Learning another language


When you learn another language there are several obstacles to overcome, mainly due to your mother tongue.

The primary two are L1-interference and generalisation.

L1-interference or mother-tongue inteference is when your mother tongue appears as ‘static inteference’ when learning a second or third language. It always pops up somehow.

Generalisation is when you apply the main rules of a language to everything. Very difficult in a language like English which, as one of my students put it, appears to be ‘one large exception’.

Sounds and syntax which do not appear in your own language are very hard to use in another language. For example:

  • Native Swedish speakers cannot produce th and ch sounds because they do not have it in their mother tongue (strength, cheap). They also have difficulty with titles, apostrophes and capitalisation for the same reason.
  • Native Polish speakers have difficulty with definite and indefinite articles because they do not have them in their mother tongue (an, a, the)
  • Native Russian speakers have issues with word order
  • Native Estonian speakers have problems with personal pronouns

The biggest problems for all non-native speakers of English tend to be

  • irregular verbs
  • subject-verb agreement
  • prepositions
  • pronunciation
  • spelling
  • simple vs continuous verb forms
  • false friends (where languages have the same words but those words have different meanings)
  • People with a similar language may overestimate how similar the languages are
  • People with similar second and third languages tend to mix them up without knowing. For example a native Serbo-Croatian speaker may confuse Swedish and English (they are both Germanic) and suddenly switch from one to another without realising it, totally confusing their listener.

If you wish to become better at a language there are several ways to go about it. I usually teach people who need to USE their English and so I train mainly through speaking – topical discussions using realia or what they are working on and need to communicate to others. This allows them to push the boundaries beyond their comfort zone in a safe environment. I only teach grammar if it is something that a person does not know or needs to revisit. Otherwise I find teaching too much grammar causes people to second guess everything and actually make more errors than before. The people I teach need to speak English so teaching it as they learned it in school is not an option.

Regarding correction – some people like tight correction but others find it makes them lose their confidence. So this is a decision I make individually. I tend to place more emphasis on vocabulary than grammar because people will understand your grammar in context but they will not understand you if you use the incorrect word. This could also be very dangerous in the political arena as your message is often delivered in nuances.

Most of my students do one to two hours of intensive speaking with me weekly, supplemented, if they have time, by reading and watching movies. This helps them internalise natural native English speech patterns and things like prepositions – both things are extremely difficult to learn by rote or learning the rules.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

2 thoughts

  1. Ahhh Janet! Don’t tell me about teaching English to people! I’ve been a Uni teacher for over twenty years now and though it is a job l adore, it request a lot of adaptation and individualisation. Each student has special needs and a different way to learn. So it is just impossible to have only one way of teaching as it would never work for tha majority.

    Also speaking fluently five languages and using them all for work purposes (translation for the EU) l agree with what you say about the biggest problems a language learner has to face. I was lucky enough to talk three foreign languages by the age of 10 so it somehow helped me to learn two more when l was a teenager.

  2. Quite an interesting read – since this is the tail end of learning to communicate with individuals who have autism. Most of above is true for an individual who has a slight touch of autism. The individuals who have severe autism accompanied with profound mental retardation, as my son, teaching words (in the English language) must be taught as a receptive/expressive combo. Once a noun is learned – it is best paired with a verb… e.g. starting with a list of ten nouns paired with ten verbs. Teaching that a noun has a purpose (action word). The old therapies taught nouns – so you would end up with an individual who had a list of 50 receptive/expressive words and the individual did not know what the noun did. I like how this blog shared the final stages of one teaching the English language to someone who is diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum.

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