In response to ‘When L1 interferes with English learning’
| April 28, 2017
In his April 19 column, "When L1 interferes with English learning," Douglas Magrath takes up the topic of first language (L1) transfer, demonstrating learners' errors that reflect L1 structures and patterns that differ from English.
His implication for TESOL professionals is rooted in the contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH). Popular in the mid-20th century, the CAH posits that L1 interference is a major barrier to language acquisition and analyzing learners' L1 in comparison to the target language can lead to systematic error prediction.
Magrath rightly draws our attention to the importance of L1 in developing new languages, but does so from a deficit perspective. What Magrath neglects to highlight is the wealth of benefits that learners' L1 brings to second-language acquisition.
In the following brief, we outline foundational and current research and theory that build the case for reconceptualizing the L1 from a source of interference to a valuable resource that learners can harness.
Perhaps one of the most significant differences underlying Magrath's implied theory of language learning and that of many TESOL professionals today is how we define language and its purpose. Most learners desire to acquire another language not to analyze linguistic features, but to achieve a level of communicative competence that allows them to interact with others.
In order to capture the inherently social nature of language, we cannot restrict ourselves to analyzing language forms detached from the social context in which they occur. A social constructivist perspective acknowledges the role of interaction in language learning and calls for theories of language learning that move beyond contrasting linguistic features.
A seminal theory that has emerged from this social constructivist perspective is James Cummins' theory of common underlying proficiency (CUP). Long accepted by the English language teaching field, Cummins' hypothesis states that learners draw on a shared set of metalinguistic knowledge and skills as resources when learning multiple languages.
Thus, rather than competing for mental space, additional languages are mutually supportive. Empirical data repeatedly upholds Cummins' theories: Students with strong literacy in their first language consistently perform better in learning a second language.
Magrath acknowledges the CUP in his discussion of content knowledge and reading strategies that are applicable across languages, but calls for teachers to attend to the differences among discourse patterns in various languages.
While patterns may differ across languages, making hard distinctions is problematic and can lead to stereotyped understandings of how particular cultures convey information in text. What might be more fruitful is an analysis of how discourse patterns vary across different disciplines, depending on the function of the text rather than the linguistic or cultural background of the author.
Recent scholarship has moved even further from the contrastive analysis hypothesis that Magrath suggests. Theories of translanguaging build on Cummins' notions to explain ways students' languages support each other. Translanguaging blurs the distinction between languages, theorizing that "mental grammars of bilinguals are structured but unified collections of features."
Accordingly, learners acquire language best when they are free to deploy all their linguistic resources at hand, regardless of the name that society has given their utterances. While the way in which translanguaging is used in classrooms is still a matter of debate, the field is in agreement that students' L1 contributes to their learning.
The phenomena of L1 negative transfer that concerns Magrath thus might be reconceptualized in a translanguaging lens: rather than errors in need of correction, this combination of L1 and target language reflects students' strategic ability to draw on knowledge to communicate.
Particularly disconcerting is Magrath's focus on cultural differences. Although he is correct in calling for an integration of language and culture teaching, his implication of culture as a static concept that can be taught is artificial. Just like the nature of language itself, culture is an ever-changing concept that varies among individuals, communities and nations.
Discussing the culture underlying the English language is especially complex given the growth of English as a lingua franca. Countries in Kachru's inner circle with a long history of English — the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States — are no longer the sole owners of the language.
Corpus linguistic studies are increasingly documenting the English forms in countries that use English as a lingua franca rather than a mother tongue. Teaching particular discourse patterns as associated with the English language risks reinscribing the hegemony of English that many TESOL professionals guard against.
We don't want to dismiss contrastive analysis and its contribution to field. For sure, as Magrath points out, comparing and contrasting L1 and target language forms enables learners to build metalinguistic knowledge. And motivated language learners want to use standard English and develop autonomy in recognizing and using linguistic features that are associated with native-like proficiency.
But what if we reimagine the way we contrast language features? Simply cataloging linguistic differences — as Magrath starts to do in his article — is not productive, especially for learners who may speak an L1 that varies from the standard form.
In the field of bilingual education, Karen Beeman and Cheryl Urow call instructional moves that compare languages a "bridge." This term highlights how learners make connections between linguistic features rather than identify differences — a subtle but powerful turn in perspective that refocuses our gaze on the characteristics that languages share. And we might that such a shift in focus has never been more important in today's globalized world.
As any language learner can attest, contrasts between the L1 and target language can make the feat of second-language acquisition daunting. The differences between languages are often all too obvious for learners.
It is time to distance ourselves from L1 interference errors and instead harness the assets that an L1 provides in learning languages.
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