Language transfer

Language transfer

Language transfer (also known as L1 interference, linguistic interference, and crossmeaning) refers to speakers or writers applying knowledge from their native language to a second language. It is most commonly discussed in the context of English language learning and teaching, but it can occur in any situation when someone does not have a native-level command of a language, as when translating into a second language.


Positive and negative transfer

Blackboard used in class at Harvard shows students' efforts at placing the ü and acute accent diacritics used in Spanish orthography.

When the relevant unit or structure of both languages is the same, linguistic interference can result in correct language production called positive transfer — "correct" meaning in line with most native speakers' notions of acceptability. An example is the use of cognates. Note, however, that language interference is most often discussed as a source of errors known as negative transfer. Negative transfer occurs when speakers and writers transfer items and structures that are not the same in both languages. Within the theory of contrastive analysis (the systematic study of a pair of languages with a view to identifying their structural differences and similarities), the greater the differences between the two languages, the more negative transfer can be expected.

The results of positive transfer go largely unnoticed, and thus are less often discussed. Nonetheless, such results can have a large effect. Generally speaking, the more similar the two languages are, and the more the learner is aware of the relation between them, the more positive transfer will occur. For example, an Anglophone learner of German may correctly guess an item of German vocabulary from its English counterpart, but word order and collocation are more likely to differ, as will connotations. Such an approach has the disadvantage of making the learner more subject to the influence of "false friends".

Proactive interference and negative transfer in psychology

During the 1950’s, memory research began investigating interference theory. This refers to the idea that forgetting occurs because the recall of certain items interferes with the recall of other items. Throughout the 1950s, researchers provided some of the earliest evidence that the prior existence of old memories makes it harder to recall newer memories and he dubbed this effect, proactive interference.[1][2][3][4] During the same time, researchers, began investigating negative transfer.[1][5] Negative transfer concerns itself with a detrimental effect of prior experience on the learning of a new task, whereas proactive interference relates to a negative effect of prior interference on the recall of a second task.[6]

The most obvious and used proactive interference and negative transfer paradigm from the 1950s and 1960s was the use of AB-AC, or AB-DE lists. Participants would be asked to learn a list of paired associates in which each pair consists of a three letter consonant vowel consonant, nonsense syllable (e.g. DYL), used because it was easy to learn and lacked pre-learned cognitive associations, and a common word (e.g. road). In this paradigm two lists of paired associations are learned. The first list, (commonly known as the AB list) would consist of nonsense syllables as a primer (which constituted the ‘A’ term), followed by a word (which constituted the ‘B’ term). The second list would consist of either the same nonsense syllable primer and a different word (A-C list) or a different nonsense syllable primer and a different word (D-E list). The AB-AC list was used because its second set of associations (A-C) constitutes a modification of the first set of associations (A-B), whereas the AB-DE list were used as a control.[4][7][8][9][10]

Shortly afterwards proactive interference was demonstrated with the Brown-Peterson paradigm.[2] A single Brown-Peterson trial consists of a study list, a retention interval and then a recall period. Each list may consist of a handful of related items and are presented individually every few seconds. For the duration of a short retention interval, subjects are then asked to perform an engaging distractor task such as counting backwards in sevens, or thinking of an animal with every letter in the alphabet to minimize rehearsal.[4][2][10] Subjects are then asked to recall the items from this second list. Although the lists from previous trials are now irrelevant, the fact that they were studied at all makes it difficult for subjects to recall the most recent list.

Negative transfer was examined by researchers in the 60s[7][8][9][10] and found differential learning between trials. Specifically, differences in the learning rates of list 2 provided clear evidence of the negative transfer phenomenon. Subjects learned an A-C paired association list to a criterion of all associations correct, following learning a list of A-B paired associations to criterion. Ultimately, it was found that those subjects took an increased amount of trials to complete the learning task compared to subjects who didn’t learn the A-B list or from subjects who had to learn a D-E list.[10]

Conscious and unconscious transfer

Transfer may be conscious or unconscious. Consciously, learners or unskilled translators may sometimes guess when producing speech or text in a second language because they have not learned or have forgotten its proper usage. Unconsciously, they may not realize that the structures and internal rules of the languages in question are different. Such users could also be aware of both the structures and internal rules, yet be insufficiently skilled to put them into practice, and consequently often fall back on their first language.

Language transfer in comprehension

Transfer can also occur in polyglot individuals when comprehending verbal utterances or written language. For instance, German and English both have relative clauses with a noun-noun-verb (=NNV) order but which are interpreted differently in both languages:

German example: Das Mädchen, das die Frau küsst, ist blond

Word by word this German relative clause translates to

English example: The girl that the woman is kissing is blonde.

The German and the English examples differ in that in German the subject role can be taken by das Mädchen (the girl) or die Frau (the woman) while in the English example only the second noun phrase (the woman) can be the subject. In short: The German example is syntactically ambiguous because it can be the girl or the woman who does the kissing. In the English example it can only be the woman who does the kissing.

The ambiguity of the German NNV relative clause structure becomes obvious in cases where the assignment of subject and object role is disambiguated. This can be because of case marking if one of the nouns is grammatically male as in Der Mann, den die Frau küsst… (The man that the woman is kissing…) vs. Der Mann, der die Frau küsst (The man that is kissing the woman) because in German the male definite article marks the accusative case. The syntactic ambiguity of the German example also becomes obvious in the case of semantic disambiguation. For instance in Das Eis, das die Frau isst… and Die Frau, die das Eis isst… (both: The woman that is eating the ice cream) only das Eis (ice cream) is a plausible object.

Because in English relative clauses with a noun-noun-verb structure (as in the example above) the first noun can only be the object, native speakers of English who speak German as a second language are more likely to interpret ambiguous German NNV relative clauses as object relative clauses (= object-subject-verb order) than German native speakers who prefer an interpretation in which the first noun phrase is the subject (subject-object-verb order).[11] This is because they have transferred their parsing preference from their first language English to their second language German.


Language transfer produces distinctive forms of learner English, depending on the speaker’s first language. Some examples, labeled with a blend of the names of the two languages in question, are:

Similar interference effects, of course, also involve languages other than English, such as French, and Spanish (Frespañol), Portuguese, and Spanish (Portuñol)or Catalan and Spanish (Catanyol).

These examples could be multiplied endlessly to reflect the linguistic interactions of speakers of the thousands of existing or extinct languages.

Such interfered-language names are often also used informally to denote instances of code-switching, code-mixing, or borrowing (using loan words).

Broader effects of language transfer

With sustained or intense contact between native and non-native speakers, the results of language transfer in the non-native speakers can extend to and affect the speech production of the native-speaking community. For example, in North America, speakers of English whose first language is Spanish or French may have a certain influence on native English speakers' use of language when the native speakers are in the minority. Locations where this phenomenon occurs frequently include Québec, Canada, and predominantly Spanish-speaking regions in the U.S. For details on the latter, see the map of the hispanophone world and the list of U.S. communities with Hispanic majority populations.

See also



  • Nitschke, S.; Kidd, E.; Serratrice, L. (2010). "First language transfer and long-term structural priming in comprehension". Language and Cognitive Processes 25 (1): 94–114. 
  • Porter, L. W.; Duncan, C. P. (1953). "Negative Transfer in Verbal Learning". Journal of Experimental Psychology 46 (1): 61–64. 
  • Postman, L (1962). "Transfer of training as a function of experimental paradigm and degree of first list learning". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 1: 109–118. 
  • Postman, L.; Stark, K. (1969). "Role of response availability in transfer and interference". Journal of Experimental Psychology 79 (1): 168–177. 
  • Underwood, B. J. (1949). "Proactive inhibition as a function of time and degree of prior learning". Journal of Experimental Psychology 39: 24–34. 

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