Essay:First language effect on second language learning

From Teflpedia


Are there different teaching methods for students from different language families? It strikes me that teaching English to (eg) German speakers would be a vastly different experience to teaching speakers of Chinese, because the languages are constructed in entirely different ways. Is this a problem in TEFL?


The simple answer is yes. The long answer is the topic of contrastive analysis[1] within the topic of second language acquisition.

The closer the language is to English then the less the student has to learn, though false friends can be a problem. In Spanish for example there are a vast number of words which are similar between the two languages. While the grammar differs, it is not totally alien like, for instance, Basque grammar. Also European languages already have a very similar alphabet which is a big help. On the other hand Asian languages are usually tonal which makes learning any European language more difficult for them.

One might also consider how these foreign languages are taught. It is sometimes claimed that there is more investigation into (and hence more theories about) English teaching than other languages simply because English is the most taught language in the world.

It is possible that when other languages are taught more grammar is presented "up front" than there is in English. English gave up on the grammar-translation method as a prime teaching tool some time ago and turned to other more communicative systems.

However, it may be that other languages can only be taught after a fair bit of theory has been assimilated. I remember having conversation classes with real total beginners in English (in fact a pretty rare breed these days) but if you give them "to be" and some prepositions and nouns you can say "The pen is on the table", "The pencil is next to the phone." A colleague of mine was teaching Basque in the room next door, also to total beginners and asked me what the hell I did with them. When I explained she told me I was very lucky as in Basque any preposition is incorporated into the noun to which it refers following some complicated rules and verb conjugations run to several pages.

Or take the phrase "The red cow ran." I can change the number and sex of the subject. Cows, cow, bull, bulls and that's all I need to change to make a new phrase "The red bulls ran". In Spanish every single word would need to be changed for each of the four possible subjects.

One key consideration is that if the teacher is fully aware of the linguistic difficulties of the students' mother tongue regarding learning another language - be they grammar-related or pronunciation, etc. teaching will obviously be more effective. This is why I insist that, say, a Spaniard with training as an English-language teacher is usually a far more effective teacher to Spaniards than a native English speaker with little or no training in language teaching. This leads on to other discussions regarding use of L1 in the classroom, and so on.

Another important aspect is that teaching a foreign language requires far more than being "merely" a native speaker. One typical ploy here in Spain - and someone will probably slash my car tyres on reading this - is for language schools to advertise things like "We only employ native English teachers with university degrees" - now that you have been forewarned, it's easy to spot how this is deliberately misleading. But students are led to believe that a native speaker is by definition what they need.