3.11 Language Transfer: Definition, Types & Effects

Jan 12, 2020 | ch3 How Language Impacts the Brain, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

This lesson defines and describes language transfer and differentiates between positive and negative transfer. It also describes how language transfer affects learners’ ability to acquire a second language.

Language Transfer Definition

If you were offered $1,000,000 to become fluent in any second language in a year, would you take that challenge? I say go for it. Be smart about your language choice, and in a year you’ll be called a millionaire. Now, let’s imagine you are Russian. This time you have a year to learn Korean to get that $1,000,000. Would you still say yes? Now, this will be much more challenging. Why is that?

The replication of rules from our first language (L1) to the second language (L2) is called language transfer. Our knowledge and understanding of L1 impact our understanding of L2. We can transfer grammar, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, spelling, morphology, pronunciation, structure, and culture to the L2 language. This process of language transfer is also known as linguistic interference, cross meaning, and L1 interference. Language transfer explains different accents and what mistakes people make. Also, it can predict how quickly we can acquire a second language, taking into account similarities and differences between the two languages.

Language Transfer Description

Our brain is already wired with linguistic rules that help us operate in our first language. When we try to learn a second language, we rely on these established rules and structures to guess how the new language works. For example, Korean sentences use a subject-object-verb structure, while English sentences follow a subject-verb-object structure. Thus, a Korean speaker of English may incorrectly say: ”I your cat saw.” Japanese words don’t allow two consonants next to each other, so a Japanese speaker of English may add a vowel to pronounce an English word more easily: ”star” might sound like ”sutar.” Similarly, Spanish speakers tend to add ‘e’ before words starting with ‘s’: ” star” will sound like ”estar.”

Language Transfer Types

Language transfer can be positive and negative. Positive transfer facilitates learning, while negative transfer impedes learning. The greater the differences between two languages, the more the negative effects. Thus, language acquisition ease can be predicted by the amount of similarities and differences between L1 and L2.

Let’s first take a look at negative transfer types. Negative transfer occurs when L1 knowledge influences L2 understanding and results in errors. Such transfer hinders the acquisition of L2 at least temporarily. It affects word choice, word order, pronunciation, and any other aspect of L2. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of negative transfer:

  1. Substitution
    Absence of some sounds in L1 often forces learners to opt for a similar sound because they struggle with replicating the original sound. Many Slavic languages don’t differentiate between ‘g’ and ‘k’ or ‘d’ and ‘t’ as the final letter: ”med” (honey in Bulgarian) and ”met” (copper in Bulgarian) are both pronounced ”met.” Therefore, ”skit” and ”skid” may be hard to articulate for such learners. Spanish and Korean speakers may not pronounce ‘h’ in ”her” because this sound in that position is either silent or very soft in their L1. This is called substitution.
  2. Underdifferentiation
    Inability to make a distinction made in another language is called underdifferentiation. Spanish speakers may try to use ”borrow” and ”lend” as synonyms or equivalent words, because in Spanish there is only one word that means both: ”prestar.”
  3. Simplification
    Simplification is another type of negative interference. L2 learners make reductions to linguistic structures resulting in grammatically incorrect sentences. The Korean language, for instance, doesn’t use definite articles; as a result, Korean speakers may omit ”a” or ”the” in sentences, like: ”House is very pretty.”
  4. Calques
    Negative transfers that reflect L1 structure are called calques. These can involve improper collocations, like, ”do mistakes”. They can also involve disagreement in subject and verb like ”She like apples.”. They can also involve disagreement in countable and uncountable nouns, like ”Money are very important.”. Finally, they can involve the wrong use of parts of speech, like ”Cities are noise and dirty.”

Now let’s take a look at the aspects of positive transfer. When language transfer results in correct L2 production, it’s called positive transfer. It happens when there are similarities between two languages. Sounds, structures, words, meanings, collocations, or any other linguistic aspect may be similar or the same in L1 and L2. A word-for-word translation produces a grammatically correct sentence in L2. Some words are spelled or pronounced similarly in both languages. These types of transfer facilitate and accelerate the acquisition process and lead to fewer mistakes. Research on positive transfer is far less than that on negative transfer, so we don’t have a big list of types to look at.

Transfer vs. Acquisition

Language transfer may hinder or facilitate language acquisition depending on the number of similarities and differences between two languages. Positive transfer may help learners recognize and retain words with similar or identical pronunciation and/or spelling in both languages. It can help learners understand tenses and norms. Realizing they know something in L2 may boost their confidence, create motivation, and nurture interest. At the initial stages of English acquisition, learners can use L1 to translate various meanings into L2 if they have a large number of similarities.

Negative transfer can help teachers predict learners’ struggles and become proactive. Teachers can identify and avoid troublesome areas for speakers of different languages. For instance, they can stress that, unlike Korean, English uses pronouns or subjects in every sentence, and that is not a stylistic problem. Actually, as English language learners become more proficient, the number of negative transfers they produce decreases.

Language transfer can help learners transfer their knowledge of language learning as a whole. All languages have verbs, subjects, adjectives, tenses, etc. If learners know their native language’s norms and rules well, it will be easier for them to acquire a second language. For example, it’s a challenge to explain speech parts to someone who has no idea what an adjective does. Knowing the differences and similarities between L1 and L2, teachers can easily pick appropriate materials, methods, and strategies. For instance, Korean speakers may need more definite/indefinite article exercises than Spanish or German speakers, who have articles in their languages.

Lesson Summary

At this point, looking back at our $1,000,000 challenge, you should understand why it would be so much easier if you could pick a language close to your native language. Language transfer is all the knowledge we carry with us from L1 to L2. It can help us or trip us when we try to learn a new language. When we successfully apply rules from L1 to L2, it’s a positive transfer, because we can use something we already know and not disrupt L2. When we apply rules from L1 to L2 and it distorts L2’s clarity and accuracy, it’s a negative transfer. Some examples of negative transfer include:

  • Substitution, which involves borrowing sounds, words, etc. from L1 to operate L2, such as using a ‘b’ sound instead of a ‘v’ sound
  • Underdifferentiation, which involves the inability to make a distinction, such as ‘th’ versus ‘t,’ ‘d,’ or ‘f’ sound
  • Simplification, which are reductions such as omitting articles
  • Calques, which reflects L1 structure and results in bad word pairing, bad word choices, disagreement between parts, etc.

All in all, with awareness and preparation, teachers can use both types of language transfer to ease learners’ progress.

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