The Role of First Language Interference in the English Writing of German ESL Students

What Composition Teachers Should Know

Seminar Paper, 2010

14 Pages, Grade: A


The Role of First Language Interference in the English Writing of German ESL Students: What Composition Teachers Should Know

When reading papers written by ESL students, English composition teachers are often confronted with a multitude of different non-standard forms that they commonly refer to as “errors.” Just as the errors committed by native speakers of English, these errors found in ESL writing can have several different sources that cannot always be identified easily. One such source of error in ESL writing is the interference of the student’s first language (L1), whose rules and structures may be transferred to the second language (L2) in order to communicate certain ideas when the student has not yet acquired the L2 rules necessary to do this (Krashen, “Acquisition and Learning” 21). In addition to the transfer of grammatical structures from the L1 to the L2, a phenomenon to which I refer as grammatical interference, the different rhetorical conventions in L1 writing may also affect how ESL students write in their L2 (Leki 88-90). This cultural interference, as I call it, is less visible than sentence-level errors caused by students wrongly transferring L1 structures to L2 writing. It may, however, have an equally significant impact on the way the writing of ESL students is judged by their teachers since a deviation from the mostly linear style of American academic prose may cause teachers to consider the text less effective or even partly illogical (88). The question then arises how we as composition teachers should react to these different types of L1 interference in our ESL students’ writing and how we can most effectively help these students become successful academic writers in English while preserving our students’ independence and avoiding the appropriation of their texts. Although there is certainly no single right answer to this question, I will try to provide helpful suggestions based on the research on this topic. These suggestions, I hope, will not only help teachers deal with German ESL writers but with ESL writers in general, for there are numerous other groups of ESL students that deserve no less attention. In any case, the teacher’s awareness of grammatical and cultural interference in the writing of ESL students is key to working successfully with this particular group of students.


Since German and English are closely related, it is usually not very difficult for German native speakers to acquire basic competence in English. Nevertheless, there are many differences that lead to errors if grammatical structures are simply transferred from German into English.1 First and most important, German syntax differs from English syntax in that it is more flexible due to the inflection of words such as nouns or adjectives, not requiring a word to be in a specific position to fulfill a certain function (Swan and Smith 41). For instance, it is not unlikely that German sentences start with direct objects or complements and then invert the order of the subject and the verb, which can lead to sentences like “This book have I just read” if this rule is transferred to English (45). Even though more experienced German ESL students would hardly commit such a stigmatizing error, I noticed errors caused by the syntactic differences between the two languages even in the writing of some of these students. Second, German possesses no progressive forms and no going-to future, which complicates the usage of the correct verb form for German ESL students in some cases (42). This difficulty, however, can be minimized if students keep in mind the basic rules about the usage of the different forms that they learn in secondary school. Therefore, incorrect verb forms are only a minor issue for most German ESL students at the college or graduate school level. Third, punctuation in German is slightly different from English punctuation in that requires commas before all subordinate clauses, causing German ESL students to misuse commas in English in certain cases. Other, less problematic differences in punctuation include the infrequent use of semicolons and the use of different quotation marks in German (40). Fourth, the different use of articles and the different countability of nouns in German and English may be problematic for German native speakers. In German, the definite article frequently accompanies nouns used in a general sense, which would sound unnatural in English (45): “Charles Darwin wrote a famous book about the evolution.” Equally unnatural constructions result from the different countability of nouns and proper nouns in the two languages (46), for instance nonexistent plural forms such as “information s” or “interference s.” Errors like these also appear in the writing of more experienced German ESL students, especially when they are careless or simply unsure whether or not to use an article in a more complicated case. Fifth, German ESL students sometimes use incorrect words in English that seem to have the same meaning as in German, even though the meaning of these words is actually different (48-49). An example of such a false friend would be the German adjective sensibel, which translates as “sensitive” in most contexts but is readily confused with the English adjective “sensible.” Finally, L1 interference can cause German native speakers to commit collocation errors in English and thus stigmatize their writing as writing by a non-native speaker. This occurs frequently when propositions are used differently in the two languages: “That’s typical for him” (47; emphasis mine). Mastering collocations is probably one of the most difficult steps in second language acquisition, not only for German ESL students. However, most collocation errors can be avoided if the student has access to a collocation dictionary and knows how to use it effectively while editing a paper.

The numerous grammatical or usage errors caused by L1 interference notwithstanding, it must still be regarded as only one of many sources of error (Krashen, “Acquisition and Learning” 64). In fact, the vast majority of errors can apparently be traced back to the structure of English itself. Moreover, L1 interference is not necessarily a passive process, for ESL students seem to actively apply certain L1 rules in English rather than to guess which structures may exist in English as well (Leki 108-110).

Although L1 transfer is primarily a source of error in the L2, it is not always detrimental to the writing of ESL students. As Krashen notes, L1 transfer can also be useful if a rule in the L1 equals a rule in the L2. In this case, positive transfer occurs and students can communicate an idea in their L2 naturally without having to acquire or learn a new rule (“Principles and Practice” 27). Such positive transfer explains why German students normally do not have any problems using loanwords like “zeitgeist” or “doppelganger” in English correctly as long as these words are part of their German vocabulary. If, however, the L2 rule is only slightly different from the L1 rule, students will be unlikely to progress in their L2 unless they acquire the correct L2 rule (Krashen, “Principles and Practice” 28-29). The extent to which grammatical L1 transfer may be helpful to students in writing English texts is thus limited.


Unlike grammatical interference of the L1 at the sentence level, the influence of ESL students’ home cultures on their English writing is less obvious, probably due to its more global nature. Nevertheless, the impact of this cultural interference on ESL writing is far too significant to be neglected by composition teachers. One of the first articles to raise awareness of this phenomenon was Kaplan’s well-known article “Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-Cultural Education,” in which he contended that logic and rhetoric differ between cultures and that the dominant style of writing among English native speakers is mostly linear (12-14). However, he also acknowledged that less linear forms exist in English as well, at least in literary forms of writing (20). In order to help advanced ESL students adapt their writing to the conventions of American academic writing, Kaplan recommended that teachers teach contrastive rhetoric, i.e. that they illustrate the differences between rhetoric in a student’s home culture and American culture (21). In spite of later research supporting Kaplan’s argument that different rhetorical patterns dominate within different cultures, his model of cultural differences has been criticized frequently. For instance, other composition theorists have pointed out that it generalized too much in that it claimed all Asian writers followed a style Kaplan called “Oriental.” Furthermore, his article might have lead readers to believe that writing in other cultures lacks logic, even though it actually represents an alternative approach to achieving the same rhetorical goal (Leki 89-90). Finally, critics considered Kaplan’s article to be overly prescriptive because they saw it as an attempt to define what correct English writing should look like. Hence, it could also be interpreted as devaluing other cultures (Ferris and Hedgcock 12). Despite this justified criticism, there is little dispute over the benefits of contrastive rhetoric for teachers as well as students. Indeed, as Ferris and Hedgcock argue, the teaching of contrastive rhetoric in the composition classroom can help teachers to look differently at the writing of their ESL students, and it increases the students’ confidence by showing them that their difficulties in English writing may be caused by the different rhetorical conventions of their home cultures rather than a lack of logic (13).

With regard to German students, the differences in rhetoric between the academic culture at home and American academic culture are certainly not as significant as in the case of Asian students.


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The Role of First Language Interference in the English Writing of German ESL Students
What Composition Teachers Should Know
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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403 KB
Englisch, Grammatik, grammar, English, composition, interference, Interferenzen
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Master of Arts Patrick Wedekind (Author), 2010, The Role of First Language Interference in the English Writing of German ESL Students, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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