What Is Language Transfer?

Esther Ejim

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, the transfer could occur on various levels, including the transference of letters, sounds, meanings and other factors that can enhance the learning experience.

When there are significant differences between two languages, like English and Cantonese, language transfer is much more difficult.
When there are significant differences between two languages, like English and Cantonese, language transfer is much more difficult.

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.

Language transfer is more common when a new language is similar to a student's native tongue.
Language transfer is more common when a new language is similar to a student's native tongue.

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 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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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - As long as you're willing to laugh it off, most mistakes like this can be easily rectified. If you're at the stage where you're confusing words like that then you've probably got a dictionary handy anyway.

Language transfer can be extremely helpful if it's used deliberately, even when the languages aren't related. Your mind wants to make connections and the problem with learning a new language is there are a lot of things to memorize at first without many connections to what you already know. If you can come up with some ways of relating new words to what you do know, even if they mean the opposite to what you'd expect, or the meaning is funny in some way, then you're much more likely to remember them.


@bythewell - You also want to be very careful doing that and only do it if you don't have any other way to communicate. Sometimes the word isn't going to have the same meaning at all.

One of the more infamous examples of this is that the word embarrassed in English sounds very similar to the Spanish word for pregnant. You definitely do not want to confuse people by confessing that you're embarrassed and say the wrong thing.

They call those kinds of words "false friends" which I think is definitely a good way of putting it. There are usually lists of them out there for people learning a language so it might be a good idea to familiarize yourself with them before you start guessing.


I found this helped a lot when I was learning French and trying to get along in a predominantly French speaking country. Often if I didn't know the exact word in French I could make a guess at it by saying the English word in a French accent and it would be right, or close enough.

I don't know how this would work at all with languages that aren't closely related though.

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