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Introduction to language differences

Preamble: The pages on this subsite contain descriptions of the most significant differences between English and other languages. Only 16 of the thousands of world languages are included here. These have been chosen a.) on the basis of the number of native speakers they have, and b.) to reflect the languages spoken by the major nationality groups at Frankfurt International School.

The primary target audience for these pages are mainstream teachers of ESL students who wish to understand some of the language problems experienced by the non-native speakers in their classes. The intention is not to provide a comprehensive description of the languages themselves. I have focussed on the most important areas of likely interference or negative transfer. The selection of examples is based on my experience as an ESL teacher with more than 20 years of experience in an international school, but also draws heavily on the sources listed below.

Interference: Interference or negative transfer are the terms used for the negative influence of the learner's mother tongue when he or she is speaking or writing English*. Below are three examples of the interference problems that German learners of English might have when trying to convey their thoughts correctly in English. In the first two cases the learner has wrongly assumed that the tense used to express a particular meaning in German is the same as the tense used in English to convey the same meaning. The third mistake is using false friends - words in the one language that are identical or similar to words in the other, but whose meanings are different.

German:Ich sage es ihm, wenn ich ihn sehe.
Interference:I tell him when I see him. icon
Correct:I'll tell him when I see him.

German:Ich lebe hier seit 1998.
Interference:I live here since 1998. icon
Correct:I have been living here since 1998.

German:Was meinst du?
Interference:What do you mean? icon
Correct:What do you think?


Information sources: The most important source of the information in these pages is the excellent Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems. (2001) eds. Swan, M. & Smith, B. Cambridge University Press (Second edition). I also frequently consulted Wikipedia's language pages. These are a helpful resource for anyone who wants very detailed descriptions of the languages themselves (although the entries are of varying quality). Readers without some background knowledge of linguistics and phonology will probably find much of the information very difficult, however.

Other sources:

Two excellent web sources of phonological information are:

Further information: These pages contain many language words: auxiliary, modal verb, cognate, and so on. Site visitors who are not familiar with such terms can read an explanation of them, together with examples, on the page entitled Language words. There is also information for site visitors who would like to learn more about the nature of the English language and about language families.

Wikipedia can be consulted for further information on all other aspects of language that are mentioned but not explained in detail in these web pages. For example: the differences between stress-timed and syllable-timed languages. Wikipedia also has samples of alphabets/language scripts that cannot be easily represented here; Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, etc.

A brief introduction to phonetics and phonology is available on this website for those wanting to know about the speech system and the reasons why some learners find it so hard to produce the sounds of English correctly.


* There is considerable controversy over the extent to which interference (negative transfer) accounts for the numerous mistakes made by anyone learning a new language. Some researchers claim that most mistakes are consistent with the learner's developing rule system, called an interlanguage, and are due to faulty inferences about the target language rather than to interference from the first.

The analysis of language difference on this website seems to come down in favour of the interference theory, since this is the term used again and again in the web pages. Certainly, it seems to me that a German student making the mistakes listed above is drawing false inferences about English based on patterns in his or her own language. However, this is not to imply that I believe all mistakes to be those of interference. I do not. And it is certainly not true that differences between the native language and English inevitably lead to the learner to making mistakes in those areas. The situation is much more complex.

It is to be hoped, however, that SLA (second language acquistion) research will soon provide some more definitive answers to this question. The optimal pedagogical methodology to help the students gradually eradicate mistakes clearly depends to a large extent on why he or she makes them.


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