Language Transfer: History, Translation and Metalinguistic Awareness

This month we are publishing Explorations of Language Transfer by Terence Odlin. In this post the author discusses the book’s main themes.

Readers of Explorations of Language Transfer will notice several recurring themes, themes that have long seemed to me important for the study of transfer. I’d like to offer some remarks on three of those topics here: history, translation, and metalinguistic awareness.


Chapter 2 of the book examines parts of the challenging trail left by nineteenth century thinkers including Wilhelm von Humboldt, Hugo Schuchardt and Aaron Marshall Elliott. Space did not allow a discussion of certain other thinkers from that time who also wrote about bilingualism, such as the Italian historical linguist G.I. Ascoli. If I ever have the chance, I would like to read more about his analysis of how transfer might be manifest in linguistic variation across space and time. Furthermore, I suspect that interesting discussions of transfer go back before the nineteenth century, but if so, the trail may prove a little harder to explore.


Chapter 7 focuses on translation and transfer. The ongoing refinements in machine translation, one of the topics in this chapter, should be taken seriously by teachers and researchers even while professionals will do well in advising their students to distrust uncritical reliance on translation software. Yet machine translation is not the only area of interest. In the same chapter, I also consider the efforts of a Victorian translator named Mary Howitt who, despite her keen interest in Scandinavian literature, did not always succeed in accurately interpreting the work she undertook. Her translation errors often suggest negative transfer in her reading comprehension. Howitt is probably far from alone in the history of less-than-satisfactory translation, but there does not seem to be much detailed research investigating such cases. This domain, then, may well deserve more exploring.

Metalinguistic awareness

Our awareness of language, often called metalinguistic awareness, proves important in learning a new language, and it interacts with transfer in diverse ways. Without such awareness we could not compare anything in one language with anything in another, nor could we ask for definitions, let alone translate individual words or entire sentences. Even so, individuals vary considerably in how they use such awareness and in how they develop it further. Chapter 8 considers, among other things, successful attempts to foster such awareness. For example, raising consciousness about crosslinguistic similarities and differences has proven effective for helping learners recognize words that are real yet not obvious cognates. The attempts discussed did not involve French, but I think back to my own experiences with high school French and imagine how helpful it could have been if we beginners had gotten a little guidance in recognizing consistent formal relations in pairs such as côte/coast, fête/feast, and pâté/paste. Pairs of this sort also make a good case for why language teachers should have some knowledge of historical linguistics including sound changes.

I naturally hope that readers of Explorations of Language Transfer will find the themes outlined here worth reading about in greater detail, and I also hope that the book will inspire readers to engage in their own explorations of the similarities and differences between languages that can intrigue as well as challenge any learner.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Crosslinguistic Influence and Distinctive Patterns of Language Learning edited by Anne Golden, Scott Jarvis and Kari Tenfjord.

New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning

This month we published New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language Learning edited by Liming Yu and Terence Odlin. Here, Terence tells us a bit more about language transfer and the issues examined by the book.

New Perspectives on Transfer in Second Language LearningLanguage transfer research looks at the influence of one language upon another. When learners try to acquire a new language, the knowledge they already have (as in the knowledge of their native language) can influence what they produce or understand inside or outside the classroom. Consequently, experienced language teachers often seek to understand better how transfer works and what they may do to deal with the reality of such influence.

Our volume brings together several innovative studies that shed light on transfer or, as it is also known, cross-linguistic influence. The studies brought together in the book consider such influence in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation as well as topics such as comprehension and social setting in relation to transfer.

Researchers as well as teachers will find a wealth of new insights on several topics including ones that have long been discussed. For example, the introductory chapter shows that the term transfer itself has had a long history in linguistics and was not introduced, as some conventional wisdom would have it, in the 1950s. The same chapter also provides new insights about the issue of predictions of transfer, offering a more optimistic outlook on the issue than is often found in other discussions.

The volume also presents several detailed analyses of transfer involving language contact in China, with most of these studies focusing on the influence of Mandarin on the acquisition of English. However, there is also one study involving the converse type of influence, that is, of L1 English on L2 Chinese. ESL or EFL teachers who are curious about, for example, the prepositional choices made by Chinese students will find an empirical analysis of particular cases, while another chapter investigates why ill-formed sentences such as “The Eiffel Tower sees easily from this window often seem acceptable to Chinese students.

Along with the empirical studies are ones looking at the broader picture, as in Chapter 2 by Scott Jarvis, which reviews (among other topics) some pioneering work using methods such as eye-tracking technology that suggest new insights about cross-linguistic influence. Considering the broader picture from a different perspective, Chapter 12 by Chuming Wang emphasizes the importance of the contexts in which learning occurs. The diverse perspectives of the volume are considered globally in the final chapter (by Terence Odlin), which discusses questions such as whether some linguistic-processing is language-specific. Although it may seem self-evident that people inevitably “think” in English, in Chinese, in Arabic, or in some other language, the notion of language-specific cognitive processes has proven controversial. What is clear, however, is that language transfer has a special relevance to the controversy and the new volume offers much to show that relevance.

Terence Odlin, Ohio State University

If you would like any further information about this book please see our website or contact Terence at the address above.