What makes a foreign language easier or harder to learn? There are many different factors involved, such as inflection, grammatical issues, and “gender” of nouns which differ from language to language. What a lot of these differences come down to, however, are the concepts of transfer and L1 interference, a.k.a. negative transfer.
Transfer, as defined in wikipedia, is what happens when speakers of one language (L1) apply that knowledge to a new language they are learning (L2). When two languages are closely related, such as English and Dutch, or French and Spanish, learners can find similarities between the old and new languages, making the new language easy to learn. For instance, if we compare a few words between English and Dutch, we find the following similarities: three – drie (“dree”), floor – vloer (“flure”), or knee – knie (“k-nee”). EFL learners pick up the fact that these similarities exist and listen for more similarities when confronted with new input. It’s actually a rather efficient way to learn a new language: listen for the stuff you recognize, then figure what out the leftover, unknown, input means.
The trouble comes when learners start overgeneralizing and applying their knowledge of L1 in ways that don’t fit the new language. This is called L1 interference, or negative transfer. This becomes visible when, for instance, learners try out new words by simply pronouncing the original word in L1 using the pronunciation of L2. For example, Dutch children will say they are “keeking” tv, when they mean to say they are watching tv. In this case, “keeking” is an Anglicization of the Dutch term “kijken” mixed with the present progressive verb formation in English.
The mind is an amazing thing.
Another common example of L1 interference is when learners apply the rules of grammar as they know them from their first language to the new language. “Walk you to school today?” is a common error caused by L1 interference, and one I heard many times while teaching EFL to grade school pupils. The use of an auxiliary verb (“helping verb”) in question formation is a new concept for speakers of Dutch grammar, so I often spent many lessons prompting the use of the “magic word” at the start of each question.
Teachers can make use of the concepts of transfer and L1 Interference when designing their own lesson plans. For instance, words and grammatical concepts that “match” between L1 and L2 will be easily learned. It follows that less time is needed to learn those concepts. Words and grammatical concepts that don’t match, however, are subject to L1 interference. It’s really important to give those concepts extra time and find ways to teach these concepts. Explicit attention for issues that cause interference is never a bad thing, in my experience.
One example of how I would do this was with words related to Autumn. I would often teach the words like leaf, tree, squirrel, and acorn. In Dutch, these words are blaadje, boom, eekhoorn and eikel. And therein lies the problem: the English word for acorn sounds just like the Dutch word for squirrel. While introducing these words, I would explain the meaning of each word using separate flashcards, and note that squirrels eat acorns. the children often thought it quite strange that their “acorn” would eat acorns, resulting in questions, explanations, and then laughter as they caught on.
I also found examples of transfer and L1 interference when dealing with the other language skills of reading and writing. Children applied their knowledge of reading in Dutch to reading in English. In general, much of their reading knowledge was quite useful, were it not that English spelling leaves much to be desired in the area of letter-sound correspondence. The same holds for writing words in English while using Dutch spelling rules. Incidentally, reading and writing are really interesting areas of EFL education, which I will have to address at some other time.
My own experience of teaching EFL applies to situations when the first and second languages are closely related. What I don’t know is this: when two languages are less related (such as English and Japanese), in what measure do the concepts of transfer and L1 interference play a role? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!