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What is Learner English?
by Diane Nicholls

First in a series of articles on Language Interference


Language interference

When confronted with something new, whether it is a new food, a different kind of music, or just new information, it is a natural instinct to look for similarities with things that are familiar, to try to draw some comparison with what we know already. Consciously or unconsciously, we bring what we know to what we do not, making it impossible to learn anything entirely from scratch.

This is certainly no less true when we set about learning a foreign language. In most cases, textbooks and teachers’ explanations are in the students’ mother tongue, a bilingual dictionary is consulted in the early stages, and even in the classroom using the most direct language-teaching methods, the learner will still, of necessity, conduct any internal dialogue or rationalisation in their native tongue. It is not possible to learn a foreign language without relying to some extent on your mother tongue, and the impulse to look for similarities and to draw conclusions based on them is as strong here as in any other learning context. This impulse will be stronger the greater the incidence of apparent similarities. And the apparent similarities that exist between many of the languages of the world are innumerable. They are also in the eye of the beholder, since our individual perceptions of similarity are as individual as we are.

There are, of course, many other influences at play when we learn a foreign language, but the influence that the mother tongue has on the language we produce when we use a foreign language has become a very important area of study for people interested in second language acquisition, language teaching, ELT publishing, and language in general and is usually referred to as ‘Language Interference’, ‘Transfer’, or ‘Cross-linguistic influence’. It is suggested that the language produced by foreign learners is so unavoidably influenced, and even distorted, by the mother tongue of the learner that it should rather be termed an ‘Interlanguage’, since it will always be a blend of the foreign language and the mother tongue. The better the learner is at overcoming language interference, the more dilute that blend will be.

This reliance on similarities between the language being learnt and the mother tongue can be both a help and a hindrance, and will often lead to correct ‘guesses’ (positive transfer). It can help the learner to get things right. This is a rich area of study, but I want to concentrate here on the role that interference plays in causing learner errors (negative transfer), and on the types of errors that it causes.


What is native-speaker English?

People involved in the study of learner errors often refer to the English produced by learners as ‘Learner English’. It may seem at first dismissive or condescending to effectively write off the English of non-native speakers as a variety of English that is forever ‘foreign’, essentially non-English, particularly if challenged to define what exactly ‘Non-learner English’ is. Is it the English spoken in England, as opposed to in the many other countries where English is the first language, or the English spoken in a particular region of England, or the English of people educated to a certain level, or of the young who are a driving force in creating new words and expressions, or indeed the older generation who often represent and defend the traditions of the language? At what point does a native speaker of English become truly proficient in their mother tongue, and is their language what we call English? If it is a vague generalization to refer to ‘Native-Speaker English’, and even vaguer to talk about ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English, surely it is presumptuous to label anybody’s English ‘Learner English’?


The uses of Learner English

Yet there is no denying that the English produced by foreign learners of English often sounds and/or looks undeniably ‘foreign’ in ways that the English of native speakers, however full of ‘mistakes’, never does. This is a, perhaps cheap, but certainly common, source of comedy. When portraying non-native speakers, comedians and comic writers do not just rely on the pitfalls of accent for jokes of the ‘Shaddap-a-ya-face’, ‘this chicken is rubbery’ or ‘peace on you’ variety, but they also mimic the strange, unmistakably foreign constructions produced by different nationalities, creating, for example, an Indian librarian who says ‘Please to be quiet please’, or a Spanish waiter who says ‘Is no rat. Is Filigree Siberian hamster’. This emphasis on the foreign-soundingness of foreigners’ English did not go out of fashion with TV sitcoms like ‘Mind your Language’ and ‘Allo, Allo’, or with classic comic characters like Chico Marx and Inspector Clouseau but is still seen in the comic characters of Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse, and Ali G, for example. Foreigners do indeed sound odd or hilarious at times when they speak English (as do the English, of course, when they attempt to speak foreign languages). Most of us will have a favourite example. For me it is the Russian teacher who, wanting to know whether he was in any of my photographs, asked eagerly ‘Is my countenance upon the snaps?’. The authors of articles in airline magazines, stand-up comedians, and after-dinner speakers still get a lot of mileage out of ‘Learner English’.

But as the examples above suggest, if the mother tongue plays such a defining role in the English produced by learners, it is clear that there will be as many varieties of Learner English as there are mother tongues of English learners. It would therefore be more appropriate to talk of French-Learner English, German-Learner English, Japanese-Learner English and so forth. This is where the stereotyping power of foreigners’ English lies. Certainly, there are researchers in ELT or Second Language Acquisition who would boast, Henry Higgins-like, that given a piece of writing by a foreign learner of English, they can identify the mother tongue of the learner who wrote it because it will bear the indelible imprint of that mother tongue.

So what makes a learner’s English sound foreign? What makes a German learner say ‘How much costs the bus?’ or a French learner say ‘I must to do my homeworks’ or a Spanish learner say ‘I go to the town walking’? Learners employ a wide number of strategies when they speak or write English. These include, among others, avoiding constructions and words they are unsure of, overusing those they are confident about, and taking rules of English they have learnt and applying them in areas where they do not actually apply. In addition, the process of interference or transfer as outlined above pervades every area of Learner English – it influences spelling, grammar and vocabulary decisions. When stuck, or without even thinking, a learner will simply translate whole phrases from their mother tongue (as in the examples above) or just take individual words and transform them, where the need is felt, to make them look or sound English to overcome a gap in their vocabulary. This is understandably more common the closer the mother tongue is to English in its orthography and morphology. This resorting to the familiar to make sense of the unfamiliar leads to the creation of that foreign-sounding (in varying degrees) variety of English known as Learner English.

The output from this process of interference is valuable material not just to those looking for easy laughs. It is important for researchers interested in the language-learning process, providing information on what students get right as well as wrong and the facility to compare Learner English with native-speaker English. It is important to teachers for understanding the errors their students make and targeting their lessons to each student’s individual needs, according to their mother tongue or language group. It has also become increasingly important to publishers producing English Language Teaching materials and reference books, including learner dictionaries, since it provides clear evidence of the specific areas of English which would most benefit from further analysis and clarification. For the lay person too and for all people who come into contact with non-native speakers of English, whether in the course of business or simply when travelling, awareness of the kinds of mistakes that learners make, why they may have made those mistakes and of what they probably actually meant when they said that foreign-sounding thing will all help towards mutual understanding and may get somebody out of a very tight corner!


Where do learner errors come from?

There are admittedly a number of potential pitfalls to watch out for when analysing Learner English and the ‘errors’ it contains. It is difficult, for example, to form a clear idea of what exactly is an error. What sounds ‘wrong’ or ‘foreign’ to one researcher may seem quite acceptable to another. Native speakers’ intuitions as to what constitutes acceptable English differ greatly. Is it acceptable, for example, to say ‘I had the opportunity of doing something’, or is the correct construction ‘I had the opportunity to do something’? Or are they both right? Few native speakers will be certain when they stop to think. It is also difficult to establish for certain what caused a learner to make a particular error – analysis is usually carried out in the absence of the learner in question and it is not always the case that the analyst is proficient in the learner’s mother tongue. So it is not always easy to establish whether an error is attributable to interference or, for example, simple lack of concentration, classroom misunderstandings, pure accident, or even interference from another, third, language the learner has been in contact with. I think that as long as the analyst is alert to the undeniable subjectivity involved in the error analysis process there is still much to be gained from taking a much closer look at Learner English in all its varieties.

Similarities, or perceived similarities, between languages can exist to varying degrees in the pronunciation and stress patterns of the languages, in grammatical structures of sentences, in word order, tense usage, verb inflections, in their pragmatics and style, and in the way they deal with questions and negatives, to name just a few, as well as in the spelling and morphology of individual words. It is as important to be aware of these similarities when we are learning a language as it is to learn the differences and in some cases these similarities can be capitalized upon to good effect. Where they are not purely coincidental, they are the result of contact between languages, of languages and cultures rubbing up against one another at some point, or many points, in their long evolution.

A glance at the long and complex development of the English language as we know it today and at the many linguistic and cultural incursions made into it over the centuries, coupled with its apparent eagerness to welcome words from other languages into its lexicon, goes some way towards explaining the vast number of traps awaiting the unsuspecting learner of English. And when we consider the variety of different learners with different mother tongues, together with the variety of other forces at work in the language learning process, the task of defining, let alone analysing, Learner English becomes a huge challenge.

In the coming months I will be examining errors resulting from mother-tongue interference in the most obvious place for them to occur – in the very building blocks of language: the lexicon. I will be looking at what happens when a learner who has grown up with one vast body of vocabulary encounters and tries to get to grips with a language which has another, often deceptively similar, vocabulary; at what a French person really means when he says ‘My ancient girlfriend was well formed’ or ‘Actually I am studying English’ or ‘I spent the journey in my aunt’s house’.


Next in the series

In the next issue I will discuss homonyms in English and the problems they cause for both native speakers and learners, and will introduce the problem of homonyms between languages False Friends.