N. K.

The First Language——A stumbling Block in Second Language Learning In New York, there are many Chinese immigrants, most of whom are adults. Because they did not learn English in China or just have little idea about English, which is considered to be the main communicative language in America, many Chinese adults flood into classes of English, which is regarded as their second language (L2). However, all of these adults get used to communicating in Chinese (L1). Under this circumstance, the first language (Chinese) needs to be considered during their process of learning English. This is what we call “the role of the first language in second language learning.” For some people, the first language is not as highly valued in second language learning because they think that many errors in adult second language performance spring from their first language. Nevertheless, for some others, the native language is very important for a second language learner. In their opinion, the first language helps a great deal for the learners to understand and remember the second language. Is the first language playing a constructive role in second language learning or just holding the learners back? In the history of second language research and practice, many linguists have focused on the topic of "first language interference", that is, “in the procedure of learning a second language, learners transfer the elements of one language to another at various levels, such as the first language influencing the second in terms of order, borrowing some words from one language and converting them in another.” (Skiba, 1997)According to Stephen D. Krashen, "first-language-influenced errors clearly do

exist in second language performance,” and in his research on second language acquisition he finds that "this influence appears to be strongest in complex word order and in word-to-word translations of phrases.” (P.65) The first language is presumed to be the major source of syntactic errors in adult second language learning because researchers have found a high incidence of inter-lingual problems in translation.(P. 64) They believe that adult second language learners substitute their mother tongue word by word into the second language. Errors in sentence construction often come out in this way because of the difference between English and Chinese. Krashen points out that "syntactic errors made by adult second language students are common to them because of their different linguistic backgrounds. (P. 64) In opposition to the idea of "first language interference", some scholars state that the phenomenon of "first language equivalence" does exist in second language learning. Many adults would like to convey the meaning of the second language lexical items by associating the words with their equivalent meanings in their native language. In Jimmy Thomas’s research, he admits that "association between the first language and second language is more direct than any other approaches for the learners to catch the meaning of new words because this association places referent and signifier by direct physical contact." (P.405) Even though sometimes this association is superficial, this way of learning the vocabulary is good for an adult second language learner. Some research has shown that many of the skills learned in the native language can be transferred easily to the second language. These skills, of course, include the concepts of lexical items. In second language classes, the students

like to use the bilingual vocabulary lists because these lists can save them time in understanding what the words mean. They don’t need to define the words in the second language since they all have ideas what these items actually are. In the study of a second language, translation is inevitable and plays a very important role. Many errors can be traced back to the process of translation. A very common error, when students are doing L1 to L2 translation, is the syntactic error, which mainly indicates error of word order and sentence construction. When the performers translate their first language into the second language, they always tend to translate in the order of native words according to their concepts of the structure of first language. Duskova (1969) provides some evidence for word-for-word translation errors. He studied some written errors in the English compositions of Czech postgraduate students and concluded that interference from the mother tongue was plainly obvious in errors of word order and sentence construction. An example for the placement of the direct object after an adverb, which occurs in the sentence "I met there some Germans”, is a word-for-word translation of the Czech way of expression into English. (Cited from Krashen, P.65) Even though Duskova's research was not about Chinese, we can quote his idea into Chinese-to-English learner. Because of the different structure between Czech and English, students easily make mistakes in translation. Chinese, like Czech, is a language very different from English. Chinese adults would make the same mistakes as the Czech students do. For example, a Chinese adult student would say “she every day goes to school,” not “she goes to school every day.” The reason why the second language learners make these errors is,

"they are called on to perform before they have learned the new behavior (English). The result is padding, using old knowledge (L1), and supplying what is known to make up for what is not known." (Krashen, p.67) Generally speaking, second language learners do not have perfect ideas about the second language. When they need to perform in this unfamiliar language, they always rely on their first language, which they have gotten used to and have a great deal of knowledge about. They fail to recognize that the L1 is not the same as the L2. Substitution from the first language generates syntactic errors in word-for-word translation into the second language. Even if the students can translate in the right word order into the second language, there is still a problem in the translation from the L1 into the L2. Since adult students associate the English words with Chinese words, in this process, a question is raised by Thomas as to "whether or not the meaning of a given second language can be adequately conveyed by associating the unit with the equivalent native unit." (p.403)The association between the first language items and second language items in bilingual vocabulary is direct for a learner to catch the referent and signifier, but this directness is superficial. There are many words in English that have the same translation in Chinese. For example, "table" and "desk" both mean a piece of furniture with a flat top supported by legs. Chinese students may mix up them because they don't notice the difference between these two words. So while translating the L1 into the L2, they would make a mistake such as saying "kitchen desk" instead of "kitchen table". The students would choose any of the synonyms to fill up the sentence. But in fact, this equivalence doesn't express the right meaning exactly in the

students' original meaning because there is still a difference between two words even though they have the same Chinese meaning. "The complication caused by different ranges of meaning or different degrees of overlap can and do cause misunderstandings in other contexts than for the one where lexical equivalence was perfectly adequate and legitimate." (Thomas P. 407) Even students can make up a perfect sentence in their native language, after this equivalent translation, they may choose synonyms which do not match the context to substitute their native words. We can not deny that the bilingual vocabulary is very useful for a second language learner at the first stage of English learning; but in a later stage of the L2 learning, students can not rely too much on the bilingual vocabulary. They need to remember the lexical differences in the words. Otherwise, they would be confused because of their native language. Influence from the native language doesn't only appear in the students' written English, but also can be observed in spoken language and communication. Chinese adult students, who get used to the grammar-translation method where the L1 plays an important role, have little ability to speak and understand English. (Yu, P.195) Because of understanding the foreign language in the first language, students try to express every sentence by translation. In this way, they neglect the spoken English, slang and idioms. The native language makes the students less communicative. With English taught in their native language, students tend to rely primarily on the first language and then transfer to the second language. Under the influence of Chinese, adult learners would say "give you" instead of "here you are,” which is a common spoken expression in communication. They would express the meaning of "an apple

of one's eye" by saying "a pearl on one's hand,” which is translated from Chinese. In fact, "an apple of one's eye" is an idiom, which cannot be translated by other languages. So in this circumstance, the L1 prevents students from fully understanding English. When I communicate with some Chinese-adult English learners, I have found that the bad influence of the L1 is greater than the good effect. Take the word order as an example. I ask them to express their deep love for something in English. They all say "I very much love you". In fact, we would say "I love you very much" in correct English. It is not unreasonable to explain this situation. In Chinese, intensive adverbs are put prior to the verb, while English would put them at the end of the sentence. Besides this problem, I find that students easily make errors in use of some words which are of similar or same meanings. For example, there are many words in English are translated into Chinese to describe the behavior of using eyes to notice something, such as "see", "watch", and "read". But they all go with different objects in English. We can say "watch TV", not "see TV", and "see a film", not "watch a film". Students are so confused when they are using synonyms or near synonyms. Similarly, an English word can be used in different terms but translated differently in the first language. Once in class we talked about the verb "play", which can match with different objects and describe different behavior in Chinese. We can say "play the piano", "play basketball", "play computer", and "play cards.” But when the students were asked to describe these different behaviors, they have never thought that all of them can be said with the same word because in their native language all the verbs are

different words. Generally, this situation exists in second language learning. According to all the research and evidence, first language tends to lead the learners into an inferior position. Even though it helps the performers understand some basic knowledge in the L2, generally speaking, the influence of the first language is not as good as what we think. The bad influence of "first language interference" is a stumbling-block for the second language learners. Because of the difference between the L1 (Chinese) and L2 (English), errors can be easily made by transferring from L1 to L2. If the students want to make great progress in L2, they had better try their best to get rid of the bad influence from native language.

Work Cited Krashen, Stephen D, Principles and Practice in Second Language Learning and Acquisition, California, Pergamon Press Inc. 1981 Skiba, Richard, “Code Switching as a Countenance of Language Interference”, The Internet TESL Journal, 3.10, Oct. 1997 <http://iteslj.org/Articles/Skiba-CodeSwitching.html> Thomas, Jimmy, “Translation, Language Teaching, and the Bilingual Assumption”, TESOL Quarterly, 10.4, page 403-410, Dec. 1976 Yu, Liming, “Communicative Language Teaching in China: Progress and Resistance”, TESOL Quarterly, Volume 35, NO.1, page 194-197, Spr. 2001

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