Research article
Issue: № 3 (7), 2016


The article deals with interlingual phenomena that occur in the process of multiple language acquisition in a learning environment. The notions of language interference and transfer put forward by the theories of bilingualism, give useful insights when applied to the modern day educational trends. Language and culture interference is an important aspect to be considered with regard to teaching of plurilingual learners, whose communicative competence is formed on the basis of several linguistic and cultural systems that interact with each other and exert mutual influence.

An increasing demand of the modern world consists in the necessity to have a command of more than a single foreign language (FL), this way enabling them to become full-fledged members/users of the globalized reality who can adequately perform their roles in the information community we all share today. Does learning several languages merely involve acquiring necessary knowledge, skills and competencies in respective languages and adding them together? Research tends to disagree with such an assumption. A very strong case has been made for the opinion that communicative competences in several languages cannot co-exist in the learners’ minds separately from each other, but rather they exert mutual influence and form various joint patterns that can either hinder or be conducive to the learning process. A multiple language speaker’s communicative competence seems to go far beyond being a sum of respective compеtenсes in several languages. It is a product of collective experience acquired by an individual as a result of their exposure to all linguocultures they are involved with, including their native one.

Bearing this in mind, it is of great relevance and interest to have a closer look at the processes taking place at the intersections of a variety of linguocultural patterns in the mind of a learner. Addressing them in a multiple language classroom could entail significant implications for the effectiveness of teaching a third (or further) language.

Half a century ago the theories of bilingualism formulated by U. Weinreich and E. Haugen in their seminal works [8], [5], proposed to employ the notions of transfer and interference to describe various interactive occurrences that take place in the learner’s mind between multiple linguocultural systems. The distinguishing criteria between these two groups of phenomena lies the nature of their influence on the learning process: interference describing negative effects, transfer – positive ones. These initial ideas gave an immense impetus for further multilingual research both abroad and at home, such as a comprehensive study and classification of interlingual and intralingual processes developed by N. Bagramova [1]. Interlingual processes describe interactions between several languages of the speaker, whereas intralingual ones cover the phenomena taking place within one language between its various elements.

In general terms, interference might be defined as deviation from linguocultural norms caused by one language influencing another. For a while the leading opinion suggested the first (mother) language (L1) have the leading effect onto the processes taking place in the second and further language (FL1/FL2+), but later research has made a valid point of it not always being the case. At the turn of the cеntury many linguists argued that the impact of FL1 on the learner’s FL2+ is more prominent than that of one’s L1 [2].

While language interference has long been the object of academic interest, interference of cultural phenomena remains relatively unresearched, despite the generally recognized hypothesis of cultural phenomena associated with different linguocultures interacting and correlating no less than language systems do. The difficulty defining, classifying and examining culture interference (CI) can be explained by the nature of this notion. The fact is its principal difference from what we can call the “direct” type of interference, speaking in terms of the classification proposed by V. Rosenzweig [4]. Direct (‘pryamaya’) interference involves such deviation from language norms that explicitly manifests itself in lexical, grammatical or phonetic mistakes, while indirect interference (‘kosvennaya’) that CI can be associated with, is rather more subtle and challenging for an external observer. Deviations from cultural norms stem from the lack of authentic experience and reveal themselves not so much in the language system as at the level of usage, hardly leading to any distortion of culture-specific information but rather not using it to the same degree a native speaker does.

When analyzing the ‘indirectness’ of CI, it would be useful to have a closer look at more recent research in the area of culture didactics. One of the most challenging issues to address in the area of culture didactics is the limits and the structure of cultural content to make it both sufficient and attainable for an FL classroom. R. Milrood undertakes an attempt to specify the content of culture teaching by subdividing it into five components: culture elements, culture manifestations, culture indicators, culture facts, and culture dimensions [3, 137-138]. This structure is built on the principle “from the most explicit to the most implicit” and is graphically presented by the author in the shape of a pyramid, at the foundation of which we find “culture dimensions”, whereas its peak is made up of “culture elements”. An association that immediately springs to mind is an iceberg, of which we can only see the top part – culture elements and culture manifestations. The distinguishing feature between these two groups is that the “elements” can be learnt from various sources, not necessarily involving direct contact with the target language environment, whereas culture manifestations are the observations of the learner, as well as their cultural experiences, made in contact with native speakers. The lower section of this ‘iceberg’ is made up of less visible, less observable elements – culture indicators, facts, and dimensions, which reflect habits/preferences, values/norms, and most general cultural features respectively. The closer we get to the bottom of this pyramid, the more complex are the instances of possible CI.

To further develop this point, let us turn to a Western ethnographic view on culture learning. P. Riley, for instance, believes all knowledge of culture to consist of three major groups: know-that (native speakers’ values and beliefs), know-of (their informedness of what is currently happening in their sociocultural community) and know-how (their skills and competencies of how to speak and act in accordance with cultural norms) [7: 40-41].

Identifying the main aspects of cultural information that is to be acquired in the course of learning a third language is crucial to identifying the areas of potential CI. Iust an overview of classifications of culture-specific content applied to the process of language learning and teaching, gives an idea of the kind of knowledge, skills, and abilities students should acquire in order to become effective participants of intercultural communication, such as knowledge of culture-specific information, interpersonal and intercultural communicative skills based on real-life experience, and an acquired ability of interpreting actions of speakers of your own and other cultures. An important addition to this list could be the awareness of the possible risks of CI at every level – from cultural elements explicitly stated in a given discourse to underlying cultural values.

One last remark to be made here with regard to multiple language learners – not natural multilinguals, but those acquiring several FLs in a classroom environment – is the significance of the fact that the acquisition of multiple FLs does not take place at the same pace or time. In Russia a standard practice involves starting to learn FL2 once a certain level of fluency has already been attained in FL1. Thus a difference between proficiency levels in respective foreign languages seems unavoidable. Apart from linguistic proficiency, we need to address the matter of culture proficiency, which inevitably, will be higher for the linguoculture which the learner has had more exposure to. An urgent need to address the discrepancy between linguistic and cultural proficiency levels was convincingly stated by C. Hoffmann when exploring the matters of bilingualism at the threshold of the 21st century. Namely, she argued “the more fluent the bilingual becomes, the fewer allowances will be made and the less tolerant the native speakers of the other language will be of violations of cultural assumptions” [6, 31].   Despite the fact that the author refrains from naming it cultural interference, this is exactly how we perceive the above-mentioned “violations”, namely as an attempt to compensate for the knowledge, skills, and abilities one might lack by either substituting (or even transforming) them with those at your immediate disposal, or giving preference to the structures more predominant in your mentality.

The current educational trend equally has to do with the understanding of an absolute indispensability of plural language acquisition as well as the gradual recognition of the nature of plurilingualism, which should result in the development of teaching mechanisms and tools to help learners of more than one FL to strategically manage the imbalance between various degrees of fluency in linguocultures they are exposed to. We believe that the further exploration of the processes of cultural and linguistic interference could provide invaluable insights for the teaching of language and culture in a plurilingual classroom.


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