Language transfer theory

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In second language learning, learners use different strategies to acquire knowledge. One of these strategies is language transfer. It consists of replicating structures from the learners’ first language when they are speaking or writing something in a second language. Linguists agree that language transfer is used by language learners especially when they are unsure about which structure to use in the second language. Because languages are different, language transfer can have a positive or negative impact depending on whether the native and second languages share the specific structure used by the learner.

In his book, Robert Lado claimed that “[i]ndividuals tend to transfer the forms and meanings, and the distribution of forms and meanings of their native language and culture to the foreign language and culture -- both productively when attempting to speak the language and to act in the culture, and receptively when attempting to grasp and understand the language and the culture as practised by natives” (Lado, 1957). Several experiments performed have since contributed to the acceptance of the existence of language transfer and its effects on language learning.


Even though language transfer is now accepted as a language learning strategy, there was a time when influential linguists challenged this theory. The first mentions of this learning strategy, around the 1940s, came from research attached to the behaviorism paradigm, which views learning as the process of incentives and answers to those incentives. Researchers argued that the learner's native language had a significant influence in second language learning, and the more similar those two languages were, the easier it was for the learner to learn the new language (Karim & Nassaji, 2013).

In the 1960s a different group of linguists began to challenge this theory as they doubted that the learner’s native language influenced second language learning. To those researchers, every person has an innate cognitive capacity specialized in language learning, and this cognitive system makes no distinction between learning the person’s native or a second language (Chomsky, 2014). This new theory is known as the universal grammar theory, and one of its most famous supporters was the linguist Noam Chomsky.

Around the 1980s some researchers began to argue that the fact that there was evidence of language transfer meant that the process of learning a second language is different from the process of acquiring a native language (Schachter, 1988). A new theory called the Interlanguage theory posits that people’s cognitive systems store an independent language structure that can derive other language grammars as the person learns them (Selinker, 1972). This theory defines language transfer as one of the strategies that support language acquisition. As the evidence of language transfer is too strong to be discarded, the linguistics community continues to study this phenomenon. It is now known that there are elements of a person’s native language that get transferred and others that do not.

The level of proficiency in the second language, similarity between languages, and emotional state are factors that influence the type and amount of language transfer that occurs. Hartsuiker and Bernolet (2018) proposed a model based on empirical data that relates the amount of language transfer evidence with the proficiency level of the speaker. They discovered that the lower the proficiency level, the more language transfer evidence is found, as learners tend to rely on direct translations from their native language. Lipka (2019) analysed English texts produced by Slavic and Chinese native speakers. She found that learners performed better when writing English sentences that shared syntactic structures with their native language. Karim and Nassaji (2013) discuss how pressure and lack of certainty about second language structures make learners rely on their native languages to write or speak in a foreign language.

Cognitive transfer

Cognitive transfer is the broader term given to the potential of applying knowledge, skills, and practices, learnt previously, in different contexts. This concept is essential to explain learning, and it is the starting point to understand language transfer, as language transfer theory also relies on the transfer of learning concept.

Positive and negative transfer

Language transfer can have positive or negative effects on spoken and written compositions by second language learners. If the structure from the native language used matches the one in the second language, there is a positive effect, and if the structures do not match, then, there is a negative effect.

Positive effect example

  • Use of cognates, e.g. “family” (English) and “familia” (Spanish).

Negative effect examples

  • Spanish speakers may omit the subject of a sentence when speaking in English, e.g., they might say “Is sunny” instead of “It is sunny” [1].
  • Misuse of the neutral gender article in German, e.g., “the table” (English) and “das Tisch” (incorrect) instead of “der Tisch” (German). In German nouns have grammatical gender and they must be accompanied by the correct article to indicate it. As this is not the case in English, English native speakers learning German may overuse the gender-neutral article “das” as it is equivalent to the neutral article “the”.


  • Lado, R. (1957). Linguistics Across Cultures: Applied Linguistics for Language Teachers.
  • Karim, K., & Nassaji, H. (2013). First Language Transfer in Second Language Writing: An Examination of Current Research. Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research, 1(1), 117-134.
  • Chomsky, N. (2014). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Vol. 11). MIT press.
  • Schachter, J. (1988). Second language acquisition and its relationship to Universal Grammar. Applied Linguistics, 9(3), 219-235.
  • Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. IRAL-International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(1-4), 209-232.
  • Mahmood, A. H., & Murad, I. M. A. (2018). Approaching the Language of the Second Language Learner: Interlanguage and the Models Before. English Language Teaching, 11(10), 95-108.
  • Hartsuiker, R., & Bernolet, S. (2018). Syntactic representations in late learners of a second language : a learning trajectory. In D. Miller (Ed.), Bilingual cognition and language : the state of the science across its subfields (Vol. 54, pp. 205–224). John Benjamins.
  • Lipka, O. (2019). Syntactic awareness skills in English among children who speak Slavic or Chinese languages as a first language and English as a second language. International Journal of Bilingualism.

Cited with footnotes



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