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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Is it unavoidable that regularly using a foreign language will influence our native language?

Most people who try to learn a second language, or who interact with non-native speakers notice that the way non-native speakers speak their second language is influenced by their native language. They are likely to have a foreign accent, and they might use inappropriate words or an incorrect grammatical structure, because those words or that structure are used that way in their native language. A lesser known yet common phenomenon is the influence of a foreign language we learn on our native language.

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People who start using a foreign language regularly (for example, after moving to a different country) often find themselves struggling to recall words when using their native language. Other common influences are the borrowing of words or collocations (two or more words that often go together). For example, Dutch non-native English speakers might insert English words, for which there is no literal translation, such as native, into a Dutch conversation. Or they may find themselves using a literal translation of the collocation ‘taking a picture’ while speaking in their native language, even if their native language does not use the verb take to express this action. Studies from the past couple of decades show that people show such an influence at all linguistic levels - as described above, they may borrow words or expressions from their second language, but they might also borrow grammatical structures or develop a non-native accent in their own native language.

In general, research has shown that all the languages we speak are always co-activated. This means that when a Dutch person speaks German, not only his German but also his Dutch, as well as any other language that person speaks, are automatically activated at the same time. This co-activation likely promotes cross-linguistic influence.

So will learning a foreign language necessarily influence one's native language at all linguistic levels? To a degree, but there are large individual differences. The influence is larger the more dominant the use of the foreign language is, and in particular if it is regularly used with native speakers of that language (as when moving to a foreign country). The influence also increases with time, so immigrants, for example, are likely to show more influence after 20 years abroad than after 2, although there is also a burst of influence in the initial period of using a foreign language regularly. Some studies also suggest that differences among people in certain cognitive abilities, like the ability to suppress irrelevant information, affect the magnitude of the influence of the second language on the native language. It is important to note though that some of these influences are relatively minor, and might not even be detectable in ordinary communication.

By Shiri Lev-Ari and Hans Rutger Bosker

Further reading:

Cook, V. (Ed.). (2003). Effects of the second language on the first. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 
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