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Mother Tongue Interference

February 20, 2006

Hello again.

The most noticeable hurdle our students face is Mother Tongue Interference. Please suggest some ways of helping students with this. I promised a commenter on this blog that I would address the issue of mother tongue interference, so here . . .

. . . are a few tips. If your students are monolingual then it is easier to make a contrastive analysis, diagnose the problems and find solutions. The first step is to identify the errors. Be careful not to assume that all errors stem from mother tongue interference. Try to identify the most common ones and give these priority. The errors can be classified by type: pronunciation, structural, lexical. For pronunciation look at individual sounds (phonemes): errors might be happening because a specific sound in English does not occur in the mother tongue. In this case the students need to be helped first to actually hear the sound, then they need to be shown how the sound is formed and then given lots of practice in using it. Stress patterns at word and sentence level could be another phonological challenge and intonation patterns should be examined too. Students will find it easier to produce correct pronunciation of sounds if they know the phonemic alphabet as, unfortunately, English spelling often hinders pronunciation— the classic example is the many different pronunciations possible for “-ough”: cough, although, through, bough, rough, etc.

Structural errors occur most often because the student tries to impose the mother tongue patterns on to the target language: this might be word order, use of tenses, difficulty with articles and many more. One again to you need first to identify the most common problems and then you can highlight the ways in which English differs.

With vocabulary you might find a problem with “false friends” or it might be that the mother tongue uses certain expressions that the students translate literally but the expression does not exists in English. An example that comes to mind is a student who used the more colorful expression “blood-guilty” for the English “murderer”. Some words in English such make/do, say/tell cause confusion because their literal translation into other languages suggests different uses.

I’m sorry but there is no quick fix here. It would be helpful if you could give each student a personal analysis so that each one can work on their specific difficulties. I suggest also that you produce worksheets for common problems. I hope this is of some use!

Bye for now,


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  1. sherif Says:

    Yours is really a very good article .I can make use of it in my Master's degree in TEFL .
    Please if there is any material available about negative transfer and it's effect on writing paragraph at the age of 14-18 , send it to me and I'll be grateful

  1. Hsia Says:

    Hi Patricia,

    I am teaching in Taiwan.
    I found here a very good book:
    "Public speaking with confidence"
    by an athoritative professor of Chinese-English
    simultaneous interpretation, Dr Kuo, Tai-tzong.
    you can buy it on line at www.bookcake.co.tw
    Of course it focuses on Taiwan but explains what are taiwanese difficulties in acquiring English as a second language,their origin and how to fix them.

    Sherif, it seems that we work on the same kind of topic for TSL. you are welcome to contact me, maybe we can share informations,


  1. mahendran Says:

    hi, am doing phd els, my topic THE INFLUENCE OF L1 (TAMIL)LANGUAGE SYSTEM IN THE WRITING OF L2(ENGLISH) OF TAMIL SCHOOL PRIMARY STUDENTS. any help on literature review, pls help.tq

  1. timothy adgidzi Says:

    hi, i'm a university student currently doing research on mother tongue interference.I'm on my literature review and I need UR help... pls

  1. Marieclaire Says:

    Hi, I'm doing a research on The Influence of L1 when writing L2. Any help on the literature review will be highly appreciated. Thanks,

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