijing for my pilot study, in which I included a small survey of psychotypology between Chinese and eleven languages that are well-known to Chinese students. The eleven languages are as follows: Japanese, Tibetan, Korean, English, Arabic, French, German, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Spanish and Thai. Among the eleven languages, some are the “close neighbours” of Chinese, such as Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, all of which made use of Chinese characters in their writing systems historically or currently. Tibetan is the real relative from the Sino-Tibetan family but less known to the public, and the rest are more like “strangers” that we meet on the street every day. My major target was to measure the psychological distance between Chinese and English, so I asked my participants to number those languages from 1 (the closest) to 11 (the farthest) according to the distances from Chinese in their mind, and drop in some words to justify their answer if they like.

After the first stage of tidying up the data, I found that the close neighbours beat the real relative nicely this time. My participants, including senior high school students, undergraduates and graduates, generally believe that Japanese is closest to Chinese (average 1.6 in high school group, 1.87 in university group, both ranking first), while the real relative Tibetan only ranks fourth in the high school group (average 4.67) and fifth in the university group (average 4.73). All the “close neighbours”, including Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, are among the language closest to Chinese, although all of them are typologically distant from Chinese: Japanese is from Japonic family, Korean is believed a language isolate, and Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic language. When asked about the reasons for the ranking, participants provided a relatively unified answer, such as “Japanese uses kana and kanji, which are borrowed from Chinese”, and “they are geographically close so Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese received a lot of influences from ancient Chinese historically”. In the university group, only one participant put Tibetan at the first position, with a short comment “they (Tibetan and Chinese) are both from Sino-Tibetan family”. What a relief.

The fight between “distant relatives” and “close neighbours” is not the purpose of my pilot study, but it has captured my attention and leads to some interesting questions (that I am not going to answer either in my research or in this blog post): Will the process of second language acquisition gradually change one’s perception of language distance? If so, what factors will be crucial? I would like to be the example this time; right after acquiring the sentence structure of Japanese, I realised that Japanese is totally different from Chinese, and now for me the psychological distance between Japanese and Chinese is even greater than that between English and Chinese (my justification: Japanese is an SOV language with case markers, whilst both English and Chinese are SVO languages without case markers). After all, we only make use of part of the knowledge of a foreign language to decide whether it is close to our native language, and when we have little understanding of the language itself, we may rely on the geographical distance or historical factors, and ignore the typological connection between two languages. “Close neighbours” are sometimes more attractive than those “distant relatives” that we seldom hear about – but will such a belief be sustained, if we go deeper in the area of second language acquisition?


For more about psychotypology, please see:

Jordens, Peter, and Eric Kellerman. “Investigations into the ‘transfer strategy’ in second language learning.” Actes du 5e Congres de IAILA. 1981.

Kellerman, Eric. “Now you see it, now you don’t.” Language transfer in language learning 54.12 (1983): 112-134.

p.s. I was so shocked when I found that Dr Kellerman is now a photographer.