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Mother Tongue Interference in the Acquisition of English as a Second Language



 2.1. Introduction

Today, it is not uncommon for English language teachers to complain about the extremely poor standard of students in English language. On the other hand, there are a few of the students whose written and spoken English hardly reflect their educational attainment. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear a secondary school pupil say:     my little brother is eating his big finger , when he actually means my little brother sucks his thumbs .

One of the causes of such short coming could be traced to the problem of English language coming in contact with the mother tongue where English is the L2. As noted by Weireith (1968), he said that when languages come into contact, they are bound to influence each other positively or negatively. In a case of languages coming in contact, it is expected that the first language (L1) or mother tongue will, in many ways interfere with the acquisition of the L2.what usually happens is that the pattern of L1 tends to be transferred unconsciously into the L2, which in this case is the English language.

In this chapter therefore, the research will review the available literature on Mother Tongue in the acquisition of the English language as a second language , and the likely factors responsible for such interferences.


2.2. The mother tongue interference.

Many researches have already been done in the area of native language interference in the target language. However, the essay gives an account of the following readings about the topic under study. Ellis (1997) refers to interference as transfer’ that s the influence that the learner   s Ll exerts over the acquisition of an L2.   He argues that transfer is governed by learner’s perceptions about what is transferable and by the stage of development in L2 learning. In learning a target language, learners construct their own interim.

According to Bhela (1999) ‘although foreign language learners appear to be accumulating enough knowledge, they come across problems organizing coherent structures when speaking relying on mother tongue structures in the foreign language, showing a gap between gathering knowledge and producing orally’. In the cases in which the gap increases and becomes more complex to solve thus, the possibility of mother tongue interference emerges. Odlin. (1989). defined the mother tongue interference as the    negative transference of linguistic patterns    . This means that students take the structure belonging to the mother tongue to construct messages in the foreign language, constraining their learning about new elements. Since they start making performance mistakes that gradually become competence errors.

Kohn (1986) stated that. “As a learning process, transfer supports the learner’s selection and remodeling of input structures as he progresses in the development of his inters language knowledge. As a production process, transfer is involved in the learner’s retrieval of this knowledge and in his efforts to bridge linguistically those gaps in his knowledge which cannot beside stepped by avoidance.”

According to Ashworth (I992) ‘ the mother tongue or native language is the language which the person acquires in early years and which normally becomes his/her natural instrument of thought and communication’. An online article, entitled “Mother Tongue” defines mother tongue (first language. native language or vernacular) as the language a person learns first. And correspondingly the person is called a native speaker of the language The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Skiba. (2000) defines mother tongue as one s native language; the language learned by children and passed from one generation to the next; it is received by birth or from ancestors.

On the other hand, Ashworth (I992) states that ‘the second language is a language acquired by a person in addition to her mother tongue’. A similar definition of second language is given by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language mentioned above as the language you learn and adopt after learning yours. In his own View, Parry (1982) said that … ‘lack of mastery in the English language is due to the environment of the child’. Although English language is the pupils’ L2, it is not the language of the community in which he lives. The language of the community is significantly different from English language. Parry (1982) added more that … ‘the child has little opportunity to speak or hear English, thus, he cannot acquire the fluency needed to cope with the secondary school course’.

On how home background affects the students’ acquisition and mastery of English language, Ajayi (1977) said that students fed alien to the English language because of lack of initial exposure to the language within the family unit. He then said that students transfer this poor background into schools and this hinders their performances in the acquisition of the language.

Still on home background, Goldstein (1976) said … the fact that much of the child’s educational development takes place at home before he begins to attend school is an obvious fact. For instance, middle class home tends to provide environment more conducive to success in schools than to those of lower class families.

Weireth (1968) writing on environment said that … when two or more languages are- being used in an environment or by an individual, then the concept of bilingualism is at play. This means that individuals within such an environment are going to acquire the two or more languages in use in that environment simultaneously or one after the other. Thus, two or more totally different or fairly similar or else very similar languages are being acquired by the individual in the community. The learner is therefore basically going to transfer his knowledge of his L1 into the learning process of his L2 so as to enhance the easy acquisition of his L2 and attempt to suppress features of his L1 which differ markedly from those of the L2 for an easier acquisition of his L1.

Besides the environment of the learner, the type of primary school he attended before going to the secondary school and his linguistic experience and exposure can also contribute in no small measure to the problem of interference. Obanya (1982), referring to the problem of writing English in schools, noted that … at the primary school level, the typical Nigerian Child

has not done much writing in English. Writing further, he said that … because of lack of written exercises in English at the primary school level, when the students get to the secondary school, they have to start learning the spellings and the punctuations in the English conventional way which is quite different from the conventional way of writing Igbo which they are very much used to. This type of interference can be both orthographical and lexical.

Tiffen (1969) stresses the fact that the students foundation in the primary school are inadequate and this aggravates their problems in studying English in the secondary school. He said that primary school children are often exposed to the poor, non-standard English of many teachers and fail to acquire the necessary skills in English language. Furthermore, Tiffen said that the local language is used as the medium of instruction in the first three years of primary education in many places and the resultant effect of this is the students poor acquisition of and performance in English language at secondary school level.

The problem of interference is not restricted to pupils alone, it also affects the teachers. According to Bamgbose (1975) … ‘grammatical and linguistic problems are caused by the mother tongue interference which is encountered by both the teacher and the learners. Both of them have some phonological problems peculiar to their ethnic group and this affects their effective acquisition of the language.

2.3. Second language acquisition

Marysia (2004. p.8) observes that language acquisition is innately determined and that we are born with certain systems of language. This is supported by different linguistic scholars. For example. Chomsky (I975. p.26) asserts that each human being possesses a set of innate properties of language which is responsible for the child s mastery of the native language. He further argues that this language mechanism defines the forms in which language may take. The innate properties of language are as well underlined in the philosophy of idealism. Plato puts it that    we are born possessing all knowledge and our realization of that knowledge is contingent on our discovery of it’. All that we know already come pre-loaded on birth and our senses enable us to identify and recognize the stratified information in our mind”. Marysia (2(1): p. 34) distinguishes between acquisition and learning: Acquisition is a sub conscious process which leads to fluency, learning on the other hand is a conscious process which manifests itself in terms of learning rules and structures.

Krashen (1985. p. 39) maintains that there are three operative internal processes when learners acquire second language. These are the monitor, filter and organizer. The monitor is responsible for conscious learning and has nothing to do with acquisition. Brown (1973. p. 21) claims that filter are responsible for extent in which the learner’s acquisition of the second language is influenced by the social circumstances such as motivation and effective factors like anger and anxiety. The organizer determines the organization of the learner’s language. It organizes the usage of incorrect grammatical instructions and provisional precursors, grammatical structures, the systematical occurrence of errors in the learnt item.

2.3.1. Processes of Second Language Acquisition

Proponents of second language acquisition theories, including Oliveri and Judie Haynes, another ESL teacher with 28 years of experience, identify five distinct stages of second language acquisition as originally espoused by linguist Stephen Krashen. These include the following:

1. Silent/Receptive

This stage may last from several hours to several months, depending on the individual learner. During this time, new language learners typically spend time learning vocabulary and practice pronouncing new words. While they may engage in self-talk, they don t normally speak the language with any fluency or real understanding.

This stage is controversial among language educators. Ana Lomba disagrees that second language learners are totally silent while they are in this first learning stage. Instead, Lomba states that speech is fundamental in language acquisition and learners excel in language acquisition when they apply what they learn as they learn it.

2. Early Production

This stage may last about six months, during which language learners typically acquire an understanding of up to 1,000 words. They may also learn to speak some words and begin forming short phrases, even though they may not be grammatically correct.

3. Speech Emergence

 By this stage, learners typically acquire a vocabulary of up to 3,000 words, and learn to communicate by putting the words in short phrases, sentences, and questions. Again, they may not be grammatically correct, but this is an important stage during which learners gain greater comprehension and begin reading and writing in their second language.

4. Intermediate Fluency

At this stage, which may last for a year or more after speech emergence, learners typically have a vocabulary of as many as 6,000 words. They usually acquire the ability to communicate in writing and speech using more complex sentences. This crucial stage is also when learners begin actually thinking in their second language, which helps them gain more proficiency in speaking it.

5. Continued Language Development/Advanced Fluency

 It takes most learners at least two years to reach this stage, and then up to 10 years to achieve full mastery of the second language in all its complexities and nuances. Second language learners need ongoing opportunities to engage in discussions and express themselves in their new language, in order to maintain fluency in it.

The key to learning a new language and developing proficiency in speaking and writing that language is consistency and practice. A student must converse with others in the new language on a regular basis in order to grow their fluency and confidence. In addition, Haynes says it s important for students to continue to work with a classroom teacher on specific content area related to the new language such as history, social studies and writing.

2.4 Mother tongue interference on English Language

Linguistic interference obtains at the phonological, grammatical and semantic levels. When a learner is confronted with a new language, he usually faces problems arising from the differences between the linguistic system of his L1 and the L2.

2.4.1 Pronunciation

From the foregoing so far, the importance of mother tongue in the learning of English cannot be overemphasized. Language is said to be universal so these issues are not peculiar to Nigerian context. it is therefore necessary to tackle the issue of interference to bring a free flow from mother-tongue to the learning of English among children.

Errors may occur due the fact that some of the English sounds are not found in their mother-tongue. It has rightly been observed that in the first language learning, the learner is highly motivated and is surrounded by a conductive linguistics environment, the kind that the second language lacks. This implies that though language learning is generally difficult, second language learning has greater problems which results in the greater number of errors in performance of second language users (Onuigbo. 1984 cited in Aladeyomi and Adetunde. 2007).

Bhelda (1999) opined that in as much as the second language learning environment encompasses everything the language learner hears and sees in the new language. the learner s goal is the mastery of the target language. The learner begins the Ieaming task of learning a second language from point zero (or close to it) and. through the steady accumulation of the mastered entities of the target language, eventually amasses them in quantities sufficient to constitute a particular level of proficiency. Ll interference when speaking or writing in a second language is generally a lifelong experience which needs continuous attention. sometimes even up to adulthood the lexical stress patterns of their mother tongue in their second language (English) oral production, are not shaken off in spite of years of teaching and listening.

Interference can be identified according to regional variations in Nigeria, especially, in phonology and lexis. Certain pronunciations are identified with members of an ethnic group and when all the markers of the group s accents are present in a particular speaker. one can be fairly certain that the speaker in question is a member of that ethnic group by birth or upbringing. or both. So, it is easy to identify Igbo. Igbo. Tiv, Hausa speakers, just a few out of about 400 languages in Nigeria (Idowu, I999).

Onike (2009) posited that interference is a psycho linguistic concept which is a reality in language learning. Errors in second language learning are partly attributable to interference. Theorists of interference believe that acquisition of the first language usually affects performance in subsequent language acquired. Interference as a linguistic problem is common in communities where second languages (usually the lingua franca) must be learnt. In other words, interference is a term which refers to a situation whereby two different languages overlap. Interference is either positive or negative transfer of the linguistic knowledge of a language into performance in the other. Negative transfer pertains to difficulties in using the target language which are mainly attributed to mother tongue interference. Positive transfer however implies the ease or facilitation in learning the L 2 resulting from similarities between the L l and L 2. Two types of interference can be distinguished.

The first type is the proactive interference. This is an interference phenomenon that helps in the acquisition of the target or subordinate language. For instance, the presence of certain consonants and vowels in Nigeria indigenous languages facilitate the acquisition of such similar sounds of the English language. Such sounds include bilabial plosive voiced /b/, voiceless alveolar plosive /t/, /d/ as well as short vowels such as /i/, /u/, and /e/.

The other type of interference is the retroactive type; this type retards the process of the acquisition of the target language. According to Bamgbose (1971), most of the phonetic characteristics in the English of Nigerians can be traced back to the transfer features from their local languages (see some examples below).


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