Interference (linguistics)

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In linguistics, the term interference denotes the transfer of native-language structures to equivalent (equivalent) structures of a foreign language and vice versa, or of structures of a dialect to the associated standard language and vice versa. This applies to structures of a semantic , grammatical ( morphosyntactic ), idiomatic , phonological and gesticulatory nature in the source language, the transfer of which into the target language is seen by competent listeners or readers as wrong or misleading and which can lead to misunderstandings or incomprehensible sentences.

The term is not to be confused with inference in linguistics. The interference also differs from code switching , the ability to switch between several languages ​​in an interaction, which is defined (initially by Uriel Weinreich ) as a violation of norms or an expression of the speaker's lack of language skills .

Foreign language interference

interlingual or interlingual interference

There are three forms of this type of interference:

  • Transferring native speaker structures to a foreign language
  • Transferring foreign language structures to the mother tongue, for example from English to German , which is widely known under the keyword “ Denglisch ”.
  • Transferring structures from one foreign language to another. Such interference errors occur with speakers of several foreign languages ​​and are particularly common when two languages ​​are closely related (e.g. between Spanish and Italian).
intralingual interference

Errors are based on this when certain structures of a foreign language are generalized within them, for example when the dark (hard) variant of the English lateral "l", which is foreign to German, is generalized within the English language and is also incorrectly used when the soft one, also in German occurring variant would have to be used.

In linguistics, this phenomenon is often referred to not only as "interference", but also as "transfer". The term “transfer” is also used synonymously. This can also denote the positive influence of the mother tongue on the ability to formulate correctly in the foreign language ("positive transfer"): In such a positive case, the speaker or writer has never explicitly learned the form he is using, but has developed it Knowing his mother tongue is intuitively correct.

Lexical Interferences

The lexical interferences mainly include direct transcription and hypercorrection , both of which occur particularly in closely related languages, but whose onomasiological rules do not match, or which have clear phonological differences or use a different spelling for the same pronunciation . For example, a German speaker may inadvertently read the Dutch “Vink”, which corresponds to the German “Fink” in meaning and (in part) in pronunciation, as “Wink”, because he is mistakenly referring to some German loan or foreign words such as “Vase”. , "Veronika" or "Viktoria" oriented.

Another type of lexically conditioned interference occurs when the grammatical gender is different between two languages. Dutch speakers like to accidentally use “die” instead of “der” or “das” in German. Another example are speakers of certain German dialect groups who put personal names in front of certain articles. In Standard German, articles are not used in front of personal names, but in many local languages from the west and south of the German-speaking area they are common or even prescribed, and especially in the south-western and western varieties, women follow a neuter declination, contrary to the standard language norm : " Das Anna is a bright child. "

Semantic Interferences

So-called “ false friends ” cause problems in understanding foreign languages ​​or in producing understandable utterances in a foreign language . These are words that sound or are written similarly or the same as words in the mother tongue, but have a different meaning. This often leads to the error that the word means the same as in the mother tongue. For example, the German word "Bio" in everyday parlance mainly refers to a certain food class , while the Danish word "Bio" (from "Biograf") corresponds to the German word "Kino". The probability that “false friends” will prevail in common parlance is particularly high if the two things referred to have a significant semantic similarity or equality. For example, the word “website” developed from the English “web site”, which means a certain “place” on the World Wide Web. Due to the factual similarity, namely the idea that you can open a "site" like a "page" and leaf through individual "pages", the German word "website" has become a term not only for a single page of the WWW, but naturalized for an entire site.

A similar problem arises when a phrase is translated literally and what is actually meant is not understood in the target language. In general, improper, especially metaphorical speaking or writing often leads to comprehension problems. For example, “blue” in German stands for “drunk” and for a color, while “blue” in English denotes the same color, but can also mean “sad” (cf. the musical style “blues”) or “slippery”.

Many are also subject to the error that certain words of the same origin, especially internationalisms , exist in the same way in all languages ​​that belong to a language family. In fact, in exceptional cases, some loanwords are not used in a certain foreign language, and some internationalisms are (for many unexpected ) used in a form deviating from the generally accepted standard. For example:

  • “Das Bier” (German), “the beer” (English), “la bière” (French), “la birra” (Italian); but: "la cerveza" (Spanish), "a cerveja" (Portuguese), "Ölet" (Swedish)
  • “Trans-” as in “Transport / transport” (almost all European languages); but: "tra-" as in "trasporto" (Italian, without "n")

Syntactic Interferences

Syntactic interferences affect sentence structures that can be different in different languages. For example, the use of articles in generic expressions differs in French and German. While in French the definite article comes after verbs of liking, in German normally no article is used.

J'aime le thé.
I like to drink tea.

Under certain circumstances this can lead to incorrect usage of the definitive article in German by French-speaking German learners.

I like to drink the tea.

Some German teachers claim that this sentence does not allow a generic interpretation.

Morphological interference

In many languages ​​there are words with the same stem, but which are conjugated and declined differently depending on the language. This applies e.g. B. towards the verb "to arrive" (English) or "arriver" (French). Anyone who speaks and writes a lot of English will find the suffix "-s" in the 3rd person singular "flesh and blood". Malforms of the type “il arrives” are easily possible if the writer's concentration decreases (especially since the verbal ending “-es” also exists in French, but there marks the second person singular). The wrong form “worked” can be explained in a similar way: A writer who has not concentrated has taken the ending from “worked” into German. There are increasing numbers of such cases when English expressions are adopted into German, as in the cases “updated” instead of “updated” or “scanned” instead of “scanned”.

Another case is the identification of the plural with the suffix "-s": In English this form is usually correct, but in German it is seldom. The fact that “the fishermen” means the “Fischer family” and not “people who live from fishing” does not need to be known to people with little German competence. Confusion can be caused by the fact that the North German forms influenced by Low German , such as “boys and girls”, spread strongly to the south, suggesting the impression that the suffix “-s” is generally correct. This type of use, which is often only joking at first, is often the result, which can possibly become generalized over time.

Phonological interference

Transfer of the native phoneme inventory to the foreign language

Non-native speakers are often first recognized by their pronunciation, which differs from the norm of the foreign language . Based on the specific pronunciation that German-speaking English learners tend to use, the following problem areas emerge:

Differences in the phoneme inventory of two languages ​​lead to the fact that the sounds of the foreign language that do not exist in the own language are replaced by similar sounds of the mother tongue. This becomes problematic if phoneme boundaries are exceeded - i.e. if the substitute sound coincides with another sound in the foreign language.

In the case of German English learners, the best-known example is the so-called English “th”, which exists in two variants: as a voiceless and as a voiced interdental fricative . Because there is no interdental fricatives in English, German native speakers replace the variants of the English "th" through the alveolar fricatives [⁠ s ⁠] as in "rei ß s" or [⁠ for ⁠] as in " s ingen ". So it is z. B. both engl. "Thing" as well as engl. "Sing" realized as "sing" ([ sɪŋ ]). If the context does not clarify this, there will be difficulties in understanding.

These pronunciation characteristics can be represented in a matrix as follows:

  [⁠ s ⁠] as in rei ß s [⁠ for ⁠] as in Rei 's e [⁠ v ⁠] as in W a [⁠ ɛ ⁠] as in B e tt
[ θ ] as in th ing
[⁠ s ⁠] as in s ing
[ Ð ] as in th is
[⁠ for ⁠] as z ebra
[⁠ w ⁠] as in w est
[⁠ v ⁠] as in v est
[ æ ] as in b a d
[⁠ e ⁠] as in b e d

thing and sing, writhe and rise, west and vest as well as bad and bed all sound the same with this wrong pronunciation.

Different realization of the monophthongs - vowel trapezoid with indication of the tongue positions of the German (red) monophthongs and the monophthongs in the British RP (blue).

Such interferences arise due to so-called categorical perception : When acquiring their mother tongue, every toddler unconsciously learns to group differently articulated sounds into sound classes and eliminates all other possibilities both in perception and in their own articulation. If a native speaker now hears a speech sound that does not exist in his own language, it is "automatically" classified in a neighboring sound class and articulated accordingly. These cases of interlingual interference are therefore predictable and form the basis of pronunciation practice when teaching the foreign language.

In contrast to morphological and syntactic interference, phonological interference is usually less amenable to correction or modification.

Native-speaking interference can be almost completely eliminated by making the learner aware of the issue. However, in addition to overcoming a linguistic psychological inhibition threshold, knowledge of the conditions of human language articulation and a particularly intensive study of the foreign language are necessary. However, this usually only works if someone who wants to learn a foreign language spends a certain amount of time in the country of the target language. If the speaker of the foreign language is not aware of the phenomenon of mother tongue interference or if he is unable to overcome it, such mistakes become entrenched in the foreign language, making it practically impossible to eliminate mother tongue influences. In language acquisition research, this condition is referred to as "fossilization".

Transfer of the foreign-language phoneme inventory to the mother tongue

Contact with a foreign language can also lead to a change in the way people speak and write in their mother tongue. Or it is possible that German-speaking boys named David and Patrick suddenly want their names to be pronounced in English, even though they are not originally English names. "Johannes" can also become "Johnny". Such Anglicisms are only considered to be “negative transfers”, ie as interference phenomena, if they are assessed negatively as cases of “Denglisch” (“inappropriate” adoption of the norms of the English language).

Not knowing the origin of a word

Proper names and foreign words represent a special case of phonetic interference if they are not pronounced automatically according to the rules of the mother tongue or the presumed language of origin, but according to the rules of a (different) foreign language. For example, many people do not know that the singer Roger Cicero would like his first name to be pronounced in French; many Germans pronounce “Roger” in English. The same applies to "Albert Camus": If you don't know the name of the French author, you could pronounce it in German or English. The same applies to the Hungarian doctor named "Kaposi", after whom the "Kaposi sarcoma" is named: Regardless of how you articulate the "a" and the "o" in your name - the "s" must be correctly translated as "sch " to be pronounced. In the case of general foreign words, it can happen that someone interprets “create” as “create” if he does not immediately understand that “create” is meant. Such mistakes are supported by suggestive hyphenation (like "create" here, but as they can also occur in genuinely German words, for example in the case of "including", which instead of "containing" is often incorrectly called "bein-hold" is read).


  • Uriel Weinreich: Languages ​​in contact. Findings and problems. New York: Publications of the Linguistic Circle of New York 1, 1953; The Hague: Mouton, 1963. - German: Languages ​​in Contact. Results and problems of bilingualism research. Munich 1976 (Beck's Elementary Books).
  • W. Bernstein: How is the mother tongue interference expressed when learning foreign language vocabulary? In: Linguistik und Didaktik 38, 1979, pp. 142–147.
  • C. Földes: Contact German. On the theory of a variety type under transcultural conditions of multilingualism. Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen 2005.
  • J. Beyer, LTI Penman: The petitions of 'a supposed prophetesse'. The Lübeck letters of Anna Walker and their significance for the Synod of Dordt. A linguistic and contextual analysis. In: Aza Goudriaan, Fred van Lieburg (ed.): Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). Brill, Leiden / Boston 2011, pp. 107-133.

Individual evidence

  1. Sascha Stollhans: I like to drink tea. The zero article from the perspective of French-speaking German learners with special consideration of generic expressions. In: Information German as a Foreign Language. 39 (6), 2012, pp. 605-624. InfoDaF_2012_Heft_6.pdf PDF file, 2.4 MB
  2. Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd, updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 .