Transfer in Second Language Acquisition


So let’s talk about moving. It’s a real
challenge to get all of your stuff from one place to another. The thing is, even if you
decide to leave lots of junk behind, one thing you’re always stuck with is your old language.
It might clutter up the brain space you want for your fresh new language, but there’s nothing
you can do about it. Some things, you can’t leave behind. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is
The Ling Space. So the biggest difference between learning your first language and any other one is also the most obvious: when you’re learning a second or
third language, you already have a whole linguistic system inside your head. And as much as we’d
like to forget everything we know about our native language when we learn a new one,
we just can’t. Once your system’s been wired with the grammar of your first language, that
knowledge is very sticky. It’s like caramel, except inside your brain. But people still learn new languages, right?
It’s not like there’s a sign that says, if you’re over two years old, you can’t
ride the new language roller coaster. The difference, though, is this: if you already
have a grammar in your head, and you start learning a new one, your first guess about
whatever your new language will do is based on however your old language did it. In other
words, you transfer knowledge over from your first language, or L1, into your second language, or L2. As you get more information about your L2, you’ll revise all those ideas and make
a new grammar, but transfer happens first. So how do we know there has to be transfer?
Well, if everyone started from scratch for their L2, they would all follow the same path,
right? All people would pick up their new language in the same way, no matter where
they were coming from. Use the same language recipe, get the same language cake. But that’s
not even close to what happens! We see different patterns in what mistakes people make depending
on what their first language was. And we know they can’t be getting it from speakers of
whatever it is they’re learning, because native speakers would never say those things. For example, take an English word like “have”.
French doesn’t have that [h] sound at the beginning, but it’s totally fine
with a sound like [v] coming at the end of a word, so a French learner of English will
usually say something like [æv]. A German speaker, on the other hand, comes equipped
with a language that already has [h], but doesn’t let sounds like v show up at the end of a word, so they’ll usually
say something like [hæf]. We even see changes in how you’ll pronounce
things depending on what dialect of a language you speak! So no version of French has that [ð] sound that you get in
English in words like [ði] (the) or [ðɛɹ] (there). It’s a really hard sound for L2
speakers to learn, and so they’ll often switch it up for a different consonant. But European
French speakers will fix it by saying [z], like “Go over zere”. Quebec French
speakers on the other hand will get around it by using [d], like “Go over dere.” Even though it’s the same
language! But they’re not the same dialect, and that change is enough to make the English
pronunciations they end up with different, too. So how much do you transfer from your native
language? Well… pretty much everything! Yeah. Everything. You fully transfer over
that whole native grammar. You leave the words behind, mostly, but you take everything else.
We’re able to say this because we can find evidence of transfer in every part
of the L2 grammar, from the phonemes all the way up through semantics. We’ve already talked about some phonological
examples, but only for single sounds. We can also find plenty of cases where whole words
are affected by transfer. Like, take groups of consonants. Some languages are totally
fine with bunches of consonants clumping together in a word, and others firmly disapprove
of it. But even if you disapprove, there are lots of different ways to fix it. Take a word like “sparkle.” If you’re
a Spanish speaker, you don’t like that [sp] at the beginning of the word. Spanish fixes
this by putting an [ɛ] at the beginning of the word, so that [s] and [p] belong to different
syllables. So a Spanish learner of English would probably say something like [ɛspɑɹkəl]. But Japanese, which also hates consonant clusters,
takes a different tack. Between the pairs of consonants, Japanese shoehorns in this extra
vowel, [ɯ]. If there’s a vowel in between, no more bunch of consonants, so problem solved!
That’s why a Japanese speaker wouldn’t say “sparkle” or “esparkel”. They’d
say [sɯpɑ:kɯɾɯ] (スパークル). So from this, you can tell that non-native accents
are a result of transfer. Your accent is different based on what the phonology of your
native language was, because it got moved over with everything else. This can be some
of the toughest stuff to fix, but it IS doable. But transfer goes beyond phonology. We can
see it in syntax, too. So, no surprise, sentences get built differently in different languages.
For example, in English, adverbs come before the verb, so like “Barney frequently wears
suits,” but in French, it comes after the verb. “Barney porte fréquemment des costumes.”
And sure enough, the word order here transfers. In English, L1 French speakers will say “Barney
wears frequently suits”. Similarly, in French, English speakers will say “Barney fréquemment
porte des costumes.” You just get what your native language would have done. Or maybe you’re an Greek learner of English,
and you want to say “Ted married the woman that he met at the wedding.” Well, in Greek,
you’d put the equivalent of her in that lower sentence, like this: Ο Θοδωρής
παντρεύτηκε κάποια γυναίκα που τη γνώρισε στον γάμο.
So in English, you wouldn’t leave that “her” out, right? No, you’d probably say “Ted
married the woman that he met her at the wedding.” And transfer strikes again. We can even see this in the way that L2 learners
interpret sentences. So consider the sentence “Lily didn’t drink the beer or the whiskey.”
In English, this sentence means that Lily couldn’t have drank either of the alcoholic
beverages. But in Japanese, the exact same sentence would mean that Lily drank either
the beer, or the whiskey, but not both of them. So the same sentence, with the same
structure, but a different interpretation. So what happens when you ask a Japanese learner
of English whether Lily had either of the drinks? They’ll tell you that she drank
one or the other of them, but not both. So even the way you want to interpret a sentence
gets transferred over. That’s because L2 transfer is everywhere.
It’s helpful in a way, because you don’t have to start from scratch with each
new language. That’d take way longer! But it’s so pervasive, it colors everything
you do in your L2. You can work at getting beyond it, but sometimes you’re
just stuck with what you have. If you look at your first language, you can find what
sorts of mistakes you’ll probably make in your new one. For better or for worse, it’s
the linguistic baggage you carry around with you. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If my word order seemed natural to you, you learned that when we learn a new
language, we transfer over our whole native grammar; that depending on what language you’re
starting from, the mistakes you’ll make in the L2 will be different; and that transfer
effects can be found all over linguistics, from phonology to syntax to semantics. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our production
assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics
team is AtelierMuse. We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over
to our website, where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter
and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.
And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Ekosi maka Kawi asamēna ka wāpimitin!

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