Language Interference Guide

This guide was compiled by Prof. Viktoriia Skriabina (Visiting researcher, Kyiv National Linguistic University) in collaboration with the English Linguistics team in 2023.

How to work with the guide

This guide was created within the projectLanguage Interference in Multilingual Learners of English at the Department of English (UNIL). Our research is aimed at investigating language interference in multilingual context and offering a better language support system to UNIL students on their way to English proficiency. Multilingual learners often have to deal with language interference which occurs because of the specific combination of their native and non-native languages.

This page provides you with insights from theoretical works in linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, neurolinguistics, and language teaching methodology as well as practical steps that you can make in your language learning.

The guide starts with a brief overview of the notion of language interference. If you want to get a deeper understanding of the problem, you can consult the References section.

We advise you to first read the general overview and reflect on the situations when you face interference problems in language learning or language use. Then you can move to Dominant Language Constellations and try to visualize them as well as investigate your linguistic profile in general. After that, with the help of Reflection tools establish your level of proficiency in dominant languages and set up goals in language learning. Having done that, browse through the section Why Interference Happens. Itsheds light on the causes of interference and provides links to websites with recommendations on how to deal with them (for example, how to develop language learning habits or working memory).

About language interference

Language interference is the influence of elements of one language on another at various levels (phonological, grammatical, lexical, orthographical, cognitive) (Berthold, Mangubhai & Batorowicz, 1997; Faerch and Kasper, 1986; Haugen, 1950; Jarvis and Pavlenko, 2008; Krashen, Dulay & Burt, 1982; Odlin, 1989; Sharwood-Smith, 1994; Weinreich, 1953).

Is interference a bad thing?

Interference can both hinder and facilitate your language learning. On the one hand, it can lead to mistakes, for example, the use of the plural form of the noun in analogy to the native language grammar rules (informations instead of information by German speakers, knowledges instead of knowledge by Ukrainian speakers; advices instead of advice by French speakers, etc.) On the other hand, recognizing similar patterns of the two languages can help you in the process of learning (Kellerman 1987, p. 13; Odlin, 1989, p.3).

Interference pitfalls

You can make obvious (explicit) interference mistakes by violating the norms of the target language. However, there are also implicit interference mistakes such as hypercorrection, simplification and avoidance. Hypercorrection is an over-application of phonological or grammatical rules or when learners try to avoid applying grammatical rules from their native language to the new language (for example, mispronunciation by French speakers of the initial [h] in English words that begin with a vowel). Simplification and avoidance often take place when certain linguistic patterns are absent in your native language (for example, avoidance of articles) and you simplify your speech by avoiding complex constructions and idiomatic expressions you don’t understand fully.

Why interference happens

You cannot avoid interference when learning foreign languages, the human psyche is not able to master two languages to the full (Gavranek, 1972, pp. 94-111). According to Köpke and Genevska-Hanke (2018), when a monolingual becomes multilingual, their languages are no longer independent but constantly interact and influence one another.

Linguists have been trying to define causes for interference.


The traditional approach based on comparison of the mother tongue and a target language does not work any longer for multilingual students. So, we would like to recommend using selected sets of languages or Dominant Language Constellations for that purpose. First coined by Aronin (2006, p.145), the term denotes a “set of languages that together carry out all the functions of the human language, thus enabling individuals and groups to persist in a multilingual environment”. It is part of the language repertoire and typically comprises three languages. A multilingual can have several co-existing language constellations such as a family DLC, a professional DLC, a leisure DLC, etc. depending on which languages they use in different situations (Coetzee-Van Rooy, 2018). When Dominant Language Constellation has no common features with the target language, learners are likely to have problems with understanding and learning it (like, for example, English or German articles for those whose constellation includes only Slavic languages). You can visualize your DLCs, reflect on them, find similarities and differences between them to better understand and develop proficiency in any language you want to learn.

What can you do about it?

How to establish your linguistic repertoire:

How to visualize your DLC:

Reflection tools to establish your level of proficiency in languages and set up goals in language learning:

References for further reading:

  1. Aronin, L., Singleton, D. (2008). Multilingualism as a new linguistic dispensation. International Journal of Multilingualism, 5:1, 1-16. DOI: 10.2167/ijm072.0.
  2. Coetzee-Van Rooy, S. 2018. Dominant Language Constellations in Multilingual Repertoires: Implications for Language-in-Education Policy and Practices in South Africa. Language Matters. 49: 19–46.