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Native Language Interference in Learning a Second Language

Updated on December 23, 2017
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent many years teaching EFL and ESL. He taught EFL in Taiwan during the 70s, ESL in the U.S., and most recently EFL in Thailand.

Second Languages


Difficulties in EFL and ESL Teaching and Learning

Native language interference is a major problem in EFL and ESL teaching and learning. In my years of teaching ESL and EFL, I have seen so many students with pronunciation and sentence structure difficulties. Most of these problems stem from interference from the native language when speaking and writing English. This is because it is a natural tendency to think that sounds and sentence structure in English are the same as those characteristics in one's own native language.

Native Language Interference

Interference from a student's native language is mostly in the form of pronunciation and sentence structure errors. Pronunciation mistakes are due to the fact that spoken sounds or phonemes differ from language to language. Since I have had experience teaching both Taiwanese and Thai ESL and EFL students in my life, I will focus on those phonemes in English which give these students trouble. Some of these phonemes are:

1. Final Aspirated Consonants:

Examples of final aspirated consonants would be the "p" and "b" in pop and Bob; the "t" and "d" in test and did; the "k" in coke; and the "ch" in church. This is a problem because the Thai language doesn't have any final aspirated consonants. The final aspirated consonants in English are all pronounced as glottal stops in both Taiwanese and Thai.

2. Final "s" and "sh" Consonants:

Examples of these consonants are found in the words: gas, mouse, English, and finish. In the Thai language there are no final "s" and "sh" sounds; therefore, when Thai pronounce these words, they chop off the final sound and it becomes "gat" for gas; "mow" for mouse, "Englit" for English, and "finit" for finish.

3. Final "l" Consonant:

In the Thai language, the final "l" consonant is pronounced like an "n" sound. Most Thai will pronounce my name Paul as "Bawn" and central as "sentawn".

4. Beginning "r" and "l" Consonants:

Although there is a distinction between "r" and "l" in standard Central Thai, many students interchange these sounds due to interference from their native dialect which in many cases is not Central Thai but one of the dialects spoken in other regions of the country. When speaking English, Robert will be pronounced as "Loboet" and "Riza" as "Lisa".

5. Beginning "ch", "sh", and "s" Consonants:

Many Thai have difficulty distinguishing the pronunciations of "ch", "sh", and "s" as beginning consonants in both Thai and English. For example, Charles will be pronounced as "Sao" and Chiang Mai as "Siang Mai".

6. Beginning Consonant Blends:

Although some beginning consonant blends like "bl" and "pl" exist in Thai, they are hard for a lot of Thai to pronounce, especially if standard Thai is not their first dialect. What happens is that the second consonant in the blend is dropped and the sound "bla" in Thai is pronounced as "ba". "Bl" as in blue; "fl" as in flat; "pr" as in pray; "str" as in street; and "sc" as in score are very hard for students to pronounce. The word score would be pronounced as "sa-kaw."

7. Beginning "d/t", "b/p", and "g/k" Consonants:

In Thai, not all beginning consonants are aspirated. This could be a problem when trying to distinguish between these minimal pairs in English. Tennis would be pronounced as "den-nit" and coke as "gok."

8. Beginning "n" and "l" Consonants:

Many Taiwanese students have difficulty hearing the difference between beginning "n" and "l" sounds. I once had a student who couldn't hear the difference between "night" and "light"

Sentence structure errors in English are also caused by interference of the native language. Some of the most common mistakes I have seen are:

1. Non-use of the Stative Verb "to be":

When I write, "The girl fat." on the board, most students can find nothing wrong with this sentence. That is because when you say this sentence in Thai, "Puying oan." there is no word in Thai to represent the stative verb, "is." The students are literally translating word by word and don't realize that the verb "is" is necessary to make this a correct sentence. Taiwanese students have the same problem.

2. Adjectives Placed After Nouns:

I can't believe the number of Thai students whom I have seen write, "game computer" instead of "computer game." In the Thai language, adjectives follow nouns instead of preceding them as is the case in English.

3. No Distinction Between "he" and "she":

In the Chinese Mandarin and Taiwanese spoken languages, there is no distinction between the pronouns "he" and "she." I once had a college Chinese history professor who often misused these pronouns when lecturing. There is also no differentiation between "he" and she" in spoken Thai.

4. Verb Tenses Formed Incorrectly:

In Taiwanese and Thai, there is one base verb and no past or past participle forms as in English. Thai and Taiwanese distinguish tenses by inserting words before or after the verb. There is no conjugation of verbs which gives students many problems.

5. Capitalization and Punctuation Errors:

Thai EFL students make many mistakes in capitalization and punctuation in writing. This is not surprising because there is no capitalization and punctuation in written Thai.

There certainly are other forms of native language interference which will hinder ESL and EFL students in learning English. Hopefully, a teacher who has knowledge of the student's native language will be able to anticipate these problems and use exercises in class to correct them. This will be the subject of a future article.

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© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


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    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thank you very much for the interesting story about your grandmother. It does show that people make a lot of literal translations when they are not completely thinking in their new language.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thank you very much for your great review of this hub. I think that past participles are found in German. Thanks for voting up this hub and finding it useful and interesting.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thank you very much for your very insightful comments. I really appreciate them as well as you sharing, tweeting, and pinning this hub.

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 4 years ago from Northern Ireland

      I do not speak any other language sufficiently well to have met these problems, however, my grandmother was Welsh and that was her native language, though she spoke fluent English. She once told me, as a child, to "put a cup of water on the fire" - so I did and she asked me what I was doing. She had meant to ask me to put the kettle on the stove but had made the literal translation from Welsh.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      How easy it is for us to overlook the differences that make learning another language so difficult. You have made excellent points with excellent examples, as always.

      I wonder is past participle only found in the English language?

      Voted up, useful, and interesting!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Paul, these native language interferences are bound to occur till such time the thought process is in the native language. This holds good for any language that a native learns as a second language, I believe.

      Voted up, interesting. Shared, pinned and tweeted.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you very much for reading and your comments. I'm glad you find this useful for your thesis. As long as you refer to me, I have no problem with you citing parts of the article. Good luck on your thesis.

    • profile image

      Sulaganya Punyayodhin 5 years ago

      This is so useful to my Thesis Part, may I cite by summarize this ? Do promise to refer in some not all... I do thank you so much in advance. Sulaganya

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thank you very much for reading this hub and your insightful comments. Pronunciation errors are just as common as grammatical errors among my students. Many times students are pronouncing English words like "Mister" "Mi-sa-te" because the Thai language has next to none of the consonant blends like "st", "br", "cl" which we have in English. Thanks for sharing.

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      I very like this hub...

      Ok, that is a joke. It is also an example of one of the most common errors that I've come across. I hear the he and she error often too. Most of my students will interchange them while speaking. I've heard other mistakes similar to the ones you've mentioned too. This is a good hub and I feel it has very useful information in it. Voting up and sharing.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thanks for reading and the great comments. Kids learning foreign languages today have access to the Internet which you and I never had years ago. Learning languages through podcasts and other sites on on-line has really played a big part in making the generation today more adept at learning and speaking languages.

    • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

      Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      THis is a very thorough look at mother tongue interference. I have also learned some new linguistic terms which is a good thing for my Kikuyu language hubs. Kikuyu also does not have the final 's' and 'sh.' These are replaced by 'th.' However, the new multilingual generation is quite adept at adapting and speaking foreign languages much more easily than their parents or grandparents.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      When I was learning Thai, all texts and my teachers indicated that "khao" was the polite form in referring to both he and she or him and her. After living here in Thailand, I found out that "ter" was an informal very personal way of referring to "you". For example, if someone has a boy friend or girl friend, they will say both man and woman, "chan rak ter" I love you instead of saying "phom rak khun" or "chan rak khun" for a woman speaking. In Chinese Mandarin "ta" means he or she or him or her. Sometimes I think of "ter" meaning "he or she" when I get it mixed up with Mandarin. Thanks for reading the hub and your comments. I appreciate them.

    • livingabroad profile image

      livingabroad 5 years ago from Wales, UK

      I also hear many mispronunciations of what your describing, on a daily basis! Most recently 'footbown', as the Eurpoean chamiponship is currently underway! Another common one is 'leally', commonly known by us western folk as really.

      It is our job as teachers here in Thailand to help with their mispronunciation, provide examples highlighting common errors and give students plenty of room to understand the difference between Thai and English.

      Are you sure there is no difference between 'he' and 'she' in Thai? I was under the assumption it was 'khao' and 'ter'?

      Excellent hub, I will be referring back to this when writing lesson plans! Up and useful.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for the comments, Fred. Interference from the Thai language is one of the biggest problems I have in teaching my Thai students English.

    • profile image

      Fred 6 years ago

      Well written, concise and useful...thanks.