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The Influence of the First Language in Second Language Acquisition

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The Influence of the First Language

A person’s mother tongue or the first language has great influence on the acquisition of a second language. Learning another language is a complicated process which is affected by factors such as differences and similarities in language structures between the foreign language and the mother tongue. The essay analyzes the competence of English learners whose first language is Turkish. It provides the difficulties that these learners have with the syntax of the new language. The essay provides data from different English learning institutions where Turkish students study to support its inferences. It also derives data from the general Turkish community who has learnt English as a second language. It gives the causes of the difficulties in English syntax that these learners face. This is in relation to their first language.

The mother tongue can support, fail or hinder an individual from learning or using already learnt vocabulary of another language. Second language acquisition is a process through which people learn a second language other than the mother tongue. Different scientists and linguistics have dedicated their time and research to observing the influence of the first language in acquiring the second one. This is known as second-language acquisition (SLA). This process also explains the discipline which examines the acquisition of other languages apart from the mother tongue without considering whether they are second, third, or any other. It does not involve the practice of teaching the language itself but rather the behavior and the extent to which the learners acquire the language. This is mainly by analyzing the errors that the learners make while learning a second language. English syntax is the arrangement of different words in a language to form sentences. The first language affects the syntax of the second language.

All learners of a second language follow three distinct steps. The first and the most important step is the acquisition of new vocabulary. This will enable the learner to comprehend basic foreign sentences and words. The second step is when the learner tries to recall the new vocabulary that he or she has learnt earlier. This is also important since it gives the learner a chance to learn new vocabulary and at the same time retain the previous one. The third step is whereby the learners use these vocabularies and other language-related information to try and express themselves. This process also involves using knowledge of the first language and incorporating it in the expressions. The complex expressions can be grammatically correct or wrong. A competent listener in the second language can use the information from these grammatical errors to analyze the development of the learner in acquiring this language. This scenario applies for the native Turkish speakers who learn English as a second language.

The main problem of Turkish speakers who learn English is the difference in the representations of English words which conflict with the Turkish alphabet. This is especially evident in the investigation of difficulties in sentence construction by Turkish speakers. The difficulty in syntax is due to the differences in the representation of the two languages’ vocabularies and word arrangement. The language development of a native Turkish speaker affects the ability of the speaker to write and construct complete English sentences. The speakers utilize the knowledge that they had acquired in the native language to try and construct sentences in English (Celce-Murcia, 2005). The only way in which the learners can correct the mistakes is if a competent listener identifies them. Some errors that may occur during speaking and writing occur due to the interference from the first language. This is known as the native language effect. The learners use the Turkish language to learn the English language. The learners use the first language to introduce them to the second one. Therefore, they may assume that English is similar to the Turkish language in terms of syntax and syllable arrangement.

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The Turkish language can also influence English syntax after learning the vocabularies and trying to express oneself through construction of complex phrases and clauses. A Turkish speaker slowly develops competence in English in a systematic process. Some of the main problems occur with prepositions. A Turkish learner can make mistakes such as ‘am listening you’ other than ‘am listening to you’. Other mistakes in writing include prepositions used with adverbs of place and time. Other common syntax errors are the use of different forms of the verb ‘be’. They also make mistakes when using definite articles, tenses, infinitives and Active Voice. They also exhibit the errors of addition, emission and misuse of articles and prepositions, punctuation and other errors such as word choice, singular and plural agreement and tenses. These errors occur due to the word arrangement in the Turkish language. An analysis of these syntax errors and other grammatical mistakes can assist the learners in avoiding the mistakes and eliminating Turkish influence on speaking and writing in English (Collins & Mees, 2006).

Literature Review

Celce-Murcia, Brinton, and Goodwin (2005) describe syntactic errors made by different European foreign speakers when speaking English. They recognize in this article specific syntactic errors made by English learners of Turkish origin. There are two types of errors according to this article. These are global and local errors. Local errors are those syntactic errors that affect the sentence itself. These errors are not likely to affect the overall meaning and expression. Global errors affect the structure of a sentence and can affect information processing. Collins and Mees (2006) examine the general syntactic difference between the Turkish and English languages. They describe the causes of general syntactic errors that an English learner of Turkish origin is likely to make. They give the causes for these errors as well as their effects on altering information processing.

Alamin, & Ahmed (2012), and Elk?l?? Han, Turgay & Ayd?n (2009) give different accounts of errors made by students when writing different literature essays. These students are of Turkish origin and learn English as a second language. The articles give an account of how the instructors identified syntactic errors in the essays. The majority of these errors were noun agreements, punctuation, spelling, use of articles and verb tenses. According to both articles these mistakes are related to the mother tongue of the learners. The articles also explain other errors such as lexical, word order, word choice, verb tense, subject-verb agreement and singular/plural forms. The articles also give data analysis in relation to these students` original language. They identify the relationship between development of the second language and the learning time. Both articles give overall analysis of the influence of the Turkish language on these learners. Falhasiri, M., Tavakoli, M, Hasiri, F. & Mohammadzadeh, A. R. (2011) identify different compositions by students who have learnt Turkish. The article then gives guidelines for educators on how to educate students effectively to avoid excessive interference of the mother tongue. It gives guidelines on the pedagogical implications in eliminating Turkish language influence on English learners of Turkish background.


The main method of data collection was through essays. The educators provided twenty Turkish freshmen. All these students were born in Turkey and studied in the same country. The students learned Turkish as their first language. They had learnt English in school as their second or third language. There were fourteen male and six female students. That was their first lesson of a writing course in their respective departments with most of the students taking Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Eskisehir Osmangazi in Turkey in 2011. Students’ mean age was 19.9 years. All students studied English in their senior and junior high schools. They had undergone a 9-months English learning preparatory program before they joined college. This shows that their level of fluency in English was the same. None had intermediate levels of English. All students had Turkish parents and used Turkish as a regular means of communication both at home and school.

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For data collection, the instructors relied on the essays only. The topic was to compare and contrast basic engineering principles. The instructors instructed the students that the essays were part of their examinations which enhanced seriousness while writing it. Each student wrote a four-paragraph essay. It included an introductory part, two body paragraphs and a conclusion. This ensured that they had enough time to focus on the content as well as grammar. The essay gave an option for five questions which allowed the students to choose only one. The essay was set in such a way that a student could complete it in ninety minutes. The researchers later analyzed all essays. About eighty per cent of the students chose one topic. The researchers then observed the syntactic errors in the essays (Elk?l??, 2009).

Data Analysis

The study uses different error analysis procedures to answer the study questions. These include collection of the sample, identification of errors, description of the errors, error explanation and evaluation of these errors. The essays contained different syntactic errors. The most common errors were tenses, singular and plural forms of nouns, spelling, sentence fragments, subject-verb agreement and omission, addition and misuse of articles and prepositions and punctuation errors. The errors lie in two distinct groups. These are local errors and global errors. The global errors include word choice and sentence fragmentation. This is because they affected the overall meaning of the essays. Other errors such as tenses and articles misuse, addition or omission were local errors since they affected only individual sentences. These errors give a reader a definite point of analysis to identify the influence of the Turkish language

Word choice took forty five percent of the total number of errors with a mean of 11.20. There were a total of two hundred and ten errors of this kind. An example is whereby a student wrote that a town was located in a ‘smooth’ area. Other words were mainly adjectives and adverbs which altered the meaning of the essay completely. These words exhibit influence of the Turkish language. The students inferred from their native language to describe different phenomena, people and places. Among local errors made by students were also omission, addition and misuse of articles. There were a total of 72 article errors with 19 per cent of all the syntactic errors, with a mean of 5.3. The students made different mistakes by adding or omitting articles in statements causing errors in sentence structure. There were forty six punctuation errors (11.1 %), 33 tense errors (7.3 %) while there were 34 errors related to singular/ plural noun agreement which was 6.9 per cent of total syntactic errors. Sentence fragmentation was also a common error among these students. The errors added up to 12 (3%). Other errors took smaller percentages of total errors. The errors show that the Turkish language affected the students’ writing in English.

The use of articles confirms the effects of the Turkish language on the language use by these students. The Turkish language does not have any definite articles. Therefore, the students did not use them. This can be either because they did not need them in their papers or because they did not know how to use them. It becomes difficult for learners to abandon their local languages and adopt a different language with different rules. The students also exhibited difficulty in the use of prepositions. This is because there is a certain suffix in the Turkish language which generalizes the use of pronouns at, in and on in English. The speaker only spells the suffix differently to denote different meanings. This was mainly responsible for the errors that the students made in the use of prepositions. They would use different prepositions in a wrong way. These errors show that the students could not learn the second language effectively without showing influences from their first language. The analysis was important for the students as they were able to identify common differences between the two languages. The instructors also identified the errors which was important at the beginning of the courses.

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The influence of Turkish on singular/plural noun agreement led to errors made by the students and it was also evident in the essays. The Turkish language influenced students` wrong use of words that mark plurals in sentences. These include words such as many, a lot of, and other phrases denoting numbers or quantity greater than one. The students also made mistakes in words denoting the future continuous tense. A native Turkish speaker exhibits problems in plurals since the Turkish language does not have plural forms of some common nouns. These include dog, cup, apple, telephone among others. These words do not change in both plural and singular in the native Turkish language. Therefore, the students wrote some words in a plural form without changing them due to language interference. The students also had a problem with spelling. This is not a problem that is common for Turkish students. This is because English borrows very little vocabulary from Turkish. Words in English are completely different from those in Turkish. Therefore, the students would not have a problem in spelling English words due to their Turkish origin.

Another error was word arrangement in a sentence. This caused a lot of fragmentation errors in sentences. This was a common local error which is associated with the Turkish origin of the students. The arrangement of words in Turkish is quite different from those in English. Turkish does not necessarily obey the rules of phrases and clauses in sentence construction. Therefore, the students ended up constructing sentences that are incomprehensible in English. Otherwise, these sentences would have made perfect sense in Turkish. Turkish is responsible for most of the syntactic mistakes that the students made. Most of these mistakes were consistent for all students. The distribution was quite fair with most of the students making either one or more syntactic mistakes being influenced by their mother tongue. This confirms the fact that the first language affects the second language.

Pedagogical Treatments

There are different techniques that both educators and students can apply to ensure these errors are corrected both in the short and long run. The most common pedagogical treatments arising from this study deal with teaching interventions and writing errors. The instructors should emphasize on the need to identify the difference between local errors and global errors. The instructor should first consider the pedagogical implications of global errors in writing. These errors prevent comprehension and therefore hinder expression. Therefore, the instructor should first consider correction of global errors. This will ensure that a student will write a comprehensive essay. This will also enable the student to communicate effectively with other speakers giving room for error correction. The most important aspect in learning another language is effective communication and expression of thoughts in an understandable manner. The students should identify the origin of errors themselves. The instructor should also give the students a chance to try and correct the errors by themselves. This will expand the vocabulary of the student as well as give room for language development. The main cause of interference is thinking using the native language and translating the information in writing. The instructor should advice students to think directly in the language they intend to communicate in. This will minimize interference and the errors systematically as the student does not infer from the native language.

Another important intervention from the educators is general understanding of common mistakes and their correction. The educators should be up to date with the current first language conventions and know how to incorporate these issues in the teaching process. The educators who are conversant with the most common errors of interference are at an appropriate position to analyze students’ errors and correct them. The teachers should preferably have the same language knowledge as the students. This will ensure that the teachers can understand common mistakes made by students and correct them effectively. The teachers should incorporate writing skills, reading skills and other learning processes to ensure that the student learns effectively. They should also ensure that the student can read widely especially in the new language. The teacher should let the learners make discoveries on their own about the language such as punctuation and use of prepositions. It is not possible for the teacher to tell the students every word in English (Collins & Mees, 2006).


The essay proves that the mother tongue can influence the second language. The data show that most of the syntactic errors that the students made in their essays were due to their Turkish origin. This influenced the way in which the students learn and recall learned words and the way in which they attempt to construct complex lexical terms and statements. The students simply map the first language onto the second which is the simplest learning strategy. This leaves the students with explanations available in the mother tongue only. This does not mean that the mother tongue can hinder learning of another language. It is actually important in learning the language if the teacher knows the mother tongue of the students as well. It is the role of educators to ensure thorough teaching of other languages. This will eliminate the errors that the students might make in oral and written communication in other languages. Therefore, educators should take this into consideration to ensure effective teaching.

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