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The meddling mother tongue - when your first language interferes

If you have ever watched a football game, you are probably familiar with the term “interference”. Roughly speaking, pass interference in American football refers to a player illegally hindering an opponent's fair attempt at catching the ball.


When we learn a foreign language, we may also experience interference, primarily from our first language or mother tongue. But while in American football interference is a penalty, in language learning, it can be a bad and a good thing.


In this blog post, I will take a look at how your first language can affect your foreign language learning and what you can do to manage its influence.


Is your puppy clean?


A few days ago, I was out with my dog, when I met one of my neighbors walking her little puppy. As dog owners commonly do, we both stopped to let the dogs sniff each other, while we exchanged a few words.


And that’s when it happened: linguistic interference.

Puppy

At some point in the conversation, I asked my neighbor if her puppy was already fully housetrained – or at least that’s what I meant to ask her. The words that came out of my mouth were, “Is she already clean?” I saw a brief flash of incomprehension on my neighbor’s face. Immediately realizing my mistake, I self-corrected and added, “I mean housebroken, housetrained”, overcompensating the error with a double explanation. The whole incident didn’t last more than a second or two.


Where did the word “clean” come from? And why did I not use “housebroken” or “housetrained” in the first place?


Well, I had just returned from a longer stay in Austria. For several weeks, I had been immersed in and spoken almost exclusively German. In German, you use the word “clean” (sauber, stubenrein) when referring to a dog who’s successfully been trained in that respect. So, my German interfered with my English.


Over my many years of transatlantic life, I have experienced such interferences in both directions, German interfering with English and English interfering with German. Sometimes, it feels like a power struggle for language dominance.


The relationship between the different languages we speak is a complex one. They influence each other in various ways that can be disruptive, but also helpful.


Foreign language learning: the slate is not clean


When you start learning a foreign language, the slate is not clean. Your brain already knows and uses at least one other language, namely your first language. That is the language you acquired in your home environment from birth on. Frequently (but not always), it is also the language spoken around you outside your home – the language of your community, friends, and the area or country you live in.


You can have more than one first language, but many people have only one or one that is dominant. People also refer to it as their mother or native tongue.

Person writing

By the time you start learning a foreign language as an adolescent or adult, you have been using your first language for many years in a wide range of situations. You have received informal “training” in your home. Most likely, you have received formal instruction at school. You have been practicing for countless hours: listening, absorbing, imitating, studying, creating, improving, refining, ...


To a large degree, first-language usage has become automated.


With foreign languages it’s different. For many people, learning a second or third language happens in a classroom, in a more formal setting, with an instructor, for a few hours per week, and with limited real-life exposure. Most people will agree that becoming proficient in a new language learned in such a way is very hard.


Language interference can be good


We generally think of interference as something negative. It implies some form of meddling or disruption, something that hinders progress and performance.


Our first language, however, is really a valuable resource for learning other languages. It fulfills various important functions. Here are some of the ways in which it can support learning:

  • Providing interactional skills: Along with our first language we also learned how to communicate and interact with people. We can utilize these tools as we learn to communicate in the new language.

  • Making sense of meaning: We use our first language to think of the meaning of foreign language words and phrases and to make sense of what we read and hear.

  • Understanding patterns: We use the knowledge from our first language to understand how other languages work. We compare structures, make hypotheses, and apply familiar patterns when we learn a new language.

  • Filling knowledge gaps: We use the first language to bridge knowledge gaps in the foreign language, such as words we haven't learned yet.

  • Understanding culture: We often use our first language to find out more about the new culture and build up our cultural background knowledge, which is crucial for becoming a proficient language user.

  • Giving feedback: Teachers/Trainers/Coaches may use the first language to give feedback or explanations. In group settings, learners frequently use the first language to manage cooperative tasks.


The interplay of language patterns


In their book How Languages are Learned, Lightbown & Spada say the following: “There is no doubt that learners draw on the patterns of other languages they know as they try to discover the complexities of the new language they are learning. The patterns of those earlier languages are firmly established, and as learners have experience with the new language, there is an interplay between the new and old patterns.” (2013: 57)


That is particularly true in the case of languages that are similar, like German and English.

old telephones

Here's an example of a pattern an English speaker can draw on when learning German: In English you form the future tense with the help of an auxiliary (or helping) verb, namely the modal verb “will”:


I will call tomorrow.



German uses the same pattern - helping verb + main verb - to form the future tense. The helping verb used is “werden”.

English future tense

German future tense

I will call tomorrow.

Ich werde morgen anrufen.

(will = helping verb; call = main verb)

(werde = helping verb; anrufen = main verb)

There are many parallel concepts and structures in English and German that can make it easier for you to understand how the other language works.


Language interference as a source of errors

socks with colorful patterns

We use the knowledge from our first language to make hypotheses about how the foreign language works. Unfortunately, it’s exactly these hypotheses that can also cause problems. As Lightbown and Spada state in their above-mentioned book, “the transfer of patterns from the native language is one of the major sources of errors in learner language.” (2013: 205)


There are three main areas of communication that are affected by linguistic interference: grammar (including syntax), vocabulary, and pronunciation.


Grammatical interference


Let’s go back to the future tense example to look at how interference can cause errors.


In English, the helping verb “will” has the same form regardless of the person doing the action:

I will call tomorrow.

You will call tomorrow.

She will call tomorrow.

In German, however, the helping verb “werden” changes depending on the person.

English

German

I will call tomorrow.

Ich werde morgen anrufen.

You will call tomorrow.

Du wirst morgen anrufen.

She will call tomorrow.

Sie wird morgen anrufen.

So, as it turns out, the English and German future tense patterns overlap only partially. There are some aspects that don’t overlap and that could potentially lead to errors.


One of them is the conjugation of the helping verb. A learner may not conjugate “werden” at all or use the first-person form for all other persons.


Another potentially problematic interference concerns word order. You may have noticed that "tomorrow" is at the end of the English sentence. Using the same word order in German would be incorrect.

I will call tomorrow.

Ich werde morgen anrufen. Correct

Ich werde anrufen morgen. Incorrect

Based on my observations, word order is frequently affected by first-language interference . Many learners use patterns from their first language to construct sentences in the new language.


Lexical interference


There are many ways in which your first language can interfere with your new language on the lexical level. In a positive way, your first language can help you recognize similar words in the foreign language. Similarities can also lead to problems, though. For example, as an English speaker learning German, you may use a false cognate word, or so-called “false friend”. Here's a common one that can easily cause a misunderstanding:

English: chef

German: Chef

In English, a "chef" is a professional cook or the head cook in an establishment.

In German, "Chef" means boss or supervisor.

Pronunciation errors

Microphone

Linguistic interference can lead you to mispronounce words. German speakers, for example, tend to struggle with the English w-sound, as in water. They tend to replace it with a v-sound. This interference can cause problems from German to English as well.

English

German

water

Wasser

w-sound (/w/)

v-sound (/v/)

Pronunciation goes beyond consonant and vowel sounds. It includes aspects of speaking such as word stress, sentence stress, and intonation. These elements are really important because they guide the listener's understanding.


Incorrect stress patterns and intonation can harm your effectiveness as a speaker. In more extreme cases, your conversation partner may even have problems understanding what you’re trying to say.


The influence on speaking versus writing


Linguistic interference tends to cause more problems in spoken than written language. When we write something, we often have time to look things up and check their accuracy. We can consult with native speakers, reference books, and translation tools.


In conversations, we don’t have these options. We are under time pressure to react and respond. We have no choice but to rely on our established knowledge to verbally express our thoughts and ideas. So, we often resort to first-language patterns, words, and phrases.

definite article "the"

It's important to note that your first language is not the only source of errors. There are other reasons why we make mistakes. If certain concepts are completely absent in your first language, then you may struggle to grasp them in the foreign language. Learners whose first language doesn't have articles, for instance, may find it challenging to understand when to add a definite article to a noun.


In addition, if you are learning more than one foreign language, you may experience some interference between them. Finally, language influence is not one-directional. Learning a foreign language can give you a better understanding of your first language.


How can you minimize the negative effects of interference?


People differ with regard to their learning preferences, but there are a few general suggestions that can help you improve faster.

  • Practice often. For many learners, shorter daily practices yield better results than long cramming sessions once per week. Stepping up the frequency of your practice sessions can really help you make progress.

  • Find fluent speakers. Since learners at similar proficiency levels often make similar mistakes, it can be helpful to find practice opportunities with proficient and fluent speakers. This way you get to listen to speakers who make no or few mistakes and use the language with ease.

  • Choose variety. Listen to different sources, read a wide range of articles, speak in varied situations, write different text types. Experiencing the new language in a wide range of situations and sources will help you solidify new patterns.

  • Enjoy what you do. Choose topics and activities you like and find entertaining, whether it's streaming a cooking or crime show or listening to a nightly podcast. Language learning does not require academic articles or complex literature.

  • Make it relevant. Work on topics that are relevant to you. Read, watch, and learn what supports your personal and professional goals.


A great resource: your bilingual teacher/trainer/coach


A professional teacher/trainer/coach who knows both your mother tongue and the foreign language you are learning can be a great asset and help you manage language interference. Here's why:

  1. They understand the patterns of both languages, your first language and the new language you’re learning. As a result, they can use the potentials of positive influence.

  2. They understand why you make certain mistakes and which mistakes are due to interference. As a result, they can give targeted feedback and guidance.

  3. They can anticipate difficulties that are due to negative interference. As a result, they can create materials that explicitly address these issues.

  4. They understand the cultural background of your first and the foreign language. They know the socio-linguistic contexts of both. As a result, they can help you build the cultural and intercultural competencies necessary for becoming proficient.

It's important to remember that the language you grew up with will always be there in the background, with its negative and positive influence, as a source of errors and a resource for learning. A professional teacher/trainer/coach who has experience, is highly proficient in the language you want to learn, and knows your first language can help you manage its influence and harness its potential.


Contact me to find out more about customized language coaching & training for English or German.





Reference:

Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. 2013. How Languages are Learned (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.


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