Language Transfer: Positive or Negative?

Language Transfer is most commonly discussed in the context of English Language Learning and Teaching.

Language Transfer refers to speakers or writers applying knowledge from one language to another language.

Positive and Negative Language Transfer

When it comes to Language Transfer and its effect in learning a second language, we can two about its effects in terms of negative and positive.

Positive Transfer

When the relevant unit or structure of both languages is the same, linguistic interference can result in correct language production called positive transfer.

  • For example, Spanish speakers learning English may say “Is raining” rather than “It is raining”, leaving out the subject of the sentence. French speakers learning English do not usually make the same mistake. This is because sentence subjects can be left out in Spanish, but not in French.
  • Another example of positive transfer are the true cognates. people who are learning English as their second language can use the words accidents, family and other with similar spelling to their equivalent in Spanish.

Negative Transfer

Language interference is most often discussed as a source of errors known as negative transfer, which occurs when speakers and writers transfer items and structures that are not the same in both languages.

  • For example, the word actually tends to confuse Spanish native speakers since they think that word means actualmente. (Actualmente is currently in English)
  • Another example is when Spanish speakers don’t use ‘it’ when they say sentences such as it is sunny, it is a beautiful and they say is sunny, is blue
  • English native speakers tend to make the mistakes of not conjugating verbs in Spanish in the simple present. Beginners tend to say, yo tener instead of saying yo tengo.

Conscious or Unconscious Language Transfer

Transfer may be conscious or unconscious.

Consciously, learners may sometimes guess when producing speech or text in a second language because they have not learned or have forgotten its proper usage.

Unconsciously, they may not realize that the structures and internal rules of the languages in question are different.

Manuel Campos, English Professor

Manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English