Linguistic interference: eliminate or ignore?


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Proficiency in several languages tends to trigger the interaction of language repertoire units. This interaction of languages are ubiquitous and labelled variously depending on causing factors (e.g. code-mixing, code-switching, language loss, etc.). Thus, I am going to address the issue of linguistic interference (a.k.a. language transfer, L1 interference, and crosslinguistic influence) which occurs as a result of the influence of one language to another.

Linguistic interference is defined as a linguistic overlap when a particular linguistic unit refers to the systems of two languages simultaneously (Haugen, 2001). In other words, it is the transfer of linguistic units wether from L1 to L2, vice versa or many other relations (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2008). Given theory is to some extent similar to the notion of code-mixing. The latter one however is a broad term describing the simultaneous use of two languages, whereas linguistic interference regards more specific layers of language such as grammar, syntax, stylistics, semantics, lexis, phonological and orthographic.

To make it clear, I will provide an example of linguistic interference occurring in the speech of English, Russian and Kazakh speakers. A word library in Kazakh (кітапхана) is sometimes replaced by a Russian equivalent causing lexical interference: Мен библиотекаға бара жатырмын (I am going to the library). In this case the Russian equivalent obtains underlined Kazakh suffix –ға so it kazakhizates this word. Another example between English and Russian forming grammar interference: Tourists visit our city rarely. Wrong position of the adverb of frequency is due to the peculiarity of its Russian equivalent. In Russian we can say both туристы редко (rarely) посещают наш город or туристы посещают наш город редко (rarely). This phenomenon is inherent in language learners and multilinguals and often considered as a deviation in speech construction or translation.

Linguistic interference taking place in classroom settings is often regarded by the teacher as a negative phenomenon, as a mistake. However, overemphasizing the importance of eliminating linguistic interference in student’s speech might in turn lead to language anxiety which will definitely aggravate the language acquisition process. Moreover, not knowing the necessary structure in target language might be compensated by the borrowing from L1 for instance. Of course it makes the speech sound ridiculous, but at least it enables a learner to try to speak in the target language and learn from mistakes at the beginning level.

What factors do you think trigger these transfers of linguistic structures? Do you agree that linguistic interference in language learners should be ignored and considered as a transition stage of language acquisition which helps a learner to fill the gaps in language proficiency through the use of elements from another language?


Haugen, E. (2001). The ecology of language. The ecolinguistics reader: Language, ecology and environment, 57-66.

Jarvis, S., & Pavlenko, A. (2008). Crosslinguistic influence in language and cognition. Routledge.

1 thought on “Linguistic interference: eliminate or ignore?

  1. Excellent work on this post (5/5). A couple minor typos to fix, and it’ll be prefect:
    (Jarvis, & Pavlenko, 2008). -> No comma after first author
    These phenomenon –> Phenomenon is one of those irregular nouns, like curriculum and alumni.


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