Is L1 clouding your judgment?

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…

…ENGLISH!!!

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…

BAILE VIERNES

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, and…well…it 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??

23 thoughts on “Is L1 clouding your judgment?

  1. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg says:

    Just a thought – What if we inserted ‘de’ in between to appease the purists? ‘el baile de viernes’ (Friday’s Dance); ‘la música de miércoles’ (Wednesday’s Music)…

    • Martina Bex says:

      That is what many teachers do! I guess the question remains as to just how important it is to say it the right way. I’ve made my own decision (whenever I can, I’ll stick with accuracy), but you know… language is alive, and it evolves as people create with it. So, I love having these conversations and trying to figure out what our responsibility is as language teachers (that may or may not be native speakers of the language), but then also be okay with everyone arriving at their own conclusion! I think the ‘de’ works great!

      • Jill Wagner says:

        I am with you on the titles. They are fine the way they are. They are catchy and the students love them. They look forward to Language class.
        I am not the bestest at English and yet you know what I mean… lol
        Thank you for all your insightful columns and teaching ideas…

  2. Dana says:

    Great question, Martina! I commiserate with the teachers who use a word because a student came up with it, or because it will ease student comprehension. I also think there is real power in using the words as accurately as possible. Students will learn it how we say it without ever knowing we struggle with this!

  3. Mirna Deakle says:

    Martina, Thank you fir this post. I am a native Spanish speaker. I was 27 when I moved to the US and started learning English. I have a Law Degree from Mexico and I just earn my Masters in Spanish. I believe both L1 and L2 are influenced. I had a professor in graduate school from Spain that he continuously criticized that my research papers and essays saying that my writing was influenced by English (my L2) . I tried real hard to keep the purity of my L1 (Spanish), but I realized that I can try hard, but something happens unconsciously that I produce Spanish with English influence. With this I totally understand you.
    Mirna

  4. Esther Hammerschmidt says:

    Hi, I am from Colombia .When you use the expression “Baile Viernes” with people who speak English, quickly understand what you mean, but if you say it in front of people who do not understand English, surely will think and perhaps say that you speak a very rare Spanish.

    If you want to say that every Friday you will dance in class it’s better if you say “Viernes bailable” o “el baile de los viernes” ; if you say “musica de miercoles, can be misinterpreted by the other meaning that has the word Wednesday and is not good at all.

    • Martina Bex says:

      To me, that seems like the biggest problem with L1 interference– when it causes us to make choices (like competición/competencia) that aren’t just cringey, but incomprehensible. Thanks for commenting– I am so interested in all of this!

  5. Saundra says:

    I struggle with this CONSTANTLY! I grew up in Miami and learned Spanish in a bilingual school (the first in the US!) so my grammar and writing are pretty spot on. However, when I speak Spanish, I sometimes wonder if it is influenced by English words that have been turned in a Spanish word (Spanish is spoken all over Miami).

    • Martina Bex says:

      Wow! I’d love to sit and talk with you one day about your experience in a groundbreaking program like that, especially now that you can see where it has led. My question re: transfer would be… does the answer to that question matter to you? And in what ways? (If your Spanish IS being influenced by English, do you care? And why/why not?)

  6. Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell says:

    Hey Martina, love this post! Terms like “Baile viernes” have always grated on me as well. 😉

    I’ll add the perspective of a mom raising bilingual children. I think a critical question here is “Which is worth more: the audience that will comprehend this as ‘normal’ Spanish or the ease with which my learners will grasp it?” My kids show off L1/L2 interplay in really intriguing ways I never anticipated, and many times it’s made me decide that going the “normal Spanish” route is worth the extra effort. Sometimes they pop out with something that is comprehensible to me but makes me cringe from the transfer and I’ll tell them, “No, get your English out of that. It’s ____.”

    On the issue of the word competencia specifically- this non-native mom & workshop leader will throw some more controversy into the mix. I have always elected to use the word concurso. 🙂 Competencia is also the word for competency (important to us language conference aficionados!) and in this sense I believe it’s something closer to “rival” as a person or in business competition. Supposedly it’s accepted as a “competition” in Latin America but not Spain (so we could have a similar discussion about “bolígrafo”). BUT – the RAE accepts competición as a synonym of competencia and rivalidad and the action and effect of competing, without any usage notes at all, so sometimes I wonder if part of our L1 transfer is to second-guess ourselves way too much. 😀

    • Martina Bex says:

      Kidding of course 😉 I’m going to keep thinking through that. And I think that the question you use with your own children is super valuable– it puts the conversation in the appropriate perspective! What is the ultimate goal of our programs, after all? CONNECTION. And if ease for our learners inhibits connection, then what’s the point?

  7. Chip McM says:

    I’ll never use Baile Viernes. I’d like to ask native speakers to weigh in on the use of NO. I’ve seen plenty classroom signs that say NO SOMBREROS and the like. Those types of messages drive me crazy. I know it’s such a small thing but it bugs me nonetheless.

  8. Sherri Davis says:

    I teach in a school that is almost 70% heritage learners. However, they are often 2nd and 3rd generation and English is really their L1 and and many of their parents are illiterate Spanish speakers so I see the results of L1 interference all day long. They argue about grammar, they don’t think gender agreement with articles/nouns/adjectives should concern them, etc. I feel like I need to hold the L2 banner even higher, so to speak, because the where else are they going to get accurate instruction in grammar if not in Spanish class?

    • Martina Bex says:

      I’m glad you brought this up, because I have heard it both ways: 1) the perspective you are bringing (as language teachers, we have a responsibility to teach the language as accurately as we can) and 2) that language is living, breathing, evolving, and inextricably connected to its speakers, so there is no real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is not simple, and one that we see in English (and all languages)! To what extent should we expect students to use ‘RAE-approved’ language? What kinds of linguistic taboos are permissible? For example, gender-neutral language in Spanish. The RAE announced their position against it last year (or the year prior?), yet will it always be that way? This is such an important perspective taht you have brought into the conversation! Thank you!

  9. Regina Coston says:

    These are great questions that you posed here. While I completely agree with you that we do make decisions about word choice and verb forms for our students in our classroom that make sense based on their proficiency, may I humbly suggest that there may be another reason to avoid interference.

    I am a learner of Spanish and although I have a masters degree in Spanish, I received it years ago. In 2000! I’m a working mom and I just don’t have as much time as I want to devote to Spanish.

    I spend time my own time reading your blog, misclaseslocas, etc. and as a learner of Spanish these catchy phrases seep into my own language acquisition. Cognitively, I know they are catchy L1 transfers but it still settles in my mind and clouds my confidence when translating other phrases. I wonder how this affects our students acquisition and how it may behove us to use correct structures that will help them feel confident about using the correct structures in the future also.

    I love the discussion. Thank you for all the sharing over the years.

    • Martina Bex says:

      Regina, I agree. It normalizes (or perhaps even fossilizes) incorrect structure in my own brain and that extends to all aspects of my own language use. Thanks for adding this perspective to the conversation!

  10. Shem Bennett says:

    I’m an ESL teacher in Japan that’s started dipping my toes into CI waters. As I’ve done so, I’ve found L2 interference a problem! I’m used to simplifying my expressions so that they’re easy to understand for Japanese native speakers, but in the process sometimes without even realising I’m saying things that just aren’t real English, despite being a native speaker myself. I guess there’s also a question as to how native we want our students to become and how much we should accept “World Englishes” as valid, with distinctly non-native, but comprehensible turns of phrase from non-native speakers.

    Slightly tangential, but recently in Japan there’s been some debate about name order and I’ve had the discussion with a few co-workers. Ancient figures in Japan are referred to in the traditional name order surname first name (eg Oda Nobunaga) yet nowadays people use a western order of first name surname (Shinzo Abe). There has been some discussion as to whether or not Japanese people should change their names to the “western” order in English or not. Chinese people still use a surname first order and as long as there is a clear standard it doesn’t really matter which order. I’ve agonized a little over which order to promote, but my Japanese coworker says to leave it to the students because having a difference like that can lead to communication about cultural differences, which is where things start to get interesting anyway. In many ways I agree.

    Perhaps your use of competición has value partly because it leads to misunderstanding and the interesting conversations that result from that. Look at your interaction with the Columbian teacher in your post.

    • Martina Bex says:

      Really interesting! I was unaware of the changes/discussion surrounding name order in Japanese. I love the idea of presenting the conversation to the students and letting them choose which way they would prefer to be called: informed decisions!! I also do turns of phrase in Spanish that sometimes turn out to be bad Spanish 😉 and of course I am not a native speaker so it probably happens more frequently for me than for you in English! I’ve found that it is important to surround myself with people that know the language and understand my goals so I can discuss these more complex things with them.

  11. Claudia Elliott says:

    These are great questions but I just don’t think it will cause a permanent damage in students. There are a lot of different ways to say so many things and then you have the catchy songs. “Soy yo” “vine el Coco”. There are a lot of countries that have a stronger influence of English so it is frequent to hear “llámame para atrás “. Is it correct? I do think we need to make intentional decision about language and keep it as standard as possible but using a language that will be 100% approved by the millions of speakers is very stressful for any teacher. I am a native speaker and I still have had conversations with native speaker students about words or how to say things. Language is too complex and rapidly evolving.

    • Martina Bex says:

      Totally agree about the complexities and evolution of language. It’s what makes it so enticing! There are always new secrets to learn and new things to create. How would you personally differentiate between times that it is okay to use language that you know is inaccurate and times that it isn’t? Like, what would be some reasons or generalized characteristics of situations in which you would say, “Meh, it’s fine”?

Leave a Reply