Reducing Mother Tongue Influence

by Melissa Burns

As any student of linguistics knows, our mother tongue (and other languages we know to any significant degree) heavily interferes with the process of learning a new language. The reason for this is simple: our brains use habitual patterns we know from our mother tongue to establish any new hypotheses of how the new language works. It is reflected in everything, from phonetics to grammar, to semantics.

This interference can be both negative and positive, depending on how similar your first language is to the one you try to learn. For example, a grammar of analytic languages (e.g., English) works in a significantly different way than that of fusional ones (e.g., German). At the same time, English and German are both Germanic languages and share many standard features like similar phonetics, vocabularies, stress placement, etc. As a result, native speakers of these two languages have harder times learning the features of another language that work differently, and easier – those that are similar.

Minimizing harmful interference of the mother tongue is one of the primary concerns of any language learner – and in this article, we will cover some strategies that can help in this regard.

1. Learning to Pronounce Sounds in Isolation

Different languages pronounce similar sounds in a (sometimes fundamentally) different manner, and one of the reasons why even grammatically correct speech of a non-native speaker may sound unnatural is because he uses pronunciation habits of his mother tongue. One of the ways to establish correct pronunciation is to train pronouncing sounds in isolation, as separate entities, thus eliminating interference from preceding and following sounds in speech.

2. Mute Period

One of the methods of establishing right pronunciation right off the bat involves the use of a mute period – i.e., a period during which students are exposed to huge amounts of auditory materials in the language they study without trying to repeat what they hear. When students are later asked to produce the sounds of the new language, they sound much closer to native pronunciation than those who spend the same time actively practicing.

3. Using Writing Samples

Even reasonably advanced learners of English will often unconsciously fall back to formal grammar and syntax patterns from their first language. What’s worse, often these patterns aren't formally wrong according to the rules of English – they just look and sound unnatural, immediately betraying the ESL nature of their author. As teachers usually don’t go as far as to correct them, these patterns can establish themselves as habits and are extremely difficult to root out later on.

One way to avoid it is hiring professional ENL writers to prepare great essays on the same topics the student has to write about. By comparing how he and they express the same ideas, the student will be able to notice the difference and compare patterns and structure used by native speakers with those he applies himself.

4. Full Immersion

One of the ways to quickly decrease the influence of mother tongue is a full immersion into the linguistic and cultural environment of the target language. If it isn’t possible, students should be exposed to as much content in the target language as possible (books, movies, music, etc.). The important thing here is that it doesn’t mean doing more language exercises or studying more textbooks – immersion presupposes interaction with the language in a natural environment, while textbooks and other learning materials are by definition unnatural and are built to teach particular rules.

5. Bilingual Practice

There are many types of bilingual practices, but in general, they follow the same idea: building connections between two languages that are deeper than mechanical word-for-word translations of sentences from one into another. For example, translation of short passages between two languages can be turned into a creative exercise by encouraging students to be free in their wording to make the result sounds as natural as possible – because it is precisely what they are going to do later on, when they have to interact with other people using the new language.

Interference of mother tongue with learning a foreign language is an influence that cannot be discounted – but if handled correctly, it can be limited or even used beneficially


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