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A study of the identification of instances of language transfer and interference in samples of writing and speech

J. Kerr


In studying the processes involved in the acquisition of a second language, recent psycholinguistic research has shown that the influence of the native language is not as all-pervading as was previously claimed by behaviorist theory. The acquisition process is also affected by influence from the target language. This study aims to identify instances of native language transfer and interference in the writing and speech of Vietnamese learners of English as a Second Language. It also aims to identify instances of transfer from the target language and to indicate appropriate teaching responses in order to facilitate learning.


"We know from the observation of many cases that the grammatical structure of the native language tends to be transferred to the foreign language.. we have here the major source of difficulty or ease in learning the foreign language" (Lado, 1957).
These beliefs form the essence of the Contrastive Analysis hypothesis, which dominated theories of second language acquisition in the 1950's. The rationale for this hypothesis was drawn from behaviorist (stimulus-response) psychology, which defined "transfer" as the automatic, uncontrolled and subconscious use of past learned behaviors in an attempt to produce new responses. Thus the errors in the language of an ESL learner could be traced and predicted by contrasting the structures of the two languages. With developing linguistic research, however, including Chomsky's and Piaget's theories, this approach was found to be too simplistic. The work of researchers such as Dulay, Burt and Krashen (1982) has shown that acquiring language is a process of "creative construction". As a result, the concepts of language transfer and interference have expanded and gained credence as learning strategies in their own right.

In defining "transfer" and "interference", Dulay et al. (1982) refer to the former as the use of patterns of the first language in the production of the second language. When these patterns are identical, the correct language form is produced and "positive transfer" occurs. The resultant errors are designated as "interference" errors.

During the 1970's, theories of second language acquisition began to identify errors as a form of "Interlanguage", which, according to Selinker (1972), is a point between the native language and the target language. Nemser (1971) refers to interlanguage as an "approximative system" and emphasizes the notion of "transitional competence". Dulay et al. (1982) classify only a small proportion of errors necessary for "creative construction". This use of language transfer in a positive, dynamic sense is regarded by Selinker, Swain and Dumas (1975) as one of a number of learning "strategies" used to facilitate the acquisition of the second language. Furthermore, the transfer may be direct application of patterns from the first language, particularly in the early stages of learning, or, as Taylor (1975) has shown, it may consist of "overgeneralization" of rules derived from the target Language. McLaughlin (1982) and Littlewood (1984) confirm that there are many instances where it is not possible to decide whether L1 interference or overgeneralization of L2 is causing a specific error. In fact, both processes may occur simultaneously.

Identification of instances of language interference and transfer errors can provide teachers and students with a valuable learning aid. The mere awareness of these instances on the part of the student may be enough to prevent fossilization of related errors (de Bot and Mailfert, 1985). In addition, teachers can offer strategies which will help students in becoming independent in "restructuring their meaning" (Sommers, 1982).



The aim of this study was to identify instances of language transfer and interference in samples of writing and speech and to ascertain ways in which the ESL teacher might respond to these in order to facilitate learning.


The subjects were 5 full-time ESL students, aged between 18 and 25, studying at a TAFE college. For each student, Vietnamese was the native language (L1).


A total of 22 written sentences, approximately 4 from each student, was analysed for instances of language transfer or interference. (Appendix 1)

The results were collated into two broad categories:

  1. errors resulting from direct L1 interference, and
  2. errors resulting from transfer or overgeneralization of L2 rules. They were further delineated into errors of syntax, idiom and vocabulary.
An analysis of 6 oral statements by one of the students was also undertaken in the areas of intonation, pronunciation and syntax. (Appendix 2)

TABLE 1: Analysis of written sentences

Errors Resulting
from L1 Interference
Errors Resulting from
Overgeneralization of L2
Omission of Article6Inadequate grasp of Verb structures12
Omission of Plural4Incorrect insertion of Article6
Omission of third singular present tense "s"2Incorrect use of Prepositions3
Omission of the Subject1
Transfer of Idiom1
Transfer of Vocabulary1


The results of the written analysis are shown in TABLE 1. A total of 15 errors can be directly related to interference from L1. The omissions of the articles, the plural endings and the third singular present tense "s" all reflect the absence of any of these forms in the Vietnamese language. The omission of the subject of a sentence of "Who are winner would get a prize" is similar to Vietnamese, according to "Asian Language Notes No. 1", where the subject is often implied from the context. Direct interference in vocabulary occurs in "From you came back to America..." as the Vietnamese "return" can also be translated "back" and does not need a preposition. Idiomatic transfer is actually acknowledged by direct reference to the expression "goat 35".

The errors categorized as stemming from overgeneralization of L2 rules, or an inadequate knowledge of these rules, fall into 3 main groups: a) incorrect use of verb tenses, auxiliaries and infinitives; b) incorrect insertion of the article; c) incorrect use of prepositions. Although these forms are non-existent in Vietnamese, (and to that extent, the errors are ambiguous), the students have made some attempt to simplify and regularize the linguistic complexities which they realize to be peculiar to the target language.

Finally, a small group of errors is noted which do not visibly result from interference from L1 or from transfer from L2, but presumably from attempts to express a meaning for which the learner's competence contains no appropriate items or rules at all, e.g., "Everyone is not to be used weapons"..


The results of the analysis of oral statements are shown in TABLE 2.

TABLE 2: Analysis of oral statements

Errors Resulting
from L1 Interference
Errors Resulting from
Transfer of L2
Inappropriate Intonation10Incorrect Verb Form7
Incorrect Stress6Incorrect Preposition1
Omission of Final Consonants10Incorrect Insertion of article2
Omission of Article1Incorrect Stress2
Incorrect Pronunciation2


In the samples of oral speech, interference from L1 was much more marked, with intonation and stress differences resulting in a degree of unintelligibility. As the samples examined were all statements in answer to specific questions, the expected intonation pattern would be that associated with a conclusive statement, with stress on the important part of the information and the voice pitch falling at the end of the sentence.

The speech patterns of the Vietnamese student, however, strongly reflect those of the Vietnamese language, which is syllable-timed, rather than stress-timed, with little variation of sentence intonation and no conclusive fall of pitch at the end of the sentence. when questioned about the incorrect stress used in the pronunciation of the words "re/SI/due" for "residue" and "in/DUS/try" for "industry", the speaker admitted attempting to reproduce L2 stress, but being hindered by inadequate knowledge of the correct stress patterns.

In addition to intonation and stress differences, the most noticeable effect of L1 interference in the speech of the Vietnamese ESL learner is the omission of the final consonant. As only 6 final consonants are sounded in Vietnamese, direct interference results in pronunciations such as "becau.." instead of "because".

As with the written language, incorrect use of the article (on 3 occasions in a small sample of language) indicates that this is a major problem for Vietnamese speakers of English. The insertion of an article, albeit the incorrect article, is evidence that the speaker is making an attempt to apply rules of the target language. Although technically an "error", it is also a positive learning strategy. Similarly, the errors of verb formation may also be regarded as part of the learner's "Interlanguage''.


In responding to instances of Language interference and transfer, a teacher should focus on the purpose of the Language Lessons, the teaching model adopted and specific learning strategies related to these instances.

Current research in second language acquisition places much greater emphasis on communication itself than on the elimination of errors

McLaughlin (1982) states plainly that getting students to talk is more important than correcting their grammar. The first step in achieving this purpose is to create a sympathetic learning environment, in which errors are treated as learning strategies and are an integral part of the "transitional competence" of the student.


The "communicative" model of teaching, as outlined by Littlewood (1981), concentrates on maximum production of language by the learner in the time available. The emphasis is on the message rather than on the code. It also encompasses Krashen and Terrell's (1983) theory that input should be comprehensive, relevant to the learner and a little above the learner's current proficiency level.

The techniques of this method are aimed at moving the learner towards the goal of native-like proficiency ,in English with emphasis on personal involvement. Group work and working in pairs provides this opportunity and removes stress from the linguistically hesitant. The use of "real reality", for example, in materials and contexts familiar to the students, draws on the students' own experiences and allows them to play an active role in determining content. Topics may range from the History and Geography of Australia to Obtaining a Driver's Licence. In oral work, communicative activities include initial structured dialogues, information exchange tasks, role-play and formal, prepared speeches. Conducting tape-recorded interviews with native speakers, in this case, other TAFE students, and developing job interview techniques provide relevant learning experiences.

In order to encourage "creative construction", writing tasks for ESL students should also be purposeful and meaningful. For the young adult learners in this study, written work may be descriptive (relating to reading passages or previous excursions), topic-related (current affairs or on subject areas such as Insurance) or job-related (letters of application etc.). The input from listening and reading areas should adhere to Krashen and Terrell's (1983) criteria. Audio-visual material such as "Hello Australia" and "Behind the News" programmes, in addition to selected newspaper items, is valuable in stimulating output.


Although the communicative aspect of language learning is vital, ESL students also require a certain amount of structural information, referred to by Littlewood (1981; 1984) as "pre-communicative activities". where there is danger of "fossilization" of errors resulting from L1 interference or L2 transfer, teacher intervention can provide the learner with specific information and strategies aimed at overcoming these problems.

Chamot and O'Malley (1986) categorize these strategies as metacognitive, cognitive and socio-affective.

Metacognitive strategies found to be effective with ESL learners include selective attention, self-monitoring and self-evaluation. Selective attention involves deciding in advance to pay attention to certain features, for example, the use of the article or the sounding of the plural "s". The teacher has the initial responsibility of providing correct models and rules for guidance, e.g. the concept of countable and uncountable nouns. Self-monitoring involves checking the accuracy of one's oral or written production while it is taking place. Students may be taught "think-aloud" procedures, as described by Raimes (1984), for writing and ways of seeking confirmation from native speakers by re-phrasing while speaking. Self-evaluation, or editing one's own speech or writing, is a concept which is often unfamiliar and initially difficult for ESL students. It may be done individually or in a co-operative setting and should initially focus on specific points.

In order to apply these strategies, learners must be able to perceive correct and incorrect language forms. With the Vietnamese students, direct examples of common interference errors may stimulate this perception. Group discussion of these language differences can offer learning re-inforcement and remove a sense of personal failure attached to these errors. From the small sample of speech analysed, the most obvious interference from Vietnamese speech patterns was in intonation. De Bot and Mailfert (1982) have proved that training in the perception of intonation results in significant oral improvement. The techniques of verbo-tonalism, as outlined by Pegolo and Wylie (1984), rely on relaxation, gesture, electronic filtering and humming to achieve desired intonational patterns.

Cognitive strategies aimed at overcoming transfer errors include repeating answers silently in class, repeating phrases which illustrate the position of the tongue and lips in the production of "difficult" sounds and checking these with a mirror. Taped drills contrasting vowel sounds in minimal pairs such as the included example of "biff" and "Beef" will develop perception of pronunciation differences. Even fervent exponents of the communicative method, Dulay et al. (1982), acknowledge that formal language learning satisfies the curiosity of adult learners and helps them modify their usage.

Many learners do seek a certain amount of formal feedback from the teacher. Robb, Ross and Shortreed (1986) have demonstrated that detailed correction is often non-productive and may be depressing for the student. The optimal form of feedback indicates the location and nature of the errors, allowing the students the opportunity for self-correction.


Language samples from Vietnamese learners of ESL demonstrate instances of interference from L1 and transfer from L2. These instances are regarded as positive learning strategies employed by the language learner who is in a stage of transitional competence. To avoid fossilization in this stage, and to facilitate progress towards the target language, the ESL teacher should adopt a communicative model of teaching, focussing on meaning rather than on structure. As direct correction of error can be ineffective and demoralizing, students should be provided with varied learning strategies that will enable them to perceive and avoid errors themselves and foster their abilities as independent learners.


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We are going to visited United State at the future.
"Visited" - more likely to be an occasional Lapse, perhaps, overgeneralization from past tense in L2.

"United State" - is an example of transfer from L1 where plural are not marked by adding "s".

"At the future" - transitional competence will probably change with frequency of exposure.

Teacher at the room gives us a notice.
Omission of article is an example of interference from L1 as articles do not exist in Vietnamese.

"At" - transitional competence

Law in Australia is not to drink driving.
"Law" - Omission of article, interference as above but could also be overgeneralisation of an "uncountable" from L2.

"Not to drink driving" - Inadequate construction is a form of simplification. Could also be transfer from L1 where meanings are made clear from context.

If someone break the law you will be fined.
"Break" - Third person singular. Omission of "s" is phonological interference from L1 as there are no consonant clusters at the ends of words in Vietnamese. Similarly the verb ending does not change in third singular.
In exhibition they have computer. Computer is the most useful for people, easy to play and good for business.
"In" - Overgeneralization of a rule from L2 e.g. "in a room, in a building".

"They have computer" - Correct usage of "computer" without an article here. No article is needed. Therefore language transfer is correct because it is identical. However, the plural is not marked, a sign of interference from L1.

"Computer is the most useful" - Interference because of either lack of article or plural.

The meaning is clear but "the most" instead of "very" or "extremely" shows inappropriate usage of a phrase from L2.

"Easy to play" not "to use" could be interference from L1, but probably confusion arising from the concept itself or falling back on inadequate knowledge of L2.

At the Exhibition, it show you a lot of different things computers can do.
Same learner uses "at" correctly and "computers" correctly. Therefore previous mistakes in these are likely to disappear with greater exposure to the language.

"It show you" - Could be interference from L1 or lack of knowledge about the usage of "they" in English, which probably has no equivalent in Vietnamese.

Third singular "s" is missing - phonologicaL and syntacticaL interference.

From you came back to America it was nearly 2 months. We were miss you very much.
"From you came back to America" - appears to be an attempt at a direct translation of the Vietnamese word order and lexis. The verb "return" can also be "back" in Vietnamese.

"It was" and "we were miss" - probably overgeneralization or transfer of only past tense yet learnt in L2. Perhaps "it has been" does not have any equivalent in Vietnamese.

First we saw woodchop competition.
Omission of the article is interference from Vietnamese where the article is not used.
They were chop very well.
Confused attempt at using past continuous rule from L2.
These sweats dropped from heads to legs
Ambiguous error. Perhaps confusion between "These" and "their". "Sweats" is an overgeneralization of L2 plural rule, or could be a transfer error from L1.
Who are winner would get a prize
This seems to be transfer of structure from L1 and is almost correct in English. "Whoever is the winner will get a prize".
Second time we saw camels.
This appears to be a direct transfer of a Vietnamese phrase. "Next" will probably become more natural with exposure.
In my country if the men who are often like girls, we can the "goat 35".
This could be very close to the English idiom "silly old goat!"
Most of the Vietnamese think the year 1975 was the political, business and financial crisis in Vietnam because it caused many families broken down.

Before 1975, Vietnam exported seafood, coconut, sugar, fruit, pepper to the foreign countries.

"Broken" - is the result of attempting to follow the past tense rule in English - an overgeneralization. It indicates the learner is creatively constructing a language system intermediate to L1 and L2.

"Of the" and "the" - correct use of the article in English is difficult as there are no articles in Vietnamese. The learner here is using knowledge of L2 already acquired, but incorrectly transferred.

When the workers of Rhondda mine were given four weeks' notice. They feel worry about their families' future.
Using the present tense is probably interference from L1 because in Vietnamese there is no tense except for time indicators.
Everyone is not to be used weapons if they haven't the registration papers by police.
Transfer of word order from Vietnamese where the sense depends on the context. Inadequate grasp of L2. Ambiguous source of error.


During I was sat with my class group, I saw one plane was dropped down the piece of paper from the sky to show where the wind flew.

Difficulty with auxiliary - L2 transfer and L1 interference. "Was sat" "was dropped". Incorrect article. "the" ambiguous. "flew" could be transfer of idiom.

Among the foreign exports's production; meats exports is one of the crucial goods in Australia.

Possessive used incorrectly in "exports's", due to L1 influence. No possessive in Vietnamese. Disagreement of verb and subjectL2 transfer.
ID Card: One advantage is that people will be faithful to the Government.

ID: Is there any harm in the minds and hearts of most Australians? What does the government want?

Obviously the identity is necessary for the connection of both the individual and society.

The meaning is unclear. Possibly an exact transference of idioms from Vietnamese. "Faithful" and "harm in the minds and hearts".

Vocabulary error. Ambiguous source - either transfer from L1 or L2.


(Statements collected from 4 ESL students aged 18 - 25 years attending a TAFE course in Brisbane, in September 19871.



Q. What are they doing?


1.A The miner in Ipswi__

No final affricates in Vietnamese. Therefore is devoiced.

Omission of final "z" and "tf" as in Vietnamese Interference. Negative transfer. No clusters in Vietnamese.

2. They have been giving notice for the mine becau__ it is closing down.

Not hearing "given". Unfamiliarity with passive. No equivalent of participles in Vietnamese.

"becau__" - Only 6 consonants occur finally in Vietnamese (p t k m n 9). There devoiced.

3. They feel sad becau__ a lot of people will lost their job.

(Too soft to understand)

Using inappropriate form of verb, due to necessity to produce.

Q. What's this cartoon about?


4,5. It's about the food. The bif inDUStry export to the foreign country because o the kemikaw resid.

"the food" - could be using article wrongly because of French influence.

"bif" - pronunciation error because Length of vowel sounds is not significant in Vietnamese, i.e. don't hear i & i.

"inDUStry" - incorrect stress due to ?

"Kemikaw" - incorrect stress.

Q. What exactly is the problem?


6. Because in United State_, they check the meat have some medical business in the meat and they want to stop buying, getting import to the ?? country.

No articles in Vietnamese therefore negative transfer. Don't hear final "s". Omission of "if"...? Vietnamese?
Q. Does that Matter?


Q. Why?


7. Becau__ if they stop to buy from the country it make_ a big problem ..??.. Australia will loss of a lot money then.

Neither an infinitive nor a gerund in Vietnamese. French influence.

"will loss" - not sufficiently familiar with future tense, especially as no tense in Vietnamese except for time indicators.

Please cite as: Kerr, J. (1988). A study of the identification of instances of language transfer and interference in samples of writing and speech. Queensland Researcher, 4(1), 4-22. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr4/kerr.html

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