Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Bidirectional transfer

I presented an article in Language Acquisition yesterday. Here it is adapted from its native PPT format into a blog post. Lucky you. The article is Bidirectional Transfer, by Pavlenko, A., & Jarvis, S. (2002). Applied Linguistics, 23(2), 190-214. Jarvis, S., by the way, is a graduate of none other than Linguistics at the BYU.

The idea that L1 (first language) affects L2 (second language) is well established in the literature of language acquisition. Think about it: you've heard people use odd constructions in English (as a second language), or they have an accent, or they're always using words from their first language, or there's just something unnatural about the way they speak, no matter how proficient they seem on the surface. Those are all straightforward examples of L1 transfer to L2.

But can L2 affect L1? Traditionally, the research has examined this issue only in the context of child bilingualism, especially simultaneous bilingualism (where the child learns two languages at once). In adults, it was thought that since L1 had reached "maturity," it was no longer subject to change or influence from any L2 that was subsequently acquired.

Pavlenko and Jarvis set out to test that assumption, seeking evidence for something called bidirectionality. This is the idea that L1 could affect L2, but L2 could also affect L1, even in adults, even in sequential bilingualism (where languages were learned one after the other, not all at once). If bidirectionality does exist - and Pavlenko and Jarvis hypothesize that it does - what is the nature of it, and what forms does it take?

To find out, they designed an experiment that is too complex to describe in full here. Basically, they got 22 native Russian speakers who did not learn English growing up but were now living in the US and speaking English fluently (if not native-like) (and they happened to all be students at Cornell). They showed the participants two videos that told a story without using any dialogue. Then the researchers interviewed the participants about the videos, asking them to describe what happened. Each participant was interviewed in both Russian and English. Then, their responses were analyzed for evidence of bidirectional transfer; that is, the researchers looked for evidence of L1's effect on L2 (a well traveled road) but also L2's effect on L1 (a novel idea).

The neat thing is, they totally found evidence of L2 affecting L1. Aside from specific examples of L2 > L1 transfer in six of nine categories of analysis, when they played the Russian narratives to Russian monolinguals, those native speakers said the speech samples of the participants sounded ever so slightly non-native or unnatural.

As for specific evidence, they found stuff like the Russians working English words like "boyfriend," "landlord," and "appointment" into their regular Russian speech, accommodating only for a shift toward Russian phonology. There were also instances of semantic overextension influenced by English, like when a participant used Russian неудобно (uncomfortable) not in the narrow distribution called for, but in a wider semantic sense that the English "uncomfortable" allows. Sometimes the Russians translated English idiomatic phrases word-for-word instead of substituting more natural Russian constructions. Or they constrained their sentences to English's mandatory SVO (subject-verb-object) word order when SOV would have been more natural (and totally acceptable) in Russian.

So yes, the authors concluded, there is evidence for bidirectional transfer between L1 and L2. There is even evidence that L2 can affect L1, even in adulthood after L1 is supposedly set in stone. This shows that "native-speakerness" is not a stable construct. Even our native language can change as a result of additional languages we may learn in adulthood.

Neat, huh? If you learned an L2 as an adult, or even as a kid, have you noticed an impact on your native language? It's the kind of thing where first you might think it doesn't happen, and then you reflect a little more and realize that it does, and yet you can't quite think of any examples...

Even if you haven't learned an L2, didn't you think, like most research has assumed over the years, that our native languages will always be there, always be the same? It's interesting, and a bit frightening, to think that that's not the case after all.


JosephJ said...

This case is fairly exaggerated with recently returned foreign-speaking missionaries, though it wears off with time, to some extent.

Even still, retraining in L1 isn't always complete, and terminology and structure can be a bit odd. (Case in point, I never said "a bit" prior to learning my "foreign" language.) I agree that the atypical words/useage seem normal to the user in L1 because of the familiarity from L2.

So yes, I have noticed cases 1, 2, and 8 from above.

Señora H-B said...

I have definitely seen this happen in my native language. One that immediately comes to mind: I often confuse 'In that respect' and 'In that aspect' in English and Spanish. Spanish uses 'aspecto' for that phrase, and English uses 'respect'. I have been known to use them interchangeably. My spelling in English has also been forever damaged by becoming fluent in Spanish. I'll take it, though.

Amira said...

That is really interesting. I suspected that was the case, but it's nice to see some research on it.

Bridget said...

Ooh, I had forgotten about how this happens temporarily to returned missionaries. Sometimes I think it's affected but in certain missions with certain languages and certain missionaries I think it could really happen. Some of the participants in the study had only been in the US for 3 years, which is not too far beyond the 2 years of immersion for missionaries.

We need to meet in real life again so you can pick out all the British-isms that have crept into Jeremy and my speech. It's ridiculous. We're dropping people and collecting them and marking papers and invigilating exams and all that nonsense.

Bridget said...

I would take it, too!

Suzanne Bubnash said...

This is really interesting. I'm not joking.

Melody said...

I was going to say the same thing. It was very noticeable with my older brother when he returned from his mission, and it is also noticeable in the letters I receive from my younger brother who is currently on his mission (Spanish & Portuguese). I can still notice it a little with my older brother, but I think it is partially because he still speaks spanish so much with his friends.

Susanne said...

I don't suppose picking up accents would be similar to any of this. You mentioned all the British-isms that crept into your vocabulary. I tend to pick up accents depending on whom I've been around.

And I have Yankee friends who say they get laughed at when they go back North because they "talk Southern" whereas to me they still talk like Northerners.

But maybe that's something entirely different.

Interesting post! I'd like to ask my BIL about this. I do know he said in the past, he forgot certain Spanish words. (He didn't learn English until his teen years when he came to live in the US.)

Kathy Haynie said...

I met this morning with one of my students and her mom and the student's counselor. Student is bilingual (Spanish & English), mom speaks some English, counselor speaks only English. The English-Spanish translator lady was sick, and the counselor was getting a little flustered. I said I could speak to the mom/daughter in Spanish while they came up with another translator. The funny thing was trying to remember to stop and translate the Spanish stuff back into English for the counselor. I kept trying to talk to her (counselor) in Spanish.

Not that this is exactly bidirectional transfer, but I thought it was kind of funny, just happened this morning and then you posted this.

The mom/daughter were very gracious, by the way, with my tortured Spanish...

Susanne said...

Kathy, that sounds like about 4 years ago when my BIL's father visited the US to pick up a plane in Miami and was able to visit us in NC for a few days. My family met him for the first time. He knows very little English so Will and his Tia Mari (both citizens here now) were translating for him and us. We would laugh when Will or Mari would speak to us in Spanish. Sounds like what you did today. Thanks for reminding me of this good memory. I wish now that Will's mom could come visit. So far, no luck getting a visa to the US. Will hasn't seen his mom since he was about 18. Now he's 29.

Sarah Familia said...

I've definitely noticed this, when I hear myself busting out phrases that are awkward when said in English, but natural in Italian or Spanish. To me, it's similar to the literary practice of immersing oneself in an author and then imitating his or her style in one's own writings. My dad (Spanish lit major) insists that Longfellow's poetic style was heavily influenced by his experience with translating Spanish poetry into English.

When you think about it, this is exactly what happened to English on a population level when all the literary elite were educated in Latin, and decided that the "superior" Latin grammar should be imposed on English.

Jennifer said...

I never understood "passive voice" in English (frustrated me all through high school and college...hence the major in math!) until I learned how to do passive voice in Chinese in the MTC and then all the sudden the concept in English made sense. Does that count?

Bridget said...

Yes, I think it does! And that's a really interesting example.


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