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Introduction

Whereas much has been said about Interlanguage and the different aspects
involved in this integrated system of knowledge, the practical consequences and
applicability of the role played by Interlanguage in the ESL classroom need to be
analyzed, for the possibility of really applying sound well-informed theory can make the
difference in the teaching learning processes that take place in our schools every day.

Solid ground
There is a common phenomenon in what regards ESL teachers, which is that we
tend to leave research behind as we move out of universities and into the classrooms.
Though we might believe that in time we will develop a practical approach based partly
on what we have read and studied and on the experiences we gather with our students,
which is in fact entirely possible, the truth is that if we forget how theory informs and
gives sense and solid foundation to everything we do in the classroom, we might as well
come to the point of either believing we are doing everything right or that there is
nothing else we can do. Both assumptions can be extremely dangerous for the teaching
learning processes. That is why I believe theories and theorization need not to be
thought of as something possible only for researchers, but as a real opportunity to
integrate what we already know with new information, and to project both into the
classroom reality, so as to solve the different situations and learning difficulties that
emerge. This solid ground provided by theories is where we need to stand in order to
grow.

A few concepts
Interlaguage, defined by Selinker, refers to the systematic knowledge of a L2
which is independent of both the L1 and the target language. The term has been used
with different but related meanings:
1- To refer to the series of interlocking systems which characterize acquisition.
2- To refer to the system that is observed at a single stage of development (‘an
Interlanguage’)
3- To refer to particular L1/L2 combinations (for example, L1 French/L2 English v. L1
Japanese/L2 English). Selinker
Interlanguage has a structurally intermediate status between the native and target
language. Interlanguage is neither the system of the native language nor the system of
the target language, but an intersection; it is a system based upon the best attempt of
learners to provide order and structure to the linguistic stimuli surrounding them.
Interlingual (Weinreich: 1953), Interlanguage (Selinker: 1972)
We can assume then that Interlanguage shows itself a natural phenomenon in the
learning process, a part, a stage, a moment that shows development in itself. Thus
considered, Interlanguage shares both synchronic and diachronic features, since it is the
result of the psycholinguistic processes taking place, it has the dynamism of language,
which is always changing, moving from one stage to the next, and most importantly,
since the process it is not supposed to stop, the diachronic aspect is within the nature of
Interlanguage. Nevertheless, Interlanguage shows a stage which contains features of its
own, the photograph of a specific moment in the development towards the target
language. Contrastive Grammar – Unca – 2007.
It is in the latter sense, that like the authors who investigate Interlanguage, I
believe it has long been neglected in its importance in the day to day classroom work on
part of the teachers, regarded as something incomplete, lacking the neatness and the
correctness of the TL, a stage in the learning process most teachers would rather skip,
because they are afraid of students’ mistakes, and mostly, because some teachers tend to
see mistakes as a failure instead of as a sign of the learning process taking place.
There seems to be a tendency for language teachers for hurrying up towards the
finish product of language instruction, (as if the process of language learning could ever
be said to have finished). Sometimes, it is that same pressure to arrive somewhere in the
no-mistake land, what inhibits the learners spontaneous though imperfect and indeed
communicative use of the language.

From theories in books to activities in the classroom


This system of Interlanguage means that there is a series of strategies that are at
the same time the features to recognize this system, and the paths which can help us
trace and take advantage of our students needs in their learning process. Each one can
be taken from the theory to its applicability in the ESL classroom.
The first and perhaps the most widely considered is Language Transfer. Here,
learners use their L1 as a resource.
When this use of the L1 as a resource prevents the learner from producing a correct
sentence in the L2 we call it interference, and thus, speak of negative transfer. These
cases imply that there might be in one of the two languages considered, a feature which
resembles to some extent, a feature in the other language, but that differs in several
details of form, function, distribution and condition. In the combination
Spanish/English, there are plenty of examples: their use of stress, their assignment of
the roles of subject and object to nouns, the formation and use of passives, etc.
Contrastive Grammar – Unca – 2007.
Firstly, we need to think about how we handle this type of transfer in the classroom,
or how we provide our students with the right tools to overcome this difficulty. If we are
considering this interference as part of the natural phenomenon we call Interlanguage,
we can not react to it as if it were something to be avoided. Actually, the occurring of
negative transfer is simply telling us that the process is working as it is supposed to, and
therefore, it should be welcome. Thus, the next step is to see how we take our students
to the following stage. There are many typical examples of this type of transfer with
Spanish learners of English.

a) - It is common that when trying to express their age, Spanish learners of


English tend to say * ‘I have ten years old, instead of ‘I am ten years old.’ Here,
there has been a replacement of the verb to be which is used in English to say how
old someone is, for the verb ‘tener’ which Spanish speakers use to express their age.

b) - When trying to express possession Spanish learners of ESL tend to say *


‘The leg of Maria’, instead of Maria’s leg. Here, we can note the use of the article
that Spanish uses before body parts, and the use of the preposition of, but being used
the way Spanish does.

In the classroom, students should be given the opportunity to use the language to
encourage their fluency. In this context, those transfer episodes should be regarded
as part of the student’s Interlanguage, and thus celebrated as the path which will
lead to the overcoming of the error, always depending on a good criteria so as to
know when these episodes are to be overlooked, and when they need to be spotted.
However, when the objective of the activity is reinforcing the learners’ correct
grammar use, such episodes are to be considered as a valuable piece of information
for designing classroom activities, and of course that might be the time for calling
the learners attention towards the appropriate use of the structures or patterns.
Sometimes, the best way to counteract this type of interference is continuous
exposure to those same patterns in the L2, so as to help the learners develop their
sense of correctness in the target language.

Transfer is not always negative; many times it allows the students’ management
of the L2 to speed up. These are the cases when correspondences between languages
may be of help for learners. It may be that both L1 and L2 share a feature which can
be a universal of language, like verbs or pronouns, or when both languages have a
feature they inherited from a common ancestor, such is the case of gender
distinction in the lexicon or number system in English/Spanish, or even some
commonly shared idiosyncrasy, for example the use of thanks/gracias due to their
Western upbringing. Without some language transfer, there would be no L2
learning. The mother tongue is a major resource for second language learning.
Contrastive Grammar – Unca – 2007.

Where languages are historically related to each other the effects of positive
transfer are obvious. For example, English learners of French and French learners
of English find that they share a great amount of vocabulary. For Japanese speakers
learning Chinese, it is really easy when it comes to learn how to write in Chinese,
for the entire Japanese ideograph is based upon Chinese.
http://www.timothyjpmason.com

This briefly shows how L1 can become and aid in L2 and should not always be
forbidden in the language classroom.

Overgeneralization is another feature we consider to be important. L2 learners


tend to generalize the use of L2 rules in situations in which a native speaker would
not. For instance, the use of the ‘ed’ suffix for the past of regular verbs; Spanish
learners of English tend to add this suffix in all verbs in order to construct the past
form. Thus, constructions such as * ‘She goed to school’ show how
overgeneralization takes place. http://www.timothyjpmason.com In order for
learners to initiate a change in their current Interlanguage, they must compare,
though unconsciously, their Interlanguage with input containing the new rule.
Students need to be given input so as to acquire the new rule. There has to be
enough of the correct input so as to allow students to detect the difference between
their production and that contained in the input they received, in order for them to
notice it and discard their previous form for the one they now recognize as correct.

Overgeneralization may occur at different levels. At the phonetic level, for


example, learners of English, after having learned to master the English ‘r’, may
take to placing it at the end of words, whereas in RP it is not pronounced. At the
grammatical level, a learner in the early stages may use nothing but the present
tense. Later, there may be extensive, non-native us of ‘be-ing’ forms of the verb. At
the lexical level, learners tend to use base terms and to stretch them as much as
possible; so a ‘teaspoon’ may be ‘a little spoon’. At the level of discourse, lexical
items and expressions may be used in inappropriate social contexts. Someone
learning French as a L2, and who has been staying with a friendly family with
teenagers, may find themselves using the ‘tu’ form to address strangers.
http://www.timothyjpmason.com

Simplification takes place when learners use speech that resembles that of very
young children or of pidgins. This may be because they cannot produce this target
forms yet. http://www.timothyjpmason.com

Two problems usually come to mind when students have not yet acquired what
takes to manage some fluency in the target language. One, is that simplification in
itself is not a problem, for it shows that whatever the learner wants to communicate,
he can at least do in a simple language, allowing him to reach the goal of conveying
a message; this simple language not only needs to be welcome in an early stage, but
also given the possibility to show us what the limits of the learner’s language are, so
as to act upon it. The second issue is that this simple language needs to be taken to
the next level of Interlanguage, taking into account that there is a process to respect,
and that the input we plan on feeding our students with has to be only one step
ahead of what they know. Otherwise, by giving them more than they can handle for
the sake of providing them with vocabulary for example, we may risk a whole lot
more.

At all levels of Interlanguage, but mainly closer to a good use of the L2, we can
find learners using another strategy which also shows paradoxically that they are in
some way managing the L2. This is the case of students who avoid using certain
structures because they are very different from those in their mother tongue, or
because they are found rather difficult. Thus, students may resort to using different
structures or vocabulary to convey the same meaning, which is why we could say
that they are also showing they can use the L2, because they can replace the difficult
language somehow with vocabulary or structures they feel more comfortable with.

It was found, for instance that Chinese and Japanese learners of English made less
errors in the use of relative clauses than did Persian and Arabic learners, but this was
because they tried to use them less often. This is because Persian and Arabic relative clauses
are structured in a similar way to the English ones, while the two Oriental languages treat
them in a very different way. To say that a learner is using avoidance, he must show
signs that he knows the structure he is avoiding, and it must also be certain that in
the same situation a native speaker would have used the structure the learner is
avoiding. http://www.timothyjpmason.com

Three types of avoidance are distinguished. The first one takes place when the
learner anticipates there is a problem, and has some idea of what the correct form is
like. The second type occurs when the student knows the target form well, but he
believes that it would be too difficult to use in the given circumstances, free flowing
conversation for example. The third one is the case when a learner knows the target
form well, but he will not use it because it breaks some personal rule of behavior,
for example ready use of ‘tu’ form by person coming from a culture where formality
is highly valued. http://www.timothyjpmason.com

Avoidance is in a way a different strategy which has to be approached


differently. First of all it is not from the language training aspect from which the
teacher needs to act, but from the necessity of enhancing the learners confidence,
since avoidance is not a matter of not knowing, but of being afraid of perhaps
making a mistake, of being embarrassed, laughed at, etc. The teacher has to provide
the student with the appropriate context, safe and comfortable for the student to
overcome the problems which prevent him from using what he knows.

The last feature to address is overuse, which is usually regarded as concomitant


of avoidance, since students tend to use the forms they know rather than the ones
they are not quite sure of. Again, here the teacher is more likely to succeed if he
approaches the use of this strategy from a different standpoint than that of only
trainer, though when dealing with overuse and paying close attention to the
definition, it follows that the teacher will also have to do some language training
activities to help the learners reinforce, and thus gain confidence in the use of a
specific structure.

Assessing teacher’s ways of assessment

As it was mentioned above, it is the purpose of this paper to treat not only the
strategies that denote learners’ Interlanguage, but also to give some idea of what
teachers could do with their students in their classrooms to help them arrive to the
next level of Interlanguage. Interlanguage awareness is the key to success in helping
students to move closer to a proficient use of the L2. But being aware of
Interlanguage also means to be able to detect not only the level of Interlanguage and
the use of the different strategies on part of the learner, but also to be able to use that
information to help students to move up on the L2 mastery. And here comes a very
controversial topic in language teaching, which is error correction, which is to say
how teachers deal with their students’ mistakes.

Many have said, among them Krashen, that correction is a pointless effort, since
learners will come to the realization of error and to actually acquiring the correct
use of a structure or pronunciation of a word, etc, on their own. Moreover, error
correction seems to have little immediate effect over students’ production.
http://www.timothyjpmason.com

However, we know that error correction in the classrooms take place every day,
so it is necessary to decide upon a method for treating students’ errors. Firstly, it is
necessary to consider what the teacher‘s attitude towards mistakes is. Errors are the
best source of information for the teacher; they display just those aspects that need
to be addressed, and they give him the opportunity not so much for pointing out
errors, but most importantly they give him the chance to help his learners’ progress.
It is essential for teachers to be consistent and to prioritize those errors which
actually prevent communication from taking place, though at times it will be
necessary to stress accuracy or to hold back a correction in order to reinforce
students’ confidence.

Students’ attitudes towards mistakes are also important. Students usually ask to
be corrected, but when the moment comes for actual corrections they still feel
uncomfortable. It is the teacher’s task to find out what and most importantly when
and how to correct. Nowadays it is students’ confidence and self stem together with
the impact of correction what textbooks usually stress.

Conclusion

Interlanguage, together with all the aspects it implies, its consequences and the
applicability of its principles in the ESL classroom is one of the theoretical
standpoints of today’s teaching-learning methodological approaches. Personally, I
think we do not take all this knowledge into our classrooms. It is of great relevance
that these theories are not let behind as teachers move into their busy schedules and
become overwhelmed by the amount of teaching offers globalization has brought.
Teachers at the Primary and Secondary level need to develop the habit of thinking
about their teaching, and exercising the ability to integrate theory and practice in the
activities they design for their students. Otherwise, tasks become a boring and
pointless exercise, for students and teachers as well.

The only way to transmit the importance of our duty is to believe ourselves in
what we do. In the process of trial and error and hypothesis testing, learners slowly
succeed in establishing closer and closer approximations to the system used by
native speakers of the language. In a world closely connected by modern means of
communication it is the teacher’s task to guide them towards that goal, using all the
available tools which will make his teaching coherent and responsible.