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Is L1 clouding your judgment?

October 17, 2019

By trade, I am a Spanish teacher. I learned Spanish in classrooms and in the real world, and I'm intentional about creating opportunities that will help me to become ever more proficient. On the quest for proficiency, there is one factor that will always haunt me...


You see, English is my L1. And, like any L1, English likes to interfere with my acquisition of Spanish. L1 Interference–or language transfer–occurs when a learner's first language influences their acquisition of a secondary language.

L1 interference is the reason that students who speak English as a first language might try to write "mi amigo's gato" in Spanish, even though the 's can't be used in Spanish to show possession; it doesn't transfer. It's also why students might say "Me llamo es" or "Je m'appelle est".

Is this post even really about transfer?

Language transfer affects all of us as we learn new languages, and it also affects us as teachers. I don't think that the kind of transfer that I want to talk about in this post fits squarely within the textbook definition of L1 interference; but maybe it does. I'm going to be talking about interference that is sometimes conscious, sometimes subconscious; somewhere in the intersection of language acquisition and language learning.

Based on that last paragraph, you'll be relieved to know that I am not writing this post to TEACH you something; today, I am blogging because I want to ask you some questions so that you can think through them with me!

Let's get thinking!

Have you ever caught your L1 interfering with your L2? Language learners are not the only ones affected by L1 interference: teachers are, too! Photo by Karen Perhus from Adobe Stock 3991088

Interference or Clouded judgment?

As teachers, we make choices about the language that we will use to communicate with our students. We consider all of the possible ways to express an idea, and we consider which of those possibilities will be most appropriate for our students. We make linguistic choices based on what our students will understand, and also what will be the most engaging way to communicate a particular idea. As we are making these choices, we are being influenced by two different L1s: our own first language and the first language of our students. The latter is especially true when our students' L1 is our own L2!

Competición or Competencia?

Let me tell you a story:

When I explain the rules of The Unfair Game to early language learners and to teachers in workshops, I use the word 'competición' to describe the game. As you might be able to tell, competición is a very close cognate for competition. There is a more commonly used word for competition (competencia), and I've gone back and forth one.million.times. about which word I should use with early language learners. Most language learners can make the visual connection between competición/competition, and many can make the aural connection as well! Furthermore, competencia is a false cognate for competence. Taking into account all of these things AND after consulting many different friends who are native speakers of Spanish from different countries, I have historically opted to use the word competición, even though competencia is undeniably the better choice.

In other words, I chose to describe The Unfair Game as a competición because I could get away with it. Most native speakers of Spanish agree that it is an acceptable use. NO native speaker of Spanish (that I have discussed this with) has ever had a problem with competencia.

When I changed my mind

This summer, I worked with DC Public Schools World Language teachers, who are led by Allyson Williams, Manager of DCPS World Languages. In my afternoon workshop, a group of Colombian teachers kept giving me puzzled expressions as I began explaining the rules for The Unfair Game. I thought that their quizzical glances were reflecting the fact that they were judging me for choosing competición over competencia, but that wasn't the case. Afterward, one of the teachers approached me and explained what was going on: as I was describing The Unfair Game as a competición, she and her colleagues literally had NO idea what I was saying. My use of competición was completely incomprehensible to them. It wasn't until I began giving examples of competiciones that they understood what I was trying to say: it's a competition!

At that moment, I decided to use competencia and not look back. While my use of competición has been native-speaker approved, it has not always been native-speaker approved. I made the choice because most people said that I could get away with it, and it would be most comprehensible for my students. But on that day in DC, I realized that equipping my students with an easy-to-understand word, competición, wouldn't just result in a judgmental wince every now and again as they communicate with real speakers of Spanish; sometimes, it might keep them from being understood, even by a sympathetic native speaker.

But competencia... if I use competencia with my students, they will ALWAYS be understood by native speakers. I guess you could say that competencia won the word choice competencia... get it ;-)?

L2 interference?

Even though I had made my decision, I kept talking about this with the teacher that approached me. I really wanted to understand what was going on with this word. After all, FIFA competición to describe the World Cup! It must be legit, right?

That was when this teacher offered a very interesting insight: she said, "Perhaps the teachers you have been asking have lived in the US for awhile, and so competición sounds fine to them because they are used to hearing competition".

Now that is an interesting thought, isn't it? In that case, it wouldn't be L1 interfering with L2; it's L2 interfering with L1.

It made me think of something else...


Oh goodness gracious, I am squirming already for having typed it. The debate about how to appropriately name themed days of the week in Spanish classes has been raging for years. Bringing it up in a roomful of Spanish teachers is like bringing up the vaccine debate in a roomful of moms with toddlers: YOU JUST DON'T DO IT!

But I have to do it, because it's worth thinking through. Baile viernes literally translates to "Dance Friday", where 'dance' is a noun. So you've got a noun + noun combination, just ain't good Spanish, y'all. Most teachers–even most teachers who are native speakers of Spanish–don't seem to mind. It's fun, it's catchy, it rhymes; the consensus is that it's not a big deal.

Some teachers, though... some teachers REALLY hate it. I have one friend–one of the most compassionate, brilliant, and gentle-spirited women that I know–who is absolutely enraged by Baile Viernes and any title like it. (Of course, being the classy lady that she is, when I published my Lecturas diarias a few years ago and used the noun+noun titles for the themed days (Leyenda Lunes / Legend Monday, Música Miércoles / Music Wednesday), she reigned in her rage and suggested to me most politely that perhaps I might consider changing it.) She is a sympathetic listener, she totally buys in to the importance of making language comprehensible... and hearing or reading Baile Viernes makes her want to smash stuff.

What's the harm?

If I'm being honest, hearing 'Baile viernes' doesn't bother me at all– probably because of that pesky L1 interference! However, the concern that students are internalizing inaccurate constructions is completely valid, especially when the incorrect use of the language is reinforcing patterns transferred from L1. Those constructions already feel more natural to students, and so they are easy to acquire.

Reframing the question

Instead of asking "What's the harm [in keeping it the way it is]?", I asked myself, "What's the harm in changing it?". Switching my Lecturas Diarias titles would take little time on my part. Switching it to fit with an accurate Spanish-language construction would sound a little less catchy to my English L1 ears, but it would guarantee that no native speaker of Spanish would be driven mad by my linguistic choices. Well... at least not by that particular linguistic choice ;-) It was an easy change for me to make...

...but it's not always so straightforward. I shared a draft of this post with Allison Wienhold/Mis clases locas, who is the QUEEN of Baile viernes, before publishing. Since I prefer to not be blindsided by public conversations that involve me, I wanted to think through it with her privately first. For Allison, it's a lot more complicated. Baile viernes was a name that one of her students came up with (in all of their L1 interfering glory!), it was one of the first posts on her brand-new blog, and the routine to which it refers is now universally known and searched for by that name. So... what to do? I'm not even confident that I have an opinion; of course, whatever opinion I have would be influenced by my L1, so.... It's just not that simple. #NOJUDGMENT

I posed the same question to my friend that the DC teacher had brought up: "Do you think that native speakers who don't mind 'Baile viernes' are being influenced by English as their L2?"

"Maybe", she said. But then again, she lives her life primarily in L1 here in the US, too, and it hadn't had that affect on her.

Language is complicated, but I think that might be precisely what draws us in and keeps us wanting to learn more!

Is it right or wrong?

In every language, there are multiple ways of expressing the same idea. Sometimes, this is influenced by region: speakers in different countries or in different regions of the same country make different linguistic choices. For example, Soda or pop? Sneakers or tennis shoes? Shopping cart or buggy? Judgement or judgment? Oxford comma or... scratch that. There's no debate on that one ;-)

There isn't always a right or a wrong way to express an idea. Sometimes, however, there is a "not always wrong" and an "always right" option. For me, personally, I am noticing that it is in these situations that my L1 (English) interferes most blatantly with the conscious choices that I make in L2. Maybe it just means that I am leaning too heavily on my learning and not enough on my acquisition.

Like I said before, this isn't a telling post; it's an asking post. Personally, I opt for accuracy I think always, regardless of the history/my personal history of use of a term or expression. To keep the conversation going, why don't you tell me in the comments... what do YOU think?? Have there been instances in which you've caught your languages interfering with each other? What did you do about it??

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