Int US 2121 Folder Collection
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So let’s talk about moving. It’s a real challenge to get all of your stuff from one
place to another. The thing is, even if you decide to leave lots of junk behind, one thing
you’re always stuck with is your old language. It might clutter up the brain space you want
for your fresh new language, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Some things, you can’t leave
behind. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is The Ling Space.
So the biggest difference between learning your first language and any other one is also the most
obvious: when you’re learning a second or third language, you already have a whole linguistic
system inside your head. And as much as we’d like to forget everything we know about our native
language, when we learn a new one, we just can’t. Once your system’s been wired
with the grammar of your first language, that knowledge is very sticky. It’s like caramel,
except inside your brain.
But people still learn new languages, right? It’s not like there’s a sign that says,
if you’re over two years old, you can’t ride the new language roller coaster. The
difference, though, is this: if you already have a grammar in your head, and you start
learning a new one, your first guess about whatever your new language will do is based on
however your old language did it. In other words, you transfer knowledge over from your first
language, or L1, into your second language, or L2. As you get more information about your
L2, you’ll revise all those ideas and make a new grammar, but transfer happens first.
So how do we know there has to be transfer? Well, if everyone started from scratch for
their L2, they would all follow the same path, right? All people would pick up their new
language in the same way, no matter where they were coming from. Use the same language
recipe, get the same language cake. But that’s not even close to what happens! We see different
patterns in what mistakes people make depending on what their first language was. And we know
they can’t be getting it from speakers of whatever it is they’re learning, because
native speakers would never say those things.
For example, take an English word like “have.” French doesn’t have that [h] sound at the
beginning, but it's totally fine with a sound like [v] coming at the end of
a word, so a French learner of English will usually say something like [æv]. A German
speaker, on the other hand, comes equipped with a language that already has [h], but doesn’t
let sounds like [v] show up at the end of a word, so they’ll usually say something like [hæf].
We even see changes in how you’ll pronounce things depending on what dialect of a language
you speak! So no version of
French has that [ð] sound that you get in English in words like [ði] (the) or [ðɛɹ] (there).
It’s a really hard sound for L2 speakers to learn, and so they’ll often switch
it up for a different consonant. But European French speakers will fix it by saying [z],
like “Go over zere.” Quebec French speakers on the other hand will get around it by using [d], like
“Go over dere.” Even though it’s the same language! But they’re not the same dialect,
and that change is enough to make the English pronunciations they end up with different, too.
So how much do you transfer from your native language? Well… pretty much everything!
Yeah. Everything. You fully transfer over that whole native grammar. You leave the words
behind, mostly, but you take everything else. We’re able to say this because we can find
evidence of transfer in every part of the L2 grammar, from the phonemes all the
way up through semantics.
We’ve already talked about some phonological examples, but only for single sounds. We can
also find plenty of cases where whole words are affected by transfer. Like, take groups
of consonants. Some languages are totally fine with bunches of consonants clumping
together in a word, and others firmly disapprove of it. But even if you disapprove, there are
lots of different ways to fix it.
Take a word like “sparkle.” If you’re a Spanish speaker, you don’t like that [sp]
at the beginning of the word. Spanish fixes this by putting an [ɛ] at the beginning of the word,
so that [s] and [p] belong to different syllables. So a Spanish learner of English
would probably say something like [ɛspɑɹkəl].
But Japanese, which also hates consonant clusters, takes a different tack. Between the pairs
of consonants, Japanese shoehorns in this extra vowel, [ɯ]. If there’s a vowel in between,
no more bunch of consonants, so problem solved! That’s why a Japanese speaker wouldn’t
say “sparkle” or “esparkel”. They’d say [sɯpɑ:kɯɾɯ] (スパークル). So
from this, you can tell that non-native accents are a result of transfer. Your accent is
different based on what the phonology of your native language was, because it got moved
over with everything else. This can be some of the toughest stuff to fix, but it IS doable.
But transfer goes beyond phonology. We can see it in syntax, too. So, no surprise, sentences
get built differently in different languages. For example, in English, adverbs come before
the verb, so like “Barney frequently wears suits,” but in French, it comes after the
verb. “Barney porte fréquemment des costumes.” And sure enough, the word order here transfers.
In English, L1 French speakers will say “Barney wears frequently suits”. Similarly, in French,
English speakers will say “Barney fréquemment porte des costumes.” You just get what your
native language would have done.
Or maybe you’re a Greek learner of English, and you want to say “Ted married the woman
that he met at the wedding.” Well, in Greek, you’d put the equivalent of her in that
lower sentence, like this: Ο Θοδωρής παντρεύτηκε κάποια γυναίκα
που τη γνώρισε στον γάμο. So in English, you wouldn’t leave that “her”
out, right? No, you’d probably say “Ted married the woman that he met her at the wedding.”
And transfer strikes again.
We can even see this in the way that L2 learners interpret sentences. So consider the sentence
“Lily didn’t drink the beer or the whiskey.” In English, this sentence means that Lily
couldn’t have drank either of the alcoholic beverages. But in Japanese, the exact same
sentence would mean that Lily drank either the beer, or the whiskey, but not both of
them. So the same sentence, with the same structure, but a different interpretation.
So what happens when you ask a Japanese learner of English whether Lily had either
of the drinks? They’ll tell you that she drank one or the other of them, but not both. So even the
way you want to interpret a sentence gets transferred over.
That’s because L2 transfer is everywhere. It’s helpful in a way, because you don’t
have to start from scratch with each new language. That’d take way longer! But
it’s so pervasive, it colors everything you do in your L2. You can work at
getting beyond it, but sometimes you’re just stuck with what you have. If you look
at your first language, you can find what sorts of mistakes you’ll probably make in
your new one. For better or for worse, it’s the linguistic baggage you carry around with you.
So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week. If my word order seemed natural
to you, you learned that when we learn a new language, we transfer over our whole native
grammar; that depending on what language you’re starting from, the mistakes you’ll make
in the L2 will be different; and that transfer effects can be found all over linguistics,
from phonology to syntax to semantics.
The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost,
and it’s written by both of us. Our production assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and
sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is AtelierMuse. Write down in the comments
below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we have some extra material
on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding
your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And we’ll see you next Wednesday.
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Transfer in Second Language Acquisition

2121 Folder Collection
Sh, Gang (Aaron) published on January 22, 2016    Jamie 榕 translated    Chloe Tyan reviewed
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