The English learner often attempts to communicate by drawing upon translations from the native language. First-language influence is strongest in complex word order and in word-for-word translations of phrases.

L2 learners will draw on L1 when they are not sure of the correct idiom. For example, an Arab learning English will say "after tomorrow" or "before two hours." An American learning French will say, "Je suis faim" (I am hunger) rather than the correct idiom, "J'ai faim" (I have hunger).

This linguistic crossover results in errors that could block communication and lead to misunderstandings. Another example is from Spanish, which has two words, "para" and "por," that translate into English as "for." Spanish speakers will say, "Lo compro para ti," meaning, "I bought it for you." But it is not acceptable to say, "Lo compro por ti" if you mean you are buying a gift for someone.

The rules are fairly complex, and native Spanish speakers may not be able to explain the usage, but they know it innately. Similar problems exist for ESOL learners when they try to use prepositions and particles: "in class, at home, go up, get up, at work, in the city" and so on.

Arabic has embedding, like English, but it adds a pronoun, so ESL students may say, "The man that I saw him." Another difference is Arabic is a verb-initial language, and the subject is not expressed, but rather included in the verb conjugation.

Students may say "Went to the store" rather than "He went to the store." Also in equational sentences, Arabic does not use a linking verb similar to "be" in English. It does, however use "be" (Kaana) in the past and in the future (Yakuun).

Article usage varies between American and British English, in addition to being different in the learners' L1s. Americans say, "He's in the hospital," while the British say, "He's in hospital." In contrast, Turkish does not have a definite article. "Ev guzeldir" means "(The) house is beautiful" (Ev= house; Guzel=beautiful; dir= is).

Words vary in the range of meanings. For example, some languages distinguish between the leg of a person and the leg of a table or animal. In Spanish, "pierna" is a person's leg while "pata" refers to the leg of an animal. In German, "Mund" is a person's mouth while "Maul" is an animal's mouth.

Learners may expect a similar distinction in English. The meaning may transfer, but not the cultural load. Even a concept as basic as color might not transfer across languages. For example, in Trukese, spoken in the Micronesian islands of Truk, there is only one word to refer to both blue and green.

Other topics such as summarizing and description will transfer as well along with literacy if both L1 and L2 share the same writing system.

In Korean, there are four main levels of speech: intimate, plain, polite-informal and polite-formal. There are no explicit definite and indefinite articles, and the sentence pattern is S-O-V in contrast to the English S-V-O pattern. Korean vowels often merge so "racket" and "rocket" may sound the same to them and thus they will not distinguish between these words when they say them.

The language and behavior faced by the ESL students will not be well rehearsed textbook patterns but "live" authentic situations. The listeners (both learners and native speakers) may get the wrong impressions because the paralinguistic features cause interference.

An utterance may be acceptable at the grammatical and semantic level and still be considered impolite or inappropriate because it violates the sociolinguistic rules governing the particular situation. A wrong question or an omission may also cause problems for ESL learners interacting with native speakers. An error may be taken as a personal insult rather than as a language learning error.

For example, leaving out an honorific such as "Ya Sayyidy" (O Sir) in Arabic may cause some resentment. Arabic also has conventionalized polite forms that are necessary for various situations that do not readily transfer into English. The implied meanings are in parentheses:

  • Guest: "The food is really delicious! You are a good hostess, Samiya."
  • Hostess: "Health and well-being." (I'm glad you like it.)
  • Guest: "Your hands be protected." (You are a good cook.)
  • Hostess: "God keep you safe." (I appreciate your comments.)

Linguistic errors are tolerated, but cultural errors are not since the listener perceives them as coming directly from the language learner without being mediated by the language. The cultural role of language is particularly important in various stylized formulas and phrases. These social formulas and conventionalized forms are necessary in some languages as part of the greeting and leave-taking process.

Each language has rules of usage and social conventions that must be followed. When the French answer the phone, they say, "J'ecoute" (I am listening), which sets up a boundary of defense against the unknown.

Native speakers talk about safe topics such as the weather and shift topics a lot. ESL students may wonder why there is so much concern over such topics, mistakenly believing the native speaker really wants a detailed explanation of the atmospheric conditions. The learner assumes the speaker is sending a message using "transactional language," which is "message oriented, with a focus on content and a concern for getting things done in the real world."

ESL teachers need to keep these sociolinguistic distinctions and psychological meanings in mind when presenting material. Students will need practice in some basic encounters and even in using the telephone. Americans are used to just saying "hello” on the phone and saying "I'm fine" when asked how they are.

For example, learners need to be able to predict regular speaker change in conversation and the verbal and nonverbal signs involved. Practicing routines and role playing will help set the material in deep memory; another possible aid is videos that show the social functions of the language. Speaking classes should try role playing and even interactions with native speakers on campus such as conversation clubs for example.

Irony and insincerity

People don't always say what they mean or mean what they say. These English examples show how speakers can inject a bit of witty sarcasm into everyday speech (real meaning in parentheses):

  • "My wife bought some meat today. We take delivery next week when the escrow closes." (Meat is expensive.)
  • "Will you call me a taxi?" "Sure, you're a taxi." (Please summon a taxi for me.)
  • "Will you help me out?" "Sure. Which way did you come in? I'll be glad to see you go." (Assist me please.)

These expressions will not go across languages and may interfere with communication, especially for lower-level learners.

Error analysis

Error production involves a variety of factors. There is L1/L2 interference, but errors can also be attributed to factors such as over generalization such as using the "-ed" past with an irregular verb. The same word in L1 may have a different meaning in L2.

For example, “sympathique” in French means “nice,” but in English it means “sympathetic.” A word may have an extended meaning in one language. In French, “garcon” means “boy”, but it is also used for “waiter.” To call a waiter “boy” in the U.S. would be an insult. In Arabic, the word “Adi” means ordinary, but in Turkish it means poor quality or shabby.

Not all errors are equally disruptive.

Errors of vocabulary, for example, are less general and predictable than errors of grammar, but they are usually more disruptive of communication. Above all, error analysis is complicated by the fact that it is often unclear what the learner intended to say, and thus how to identify the error that has been made.

Not all grammatical forms transfer, and they may be acquired at different times by different learners and in an order that differs from the book.

In L2 English, for example, most learners gained accuracy with progressive "-ing" before auxiliaries and articles, which usually came before regular past tense "-ed" and preceded accuracy with third-person singular present tense "-s."

Language change

Use of archaic language and out-of-date idioms can also interfere with communication. For example, a passage in the Old English Lord's Prayer reads, in literal translation, "not lead thou us into temptation," in sharp contrast to Modern English "don't lead us into temptation."

Today, "not" must follow an auxiliary verb "do" (often contracted to "don't"). There is also no pronoun subject in the sentence, and if there were one it would be "you" as "thou" has entirely disappeared from the modern language.

Literary use

Not all literature is written in book form. Oral literature exists in many cultures. Classical Arabic literature from the pre-Islamic period is oral-formulaic and was only later written down. It served an important role, along with the Koran, as is the record of that period. The Arabic expression, “Poetry is the register (Diwaan) of the Arabs” indicates the importance of the ancient poetry.

Nonliterate societies have traditions — songs, rituals, legends, myths — composed orally and preserved by memory. Such texts may be called oral literature. By contrast, writing permits what is more often called "literature," i.e. bodies of text that are much larger and more codified than memory permits. Yet even in literate societies, dramatic performance and reading aloud remain important traditions.

Still, the written word is paramount and written works carry more prestige. In societies where there are many dialects and a standard written form, this form is likely to influence speech and carries more weight than the spoken variety (What's the difference between speech and writing?).

Memorizing and reciting is considered a high art form in Arab and other societies. Students may memorize texts and repeat them on exams rather than putting the information into their own words.

Positive transfer

Not all transfer is negative. There is interdependence among the concepts skills and linguistic knowledge between L1 and L2. For example, if a student understands an academic subject, science for example, in L1, that concept will transfer.

If instructors are aware of the linguistic features that lead to interference, they can help the students avoid errors. Note the following from the ACTF National Standards:

"Through comparisons and contrasts with the language being studied, students develop insight into the nature of language and the concept of culture and realize that there are multiple ways of viewing the world. Together, these elements enable the student of languages to participate in multilingual communities at home and around the world in a variety of contexts and in culturally appropriate ways."