Language Transfer

Language Transfer

ELT Concept #16 – Language Transfer

Rita Zhai Jiayu

What is it?

Odlin (1989) defines language transfer as the influence resulting from similarities and differences between the target language and any other language that has been previously acquired. There are two types of language transfer: negative transfer and positive transfer. Language transfer can be conscious or unconscious.

Why is it important?

According to the Contrastive Analysis Theory (Lado, 1957), if the units and structures of two languages are the same, linguistic interference can result in correct language production (positive transfer). However, when units and structures of two languages are not the same, errors are likely to be generated as called negative transfer. The greater the differences between the two languages, the more negative transfer is likely to be expected. Since it may be impossible to find two languages that are identical in units and structures, negative transfer seems to be unavoidable in L2 learning.

Since most second language learning happens in places where students have already acquired one or two local languages, it is therefore important for teachers to understand that language transfer, both negative and positive, can have an important role in language learning.

My reflection

Chinese and English belong to two different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Indo-European), differing a lot in language units and structures. Apart from the possible negative transfer resulted from L1 itself, different dialects in the Chinese language also aggravate the negative interference for Chinese ESL learners.

For example, most students I teach in China are Chongqing locals who may experience negative transfer from both Chinese (L1) and their Chongqing dialect. One typical feature of the Chongqing dialect is that the nasal sound is often replaced by the lateral sound. Therefore, the pronunciations of the nasal consonant /n/ and the lateral consonant /l/ in English often confuse my students.

I think one of the effective ways to mitigate negative transfer from L1 to L2 is to raise learners’ awareness of L1 and L2 differences, either through explicit or implicit teaching. In the case of nasal and lateral sounds, when I opt for explicit teaching, I would directly point out the difference between the two sounds and raise students’ awareness of the mistake that is frequently made.

When I choose implicit teaching, I would first lead my students to compare the different pronunciations of these two sounds by a competent speaker and an ESL learner respectively, and then ask my students to inductively find out the differences in pronunciation.

Whatever kind of teaching, raising the awareness of L1 and L2 differences can help learners monitor their language production and consciously avoid the mistakes that may be caused by negative transfer from L1 to L2.


Lado, R. (1957). Linguistics across cultures: Applied linguistics for language teachers. University of Michigan Press.

Odlin, T. (1989). Language transfer: cross-linguistic influence in language learning. Cambridge University Press.

ELT Concept #15 – Error Analysis

Error Analysis

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