How Different Is English From My Students’ L1?

As English language teachers and teacher educators, we spend countless hours thinking about English itself—its sounds, its symbols, its features, its use, its development…the list goes on and on.  We spend so much time thinking about English that we don’t often look to the students’ first language as a source of pedagogical help.  O

ne way knowing about our students’ L1 might help us is explaining why students make the errors that they do, some of which are due to cross-linguistic influence. The interaction of two or more languages in the mind can be seen as a positive thing, as it indicates the learner’s growing interlanguage and developing proficiency in the additional language.

But, if teachers are unaware of the differences between their students’ language(s) and English, they may not understand why English learners make some types of errors (and whether or not we should consider them “errors” at all—but that is a larger debate). It’s important to realize that cross-linguistic influence doesn’t account for all differences in student production, but it may help explain some unique constructions in speech and writing.

Below is a list of five features that will likely impact students’ production in English, along with a website that may assist teachers in finding out about their students’ languages with regard to that feature. By doing some brief research online, you might discover how your students’ language(s) contrast with English, and brainstorm some ideas for how you can address these differences in your teaching. If you are teaching adolescents or adults, you might consider having them conduct their own discovery about the different features of language. Feel free to add any websites you feel are particularly helpful in the comments below, or let us know how you have addressed these differences in lessons or activities.

  1. Which sounds are different between your students’ language(s) and English? Check the phonemic inventory, the most commonly used sounds or phonemes  in a language:
    1. The Speech Accent Archive: This website also has cultural profiles and resources for service providers on Iraqi, Burmese, Hmong, Haitian Creole, and others.
  2. How does the written system differ between your students’ language(s) and English? Are there characters? Letters? How many?:
    1. Omniglot: Index of languages by writing system.
  3. In which direction is your students’ language written? Left to right? Right to left?:
    1. Omniglot: Writing direction index.
  4. Are there cognates or similar phrases between your students’ language and English?
    1. Check to compare across Romance languages.
    2. Check Colorín Colorado for an English-Spanish cognate list for young learners).
    3. Check Cognate Linguistics for an extensive list of Romance language cognates.
  5. Is the word order the same in your students’ language in English? Does a verb precede a subject, or vice versa?
    1. Find out at Frankfurt International School: Language Differences.


About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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7 Responses to How Different Is English From My Students’ L1?

  1. MIchele Brown says:

    While this is handy for students whose language originates in Europe, it doesn’t help those of us whose students are primarily from Asia or Africa. Just saying…

    • Kristen Lindahl Kristen Lindahl says:

      Thanks for the comment, Michele! The cognate websites definitely apply to some of the more prevalent languages in Europe, but the earlier websites on phonemic inventories and writing systems include hundreds of languages from all areas of the globe. Omniglot is a great resource for many of the world’s language systems. Have fun browsing!

  2. Cara Altman says:

    I began learning Spanish on, and I’ve found that it does help me understand my Spanish-speaking ELLs better.

    • Kristen Lindahl Kristen Lindahl says:

      Yes, I’ve found language learning as a teacher can boost empathy for what your learners go through daily!

      • Maria Goriaminskaia says:

        I can definitely say that learning any new language makes you more perceptive to the way you teach it and helps you as a teacher to understand the students. I started studying Italan and I got a really clear picture of how much is needed to be fed in during one class, that the more doesn’t mean the better. As a teacher I’ve learnt some new tricks, in some cases I saw what could have been done to smoothen the process of acquiring new language. Summing up, if you have a chance to go to a language course – go for it!

  3. Walton says:

    This post is very useful. I find interference explains so much.

    There’s also this very in-depth book by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith, Learner’s English. It used to be available for free online in pdf format, although that might not be the case now as I can’t seem to find it anymore on the CUP site. But you can get it at Amazon:

    It covers the alphabet, phonetics, and key grammatical or syntactical differences between 20 major languages and English.

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