Introduction to language differences

This page is an introduction to the section of the website that covers the differences between English and other world languages.


The pages on this subsite contain descriptions of the most significant differences between English and other languages. Only 16 of the thousands of world languages are included here. These have been chosen a.) on the basis of the number of native speakers they have, and b.) to reflect the languages spoken by the major nationality groups at Frankfurt International School.

@The primary target audience for these pages are mainstream teachers of ESL students who wish to understand some of the language problems experienced by the non-native speakers in their classes.~ The intention is not to provide a comprehensive description of the languages themselves.

I have focussed on the most important areas of likely interference or negative transfer. The selection of examples is based on my experience as an ESL teacher with more than 30 years of experience in an international school, but also draws heavily on the sources listed below.


Interference (or negative transfer) is the term used for the negative influence of the learner's mother tongue when he is speaking or writing English. Below are three examples of the interference problems that German learners of English might have when trying to convey their thoughts correctly in English.

In the first two cases the learner has wrongly assumed that the tense Note: Modern grammarians claim that English has only two tenses present/non-past and past. So, for example, the present perfect is not a separate tense.

But most grammar materials for English language learners still refer to the present perfect or past continuous, for example, as tenses. So, in most cases on this part of the site, I will continue to use the traditional definition.
used to express a particular meaning in German is the same as the tense used in English to convey the same meaning. The third mistake is an example of a false friend. False friends are words that are identical or similar in spelling and/or pronunciation in both languages, but whose meanings are different.

Ich sage es ihm, wenn ich ihn sehe.
Negative transfer
I tell him when I see him.
I'll tell him when I see him.
Ich lebe hier seit 1998.
Negative transfer
I live here since 1998.
I have been living here since 1998.
Die Firma hat einen neuen Chef
Negative transfer
The firm has a new chef.
The firm has a new boss.

Click the button below to read more about this topic.

@@There is considerable controversy over the extent to which interference (negative transfer) accounts for the numerous mistakes made by anyone learning a new language~~. Some researchers claim instead that most mistakes are consistent with the learner's developing rule system, called an interlanguage, and are due to faulty inferences about the target language. In other words, mistakes are not due to interference from the first language.

I tend to favour the interference theory over the interlanguage theory. Certainly, it seems to me that a German student making the mistakes listed above is drawing false inferences about English based on patterns in his own language.

However, this is not to imply that I believe all mistakes to be those of interference. I do not. And it is certainly not true that differences between the native language and English inevitably lead to the learner to making mistakes in those areas. The situation is much more complex.

It is to be hoped, however, that SLA (second language acquisition) research will soon provide some more definitive answers to this question. The optimal pedagogical methodology to help students gradually eradicate mistakes clearly depends to a large extent on why they make them.


It is a convention in grammar reference works to mark questionable or ungrammatical sentences with a question mark or an asterisk respectively. This is a convention I follow in these pages. For example:

  • ?She runs quicker than me.
  • *Why you do that?

Information sources

The most important source of the information in these pages is the excellent Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems. (2001) eds. Swan, M. & Smith, B. Cambridge University Press (Second edition). I also frequently consulted Wikipedia's language pages.

Wikipedia is a helpful resource for anyone who wants very detailed descriptions of the languages themselves (although the entries are of varying quality). Readers without some background knowledge of linguistics and phonology will probably find much of the information very difficult, however.

Other sources:

  • Chalker, S. & Weiner, E. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar . Oxford University Press. 1994.
  • Crystal, D. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language . Cambridge University Press. 1987.
  • Crystal, D. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language . Cambridge University Press. 1995.
  • Garry, J. & Rubino, C. Facts about the World's languages . H.W. Wilson. 2001.
  • Meakin, S. Languages and cultures in English-Language-Based International Schools . European Council of International Schools. 1987.
  • Swan, M. The influence of the mother-tongue on second language vocabulary acquisition and use . In: Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. (eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press. 1997.

Two excellent web sources of phonological information are:

Further information

These pages contain many language words: auxiliary, modal verb, cognate, and so on. Site visitors who are not familiar with such terms can read an explanation of them, together with examples, on the page entitled Metalanguage - the vocabulary of language. There is also information for site visitors who would like to learn more about the nature of the English language and about language families.

Wikipedia can be consulted for further information on all other aspects of language that are mentioned but not explained in detail in these web pages. For example: the differences between stress-timed and syllable-timed languages. Wikipedia also has samples of alphabets/language scripts that cannot be easily represented here; Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, etc.

A brief introduction to phonetics and phonology is available on this website for those wanting to know about the speech system and the reasons why some learners find it so hard to produce the sounds of English correctly.

There is more on the topic of interference and interlanguage on the page with the title The influence of the mother tongue

Finally, the page Call for contributions requests suggestions for links to resources in the native language that have been developed for learners of English.