Language transfer and signed languages

Language transfer has typically never worked for me.

I’ve studied many languages and have varying degrees of proficiency in each. Each has presented its own challenges and rewards as I’ve studied them (although, to be fair, they’ve generally been studied through the lens of linguistics – i.e., I’ve always had some broader, academic goal in mind when studying them, rather than studying them purely to learn and use the language). One thing they have all had in common, though, is to demonstrate my lack of language transfer ability.

Simply put, language transfer is when an L2 learner applies – usually subconsciously – their existing linguistic knowledge to the language being learned. A simple example would be an English speaker, studying French, inserting an English word when they can’t remember the French one:

Correct French: La fille est belle.
Learner's utterance: La fille est beautiful.

It can get far more complicated, of course, with entire grammatical structures and cognitive frameworks being transferred over… but it just never worked for me. Whenever I studied another language, it was almost in isolation. In the beginning stages, when learning some basic words and phrases by comparing them to English, it was always far more difficult for me than for my classmates. They could easily remember that 私の名前は is just Japanese for My name is. To me, though, they were entirely disconnected. “Watashi no namae wa” and “My name is” were distinct groups of sounds and concepts with little overlap, if any.

Over time, especially as I developed vocab enough to be able to work things out from context, I would start to outpace my classmates (who always outpaced me in the early stages). It was almost like I was learning each language the way an L1 learner would. While the details might be inaccurate sometimes, Chomsky’s theory that language is innate, and that a universal grammar exists, seemed right for my circumstances.

As I studied linguistics, I could always understand the concept as it applied to other people, but it seemed really alien to me – until I started studying Auslan.

I can’t translate well between English and Auslan. In Term 1 2021, my PLC leader and I completed professional development online, where we watched an Auslan user and an English interpreter. My PLC leader was often stumped by the Auslan user, but I had no difficulty understanding and following his instructions – however, I could not relay those instructions to my colleague in English. I just ‘got it’.

The thing is, I can translate well between Japanese and Auslan. Somehow, without me realising it, my mind has connected Japanese with Auslan. To try to work out why this has happened, I recorded my utterances in both languages for almost a week and compared them. As a second step, I tried to translate each utterance into the other language.

A typical example:


The former is quite an informal Japanese phrase. It means “Where is your sister?” but is literally “Your sister where?” (Anata no imouto wa doko?). As odd as it looks in English, this is a perfectly-correct Japanese sentence.

The second sentence (glossed above) is a perfectly-correct Auslan sentence which also means “Where is your sister?” but is literally “Your sister where?”).

Both sentences were uttered automatically during the period I was recording. I was surprised by the Auslan one. In my study, and in practise at work, I use a pidgin Auslan, generally maintaining English structure but without being word-for-word. I should have been more likely to sign WHERE YOUR SISTER?, but this would be less correct.

Somehow, my mind has noticed the similarities between Japanese syntax and Auslan syntax, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I have already subjectively observed that Japanese “feels more right” to me than English. When I speak English I tend to speak a bit like a robot; I am far more expressive in Japanese and can read cadences and intonation in Japanese far better than I can in English.

Additionally, much of my exposure to Japanese comes from tokusatsu, which uses a lot of gesture and expression. I think this has primed my mind to associate Japanese with gesture.

It’s weird, as I can now feel what language transfer is like for those who do it more readily, and I have been able to consciously apply it to learning Auslan. This has primarily helped me to learn to read Auslan texts far more readily and fluently, but is not yet helping with expression.

It’s been noted that Auslan grammatically bears many similarities with spoken languages from East Asia. My mind seems to have made that connection on its own. Neat…

The problem now is that I am inappropriately applying Japanese grammatical rules to Auslan, such as signing AUGUST as EIGHT MONTH. Not really sure how useful language transfer is. Maybe Selinker (1969) was right to see it as a problem (that’s a joke… sigh).