Does Learning Another Language Make You a Better Speaker of Your Native Language? Language Resources

When one learns multiple languages (or even just a second language), there’s a little something that often comes up called “language interference.”

Language interference is actually one part of “language transfer”, something that has both positive and negative effects on our acquisition of a new language. It’s natural for someone to look for connections or similarities between something new and something familiar, whether unconsciously or consciously, and that’s where “language transfer” comes into play.

When it really comes down to it, our native language (L1) is going to influence our learning of our target language (L2). It’s really just impossible to prevent our L1 from worming its way into the learning of our L2 – especially since the majority of the resources we’ll work with explain our L2 in our L1.

But it isn’t just our native language that affects the learning of our target languages. In fact, our target languages can also turn around and influence the ways that we use our native languages.

The Biggest Way I’ve Experienced Language Interference

Before I began to study new languages, I considered myself to be pretty good at spelling in my native language. Unfortunately, as I have learned to read, write and speak additional languages, these skills have slowly declined to the point that I make frequent spelling mistakes (and it didn’t help that my education was part in the US and part in the UK where there is quite a bit of spelling variation). This little quirk in my learning is often something that I think about as I watch autocorrect fix words I felt that I should have known how to spell more and more often.

Oddly enough, spelling in my native language came up the other day in a conversation I was having with my husband. He was looking through my Russian notes (which are written in French and Russian rather than English and Russian), and I had made quite a few silly grammar and spelling mistakes. He thought that was quite odd, especially since I can be a bit of a perfectionist at times, so he asked me if it was normal to still make spelling mistakes in my native language at twenty-something years of age.

I looked at him and blinked. “Well, yeah…” I said. “I’m sure you do too, but since we type everything now, autocorrect makes us feel like we’re better at spelling than we actually are.”

And then I thought about it for a moment and realized that 1) I don’t write as often as I once did and that 2) I get all the similar spellings of words in different languages mixed up in my head when I’m writing and I’m no longer sure of what the correct spelling of a word is in the language I’m writing in.

Here are just a couple examples of what I mean:

I often confuse s, c, and z in my spelling. It also doesn’t help that I’ve lived both in the UK and the US and there are variations in spellings with these letters as well.
Ex. Actualize and Actualise
Realize and Realise
Civlization and Civilisation

Linguist does not have an e in English and so I am always spelling this wrong due to the fact that it does in French. Hence, eurolinguiste. It’s just how I see the word in my head.

So then I started to wonder if learning other languages did more beyond affecting my ability to spell words properly – for better or for worse.

After a bit of pondering, I started to realize that language interference, or language transfer, hasn’t stopped at my spelling accuracy. In fact, it likes to show up in a variety of scenarios, especially when I least expect it. Thankfully, however, it has both positive and negative influences on my native language.

Ways that I’ve Regressed in my Native Language by Knowing Other Languages

My spelling (now) is just horrible.

Sometimes knowing words in a lot of languages, causes me to doubt what a word might be in another language. In fact, the hardest words for me to remember are the ones that are the same in multiple languages. It’s sometimes easier to remember a word that’s vastly different than it is to remember a word that is similar.

I code-switch in situations I shouldn’t. I sometimes find myself mistakenly switching to a language that the person I’m talking with doesn’t speak out of habit (we constantly shift between French and English at home). It also results in the entries I have over on the Eurodictionary.

I occasionally use the wrong preposition when I’m speaking my native language. Because the prepositions used in different languages vary, their influence sometimes carries over into my English.

Ways that I’ve Improved in my Native Language Knowing Other Languages

I am sometimes able to use more inventive words than my peers because of shared vocabularies with other languages.

Having vocabularies in other languages sometimes makes it easier for me to remember words in new languages because of their similarities. For example, knowing Croatian really gave me a leg up with Russian. This doesn’t specifically apply to my native language, but I still see it at as positive effect language transfer has had for me.

I’m more likely to understand words I’ve never come across before while reading because of my wider, multi-language vocabulary.

I’ve become more observant. Knowing how my L1 affects my L2 allows me to use that knowledge to better understand my L2. When I talk with native speakers of my L2 language in my L1 language, I pay close attention to the grammar mistakes they make because it clues me into the correct way to use my L2.

How I Make an Effort to Get Around Negative Language Transfer

There is one method that I’ve found really effective when it comes to limiting the role negative language transfer plays in my day to day life. It’s to balance out the input I’m receiving in each language. I find that negative language transfer happens most when I spend the majority of my time operating in one language, neglecting the others. If I make an effort to read and listen more equally in each language, I am better able to maintain and separate each of them in my head.

Of course, when you get up to 8 languages like I have, this becomes more and more difficult on a daily basis, so the languages that are important tend to rotate. The good thing, however, is that the further along I get in a language, the less “learning” I have to do. Instead, I only need to do “maintenance” which can be a less intense time investment.

Conclusion

With bits and pieces of nearly a dozen languages floating around in my head, interference is something that I deal with quite regularly. As stated by the authors of [How People Learn](http://www.csun.edu/~SB4310/How%20People%20Learn.pdf), “All new learning involves transfer based on previous learning.” In other words, there’s no getting around the influence your native language(s) will have on the languages you’re learning and vice versa. It can be somewhat frustrating at times, but it’s definitely something that can be worked on and its influence can be made to work for you rather than against you.

What about you?

Have you ever had an experience with either language interference or language transfer?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Tips for Language Learning | Eurolinguiste



I'm a language lover, traveler and musician sharing my adventures and language learning tips over at Eurolinguiste. Join me on Facebook for daily language learning and travel tips!

  • First off, I’ve been reading your blog forever but have never really commented before! But this post stuck out to me so much 🙂 After learning German, I became so much more aware of my English and whether I was using accusative or dative!

  • First off, I’ve been reading your blog forever but have never really commented before! But this post stuck out to me so much 🙂 After learning German, I became so much more aware of my English and whether I was using accusative or dative!

    • Thanks Jordan! I’m glad this post resonated with you. I appreciate you taking a moment to leave a note and share your experience!

    • Thanks Jordan! I’m glad this post resonated with you. I appreciate you taking a moment to leave a note and share your experience!

  • I live in Luxembourg, where there are 3 official languages: Luxembourgish, French and German. I’m Hungarian, that’s full of German words and I speak English. So when I go shopping and another expat asks me what is pepper in X language I get confused, because a word pops into my mind, but at that moment I have absolutely no idea in what language it means pepper.

    • That’s really interesting! I have that happen to me sometimes too where the word in the wrong language comes to mind first.

    • That’s really interesting! I have that happen to me sometimes too where the word in the wrong language comes to mind first.

  • Learning Russian has definitely improved my English. For example, I never understood when to use “less” vs. “fewer” until I learned a similar concept in Russian, and then it suddenly clicked.

    I did part of my education in the UK, too, so I understand the struggle of American vs. British spelling. Strangely enough, I used to spell many things the British way before I went there, but after I came back to the US, I Americanized my spelling. 🙂

    Also, we should speak Russian together sometime! That would be fun!

    • That’s a really good point! There are definitely some grammar things that I understand better in other languages because of new ones that I’ve studied. I’ve especially noticed this in my note-taking because I’ll note things in multiple languages to ensure that I understand something when I review it later.

      And speaking together would be fun!

      • We should plan something then! Unfortunately I rarely check Disqus notifications… but I’m on Twitter pretty often with username @natalie_ if you want to set something up. I think it’d be easier to set something up with you than people in wildly different time zones. I mean, we aren’t on the same time zone, but we are relatively close, I think.

        • If you’re in the US, then I would say we are. 🙂 I’ll find you on Twitter. Thanks Natalie!

    • That’s a really good point! There are definitely some grammar things that I understand better in other languages because of new ones that I’ve studied. I’ve especially noticed this in my note-taking because I’ll note things in multiple languages to ensure that I understand something when I review it later.

      And speaking together would be fun!

  • Jonathan Huggins

    I remember when I first moved to Paris I started sending emails back to my parents with sudden spelling mistakes in English like “litterature”, “ressources”, “abreviation”, “appartment”, “coton”, “danse”, “dependant”, “mariage”, “trafic” and “adress”. I felt like Hamlet, “To double or not to double the consonant?” Also, by being constantly exposed to my students mistakes in English, I sometimes started to forget what the correct forms were. If you hear or see something wrong enough times, it starts to sink in. I still suffer with prepositions, collocations and simple expressions, so I always double guess them (that should be second guess!), so I end up having to consult search engines like the BYU Corpus of Contemporary American English. This is unfortunately the impure state of my English after having lived outside of the US for 14 years.

    In terms of pronunciation, I’m very self-conscious when using French or Spanish loan words while speaking English because I forget how monolinguals pronounce them and I believe that if I use the authentic version I’ll be perceived as pedantic. Pronouncing place names and names of famous people is also a challenge because of interference. I sometimes envy monolinguals because they don’t have to deal with interference.

    • Yes to all of this. I’m constantly doubting how to spell things and which prepositions are the correct ones to use. And I too am self-conscious about the ways that I pronounce foreign words because there can be such a big difference.

  • Dorothée

    A word I always have struggle with: “long-term”. I tend to put an hyphen in French too^^
    Interference comes between the languages I’m learning too. I’m now used to check whenever I have a doubt (and that’s very very often).

    • It’s very often for me too. 🙂 But the benefits of knowing other languages definitely outweigh the interference that comes with it!

  • It can be a challenge. I’m fluent in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language and use each daily. The switch from ASL to spoken languages can be especially frustrating. Sometimes there are signs that just don’t translate well into words. But I find that all the grammar mix-ups and vocabulary confusion is a good thing. Just part of the beauty of communication.

    • Meg

      Yeah! I hear you. It can be really frustrating not being able to communicate the same exact meaning in the language you want because there’s no precise equivalent.

    • Agreed. The beauty of communication lies in its imperfections. 🙂

  • It can be a challenge. I’m fluent in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language and use each daily. The switch from ASL to spoken languages can be especially frustrating. Sometimes there are signs that just don’t translate well into words. But I find that all the grammar mix-ups and vocabulary confusion is a good thing. Just part of the beauty of communication.

  • Meg

    My native language is spanish, but I also speak english and I’m learning japanese.

    A few months ago I was talking to my sister and without noticing I made a long sentence with a final question using those three languages! (I think I started in english and changed midway to spanish and then ended with a question in japanese XD!). The perplexed expression on my sister’s face made me realize what I had done.

    I’ve been using english quite a lot lately and sometimes when I’m talking in my native language (spanish) I forget how to say some words and I can only remember how they are said in english, so I have to make the awkward question (to my native spanish speaker friends) of “Can you tell me how do we say ______ in spanish?” (¿Cómo es que se dice _______ en español?).

    I’m also a fiction writer aspiring to become professional and my writing notes are often in a mixture of those three languages! It is incredible and at the same time a bit frustrating because sometimes I don’t find a way to communicate the same exact meaning in another language.

    • I definitely mixed my languages when I was working on my dissertations at school, so I can relate to you on that one. I would write and then start to read over what I had written and realize I had sentences that were in French, German and English. It was frustrating, but definitely interesting to experience.

      I too remember words in some languages and not in others – and it isn’t necessarily the word in my native language that comes to me first!

      Thanks for chiming in and sharing your experiences, Meg!