Quick Summary:

When we learn a new language, we don't start off from scratch, as if we don't know anything about language at all. Instead, we transfer over the grammar from our first language (L1) into our second language (L2), and that serves as our first guess about how everything in our second language will work. We can say that all this transfer occurs because people with different language backgrounds learn their new languages in different ways. They encounter different problems, and generally end up with different grammars for their new language, all based on what their first language was.

These transfer effects pop up all over linguistics. The way you pronounce words, and the way you work out how to pronounce words that wouldn't have been okay in your first language; the way you build your sentences; even the way you interpret what you hear or read is influenced by what your L1 would have done in that situation. We see the fingerprints of transfer all over L2 acquisition. It's better than having to learn a language 100% from scratch, but undoing the effects of transfer can be a big challenge. It's your very own linguistic baggage.

 

Extra materials:

All of the examples that we talk about in the video come from adult L2 speakers of various languages. But you don't have to be all grown up to see transfer occurring in your L2. Even kids can show the effects of transfer, particularly when it's of aspects of language that they can acquire pretty early on.

So for example, consider the case of Erdem, a Turkish boy who moved to the UK, and who was studied by Belma Haznedar. After a couple of months of settling in, he was suddenly exposed to a lot of English at a day care, and started learning English. Erdem was only 4 years old when Haznedar began working with him, and she was curious about whether that meant he'd start learning English from the beginning, or from Turkish.

One important thing to know about Turkish is that it puts the verb at the end of the sentence, after its object. Let's look at the Turkish sentence for "My mother cooks healthy food" in (1), taken from a 2003 paper by Haznedar.

(1) Benim  anem     çok   sağlıklı   yemek yapar.
      My       mother  very  healthy  food    cook-present-Ø

The word for "cooks" appears at the end, after the word for "food." That's the opposite of English. So if Erdem starts from scratch, we'd expect to see him placing his verbs flawlessly; if he transfers over the Turkish syntax that sticks the verbs at the end, after the object, we'd see lots of sentences that would look fine if they were Turkish, but don't work for English. And which do we get? For the first three months of data, all Erdem uses are sentences like (2).

(2) I something eating.

Verb-final, just like Turkish. After that point, though, Erdem gets enough data to work out that verbs go the other way, and then suddenly, after those first three months, his verbs are in the right place, like (3):

(3) I not eat cornflake.

The fact that it only took him three months to change, and then suddenly he had that feature of the grammar totally right, though, is pretty telling: kids have an easier time recovering from transfer than adults do. Let's take a look at another syntactic property that can illustrate this: articles, like the or a.

In 2008, Tatiana Zdorenko and Johanne Paradis looked into whether kids from languages that have articles, like Spanish, Romanian, or Arabic, have an easier time picking up the English article system than kids who speak languages that lack articles, like Chinese, Korean or Japanese. It's notable that learning the English article system as an adult is very hard - many adult L2 learners of English from languages like Russian or Chinese never really pick up article use properly. As an adult, once you transfer over that you don't need articles, that's usually the end of it. You just never really get it right.

These kids, though, starting from around 5 years old or so, are able to acquire English articles without too much difficulty. We do see transfer - the kids from the languages who don't have articles were more likely early in the study to leave out English articles than the children from languages with articles. But still, pretty soon after, all the kids were showing similar patterns of behavior - using too much the in environments where a would have been more appropriate, but not vice versa. There may have been transfer, but they got over it quickly.

And this is part of why, even if you can't have your kids learn two languages from the start, it's still better to start them on learning a new language early. Even if they do show some transfer over from their first language, they get better more quickly, and are more likely to get to a native-like level if they get enough practice. Everybody transfers, but the results of transfer are easier on kids than adults.

 

Discussion:

So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about first vs. second language acquisition, the effects of transfer we can find, and how to recover. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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