Planning for between-language transfer

I don’t think that transfer (between languages) just happens. I think you have to plan for it. So, what kind of things transfer? How can we use what we know about language transfer to maximize transfer between two languages? Last time I talked a little about a study we had recently published in Seminars in Speech and Language s (I encourage you to read the whole issue btw, it’s a very nice set of papers). We saw improvement in both languages in semantics and narratives. Some kids demonstrated gains in morphosyntax but others did not.

But, what about transfer? Is it possible to plan intervention in one language and see gains in the other? MacWhinney says that everything that CAN transfer WILL. But, what can transfer? I think it happens in a couple of ways. First, there are aspects of language that are the same or at least similar across language. Cognates for example share both meaning and form. Even if you don’t know Spanish for example, if you see the word, “león ” you can probably figure out it is lion. Other words may transfer in terms of concepts (such as described in the concept mediation model, or the revised hierarchical model). So, you might know the word table and have a concept of it in your mind. If you encounter it in Spanish (mesa) you can add that form to the idea of table that you already have. So, you can transfer the mental picture of table to a new word “mesa” that means the same thing. That can be another way to transfer.

I think we see similar transfer via mental models for narratives. You can know or have a mental schema of what a story contains. For example, there’s a problem, an attempt to solve a problem, and a resolution of the problem. This mental model or story structure can be used to think about and organize a story one is telling. If you have enough vocabulary and grammar in the other language you can use the same structure to compose of story. Even if you have more limited vocabulary and grammar you can probably manage to tell at least a comprehensible story in another language because you have the story schema. I think this is another way that language can transfer.

What about grammar? I think– and research seems to bear this out– transfer in the grammatical area is tricky. First, grammatical rules AND forms are often different across languages. What’s difficult in one language may not be equally difficult in the other language. The way meaning is conveyed in grammar is also different. So, what’s similar? Well, for Spanish and English plural markers work in similar ways. That might be something that can transfer. Other features of grammar that are similar in concept– but not in form– include passives, auxiliaries, progressive and past tense. So, these are forms that might  transfer. There are other forms however that are pretty different (or only exist in one language). These include gender (which occurs in Spanish but not English); possessive ‘s (which occurs in English but not Spanish). These are forms that aren’t going to transfer and will need to be taught in each language with little expectation for positive transfer.

Anyway, I have other ideas about transfer and so maybe I’ll continue in another post, but I wanted to follow up for now on the new paper and how we thought about maximizing transfer between languages in our intervention.


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  1. Why Opinion and Observation isn’t as good as Research | 2 Languages 2 Worlds
  2. Intervention in Spanish leads to gains in Spanish & English | 2 Languages 2 Worlds

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