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                       Paper by 

By Lulzime Kamberi, MA in ELT ,High Lector at SEEU SEEU

                                  Using L1 in L2 Acquisition


Language acquisition is very difficult to understand and different positions have been taken according to the role of the first language or mother tongue (L1) and the second/foreign language or the language to be acquired (L2). This paper argues that there are many benefits, especially for adult learners, of using L1 in L2 learning/teaching by focusing on the role of morphology/grammar, pragmatics, and reading/literacy.


Language acquisition is undoubtfully one of the major problems linguistics and linguists face with. There are many factors that influence SLA. First of all, it is L1 and then the family background, the place where the people are at the moment of acquiring the second language (input), and the way they are educated; the educational system. In addition, the kind of language the learner uses, (e.g. Indo-European languages, etc.), the kind of learner the student is (kinesthetic, visual, audio –lingual), and the kind of learning styles the learner has (cultural, individual). I believe that these are some important factors teachers have to take into consideration when teaching ,because these are characteristics that make the successful or unsuccessful learner. I want to add that the successful learner can take many things from the native language in learning the second one and I will try to list some of them. Even though there are many claims that L1 hinders the acquisition of L2 by creating an Interlanguage, ’Interlanguage Hypothesis’ , a hypothesis according to which language learners, by trying to learn another language posses or create a grammatical system which is different from the L1 and the L2 as well. (Nemser,1976:Richrds,1974:Selinker,1972). According to this, as stated in Gathercole (1998) “..many of the errors produced by children acquiring their first language ,leading to infer that the process of L2 learning are quite similar to those acquiring L1”.( p.63) Although Gathercole (1998) argue that there is much benefit from L1 in acquiring L2 ,or that learners make the same mistakes by trying to do so,I believe that there are many benefits from L1 , in L2 acquisition .I will try to show this by analyzing and using facts about this in the Grammatical/Morphological aspect, the development of Pragmatics, but also in reading and literacy in general.

I. Morphological /Grammatical aspect

      Similarities between first and second language acquisition 

Learners, especially adult learners, which know the rules of their L1 grammar and morphology, can make use of those rules and parts of speech especially when learning a new language. A language learner when seeing a new word in a sentence may try to guess its meaning from the context, or another possibility could be to attempt to guess its meaning by decomposing it into smaller parts and arrive at its meaning through these smaller parts, morphemes and phonemes. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit in a language and cannot be divided without altering or changing its meaning. A good example for English is the word kind .If the last letter ‘d’ is removed the word changes its meaning and becomes kin. .On the other hand a phoneme is the smallest component of sound by which it can be distinguished. For example the word man and pan differ only in their initial sound. Additionally, learners may analyze and according to the context find out whether it it’s a noun, adjective or any other part of speech. In doing so, they may use the knowledge of word analyses gained in their L1.The strategy the learner will employ in this situation will depend on a range of interrelated factors. Besides the above mentioned, the study of grammar and morphology in L1, and the transfer into L1 acquisition can be of tremendous help in vocabulary acquisition seeing that many words are related by form and meaning, studying the nature of these relations may bring new light into the new factors that are important in L2 acquisition. Additionally many words in whatever language, are morphologically interrelated, for example the word teach is linked to inflectional forms like teaches, taught and teaching but also to the noun teacher. Just think of the fact that these words would be studied separately without any connection and stored separately. Furthermore, morphology can be helpful in facilitating the acquisition and use of words in general. Recent research into the acquisition and retention of newly gained foreign and second language vocabulary has shown that newly acquired words are better retained if they were inferred through linguistic clues rather than through context ( Haastrup, 1989). According to this, many of the derivational suffixed and prefixed groups are semantically transparent, which means their meaning can be inferred on the basis of their constituent morphemes ( Nagy and Anderson, 1984). This is confirmed by many studies like Freyd and Baron (1982), who indicate that learners who are good at analyzing words are the most successful language learners. As we can see, these are all important factors that can contribute to L2 acquisition.

II. Acquiring Pragmatics Before analyzing and comparing pragmatics, especially sociopragmatics, let’s see what pragmatics really means. According to the Longman, “Dictionary of Language Teaching &Applied Linguistics” (2002) pragmatics is “the study of the use of language in communication, particularly the relationship between sentences and the context and situations in which they are used.” This means: • how interpretation and use of utterances depends on the knowledge of the real word • how speakers use and understand speech acts • how the structure of sentences is influenced by the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. (p.412) In this aspect, children have to make their own ways of learning or developing pragmatic representations of pragmatic and sociopragmatic knowledge, whereas adults are in favor of already having acquired all that pragmatic knowledge. These are cognitive processes with which adult learners are already familiar with and have just to use them in different contexts (pragmatic output), which means that L2 learners can make use of their existing L1 knowledge and universal pragmatic knowledge to pursue social goals (Kasper & Rose, 2003). This I believe to be especially true for adult learners but also for young learners depending on the input of the targeted language. For example, adults and children who have lived abroad in the country where the targeted language is spoken are much more competent than others who have acquired the language where the input was minimal. Nevertheless, adults who have the L1 knowledge of universal pragmatics are much easier to function better in a certain situation and context, which again means that L1 contributes to the acquisition of L2. As I have pointed out, the pragmatics advantage depends on several factors: age, context, and what the learners already have in their L1. At this stage it is important to refer to Universal pragmatics as an important factor. Universal pragmatics refers to the philosophical study of the conditions needed to come to an understanding through communication (Habermass, 1979). This better understood from his famous quote on universal pragmatics: “ The task of universal pragmatics is to identify and reconstruct universal conditions of possible understanding”. Understanding each other is the goal of communication and communication is what we want to achieve when learning a new language, finally it is what our students want to accomplish –be able to communicate in the targeted language ,be it in written or oral communication.

           III. Reading /Literacy

Reading which is part of language learning, is one of the main factors that contribute to language acquisition. As a result, the more a learner reads, the better he gets as a learner, because s/he broadens the vocabulary, learns many things about the culture of the people of the targeted language, and finally gains general knowledge about different things that are surrounding us nowadays. In a questionnaire (Jeffers&Mikulecky, 1996, p.2-3) regarding L1 and L2 reading, it is stated that there should be no difference between L1 and L2 reading strategies. What does this mean? I guess it means that there are many similarities between L1 and L2 “readers” and reading tactics or strategies. According to Day and Bam Ford’s (1998) model, one of the factors influencing L2 reading is first language (L1) reading attitude. They state, “Assuming that students are already literate in their first language, one source of attitudes toward second language reading is the attitude that students have toward reading in their first language”. But what does literate mean? Does it mean the ability to read and write or is it more than that ,no matter in which language L1 or L2?During different periods of time there have been many definitions of literacy, but I would like to cite one mentioned in Davies et al’s article ,(1997),cited in Crystal: “… progress in many areas of the curriculum is greatly dependent on a satisfactory foundation of linguistic skills . The traditional emphasis on literacy, the ability to read and write, has been supplemented by an emphasis on oracy, the ability to speak and listen..(Crystal, 1987:284) According to this, ‘Literacy” nowadays implies being ‘ linguistically versatile ‘; knowing everything including listening ,speaking, reading and writing expanded into media.(Print, TV, radio, computer, etc). It is important to add that learning strategies are a very important factors that contributes to language acquisition.For example ,some meta-cognitive strategies which students can take from their L1 and use or transfer their knowledge into L2( activate background knowledge, inferencing , guessing meaning from the context,etc.).This is what makes successful and less successful language learners or readers (see Oxford: 1991, 1990; Chamot& O'Malley:1994). Also, Buehl (2001) states that among the cognitive activities, while reading, where students select what is more important, what we already know and relate this to the present situation makes them more successful learners. Additionally, as mentioned in Trite& Tallowits’z , much research has been done on the relationship between L1 and L2 by Cummins (1976) and his “Threshold Hypothesis” “the level of L1 and L2 competence of a student determines if he or she will experience cognitive deficits or benefits from schooling in the second language.” Also, Cummins (1970) defines the “developmental interdependence hypothesis”, which means that when the use of L1 is promoted by the learners linguistic environment, outside the school, than a high level L2 of achievement will for surely occur. This implies that a high level of L1 proficiency helps L2 acquisition, and conversely. In addition, Cummins believes that the competence in L2 is somehow related to the competence of the learner in L1.This is a very important indicator and verification that students who have read and written more in their L1, are going to become better language learners in L2. Conclusion To conclude, I want to stress once more that despite the different theories on the negative effects ( errors, interlanguage,etc.) , there are many benefits that learners can take from their L1 in learning a new language.First of all, it is our L1 competence that will play an important role in how competent the learner will become in the L2 acquisition.In addition, all the factors mentioned in this paper; morphology/grammar,pragmatics, and reading/literacy can contribute to the improvement of teaching/learnng a foreign language,since they are the ‘basement’ for a further creation and success in second language learning.


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Habermas, Jürgen (1979). Communication and the Evolution of Society. Toronto: Beacon Press.

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                                                                                                                        Tetova, 2009

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