When you apply knowledge from your native language (L1) to a second language (L2) it is called language transfer (or linguistic interference, or crossmeaning). Any language learned previously will influence the acquisition of a new language either positively or negatively.
Constructive Analysis (CA), which was popular in the 50’s and 60’s, believes that the principle barrier to L2 acquisition is caused by interference of previously learned languages. Later in the 60’s because of the Chomskyan influence L1 became viewed as a critical basis for learning the new language instead of interfering with it.
Positive transfer is when L1 knowledge is transferred to L2 and results in meanings that match what native speakers would think of as ‘correct’. People learning similar languages experience most positive transfer then those people learning a language with a different structure then their L1 language. Positive transfer is not as noticeable as negative transfer so it is not discussed as often as negative transfer.
Negative transfer which is what happens when the structure of the two languages are not similar and the structure of the first language is applied, incorrectly, to the new language. It is natural for people revert to familiar patterns, so when the new language has a different structure it is important to develop strategies for minimizing negative transfer to help reinforce the patterns of the new language. Knowledge of the differences of the two languages can help you predict errors so you can pay particular attention to the areas that are most often affected by negative transfer.
Different types of languages use different kinds of strategies to process and comprehend linguistic information. Three examples of how languages can be different are: word order, the use of articles (a/the) and orthographic knowledge (the knowledge of how sounds are mapped to the symbols that the language uses.)
The word order used by the largest number of distinct languages is subject-object-verb (SOV), Japanese, Korean and Turkish are examples of languages that use this word order. English uses subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. I book saw vs. I saw the book.
Another way that Japanese, Korean and Turkish differs from English is the use of articles (a/the). English commonly uses articles, Japanese, Korean and Turkish do not. Speakers of these languages need to pay greater attention to learning the use of articles.
Turkish and English are both alphabetic (each unit represents a phoneme) while Japanese is syllabic (each unit represents a syllable.) Languages with different orthographic properties use distinct processing for word recognition so while Turkish and English speakers will use similar processing strategies which can be applied to the other language the Japanese speaker will need to learn new strategies when learning a language like English along with learning the new word order and the use of articles.
One of the strategies for avoiding negative transfer is to read extensively in the new language. The more you read in your new language the more you will gain knowledge not only in the language but also about the culture and it’s values. Reading will also reinforce the structure of the new language.