First and Target Language Conflict and Compromise

In an interesting contradiction of language acquisition, it is a given fact that the greatest challenge and blessing in learning a second language is the first language. For many people, they wonder how the first language can be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time.

In order to understand this mystery of second language acquisition, we will look at interference, facilitating, as well as suggestions for teachers to help students to deal with the challenges of the first language in second language acquisition.

Interference and Facilitating

A person’s first language can be a problem through what is called interfering. Interference is the assumptions a person brings from their first language to the second language.

Each language has distinct rules that governs its use in the form of syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology, etc. When a person learns a new language they bring these rules with them to the new language. Therefore, they are breaking the rules of the target language due to their obedience to the rules of their native language.

Below is an example of a native English speaker trying to speak Spanish

English Sentence: I want the red car
Spanish with English rules: Yo quiero el rojo coche
Correct Spanish Version: Yo quiero el coche rojo

In the simple example above, the native English speaker said: “rojo coche” (red car) instead of “coche rojo” (car red) in Spanish. In other words, the English speaker put the adjective before the noun instead of the noun before the adjective. This is a minor problem but it does sound strange to a native Spanish speaker.

It needs to be noted that the first language can also help in communicating in the second and this is called facilitating. In the example above, the majority of what the English speaker said is correct. The subject-verb-object order was correct as an example. This is because when the rules of the language are the same the facilitate the person’s learning of the target language and when the rules are different they interfere.

Helping with Interference and Facilitating

The goal of a teacher is to help a student to discard interference and hold on to facilitating. To do this a teacher needs to listen to the errors a student makes to understand what the problems are. Often it is good to explain the error the student is making and what native language rule they are clinging to that is causing the problem.

Another goal is to encourage direct thinking in the target language. This prevents translation and all of the errors that come with that.

Lastly, recognizing the benefits of facilitating by showing how the two languages are similar can help students. Generally, teachers focus on interference rather than facilitating but an occasional acknowledge of facilitation is beneficial.


A teacher needs to understand that the first language of their students is not always an enemy. The first language provides a foundation for the development of the target language. Through working with what the students already know the teacher can help to develop strong language skills in the target.

3 thoughts on “First and Target Language Conflict and Compromise

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  3. Arkady Zilberman

    You may be interested in another approach to the First (L1) and Target (L2) language conflict that is described in my eBook
    The negative impact of using the mother tongue in creating the second language system is associated with cross-translation. It does not mean that we should avoid L1 (the learner’s first language) completely. In Active Learning of English skills, described in this book, support in L1 is necessary, but it should be organized in a new way: the lesson context is shown in L1 but is never pronounced or spoken aloud. We use L1 to create a visual representation of the new text in L2 (the new language), and then redirect all efforts to working exclusively in L2.

    Most adults, when learning a foreign language, subconsciously revert to cross-translation to and from their mother tongue. Cross-translation is the main barrier most teachers ignore. When you cross-translate, you think in your native language while trying to speak in a foreign language.
    According to N. Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself: “Learning a second language, after the critical period for language learning has ended, is more difficult because, as we age, the longer we use our native language, the further it comes to dominating our linguistic map space. Because plasticity is competitive, it is so hard to learn a new language and end the tyranny of the mother tongue.”

    Adults must work harder than a child to master a new language because the brain protects the authority of its native language. Most teachers of EFL feel that when learners fall back on their mother tongue to help create the second language system, that is not a mistake, but a necessity. Detailed scrutiny of how the mother tongue is used in learning reveals the negative impact of this seemingly natural process: bilingual information is more difficult to memorize.

    You write about encouraging direct thinking in the target language. Unfortunately, all known methods don’t teach how to think in the target language. You may achieve this goal by using the patented method of Active Learning of English skills that offers a special tool for automatically turning off the innate habit of thinking in the mother tongue. You will find more details on my website


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