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Vandreia Sehnem

Dr. Cecelia Cutler

Spring, 2014
ESC 760

First language influence/interference in the second language learning process


The second language learning process is known to be somewhat different from the first language
learning process; when learning a second language an individual already has language
background. In this paper I will develop a literature review in order to investigate and describe
what researchers have found so far, regarding the influence/interference of the learners mother
tongue in the second language learning process. The intention of this work is to find out if the
mother tongue, in fact, influences in the second language learning process. Also, I will try to
describe how these influences can be identified, and what their consequences are in the
production of the second language (positive/negative). In addition, I will attempt to identify ways
of effectively using these influences in the second language teaching process. This paper should
be helpful to understand the second language learning process and its relationship with the
learners mother tongue.

As a second language learner, I have always questioned how I learnt English and what the role of
my mother tongue is in my second language learning process. I recall my first attempts in using
my new language and how I used to translate the words from Portuguese (my native language) to
English. By that time the only language I knew was Portuguese and anything that I wanted to say
in English had to be translated. My mother tongue was the structure that I used to follow in order
to produce my second language. This translation process backed me during great part of the
second language learning journey. It took me a while to think in the second language and I still
sometimes fall back into my first language when facing new vocabulary and when trying to read
an unknown word.

With all these in mind I decided to investigate first language (L1) interference in the
second language (L2) in order to know what researchers have found so far about the subject, in
order to, as a future ESL or EFL teacher, be able to help, as well as understand my students in the
second language acquisition process. What I found is that in fact the first language interferes in
second language processing.
After the readings for this paper I can say that my experience with the second language,
as described above, is something common among second language learners. It seems that at first,
second language learners rely on their mother tongue as their language structure, and only after a
certain exposition to the second language, do they build on their interlanguage, and finally
become be second language speakers.

Historical overview
First of all, I would like to say that during my readings I found some interesting data, and I was
surprised to learn that the studies of first language interference in the second language already
had significant relevance in the middle of the twentieth century. According to Brown (2007) the
Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (CAH) was very popular in the given period of time, when
applied linguists used to compare and contrast pairs of languages. Brown (2007) also explains
that the CAH has its roots in the behavioristic and structuralist approaches, and it was believed
that the main barrier to learning a second language was the first language system interfering with
the second language system. Therefore, it was believed that through studies of the two languages
in question it was possible to determine some of the difficulties that a second language learner
would face. It was also believed that in order to learn a second language the learner would have

to overcome the differences of the native and the target language linguistic systems, and if no
interference could be predicted no difficulties would be encountered by the learner since one
could transfer all the other items in a language.
Brown (2007) points out that some researchers have shown that this CAH prediction
system is not perfect and that it does not apply for every language learner. Also, teachers should
not come in the classroom with their minds set on the difficulties that the students will encounter
if they were not given a chance to perform first, since everybody is different. He also explains
that after the CAH theory, around the 1960s, studies in the second language acquisition were
pretty much based on the first language acquisition process, with the idea that learners make a lot
of mistakes but they also learn from it, and they build their own language; the learners
language also known as interlanguage, is characterized by a combination of features from
both languages the mother tongue and the target second language. The focus of this time, around
the 1960s, was on the product - the learners language. Language researchers from this time
focused on the errors that second language learners made, trying to interpret and understand how
the language learning process happens. One of the problems with the errors analysis, as pointed
by Brown (2007) is the fact that the focus for these studies is on the language product, but by
doing so some important information might not be captured due to the fact that the learner might
avoid the use of certain structures, which could mean that the absence of error might not
represent nativelike competence, because the learner might be avoiding the structures that are
difficult for them.

About interference

The question about interference seems to be clearly answered, although there are some
different points of view among the language researchers. It seems clear that the first language
interferes in the second language learning process. According to the readings, it is the L1 that
works as a structure for the first attempts of use of a second language. Brown (2007) explains
that in the first stages of a second language learning process, the native language is the only
linguistic system for the learner to draw upon, and during this period the interlaguage is
vulnerable to first language interference. In the first stages of the second language learning
process the learners have their mother tongue as a model upon which they build the second

Identifying the L1 interference in the L2

One of the objectives with this research was to identify some of the signs that show the L1
interference in the L2, if in fact such thing is possible. After the readings, it can be said that some
ways of identifying the first language influence are in the learners speech and writing, in other
words, in the learners language product. Language researchers have been investigating the
second language learners writing samples and speech, in order to identify how the learning
process happens and what is the role of the first language in this journey.
One of the ways to identify first language interference is in speech, since when it comes
to pronunciation, it is easy to notice people from different places or different language
backgrounds, due to their foreign accents. As it is known each language has its own phonetic
system which can be completely distinguishable between a pair of languages. Some languages
for example, have phonemes that other languages do not have, which could be a problem when
trying to learn a second language. According to Cook (2013) if we compare English and Spanish,

for example, it is likely to find a Spanish speaker of English using an e in the beginning of the
word station. This happens, as Cook (2013) explains, due to the fact that Spanish does not have
words beginning with the consonant cluster st, and the speaker would adjust this difference
according to what he/she knows from his/her mother tongue. In this example we can notice the
language transfer from the first language to the second language, which is not an atypical
example. Cook (2013) also points out that the reason for the pronunciation problems has been
called cross-linguistic transfer. It means that someone who knows more than one language
transfers some aspects from one language to another. Thus, we can say that this is a sign of first
language interference in the second language.
Following up with this idea, Ellis (2006) explains the Perceptual Magnet Theory, which
defends the idea that the learner is only able to identify phonemes that are present in their L1.
The phonetic prototypes existent in the L1 work like magnets attracting the new sounds to the
already existing sounds. In addition, according to Ellis (2006), babies up to the 4 th month can
perceive the phonemes contrasts of any language, but with the exposure to a target language this
flexibility decays, and after the first year the individual can only identify the contrasts of his/her
own language. Ellis (2006) says that after this period the individual is a tabula repleta with L1
knowledge, determining strong negative transfer to L2.
Furthermore, Figueredo (2006), after a study of the first language influence in the English
spelling, pointed out that students tend to rely on their knowledge of phonological and sound-tospelling correspondence as a strategy mainly when the English spelling rules were not yet
This indicates that second language learners carry with them their L1 phonetic system
and when learning a second language they might make some mistakes, and have trouble in

speaking regarding the pronunciation issue, or in writing with the sound-to-spelling

correspondent knowledge that they have in their L1.

Language transfer
When it comes to language transfer, as Cook (2013) explains, it can be described as the act of
carrying over features of one language to another. This transfer can either be from the first
language to the second, or vice-versa. This could be interpreted as a tool that a second language
learner has when his/her first and second languages are typologically similar or have similar
characteristics. Even though the language-transfer seems to be an acceptable fact among the
language researchers, there are some controversies when it comes to how this transfer happens.
Figueredo (2006) conducted a study that investigated first language influence on English
spelling. It was based on a literature review focused on ESL spelling studies, and points out
different ideas regarding the way that this language transfer happens. One of this ideas is that it
might be an automatic mechanism. The learner might transfer without being conscious of the act,
or without purposeful intention, just like any other skill that one might have and perform
automatically. Another suggestion, according to Figueredo (2006) is the abstraction mechanism.
In addition, there is the idea of the conscious transfer, in which the metalinguistic skills that a
learner has are consciously used as a strategy in the second language.
According to a study developed by Hakansson, Pienemann, and Sayehli (2002), language
transfer occurs according to the processability hierarchy, contrary to the full transfer/full
access theory supported by Schwartz and Sprouse (1994; 1996), which defended the idea that
the learners beginning point of the L2 grammar is the L1 grammar. Hakansson, Pienemann, and
Sayehli (2002) developed a study with twenty Swedish L2 German learners, and the results of

their studies are not in agreement with the full transfer/full access hypotheses. They found out
that the fact that Swedish and German are typologically close, but not mutually intelligible, does
not mean that Swedish learners of German are able to spontaneously transfer all the
characteristics which are similar in both languages when learning German. Hakansson,
Pienemann, and Sayehli (2002) explain that even though the given languages have some similar
features, the learners that participated in the study were making mistakes in the L2 with
structures which are neither acceptable in their L1 nor in their L2. Therefore, the researchers
concluded that the language transfer happens developmentally. In other words, it does not
happen in chunks of language knowledge transfer, due to the fact that the learner develops
his/her language following a certain order, and he/she is not always able to know in advance
what is equal in both languages. Still according to the researchers, language transfer occurs when
a structure is processable in respect to the developing L2 system. It is interesting to think that
even though some features of some languages are similar, it takes time for the language learners
to identify this similarities and be ready to accurately transfer this language knowledge.
In a study developed with French speakers ESL students, ages 11-12 Spada and
Lightbown (1999) also found out that there might be interaction between developmental
sequences and first language influence. Students might pass faster through the L2 learning stages
that resemble their L1, although they might need explicit explanation in some interlanguage
patterns that may seem stable.
In addition, according to Figueredo (2006), the learners age might also be relevant when
considering first language transfer. She explains that older learners L1 have a higher likelihood
to support their L2, since they have probably had more time to develop their first language skills.

It is also argued that the language transfer might be a temporary strategy that the learner uses
mainly during the first period of the second language learning process.

Positive and negative language transfer

Language transfer has also been classified as positive and negative. Positive transfer happens,
according to Figueredo (2006), considering the ESL students spelling skill, when the
commonalities of a given language and English, for example, work as a springboard for the
development of the given language skill. One example given by Figueredo (2006), whose
research focus was on L1 influence in the development of English as a second language spelling
skill, is the appropriate application of the L1 knowledge to English spelling. Some examples are
the letter knowledge, which can be positively transferred from one language to another, and the
phonological awareness that second language learners might have, besides positive relationships
between L1 and L2 language skills.
On the other hand, Figueredo (2006) points out that there is also negative transfer. In this
case it would be characterized by the inappropriate use of the first language spelling patterns
when writing English. Some examples of this inappropriate use of the first language knowledge
in the second language spelling skill could be related to the first language orthographic rules, or
L1 pronunciation of phonemes.
In addition, the positive and negative cross-language transfer is related to the languages
compatibility. As explained by Schiff and Calif (2007) researchers have agreed that the more
similar two given languages are the more positive the crosslinguistic influence will be. On the
other hand, the more different the languages, the less positive the crosslinguistic influence there
will be.


Another interesting fact is that the level of proficiency in the first language seems to be a
determining point in the language transfer. The more proficient the learner is in his/her native
language the more positive transfer from the first language will occur. Figueredo (2006) explains
that there is the Common Underlying Proficiency model, defended by Cummins (1981), which
suggests that academic skills are related across languages. In other words, the academic
competence of the second language learner in his//her first language is partially related to the
competence in the second language when he/she starts learning it. The more knowledge and
awareness the learner has of his/her first language the more knowledge he/she will have to draw
upon when learning the second language. Analyzing this hypotheses, it could be said that the
learners first language proficiency influences in the second language proficiency.
Furthermore, Ellis (2006) explains the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis by Lado (1957),
which points out the fact that second language learners will find some features of the L2 quite
easy to learn while they might find others really difficult. The explanation to this fact is that
whatever is similar between the two given languages (L1 and L2) is easy for the learner while
the different features that the two languages present are difficult for the learner to acquire. As it
can be seen, this is not a new hypothesis in the L1 interference in the L2 learning process, and it
agrees with the first idea about how this interference could be predicted by analyzing utteranceby-utterance between the two languages in question.

Suggestions for the classroom

Since an ESL classroom can contain a wide variety of first language backgrounds, it is
important to keep in mind that the ESL teacher will not always have the knowledge of all the
languages which are spoken by the students, which makes it unlikely that the teacher is


knowledgeable about all of the characteristics and rules of all the first languages that are in the
classroom and which might be interfering in the second language learning process. Therefore, I
would like to present a few ideas that were given by researchers and which could be useful for
the teachers in order to successfully help the students in their language acquisition journey. As it
has been described in this work, the first language can interfere positively or negatively in the
second language, and if, as teachers we are able to identify some of these influences, it might be
easier to understand and help the students.
According to Figueredo (2006) teachers should take opportunities when giving feedback.
When correcting a spelling test, for example, instead of simply marking write or wrong they
could show how the usage of the L1 knowledge was inappropriate and at the same time they
could reinforce the English rules. In addition, Figueredo (2006) explains that by acknowledging
the students attempts to transfer structures and patterns from the L1, the teacher might alleviate
the students frustration and affirm the importance of their L1 knowledge. In order to teach for
transfer it is suggested to engage the students to practice their L1 knowledge or reinforcing
experiences that intentionally stimulate the abstraction of linguistic principles. The knowledge of
the first language might be a valuable resource for L2 learning, according to researchers. It is
suggested by Figueiredo (2006), based on different researchers, that the phonological awareness
should be practiced in both languages for bilingual preschooler learners.
Figueredo (2006) also explains that the teaching for transfer is not always feasible in the
ESL classroom, because the teacher might not have the students first language knowledge to
draw-upon. In addition it is suggested that explicit explanation of certain aspects of the English
language is required. Ellis (2006) also explains that some features of the L2 might not be salient,
or not frequent enough, and therefore, explicit instruction may be necessary in order to make the


learners understand and acquire these new L2 structures. Spada and Lightbown (1999) also point
out the importance of explicit instruction in ESL classes, due to the fact that students should not
only be exposed to what is correct in the L2 but also be told what is not correct, so that they do
not make mistakes based on what is accepted in their first language.
In addition, Kenny (2011) describes the importance of the use of cognates and visual
representation, as strategies for teaching and learning vocabulary in the second language, as well
as the importance of teaching grammar and vocabulary in the classroom.
These are some suggestions discussed by the researchers regarding the positive use of the
first language influence in the second language classroom. It is important to keep in mind that
ESL students might present difficulties in their learning process which could be related to L1
interference, and if the teacher is aware of the existence of this interference he/she can
investigate and help the student to solve the problem. Also, there might be some shortcuts in the
learning process if the L1 is positively applied towards the L2. It is also important for teachers to
be aware that not all errors that the students make are due to L1 interference. According to Cook
(2013) language transfer should be seen with an open mind, because many aspects of L2 learning
need to be considered before establishing how and when the L1 is involved in the L2 learning
process. Cook (2013) also argues that despite the fact that L1 transfer is indeed important, its role
should be properly studied and established before blaming the L1 for everything that does not go
right in the L2 learning process.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the first language seems to play an important role in the
second language learning process. This interference can be noticed in the learners accent and


when he/she applies first language grammatical and other linguistic forms of knowledge towards
the second language. In addition, it can be said that some studies present the idea that what is
similar in a pair of languages is easier for the learner to acquire while what is different, or nonexistent in the first language might be difficult for the learner to acquire. But at the same time, it
can be said that the learner is not always able to transfer everything that is similar between the
L1 and the L2; it requires time and language development for the learner to be able to positively
transfer the L1 knowledge. Finally, teachers should be aware of the L1 interference in the L2
learning process, besides being able to distinguish what is related to L1 interference from other
language learning difficulties that might occur, in order to be able to identify the students
difficulties with the new language and help them overcome any barrier that is blocking their way
to successfully acquire the L2.


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Pearson Education.
Cook, V. (2013). Second language learning and teaching (4th ed.). New York, NY: Hodder
Ellis, N. C. (2006). Selective attention and transfer phenomena in L2 acquisition: Contingency,
cue competition, salience, interference, overshadowing, blocking, and perceptual
learning. Applied Linguistics, 27(2), 164-194. doi: 10.1093/applin/aml015
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and Writing, 19(8), 873-905. doi: 10.1007/s11145-006-9014-1
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language acquisition. Illinois Reading Council Journal, 39(4), 10-14. Retrieved April 2,
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