Bilingual Musings: Language Transfer

Language transfer, when someone applies knowledge from their native language to a second language, is typical in budding bilinguals like my daughter. Although in her case, she really does a lot of the transferring the other way around, from what I like to think as her second language (English) into her native one (Spanish). Of course, it could be argued that in a case like hers, where she has been exposed to both languages pretty much since birth, it’s hard to pinpoint which of the two languages she speaks is the native one.

Either way, I find this process fascinating and so I’ve been keeping notes on some of the things she says. The most typical language transfer has to do with putting the adjective before the noun, which she does indiscriminately in both English and Spanish. So we constantly hear her saying stuff like “chiquitos carros” (instead of carros chiquitos) and “blanco unicornio” (instead of unicornio blanco), for example.

Here’s another type of language transfer she does all the time: “Quiero ir al baño muy mal” as in “I want to go to the bathroom really bad,” when the correct way of saying it in Spanish is: “Tengo muchas ganas de ir al baño.”

We recently caved-in and bought our first video game console and Vanessa has been pretty hooked on it, even though we only let her play with it for a little bit at a time on the weekends. Anyhow, just like she says she want to “ir al baño muy mal,” I’ve now also heard her say “quiero jugar Wii muy mal.”

And then, how about the language transfer going on here: “No espero para jugar ese juego nuevo de Wii con papá“? She was trying to say she couldn’t way to play the new Wii game with her dad, but she should’ve said: “No veo la hora de jugar…”

What to do? I usually find it pretty funny when she says stuff like this because I understand what’s going on, so I just repeat what she said using the correct form/words. My husband has tried to explain that in Spanish the adjective usually (because there’s always an exception to every rule) goes after the noun, but I don’t think she really gets it right now. I’m hoping it all just fix itself the larger her vocabulary becomes in both her languages, but sometimes I worry a little because I have heard bilingual adults saying the same kind of things my 5-year-old is saying.

Do your children do this? Can you share some examples? What have you done to correct it?

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