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Using Language Transfer Theory to Accelerate Second Language Acquisition

Homepage Forums Brain-Based Learning Q&A Using Language Transfer Theory to Accelerate Second Language Acquisition

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    • #9437
      AvatarLezley Lewis

      Using Language Transfer Theory to Accelerate Second Language Acquisition:
      How Fast Can the Student Go?

      Learning a second language has always been a part of a student’s educational trajectory; especially if a student’s second language is English. Schools are the great panacea for acquiring English and as the United States becomes more linguistically diverse, the pressure to accelerate English language acquisition increases. But how fast can the student go? How quickly can one become proficient in a second language? What do we know and understand about supporting the brain’s natural ability to learn languages?

      Language Transfer Theory
      Transfer is a traditional term from psychology of learning which means imposition of previously learned patterns onto a new learning situation (Isurin, 2005). The phenomenon of Cross Linguistic Influence (CLI) occurs when an individual is acquiring a second language (L2) and the influence of the first language (L1) interacts in some way with the acquisition. The child can transfer to a new language the system of meaning he already possesses on his own (Vygotsky, 1962). What is learned in one language does not have to be re-learned in another (Garcia, 2009). This transfer of cognitive skills and language structure can be facilitated by the underlying organizational principles of the languages and the learner’s metalinguistic awareness of that knowledge (Cohen,, 2005). Renowned language researcher, Jim Cummins, posits that transfer of academic skills across languages does not happen automatically. Instead, it is most important that students be given extensive practice using both languages in academic ways. An adage shared by language educators states, “You are only as good in your second (language) as you are in your first!”

      Cross Linguistic Influence
      There are two types of language transfer in CLI: positive and negative. Positive transfer (facilitation) occurs when the two language systems’ structures align well with each other and provide an ease of transition. An example of positive language transfer is cognates. Cognates are words from different that are related in spelling and/or meaning. Utilizing positive transfer is key to accelerating learning. Conceptual knowledge transfers; it is just the linguistic labels that have to be taught (Garcia, 2009). Classrooms that use labels and present visuals that assist the student in assigning words to concepts set the context for language acceleration.

      Negative transfer (inhibition) exist when two language systems do not match well in structure and meaning and the ability to draw upon one system for understanding to transition to the other is not readily available. The ability to acquire quickly a second language system can be predicted by the ease of transfer. In second language acquisition, the knowledge of the native language (Ll) in acquisition of a foreign language (L2) can indeed have a facilitation or inhibition effect on the learner’s progress in mastering a new language (Insurin, 2005). In many instances, the inhibition effect is perceived as “confusion” or “overwhelmed” rendering the learning occurring through trial and error as ineffective. When in reality, learning what “doesn’t work” is an important lesson in itself.

      Language Processing & The Brain: Deficit or Delay?

      Learning two systems of language processing requires a new understanding for how the brain manages multiple language systems. Different brain tissue is recruited in bilingual children as an adaptation to the task of managing two languages (Conboy, 2013). The brain’s increased cognitive load, imposed by switching between languages, may require additional processing time. The average English language learner takes five to seven years to demonstrate proficiency in a second language (Thomas & Collier, 2009). It is important that the increased processing time not be viewed as a deficit, but rather, as the brain expanding its capacity. Differences in the brain areas used for dual versus monolingual language processing should not be interpreted as delays or deficits; instead, they should be viewed as adaptations to the need for using additional cognitive resources (Conboy, 2013). The differences in cognitive control functions across bilingual and monolingual individuals may be construed as bilingual advantages (Conboy, 2013).

      In addition to CLI, a students’ knowledge of the structures that comprise their native language are enhanced by the acquisition of the second. The child learns to see his language as one particular system among many, to view its phenomena under more general categories, and this leads to awareness of his linguistic operations (Vygotsky, 1962). The greater the student awareness of the role, function and interplay of language structures, the rate of acceleration increases. Each student’s unique language and learning experiences set the stage for accelerating new language and learning experiences. Capitalizing on transference, understanding cross linguistic influences and customizing the learning for the uniqueness of the learner and their language experiences are the keys to acceleration.


      Collier, V. & Thomas, W. (2009). Educating English Learners for a Transformed World. Fuentes Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

      Conboy, B. (2013) Neuroscience Research: How Experience with One or More Languages Affects the Developing Brain. California’s Best Practices for Young Dual Language Learners: Research Overview Papers. California Department of Education (CDE) State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care. Sacramento, CA 95814.

      Lewis, L., Rivera, A. & Roby, D. (2012). Identifying & Serving Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Gifted Students. Waco, Texas, Prufrock Press Inc.

      García, Ofelia. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, Ma. and Oxford: Basil/Blackwell.

    • #28525
      AvatarLisa Baker

      Thank you for posting this information. As a EELP teacher, I am fortunate to work with 3,4 and 5 year olds with a variety of developmental delays. Many of my clients are native Spanish speakers. Not only are most learning to overcome a language processing issue, but they are trying to do this while learning English as a second language. What I marvel at is how well these children progress. We speak primarily English in our class. We do infuse a few key command words to help facilitate understanding ( bano, Aqui, etc). The remark that I get most often from parents is that our ESOL students often prefer English to their native language. I am still not sure why this is the case as some of our students are only present a few days a week. I am also surprised at how quickly our “English- only” speakers pick up Spanish words. One “native English” student I taught last year had about a 25 word vocabulary, but 1/2 of those were Spanish words! I guess there was more Cross Linguistic Influence there than I realized.

    • #63318
      AvatarAlicia Alvarez-Calderón

      Language transfer is one of the basis for bilingual education. It is important for educators to understand that the use of the native language for instruction or as support for instruction will not hinder the second language acquisition process. It is great and exciting to read about the connections between brain based research and bilingualism!

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