What Is Language Transfer?

When there are significant differences between two languages, like English and Cantonese, language transfer is much more difficult.
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  • Written By: Esther Ejim
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 01 July 2014
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The term language transfer is used to describe what occurs when people who are in the process of learning a new language transfer the applications from their native language, or their first language, to the new language. That is to say that the people learning the new language use some of the aspects that are applicable to the previous language while learning the new one as part of the process of understanding or learning the new language. In such a case, language transfer could occur on various levels, including the transference of letters, sounds, meanings and other factors that can enhance the learning experience.


The process of language transfer is more common when the new language that the individual is trying to learn bears some sort of similarity to that person's original language. Such a similarity could be due to the fact that the new language is merely another dialect that closely resembles a language or another variation of the old language. It could also occur in a situation where the new language is a bastardization of another language, as in the case with Pidgin English. With Pidgin English, the language is mainly a mixture of English and some local words and terms that may have been imbued with other meanings than what was intended by the original language. English speakers trying to learn the language often try to expedite the process through the method of language transfer in which case they try to use their knowledge of the original meaning for various words in the English language to help them understand the new language.

The reason why a language transfer might be possible in such a case is derived from the fact that the two languages have elements of similarity. The same would not be easy with an original English speaker trying to learn the Cantonese language due to the vast differences in lettering, pronunciation and idiom usage. Sometimes, the language transfer happens on a conscious level whereby the speaker of another language trying to learn a new one makes a conscious effort to apply elements of the old one as part of the process of learning the new language. At other times, the process occurs on a more subconscious level whereby such a person will unknowingly make the transference from one language to the other without even realizing that the process is occurring.


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