Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Influence of Second Language on the First Language


The study of language contact has focused mostly on language transfer. Most of the works pay attention to how the first language or mother tongue affects the second language either in positive ways (transfer) or negative ways (interference). Linguists have been studying language transfer as early as in the 1950’s. Pioneered by Haugen in 1950 with his work The Analysis of Linguistic Borrowing and Problems of Bilingualism, the study of language transfer from the first language to the second language has been extensive. According to Serrano and Howard (2003), transfer, and interference, has been studied in relation to the different language domains, which includes phonology, morphology, syntax and discourse both in reception and production.

However, reverse transfer, (as noted by Cenoz et al., 2001) cited in Serrano and Howard (2003) that is language transfer from the second language to the first language has been given very little attention. Until recently, several linguists begin to study this field and its significance and impact on society, culture and education system.

In the United States of America, educationists are aware of the second language influence on the first language. In a progress report made by the San Juan School District, California (2003), it stated that 59% of the students have a second language influence (the first language being English). This is seen as a hindrance for the students to be fully English proficient, and they are categorized as having English language issues.
The question is, is there really a second language influence on the first language? If so, how does the second language influence the first language? Is there any second language influence on the first language in Malaysia?


In a study conducted by Masden (2002) in Japan, where groups of students, monolingual and bilingual Japanese and English were asked to interpret the intensity of certain modifiers, such as “a little”, “very” and “extremely”. He discovered that Japanese students who are competent in English (the bilingual group) interpreted the phrase “a little” the same as monolingual and bilingual native speakers of English. Masden concluded that,

“…there may be a connection between the influence on an individual level of knowledge of another language and analogous influence on an entire language.  The notion of the influence of a “superstrate” language is interesting to me because of the power relations implied by the terminology.  In fact, while Japanese subjects in our experiment seemed to be very influenced by English, the English speakers seemed to be less influenced by their knowledge of Japanese.  Perhaps perceptions of international power and prestige associated with English have contributed to the result we observed.”

To certain degree, I agree with Masden that the fact that English is seen as a “superstrate” language in Japan could be a reason why students who are fluent in English tend to have English language influences in their Japanese. This could also be the same case in Malaysia, whereby now we have so many borrowed and adopted words and terms from English into Malay. These words are adopted from English mostly to suit Standard Malay phonetics and phonology system which is different from English in some ways, such as the sound-spelling discrepancy of English words, which is almost non-existent in Malay. For example, “inovasi” (from innovation), “objektif” (from objective) and “dekad” (from decade).

Other than that, we also have the young and urban professionals (also known as “yuppies”) who prefer to speak English perhaps because English is also associated with power and prestige in Malaysia, and people who speak English is most of the time considered “of having higher status” or being “better educated”.
Serrano and Howard (2003) conducted a study in the United States of America on The Influence of English on the Spanish Writing of Native Spanish Speakers in Two-Way Immersion Programs. They discovered some influences of the second language (English) on the students’ first language (Spanish). Based on previous coding schemes by Mendieta (1999) and Weinreich (1956), Serrano and Howard decided on the categories of the language transfer: mechanic transfer, lexical transfer, and beyond the word level transfer.

1.         Mechanical transfer

This type of transfer refers to the cases where the students followed the English rules of spelling, capitalization, punctuation, etc. This category is divided into three subcategories: spelling transfer, mechanic transfer and other mechanic transfer.

i.          Spelling transfer is the instances where the student used English rules of spelling/sound matching when s/he was writing in Spanish. Among other examples given by Serrano and Howard are:

  • ejemplo (example) was spelt as exemplo
  • ingles (English) was spelt as engles

  • ii. Mechanic transfer is capitalization transfer, which refers to the cases where the student followed English rules of capitalization and capitalized words in Spanish that are not supposed to be  written in capital letters in this language. For example, Mayo (instead of mayo, “May”), or Viernes (instead of viernes “Friday”).

    iii. Other mechanic transfer is referring to punctuation and abbreviation, such as “E.E. es la mejor escuela del mundo. Por qué? (“E.E. is the best school in the world. Why?”). The correct Spanish punctuation would be ¿Por qué?.

    2.         Lexical transfer

    This type of transfer occurred when the student transferred words from English into Spanish. Lexical transfer are divided into three different subcategories: English words incorporated directly into Spanish texts (such as, high school, middle school, bus and student store), English words adopted into Spanish morphology and phonology (such as, lonche, from lunch, meaning “almuerzo/comida”, rentar, from rent, meaning “alquilar”, and troca, from truck, meaning “camión”), and semantic transfer to already existing words (such as, letra, from letter, intended to mean “carta”, bloque, from block, intended to mean “manzana/cuadra”).

    3.         Beyond the word level transfer

    This is where the cases of English influencing Spanish at the sentence level. For example, instances of idioms or collocations in English that are translated directly into Spanish, such as somos mejores amigas (“we’re best friends”), instead of the more common Spanish somos muy buenas amigas and es mi major amiga; adivina qué! (“guess what!”), instead of ¿sabes qué?

    Word-order transfer is another type of transfer beyond the word level. According to Serrano and Howard, Spanish is very flexible in relation to word-order. However, they found that students wrote sentences like mi favorito tipo de manejar es freestyle (“my favorite type of riding is freestyle”, or al siguiente día fuimos a Las Vegas (“on the next day we went to Las Vegas”), in very rigid English word-order, but not ungrammatical in Spanish. They concluded that the students produced them because of the influence of English.

    There are also cases of English syntactic constructions incorporated into the Spanish grammar by the students. For example, yo era nacido (“I was born”) (cf. Spanish “yo nací”), or conocí a dos muchachos que me enamoré de (“I met two boys that I fell in love with”) (cf. Spanish “conocí a dos muchachos de los que me enamoré”). Most of these constructions are ungrammatical in Spanish.

    Another study on the influence of the second language on the first language is a study conducted by Darwish (1999) in Australia on Arab migrants which showed that, negative transfer from English into Arabic seems to produce a new variety of Arabic that diverges from the norms of Arabic spoken in the Arab world. This variety of Arabic is an interim stage within the process of language shift from Arabic to English. However, the presence of a pseudo-language is alien to both the culture and the language.

    The notion of “a pseudo-language” is interesting because the variety of Arabic is a result of the blending of Arabic and Australian English, and thus, making it unique. Because it is neither recognizable as Arabic nor Australian English, it has established itself as a culture and variety of English on its own.

    Observation of TESL – 6th Batch (1993-1998, UiTM/UKM)

    Students of TESL – 6th Batch (1993-1998, UiTM/UKM) are bilinguals (mainly Malay as the first language and English as the second language). A small number of them acquired Malay and English at home, while the majority of them were introduced to English when they started school at the age of six or seven years old (instructed).

    From my observation, most of the times, in casual conversation, TESL students’ pronunciation and accent was very much like a normal Malay, that is, it did not deviate so much from the consonants and vowels sounds in Standard Malay language system, including the dialects. This means, no aspiration of /t/ and /p/, and no consonant clusters. In fact, most of them preferred to speak in their own regional dialects. This is perhaps because they were proud of it. In addition to that, this could also due to the fact that they were aware that a normal Malay does not talk with an evident English accent. People usually see this way of talking as snobbish, arrogant and showing off.

    However, in the course of my observation, there were several occasions in their casual conversation which showed to certain degree some influence of the second language.

    I.          Phonology

    The most noticeable influence of English on the student’s casual Malay conversation is the tendency to drop the /ә/ sound to form consonant clusters. However, in doing so, they maintained the Malay sound system pronunciation, which means, in “terima kasih”, “terima” does not sound like the English version of /trimә/, but rather sounds like /trimә/ (unaspirated /t/ and trill /r/). The systematic dropping of the /ә/ sound only occurs when one consonant sound and the /ә/ sound come together in initial position and middle position of a word, followed by /r/, /k/ or /l/ sound. For example, in words such as “beri”, “sekolah” and “kelapa”. It was observed that the dropping of the /ә/ sound forms consonant clustered allowed in English, such as “broken”, “school” and “clean”.

    II.        Syntax/Word order

    There were also instances of syntactic construction transfer from English. Such construction is ungrammatical in Malay. For example, it was observed that few students would say something like, “Aku tak tahu macam mana nak guna benda ni dengan,” and then she looked as if she wanted to finish the sentence but did not know how. Another example is, “Engkau ada ke cukup bahan nak buat assignment ni dengan,” and the same expression followed.

    The ending of the sentence with the preposition only occurred with “dengan”, and not other prepositions, which is a direct translation of English, as in, “Aku tak tahu macam mana nak guna benda ni dengan…” is a direct translation of “I don’t know what to use it with.” and “Engkau ada ke cukup bahan nak buat assignment ni dengan…” could be translated as, “Do you have enough materials to work with?”

    It should be noted that these skipping of /ә/ sound and “slips of tongue” only occurs in casual conversation, outside classroom setting, and where code-switching is allowed and accuracy is not important. It should also be noted that the students were not aware of the fact that they were observed. This is so that they did not have their guard up and thus monitored their way of speaking, that is, they were not conscious of their way of speaking.

    Other than those, it was observed that some TESL students did not use the borrowed and adopted English words in Malay, such as “informasi” from “information”, “visi” from “vision”, and “misi” from “mission”, even in a formal setting where they were required to speak Malay (during Kemahiran Bahasa Melayu class, Semester I 1998/1999). When asked why they preferred the English words to the adopted version, some of them said that they did not like how the English words have been “abused” and the same time, the Malay language “polluted”.

    I also noticed that with Malay words which are borrowed and adopted from English which pronunciation is not very different from the original word, most of the students pronounced them in English. Examples for these words are “kreatif” (creative), “inovatif” (innovative) and “ideologi” (ideology).

    This is perhaps due to the fact that the TESL students come from a monolingual family and only learned English when they went to school at seven years of age. Linguists agree that by the age of five, children already master the grammar of their mother tongue. Thus, in the case of these students, they have a solid foundation in their mother tongue already by the time they went to primary school. In addition to that, Malay language is the official language of Malaysia and is also the medium of instruction in national schools. 

    Therefore, unlike the Spanish children who grow up at home acquiring Spanish but using American English as the medium of instruction in schools and outside home environment, the TESL students use English perhaps most of the time only at school and with English speaking friends or teachers. As a result, their English does not have a strong influence on their Malay, except in several instances.

    To conclude, we can say that reverse transfer, or the influence or second language on the first language is evident in a society where the individual’s second language is used widely, as the case of the Spanish living in the USA.
    In Malaysia, because Bahasa Melayu is the medium of instruction in the government schools and is the national language, the influence of English on the Malays is very little. Except for the influence at word level, the influence of English in Malaysia is not noticeable.

    Perhaps the TESL 6th Batch students in UiTM/UKM experienced some type of second language influence because they used English widely in the course of their study there. In addition to that, the medium of instruction is English. Most of the time, they are aware of their way of talking and try to keep the influence of English to the minimum. It is somewhat a conscious choice. This is perhaps due to the fact that their command in their mother tongue is very good, it being the national language and used widely in their environment and in the country.


    Baskaran, L. (2003). Description of Sounds. In General Linguistics: Phonetics and Phonology. University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur

    Darwish, A. (1999). Influence of Second Language Acquisition on the First Language of Migrants: Australian Arabs Case Study. In JAIMES, Vol 2, No 2, 1995, pp 101- 121. Deakin University, Australia. (viewed: 10th July 2003)

    Masden, K. (2002). Influence of L2 on L1. In Milligan, K. (Ed.), LINGUIST List 13.665, Tuesday March 12, 2002. (viewed: 9th July 2003)

    Massad, J. (2002). Solano’s First Test for English Learners. In (viewed: 09th July 2003)

    Serrano, R. and Howard E.R. (2003). Maintaining Spanish Proficiency in the United States: The Influence of English on the Spanish Writing of Native Spanish Speakers in Two-Way Immersion Programs. In Lotfi Sayahi (ed.), Selected Proceedings of the First Workshop on Spanish Sociolinguistics (pp. 77-88). 

    Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project. (viewed: 09th July 2003)

    – (2003). PHLOTE Report. A paperwork presented in 9th Annual Utah Heritage Language Conference (11th April 2003), Montezuma Creek. (viewed: 09th July 2003)

    – (2003). Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau. Education Information, Page. education.html


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