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May 2006, Volume 3, No.5 (Serial No.

29) Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN1539-8072,USA

On Variables Affecting L1 Transfer in L2 Acquisition

Chunliang Zhang* Northeastern University

Abstract: This paper focuses on variables affecting L1 transfer in L2 acquisition, which, according to the
author, are categorized into three groups: learner-related variables, language-based variables and socio-linguistic
variables, and each of them is clarified in more details.
Key words: L1 transfer L2 acquisition variables

1. Introduction

Native language (L1) can greatly affect Second language (L2) acquisition, and the most accepted term to
describe such an influence is transfer. Though it is far from reaching a consensus about its nature, the widely
recognized opinion at present is that transfer does occur in language learning and may exert an influence,
positively or negatively, on the acquisition of a second language. There is overwhelming evidence that “language
transfer is indeed a real and central phenomenon that must be considered in any full account of the second
language acquisition process” (Gass & Selinker, 1992: 7). Therefore, it is of great significance to probe into this
phenomenon and get fully acquainted with the possible variables of L1 transfer in L2 acquisition.

2. Variables Affecting L1 Transfer in L2 Acquisition

Many factors interact when the two languages come in contact. In the process of L1 features’ incorporation
into L2, the variables can be roughly classified into three groups: learner-related variables, language-based
variables and socio-linguistic variables.
2.1 Learner-based variables
As an active participant the learner plays a central part in L2 acquisition. In deciding whether or not L1
transfer will occur, priority must be given to the variables centered on the learner, and two major ones are:
(1) Age
The general guideline regarding age and language transfer seems to be that children learners are less likely to
draw on their L1 than adult learners. Young children are more likely to achieve a more native-like pronunciation,
while for older learners, their L1 pronunciation will be more influential. Similar results have been obtained for the
acquisition of grammar. Selinker (1984) argues that L2 acquisition by young children is driven by Universal
Grammar and target language input, following a similar process to L1 acquisition, and that native language
influence cannot be considered as a significant factor.
(2) Affection
While individuals can vary in many ways, their affective states are among the most obvious distinguishers in
L2 learning, which probably increase or decrease the likelihood of transfer.
Motivation surely plays a major role. “A highly motivated Chinese speaker will probably learn more English

Chunliang Zhang, lecturer of Foreign Language Studies, Northeastern University; Research field: English teaching with multimedia;
Address: P.O.B. 230, 11 Lane 3, Wenhua Road, Heping District, Shenyang, Liaoning Province, P.R.China; Postcode: 110006.

On Variables Affecting L1 Transfer in L2 Acquisition

--- and learn it faster --- than a poorly motivated Spanish speaker”(Odlin, 1989: 129), though English and Spanish
shares a lot more of structural features.
In her research on avoidance of relative clauses by Chinese and Japanese students, Schachter (1992) notes
the probability that many learners experience anxiety about using unfamiliar structures. Students are more likely
to avoid structures if they are susceptible to certain forms of anxiety.
Empathy is another factor. According to Guiora et al.’s (1980) research, empathy plays a large part in the
learner’s acquisition of target language pronunciation. If individuals feel emotionally “inside” the target language
speech community, they are more likely to overcome their foreign accent.
2.2 Language-based variables
In language transfer, it is linguistic factors that are mainly transferred. To fully understand the nature of L1
transfer, the relationship between the native language and the target language should be explored.
(1) Markedness
According to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, in L1 transfer, the unmarked settings of “parameters” (highly
abstract properties of grammar that vary in certain restricted ways from one language to another) will be
transferred before marked settings, and items are not easily transferred when L1 has a marked setting. Zobl (1987)
claims that transfer of prior linguistic experience to the acquisition process is sharply limited by the dynamics of
the rule-creation process which proceeds from unmarked to marked properties.
(2) Language distance and cultural distance
Related languages often share a great number of similarities (e.g., cognate vocabulary or close translation
equivalents), and this can give learners an enormous advantage. Where languages have less common ground,
more information about language form and use has to be acquired from scratch in L2 acquisition. Language
distance clearly has some effect on the amount of transfer. Corder (1981a: 101) emphasizes positive transfer if
there exist similarities between L1 and L2: “Where the mother tongue is formally similar to the target language,
the learner will pass more rapidly along the developmental continuum (or some parts of it) than where it differs.”
In addition to language distance, cultural distance can also greatly affect ease or difficulty of learning. When
learners try to acquire another language which shares the same or similar cultural background, they are sure to
find many conforming elements and feel at ease; when they experience an L2 with totally different cultural
background from their L1’s, they may encounter more troubles. A Hungarian learner of Spanish will find that,
though there are virtually no cognates, the new words in general express familiar concepts and are often
semantically congruent with his mother tongue roots, so a good deal of semantic transfer is possible.
(3) L2 proficiency
Ringbom (1987) suggests that L2 proficiency is a determinant factor affecting the extent of transfer: a learner
is more likely to transfer from a language in which he has a higher degree of proficiency to a language in which he
has a lower degree of proficiency.
The correlation between low L2 proficiency and transfer applies primarily to negative transfer, whereas
Odlin (1989) points out that positive transfer, such as cognate vocabulary use, occurs at high levels of proficiency.
With regard to transfer of conceptions, it seems likely that L1 influence will increase with L2 proficiency as
learners acquire more L2 tools that can express their L1 perspective.
The relationship between L2 proficiency and transfer is complex. Regardless of the direction of the
correlation, it is clear that proficiency has a strong effect on the likelihood of language transfer.
2.3 Socio-linguistic variables

On Variables Affecting L1 Transfer in L2 Acquisition

Social context can influence the extent to which transfer occurs. Odlin expresses that negative transfer is less
common in classroom settings than in natural settings, because in the former, learners constitute a “focused
context” (1989: 144) and treat L1 forms as intrusive. In natural settings where learners are unfocused, language
mixing will be freely permitted, thus encouraging negative transfer to take place.
R. Ellis (1994: 214) also points out that if the social context requires attention to external norms (e.g.,
textbooks and the teacher), negative transfer will be inhibited; if the context encourages attention to internal norms,
learners may resort more freely to L1 when this helps comprehensibility and promotes positive affective responses.
The relationship between the addresser and the addressee also has a considerable effect on transfer. R. Ellis
(1994: 318) mentions Beebe and Zuengler’s (1983) study which indicates that bilingual Thai/Chinese learners of
English draw variably on their L1s depending on whether their interlocutor is Thai or Chinese. When both the
speaker and the listener are Chinese, the speaker may resort much more to the Chinese language in their English
conversation than otherwise.

3. The Author’s View upon Variables of L1 Transfer in L2 Acquisition

L1 transfer in L2 acquisition is a complicated phenomenon involving individual learner factors, L1 and L2’s
linguistic factors, and the sociolinguistic factors. The linguistic factors, in the author’s view, can be of great
significance to the rise and fall of language transfer. Chinese learners of Japanese have an enormous advantage
over English learners because of the similarity between the Chinese and Japanese writing system. They are able to
make use of both written and spoken input straight away. As for Chinese and English, they are poles apart. The
two languages demonstrate far more differences than similarities concerning lexis, syntax and discourse. Besides,
the cultures related to them cannot match at too many aspects. It is such differences that bring about demanding
tasks in Chinese students’ English learning. And thus L1 transfer arises when they resort heavily to their L1 for
assistance to bridge the gap of communication.
In Takashima’s (1989) study, 88% of L2 students’ errors in answering English negative yes-no questions can
be attributed to L1 interference. Therefore, contrastive analysis between L1 and L2 can be a dynamic tool to
predict and tackle the troubles confronted by L2 learners. In the past decade, contrastive analysis between Chinese
and English has undergone considerable development by some linguists to facilitate English learning in China.
Indeed, the above discussion is far from complete to cover all the variables, and further study is essential
concerning L1 transfer variables so as to paint a full picture of language transfer.

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(Edited by Wendy, Nizee and Doris)