Home > Bilingual Education > What’s Really Behind the Language Interference Myth?

What’s Really Behind the Language Interference Myth?

I reject the entire concept of “language interference”. For those of you who might not have heard about “language interference”, it is a pervasive myth that continues to be perpetuated about how students’ primary language interferes with their acquisition of English. For example, if a Spanish speaker makes an error, pronouncing the “j” as an “h” sound in English, many people would say that this is “negative interference” or “negative transfer” caused by the student’s primary language as it is applied to English. [Note: the Spanish j makes the English h sound].

When native English speakers learn to read and write, they don’t automatically begin to spell, read and pronounce correctly. They don’t use spelling patterns correctly, they are unable to decode certain vowel patterns when they first start to read, and they begin to use invented spelling by spelling words out the way that they sound. Yet we never hear that their oral language development is negatively interfering with their written language or reading. The experts tell us that all of these supposed errors are developmentally appropriate for English speakers in the natural process of acquiring a first language.

On the other hand, the myth of language interference is constantly discussed as it applies to students who are learning English. When students make errors in pronunciation, reading, writing or spelling, many people automatically discuss the concept of language interference, stating that students make such errors in English as a result of the interference that is being caused by their primary language. Why is it that it is a natural and developmental process when native English speakers make errors as they are learning English, but it is “language interference” when second language learners make the very same mistakes as they are acquiring a second language??

I’ve heard so many of the following types of comments, “He can’t spell in English because he writes in English by using Spanish phonics. Spanish is causing interference”.

Or I’ve heard, “As a result of language interference, Spanish speaking children have difficulty with pronouncing and spelling the sh, th, and other sounds”.

Might I remind everyone that native English speakers don’t automatically start spelling accurately as soon as they come out of the womb? I’ve also encountered native English speakers who make many of the same errors in pronunciation when they are very young and are acquiring their first language.

I have yet to have heard someone attribute language interference to the errors a native English speaking child makes when acquiring Spanish as a second language. I sometimes hear, “Johnny makes errors in Spanish grammar because he is a beginning Spanish learner. When he says ‘yo no lo hiciste’ instead of the accurate ‘yo no lo hice’, it’s because he is at the beginning stage of learning Spanish and with time, exposure, and effective instruction he will begin to have more consistent use of grammar”. Why aren’t we blaming English for negatively interfering with Spanish?

Don’t you see a discrepancy and double standard here? It’s okay for native English speakers to make developmental mistakes, but not bilingual learners?

The entire concept of language interference is a pervasive myth that in my opinion is primarily directed towards Spanish speaking children who are learning English. Do we often hear that French is negatively interfering with students’ acquisition of English? Probably not. In fact, we are probably more likely to hear someone say, “Oh wow, he speaks with a beautiful french accent when he speaks English.” I’ve yet to have heard someone accuse the french language as negatively interfering with English acquisition. Perhaps this is because french often is perceived as a higher status by many people?

This myth continues to be perpetuated about students and you will find it everywhere, with some of the most prominent bilingual education advocates perpetuating the myth.

In my view, there is something much more behind this whole notion of language interference. In essence, it is a myth that was designed to put a negative spin on Spanish and other politically volatile minority languages, insinuating that Spanish is causing a deficit in the acquisition of English. This myth is a remnant of the days when people perceived bilingualism as a problem, causing mental retardation, confusion and difficulty. The language interference myth has been perpetuated for so many years and by so many people that many people believe it and have never examined the underlying assumptions behind it. The myth has seeped into college classes, as well as teacher training and testing for teaching authorizations as in the case of the California Teachers of English Learners (CTEL) test.

Please remember that most of the errors that second language learners make when they are learning a second language are similar to many of the same errors that native English speakers make when they are acquiring English. This is a developmental issue, not an interference issue. With effective instruction and practice of the language, many of the so-called errors that students make will begin to disappear. If students continue to make the same errors year after year, then it has nothing to do with their primary language and has more to do with the fact that they have had ineffective instruction.

The next time that you or someone else talks about language interference, think about what is covertly being insinuated: Spanish is a deficit and causes problems when learning English. I don’t know about you, but I refuse to perpetuate that message.

Categories: Bilingual Education
  1. Isabeline
    February 2, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Hello, I agree with the main idea of this entry, which is to ‘reject’ the general misunderstanding, by some in the US, of the language interference process in bilingual people. However, it seems to me that there was a misleading way of addressing this issue in the text in the sense that there’s no register for what language interference is REALLY about. A global difference between the myth and its actual definition would have have been useful in the fist place. There are several types of cognitive and psycholinguistic processes behind it, which cannot be disregarded and are not just about pronounciation errors, spelling and of course, bilingual education. As a Spanish native speaker who lives in France I can tell you: 1. I wouldn’t be able to speak my mind everyday without any language interference 2. It also happens here in Europe with many other languages since it is part of a sociolinguistic phenomenon related to migration (ie. Arabic in France) and 3. French people don’t seem to like their own french accent in a foreign language themselves! Thanks MLM.

    • multilingualmania
      February 3, 2010 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks for your comments. In my view, I don’t really view it as Interference per se, but rather crosslinguistic influence of two languages interacting with one another. And I don’t think that it is a bad thing-it is what it is. People not liking their own accent is something that is just socially constructed and learned behavior because they have been socialized to think that accents might be “bad”.

      I just think that politically speaking, that we hear more of this “negative interference” myth when speaking about marginalized populations than when we are speaking about speakers of a high status language. For example, even when English speaking people are attempting to speak Spanish and make serious grammatical and pronunciation errors, many people commend them for trying to speak Spanish. On the other hand, Spanish speakers make a mistake and-bam–it’s language interference!

  2. February 25, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    That’s very interesting, and I agree, (no experience with Spanish here myself at all) that people tend to judge proficiency in a second language much more harshly than proficiency in a first language. They tend to blame bilingualism: your son makes mistakes in English, maybe you should stop with the Mandarin, it’s confusing him. When monolingual anglophone kids make as many or more mistakes. Personally, I agree with the commenter there that it is really normal for one’s base linguistic and pronunciation rules to influence one’s thinking of a new language and pronunciation of it. But it isn’t a reason to blame the first language. And you are right, I have NEVER seen it said that being an English speaker causes “negative interference” with any language. Funny that. And English speaker massacreing ANY language is laudible for even trying!

    Interestingly since learning French, my English spelling is MUCH worse, as in I used to be able to write down the two or three spellings of a word I wasn’t sure of, and instantly recognize which was the correct and which were the wrong spellings. Now if one is the valid English spelling and one is the valid French spelling, they both look “right”! On the other hand, I think that having more than one language actually helps me understand each language better, and increases vocabulary. AND as someone who has learned French as an adolescent/early adult, I make FEWER mistakes in grammar (especially written) than a very large number of native speakers of French in Quebec. I would however be considered much less fluent than they (fewer idioms, understanding less vocab in particular life areas, less cultural background etc). As for accents. My gosh, as a Canadian, the US anglophone speakers have accents coming out the wazoo… New York, Texas, Georgia… y’all are all over the place without stating that Spanish or something creates accents in English!

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