When Does Your Own Language Get In The Way?

One of the reasons that academics have come up with to explain WHY it is easier to learn a language as a child than an adult is a concept that has become broadly known as L1 Transfer. Also known as Language transfer, L1 interference, linguistic interference, and cross-linguistic influence this term refers to how the language you already speak interferes in the process of learning a new one.

What happens in this process is that speakers of an existing language apply their knowledge of how their own tongue works to the use of the new language they are acquiring. For example when trying to pronounce new words, construct sentences in the present tense or deciding whether or not to use an article (a or the).

This can be a helpful and positive process. When the things you are trying to transfer your knowledge onto work the same way, or have the same structure, it can create a handy shortcut and result in rapid learning.

The problems of course arise when these languages include different structures and the ideas you have about the way certain things work just does not work in the new language. This can mean, for example, that someone learning a new language will just continuously get certain things wrong because on some level, they do not accept the new logic of the language’s structure and continue to apply the existing logic they are aware of.

From the teachers perspective, the upside is that, over the years, a lot of research has been done to identify the areas where L1 Transfer occours and does not work across the various linguistic groups. What this means is that, if you are teaching German to a group of Chinese students, there is material available that will tell you what kind of L1 Transfer errors to anticipate and to address. By paying particular attention to these errors and making their existence clear, you can often help learners through this minefield.

This kind of transfer is completely normal. It’s how we as human beings learn: by adding new information to what we already know, looking for patterns of similarity and difference and extrapolating. L1 Transfer is not something teachers should be discouraging, but rather using as a tool to help students through what can otherwise be very tricky areas of learning a new language.

Pronunciation is the biggest area of L1 Transfer that we can all immediately hear. After all, what is an accent but the transfer of the way you make certain sounds in your mother tongue to a different language? Certain sounds from some languages (like the English th sound) just do not exist in others and learners are always going to struggle as they have no knowledge to transfer and therefore must acquire a totally new skill.

TalenInstituut Free Tip
L1 Transfer CAN result in a technical or analytical advantage over native speakers of a language. By becoming aware of the minute differences in construction and production of different languages, you have a larger base of knowledge to work from and can therefore become more accurate. So pay attention to these transfer areas, they hold a lot of positive learning for you.

Here at TalenInstituut Nederland (The Dutch Language Institute) we understand the needs that companies face as well as the fears individual learners feel. This is why we offer flexible, fully customised Business language courses to businesses and individuals. Through a process of interviews and meetings we establish the unique needs and competence of our clients and design each and every course around those. To find out more about our Business Language courses, visit our website and ask us for a quote: www.taleninstituut.nl.

© Taleninstituut Nederland

By: David Chislett
Trainer Business English