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Culture, Language, and Writing: Language Guide to Transfer Errors

Sometimes errors in writing in a new language can occur when you are grappling with new subject matter and difficult topics. You concentrate on ideas and clarity — and because no writer can do everything at once, you fail to concentrate on editing.

The following language guide sets out several problem areas for multilingual/ESL writers. It shows grammatical features (column 1) of specific languages (column 2) that when transferred to English lead to an error (column 3). The guide covers neither all linguistic problem areas nor all languages; rather, it lists a selection, with the aim of being useful and practical. Use the guide to raise your awareness about your own and other languages.

Language Features Languages Sample Transfer Errors in English
No articles Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Urdu, Farsi, Thai, Swahili Sun is hot.
I bought book.
Computer has changed our lives.
No indefinite article with profession Arabic, French, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese He is student.
She lawyer.
Definite article with days, months, places, idioms Arabic She is in the bed.
He lives in the Peru.
Definite article used for generalization German, Spanish, Greek, French, Spanish, Portuguese The photography is an art.
The books are more expensive
than the disks.
No article for generalization with singular noun Haitian Creole Bird can fly.
Definite article used with proper noun German, Spanish, Greek, French, Portuguese The Professor Brackert teaches
in Frankfurt.
No definite article Hindi, Turkish Store on corner is closed.
No indefinite article Korean (uses one for a and depends on context) He ran into one tree.

Language Features Languages Sample Transfer Errors in English
Be can be omitted Russian, Arabic, Haitian Creole, Chinese India more religious than Britain.
She working now.
He always cheerful.
No progressive forms French, German, Russian, Greek They still discuss the problem.
When I walked in, she slept.
No tense inflections Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese He have a good time yesterday.
When I was little, I always walk
to school.
No inflections for person and number Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Thai The singer have a big band.
Past perfect formed with be Arabic They were arrived.
Different tense boundaries from English Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French I study here for a year.
He has left yesterday.
Different limits for passive voice Japanese, Korean, Russian, Thai, Vietnamese They were stolen their luggage.
My name base on Chinese
A miracle was happened.
No -ing (gerund)/ infinitive distinction Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, Spanish, Greek, Vietnamese, Portuguese She avoids to go.
I enjoy to play tennis.
Infinitive not used to express purpose Korean I go out for having my dinner.
Overuse of progressive forms Hindi, Urdu I am wanting to leave now.

Language Features Languages Sample Transfer Errors in English
Verb precedes subject Hebrew, Russian,
Spanish (optional), Tagalog, classical Arabic
Good grades received every
student in the class.
Verb-subject order in dependent clause French, Haitian Creole I knew what would decide
the committee.
Verb last Korean, Japanese, Turkish, German (independent clause), Bengali, Hindi . . . (when) the teacher the money
Coordination favored over subordination Arabic Frequent use of and, and so.
Relative clause or restrictive phrase precedes noun it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian The enrolled in community college
student . . .
A nine-meter-high impressive
monument to Lenin. .
He gave me a too difficult for me.
Adverb can occur between verb and object or before verb work French, Haitian Creole, Urdu (before verb) I like very much clam chowder.
They efficiently organized the
That clause rather than infinitive Arabic, French, Haitian Creole, Spanish, Hindi, Russian I want that you stay.
I want that they try harder.
Inversion of subject and verb rare Chinese She is leaving and so I am.
Conjunctions occur in pairs omitted (especially pronoun) Chinese, Farsi, Vietnamese Although she is rich but she wears
simple clothes.
Even if I had money, I would
also not buy that car.
Subject can be omitted (especially pronoun) Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Japanese Is raining.
Commas set off a dependent clause Russian, German He knows, that we are right.
No equivalent of there is/there are Russian, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai (uses adverb of place and have) This article says four reasons to
eat beans.
In the garden has many trees.

Language Features Languages Sample Transfer Errors in English
Personal pronouns restate subject Arabic, Spanish, Gujarati My father he lives in California.
No human/ nonhuman distinction for relative pronoun (who/which) Arabic, Farsi, French, Russian, Spanish, Thai Here is the student which you met
her last week.
The people which arrived...
Pronoun object added at end of relative clause Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew The house that I used to live in
it is big.
No distinction between subject and object forms of pronouns Chinese, Spanish, Thai, Korean, Gujarati I gave the forms to she.
Nouns and adjectives have same form Chinese, Japanese She is very beauty woman.
They felt very safety on the train.
No distinction between he/she, his/her Farsi, Thai, Bengali, Gujarati My sister dropped his purse.
No plural form after a number Farsi, Chinese, Korean Four new lamp . . .
No plural forms of nouns Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean Several good book . . .
No relative pronouns Korean The book is on the table is mine.
Adjectives show number Spanish I have helpfuls friends.
Double negatives are routinely used Spanish They don't know nothing.
Pronoun subjects can be omitted Thai, Spanish My boss complained when saw
the mess.

See also
Differences -- Not Deficits