MED Magazine - Issue 12 - October 2003

Stringing Words Together
Language interference at sentence level

by Diane Nicholls

Last in the series of articles on Language Interference


In this series on language interference, we have been looking at the temptation faced by learners of English, and indeed all learners of foreign languages, to resort, consciously or unconsciously, to features of their mother tongue when speaking or writing a non-native language. False friends provided the focus for a study of how similarities between individual words in two different languages can trip the learner up. In the last issue, we saw how, once the learner has grasped the differences in meaning between similar-looking or related words in their mother tongue and a foreign language, further traps lie in wait for them in the areas of capitalization, spelling, noun countability, and noun number. Here too, there is often a temptation to resort to language habits which are appropriate to the mother tongue, but which cannot be carried over successfully into the foreign language.

Once the learner has grasped the meaning, spelling and grammatical features of a new word, the next challenge is to use it correctly in a sentence, to string the words together into a coherent, English-sounding sentence. Language interference can play a part in the creation of learner errors even at sentence level. A non-native speaker of English might get every individual word right in terms of spelling and meaning and yet produce a sentence that sounds unmistakably 'foreign', or even unmistakably German or Spanish, for example. How much costs a beer? is a typical sentence produced by a German learner of English. But I go to the town walking is a typical sentence produced by a Spanish learner of English. It is highly unlikely that a German learner would ever use a similar construction.

There are a number of areas of sentence structure which pose a challenge for learners of English. Here we will look at the main offenders.

Word order

Different languages have different rules for the order in which sentence components are arranged. In German, for instance, infinitives and past participles usually come at the end of the sentence: 'Ich habe meine Reisepasse vergessen' translates literally as 'I have my passport forgotten'. This is a habit that the German learner of English must quickly unlearn. Meanwhile, in France, the French learner of English must struggle against the temptation to put attributive adjectives after the noun as they would in their mother tongue: 'une voiture rouge' should not be expressed in English as 'a car red'. Arabic learners of English, for their part, must resist the temptation to put the verb at the start of the sentence. All of these new habits are easy enough to learn, but they are not so easy to remember when constructing more complex sentences.

Verb complementation

Every verb comes with its own catalogue of possible ways in which it can express its arguments (its subject, object, any indirect object etc). The English verb to give, in its transitive sense, can be used in these two possible patterns: Phil gave the book to John; Phil gave John the book. The French verb donner, has different possible patterns. In French, you can say 'Phil a donné un livre à John' but you cannot say 'Phil a donné John un livre'. This is not a big problem for French learners of English, who tend to avoid the unfamiliar construction in favour of the one which exists in their own language. However, it does pose a problem with other senses of to give. In English, when we use a more figurative sense of giving, for example, give somebody a hand, only the second give construction is possible: He gave the teacher a hand. Here, the French learner of English is likely to come unstuck and say He gave a hand to the teacher, which, to the English ear, does not sound like the figurative sense, and seems perhaps a little ghoulish. Give and donner, like many verb pairs, have the same meanings but do not always behave in the same way in a sentence.

The -ing form

The English -ing form of the verb poses a problem for learners whose mother tongues do not have an equivalent verb form. There are many verbs in English which, when they are followed by another verb, require the second verb to be in the -ing form. Enjoy and stop are good examples: Rory enjoys swimming; Sarah stopped listening. A French learner is easily tempted to say Rory enjoys to swim and Sarah stopped to listen. The sentence with enjoy is clumsy but easy enough to understand, but the example with stop has an entirely different meaning to that intended. Michael Swan and Bernard Smith (see below) show that the same problem is seen in the English of speakers of Scandinavian languages, German, Italian, and Polish, among others. Similarly, many learners fail to use an -ing form after a preposition either because such a construction is not available in their mother tongue or, where it is available, it is used in a different way. This leads to frequent errors like: I look forward to see you and After to brush my teeth, I go to bed.

Modal verbs

The modal verbs in English (can, could, would, will, must etc.) are always used before a verb in the infinitive without 'to': He can swim; I may leave early; They might need help. This is difficult for learners to grasp if the modals in their mother tongues do not form a separate verb class with its own rules as the English modals do. Using an infinitive with 'to' (e.g. I can to speak English) is a very common error for learners who have not understood the difference between the two infinitive verb forms in English. There is also a temptation to inflect the modals as in the learner's mother tongue (e.g. He cans to speak English). Fortunately, there are strict rules here, which can be learnt.


Prepositions pose enormous problems for learners. This is perhaps because they are such small words and generally have direct equivalents in the mother tongue and the foreign language. It is all too easy to assume that the equivalent preposition is used in the same way in the two languages. This leads to frequent errors: She is married with an artist; a painting from Picasso; There is a spy under us; We stayed at the mountains; She was dressed with white; at the afternoon; We interest ourselves for the same thing. Sometimes it is possible to be fairly sure, from the error, what the learner's mother tongue is. The last example above, for example, is very typically German English.

Prepositions present additional problems. Learners, again, basing their assumptions on the verb patterns in their mother tongue, often add a preposition where no preposition is needed: We discussed about the environment; I phoned to him this morning; He paid for the bill; We reached to our destination. They may also omit a preposition for the same reason: It reminds me my childhood; I like to listen music; I am waiting the bus; He paid the tickets. It is not sufficient for the French learner of English, for example, to learn that the English verb wait has the same meaning as the French verb attendre. They must also learn that, unlike its French equivalent, in order to express its object, wait requires the preposition for.

Prepositions can be full or partial false friends too. The German preposition bei and the English preposition by are pronounced in exactly the same way and used in exactly the same sentence constructions, yet they only rarely have the same meaning. Language interference can lead to typical errors like: He lives by his parents (= with); He works by the government (= for); He was by a wedding (= at); by cold weather (= in).


Knowing which words belong together and which words do not (collocation) is perhaps the greatest challenge to constructing a natural-sounding sentence. This does not always follow any immediate logic. A learner of English must learn that while somebody who drinks a lot is a heavy drinker, and somebody who smokes a lot is a heavy smoker, somebody who eats a lot is a big/healthy eater. A lot of traffic is described as heavy traffic, not big traffic, but heavy work does not necessarily mean a lot of work. Someone who commits a lot of crimes is a hardened criminal, but someone who tells a lot of lies is an inveterate/compulsive liar. This is not a problem that only affects adjective and noun combinations. You do not make a photograph, you take a photograph, and you make a remark, you do not say a remark. With adverbs and adjectives too, when you are completely asleep, you are fast asleep, but when you are completely awake, you are wide awake, not fast awake. Learners must encounter these collocations to learn them, since collocations from their mother tongue will often not translate comfortably and could lead them into traps. The French learner may learn that strong in English means fort in French, but this can lead to problems with collocations - in French, a loud noise is un bruit fort, leading to the assumption that the correct English is a strong noise.


It is clear that even when a non-native speaker has a large and varied vocabulary in English, their work is only just beginning. They must suppress a whole barrage of temptations to resort to old linguistic habits they started to learn as an infant. This is one of the reasons why, the older we are, the harder it seems to learn a foreign language - we become set in our linguistic ways.

After selecting the appropriate key words, the learner must arrange the words in the right order, select the correct form of the verb, use the correct preposition to express the intended meaning, and be sure to choose words that sit comfortably side by side in the sentence under construction. During this complex process, there are many points at which the learner's first language can interfere, giving the sentence a foreign-sounding tinge, or worse.

Help at hand

This may all sound rather daunting. But help is always at hand. Learning groups or 'chunks' of words, rather than individual words is a good place to start. There is more to a dictionary than just definitions. Frequent collocations are given in bold in the Macmillan English Dictionary's entries and in the 447 'Words frequently used with ...' boxes. So, when learning the noun crime, for example, many of the words that go with crime and the constructions it is used in are all readily accessible. Looking at this entry, we see, most importantly, that you do not make or do a crime, you commit a crime. Other verbs commonly used with crime or a crime (e.g. solve, fight, combat) are also given in bold, along with common compounds like crime wave, crime prevention, juvenile crime and crime rate. Example sentences also place these words in a natural context, making them easier to understand. Learning word families (e.g. crime, criminal, criminalise, criminally) all together is a tried and tested vocabulary-building strategy. Learning 'word friends' (e.g. commit, solve, combat, rate, prevention etc.) at the same time, will help learners to choose words that sit together comfortably in a sentence. And paying close attention to grammar information and example sentences will help them to string the words together into natural, English-sounding sentences.

crime / kram / noun ***
1 [count] an illegal activity or action:
commit a crime (=do something illegal): She was unaware that she had committed a crime.
the scene of a crime (=where it happened): There were no apparent clues at the scene of the crime.
solve a crime (=find out who did it): It was a crime that would take police years to solve.
1a. [uncount] illegal activities in general:
fight/combat crime: new laws to help us combat crime effectively
juvenile crime (=crime committed by young people): an increase in juvenile crime
organized crime (=secret organizations that commit a lot of crimes): There were stories about links between the government and organized crime.
crime prevention: Crime prevention experts are helping to make the hospital secure.
crime rate (=the number of crimes that people commit): The crime rate in the city has risen sharply.
rising crime (=crime that is increasing): Rising crime is a key election issue.
1b. a crime against humanity [count] a very serious crime that makes a lot of people suffer, often committed during a war
2 [singular] something that is wrong or a mistake:
be a crime to do something: It's not a crime to be curious.
Her only crime was to be in love with the wrong man.

Text © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2002

Further reading

Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems, Eds. Michael Swan & Bernard Smith (CUP, 2001)

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