How Different Is English From My Students’ L1?

As English language teachers and teacher educators, we spend countless hours thinking about English itself—its sounds, its symbols, its features, its use, its development…the list goes on and on.  We spend so much time thinking about English that we don’t often look to the students’ first language as a source of pedagogical help.  O

ne way knowing about our students’ L1 might help us is explaining why students make the errors that they do, some of which are due to cross-linguistic influence. The interaction of two or more languages in the mind can be seen as a positive thing, as it indicates the learner’s growing interlanguage and developing proficiency in the additional language.

But, if teachers are unaware of the differences between their students’ language(s) and English, they may not understand why English learners make some types of errors (and whether or not we should consider them “errors” at all—but that is a larger debate). It’s important to realize that cross-linguistic influence doesn’t account for all differences in student production, but it may help explain some unique constructions in speech and writing.

Below is a list of five features that will likely impact students’ production in English, along with a website that may assist teachers in finding out about their students’ languages with regard to that feature. By doing some brief research online, you might discover how your students’ language(s) contrast with English, and brainstorm some ideas for how you can address these differences in your teaching. If you are teaching adolescents or adults, you might consider having them conduct their own discovery about the different features of language. Feel free to add any websites you feel are particularly helpful in the comments below, or let us know how you have addressed these differences in lessons or activities.

  1. Which sounds are different between your students’ language(s) and English? Check the phonemic inventory, the most commonly used sounds or phonemes  in a language:
    1. The Speech Accent Archive: This website also has cultural profiles and resources for service providers on Iraqi, Burmese, Hmong, Haitian Creole, and others.
  2. How does the written system differ between your students’ language(s) and English? Are there characters? Letters? How many?:
    1. Omniglot: Index of languages by writing system.
  3. In which direction is your students’ language written? Left to right? Right to left?:
    1. Omniglot: Writing direction index.
  4. Are there cognates or similar phrases between your students’ language and English?
    1. Check to compare across Romance languages.
    2. Check Colorín Colorado for an English-Spanish cognate list for young learners).
    3. Check Cognate Linguistics for an extensive list of Romance language cognates.
  5. Is the word order the same in your students’ language in English? Does a verb precede a subject, or vice versa?
    1. Find out at Frankfurt International School: Language Differences.

from TESOL Blog


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