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Learning a 2nd Language with Similarities to Your Native Language: Tips & Potential Errors

written by: Audrey Alleyne • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 10/14/2013

Does your native language play a significant role in your learning of a second language? Students will often recognize many similarities between their native language and the language they are learning. This has the potential for increasing learning as well as causing errors.

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    First Language Has Small but Important Role

    Professor Paul Nation, in his article, The Role of the First Language in Foreign Language Learning, states, “Research shows that the first language has a small but important role to play in communicating meaning and content.” This is indeed true about the role of native language in second language acquisition. The student will realize that the same patterns he/she used to learn his/her language: listening and comprehension, reading and writing, conversation, repetition, audiovisual aids, charts, maps, signs, role-play; are also used to teach the new language.

    The student of a second language will realize that in all languages, people express ideas, needs, and desires; make jokes; give descriptions; use idioms and vernacular language. What they need to know is to observe caution in how the second language operates, and that some things are called by different names in different languages. For example, an English-speaking student of French may automatically think that “une veste” in French means “a vest”, whereas it really means “a short jacket.”

    Most language books start by giving students some hope by pointing out to them that there are similarities in languages. They point out, for example, that most of the Romance languages originated from Latin; or that the Germanic languages have many similarities. You can use your native language to begin to learn a new language by recognizing similar word roots and word endings.

    For example, words ending in “dad” in Spanish usually equate to words ending in “ity” in English:

    • nacionalidad – nationality
    • universidad - university
    • libertad - liberty
    • fraternidad - fraternity

    In French, those ending in “té” usually equal “-ity” in English:

    • nationalité – nationality
    • université – university
    • liberté – liberty
    • fraternité - fraternity

    In German and English, there are many:

    • mutte r- mother
    • vater - father
    • wasser - water
    • sohn - son
    • mann - man
    • schwester - sister

    There are also those, which are exactly like:

    • name – name
    • pause - pause
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    Leaving Room for Errors

    However, knowledge of your native language can also encourage errors. Most of the time, these errors are caused by students attempting a literal translation of phrases. For example, native English speakers learning French or Spanish, if asked by a teacher to translate a sign which says “No Smoking,” will most likely attempt to translate literally with something like “Pas Fumant” or “Non Fumant" for French, and something like “No Fumando” for Spanish.

    They need to be taught that both the French and Spanish speaking people use the infinitive in this construction; hence “Défense de Fumer” for French and “No Fumar” for Spanish. In addition, the French do not literally say “No Smoking” but ‘Defense from Smoking.” As the student progresses in his/her study of the second language, he/she will discover many dissimilarities of this nature.

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    Accents

    Another way in which the native language affects the second language adversely, is the student’s native accent. The beginner student automatically attempts to pronounce the new language as it is written, or in a way similar to his own. This could cause a lot of embarrassment and misunderstanding. There are many jokes about Spanish people being misunderstood for asking questions like “Where is the b-e-e-t-c-h?” when they mean, “Where is the beach?” or French students saying “I l-e-a-v-e in Paris,” for, "I live in Paris.”

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    Sentence Constructions and Rhythm

    Sentence constructions and rhythm are another common failure. You will commonly hear a French or German person who has not mastered the English language using the word “during” or “since” to depict the word “for.” For example, “I have been living here for four years," their rendition would be, “I live here since four years," because they use the literal translation of those words, respectively in their languages, to construct such a sentence.

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    Bilingual Success

    Students of second languages need adequate guidance in addition to their discipline, motivation, and the will to succeed. They need to pay careful attention to detail. However, acquiring language is not all stressful. The role of native language in second language acquisition can be entertaining and enjoyable, not to mention that the end result of being able to communicate with another person in his language can be exhilarating.