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May 2007, Volume 5, No.5 (Serial No.

44) US -China Foreign Language, ISSN1539-8080, US A

Interlanguage in college English teaching

SHENG Xue-mei
(School of Foreign Languages, Southeast University, Nanjing 210096, China)

Abstract: Created by SLA learners, interlanguage is a unique and dynamic linguistic system, which is
different from the native language and from the target language. However, interlanguage is not considered as a
legal language system in English teaching in China. English teachers should look at students’interlanguage fairly
and properly, value the training of learning strategies and provide students with more opportunities for
comprehensible input and output so that students’interlanguage can develop rapidly towards the target language.
Key words: interlanguage; college English teaching; learning strategies

1. Introduction

Interlanguage is a unique and dynamic linguistic system, which is different from the native language and
from the target language. However, interlanguage is not considered as a legal language system in English teaching
in China. English teachers should look at students’interlanguage fairly and properly, value the training of learning
strategies and provide students with more opportunities for comprehensible input and output so that students’
interlanguage can develop rapidly towards the target language.

2. Interlanguage

2.1 Interlanguage and its features

The term “interlanguage” was coined by American linguist, Larry Selinker (Ellis, 1997). In his view, a
learner’s interlanguage refers to the structured system the learner constructs at any given stage in his development.
It draws partly on the learner’ s L1 but it is different from the target language. Therefore, it is a unique linguistic
The assumptions underlying interlanguage theory were stated clearly as follows (Nemser, 1971, cited in Ellis,
1985, p. 47): (1) at any given time, the approximative system (an alternative term for interlanguage) is distinct
from the L1 and L2; (2) the approximative systems form an evolving series; and (3) that in a given contact
situation, the approximative systems of learners at the same stage of proficiency roughly coincide.
L2 learners’interlanguage system has some principal features. To begin with, it is permeable, in the sense
that rules that constitute the learner’s knowledge at any stage are not fixed, but open to amendment. Moreover, L2
learners’interlanguage is dynamic in that it is constantly changing. However, the learner does not jump from one
stage to the next, but rather slowly revises the interim systems to accommodate new hypotheses about the target
language system. This takes place by the introduction of a new rule, first in one context and then in another, and
so on. A new rule spreads in the sense that its coverage gradually extends over a range of linguistic contexts. This
process of constant revision and extension of rules is a feature of the inherent instability of interlanguage and its

SHENG Xue-mei (1969- ), female, Ph.D. candidate of School of Arts, Southeast University, lecturer of School of Foreign
Languages, Southeast University; research fields: English education, Chinese and foreign dramas.

Interlanguage in college English teaching

built-in propensity for change. Furthermore, interlanguage is systematic. For a L2 learner, the true norms are
contained in the interlanguage system he/she has constructed. He/She does not select haphazardly from his/her
store of interlanguage rules, but in predictable ways. He/She bases his/her performance plans on his/her existing
rule system in much the same way as the native speaker bases his/her plans on his/her internalized knowledge of
the L1 system. Finally, it is worth noting that many L2 learners (perhaps as many as 95 percent) fail to reach target
language competence. In other words, they do not reach the end of the interlanguage continuum. For some reason,
they are unable to reactivate the “latent language structure”(Lenneberg, 1967, cited in Ellis, 1985, p. 49).
2.2 Error analysis
There are five principal processes operating in interlanguage (Selinker, 1972, cited in Ellis, 1985, p. 48).
Language transfer is listed first. The learner’s L1 is one of the sources of error in learner language. Here, this
influence is referred to as negative transfer, also known as interference, which is the use of a native-language
pattern or rule leading to an error or inappropriate form in the target language. In Chinese, for example, adjectives
can be put in the position of verbal predicates. In consequence of this, many Chinese-speaking learners will say
the following sentence: “They very happy.”
Overgeneralization of target language rules is in the second place. Overgeneralization is a process common in
both first- and second-language learning, in which a learner extends the use of a grammatical rule beyond its
accepted uses, generally by making words or structures follow a more regular pattern. For instance, a child may
use “ball”to refer to all round objects, or use “goed”instead of “went”for the past form of “go”.
The third most important one is transfer of training. That is induced error, which refers to an error that has
been caused by the way in which a language item has been presented or practiced. For example, when teaching
the word “at,”the teacher may hold up a box and say, “I’m looking at the box”. However, the learner may infer
that “at”means “under.”If later the learner uses “at”for “under,”this would be an induced error (Richards et al.,
Another aspect is strategies of L2 learning, which is an identifiable approach by the learner to the material to
be learned. It refers to intentional behavior and thoughts that learners make use of in order to help them
understand, learn or remember new information. These may include focusing on certain aspects of new
information, analyzing and organizing information to deepen comprehension, evaluating learning when it is
completed to see if further action is needed. Learning strategies may be applied to simple tasks such as learning a
list of new words, or more complex tasks involving language comprehension and production. The effectiveness of
second language learning is thought to be improved by teaching learners more effective learning strategies.
The last but not least is strategies of L2 communication, which is an identifiable approach by the learner to
communication with native speakers. It often refers to a way used to express a meaning in a second or foreign
language, by a learner who has a limited command of the language. In trying to communicate, a learner may have
to make up for a lack of knowledge of grammar or vocabulary. The learners will use PARAPHRASE strategies,
AVOIDANCE strategies and other communication strategies such as gesture and mime. For instance, the learner
may not be able to say “It’s against the law to park here”, so he/she may say “This place, cannot park”. And for “I
lost my way”, a learner could say “I lost my road”.
2.3 Theoretical bases
The linguistic basis of interlanguage theory comes from the principles of mentalist theories of language
acquisition. In the view of Chomsky, the primary determinant of L1 acquisition is the child’s acquisition device,
which is genetically endowed and provides the child with a set of principles about grammar; the acquisition

Interlanguage in college English teaching

device weakens with age so that automatic, genetically-endowed language acquisition was not possible after
puberty; the process of acquisition consists of hypothesis-testing, by which means the grammar of the learner’s
mother tongue is related to the principles of the universal grammar. However, Selinker further developed
Chomsky’s theory (Ellis, 1985). He suggested that those adults who achieve native-speaker proficiency in the TL
(target language) do so because they continue to make use of the acquisition device, or “latent language structure.”
Thus, like the child in L1 acquisition, the successful adult L2 learner is able to transform the universal grammar
into the structure of the grammar of the target language. This takes place by reactivating the “latent language
Additionally, cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics are the psychological bases of interlanguage. From
this perspective, SLA or FLL (foreign language learning) is a process of accumulating, reorganizing and creating.
Transfer theory argues that L1 language system inevitably influences the learner’s SLA and FLL. The learner
usually transfers the grammatical rules of L1 into SLA and FLL.

3. Present Situations in English Teaching and Suggestions

From the analyses above we can find that interlanguage is an independent language system, which has the
general features and functions of human language. It has its ow n rules of phonology, lexicon and grammar, which
can be used by the L2 learner to generate sentences he/she has not heard before. In this respect, learning is a
process to correct errors continuously so that interlanguage can approach the target language step by step. Like
other languages, interlanguage can function as a communicative tool. To be aware of these characteristics of
interlanguage will be of great importance for English teachers. As we know, in the course of developing students’
integrated language competence, there does exist some inappropriate teaching methods and teaching activities that
haven’t dealt with interlanguage phenomena fairly and properly. Consequently, induced errors are sometimes
3.1 The content of teaching and learning
At present, a good many textbooks used in a majority of colleges and universities have not provided teachers
or students with specific teaching methods or learning strategies but only the systematic classified knowledge. The
resulting phenomenon is that classroom teaching is only textbook-centered, taking teaching systematic knowledge
as the aim of teaching and neglecting the training of learning strategies. This reflects teachers’wrong beliefs about
teaching. In other words, they think that after they have taught the systematic knowledge students should grasp the
related knowledge of the target language entirely and correctly. They have no awareness of the existence of
students’interlanguage. In fact, when students obtain new knowledge, it is by making good use of their existing
interlanguage structure subconsciously that they internalize the new language information to form a new
knowledge system. That is, a new interlanguage system.
There is another problem that cannot be ignored, the imperfectness of the teacher ’s second language. In a
sense, the L2 of the teacher is still an interlanguage (except those teachers who are native speakers of the
language), which means his presentation differs from the target language. Even though students could grasp all the
language information which teachers provide (this is impossible), what they grasp is still an interlanguage.
Therefore, it is very important to teach and train learning strategies. Having the proper learning strategy means
that students have the ability and method to analyze and organize any new information, and then they are able to
evaluate their learning process and learning outcome appropriately. Clearly, this suggests that students are likely to

Interlanguage in college English teaching

regard not the taught knowledge but the target language as the evaluation criterion so that they can go through
their interlanguage system to make it approach the target language. From this point of view, we should continue
the teaching and training of learning strategies throughout classroom teaching.
In most cases, however, students are unconscious of their own interlanguage system. Consequently, strategies
making students aware of the existence of their interlanguage system and of how it influences their learning
process should also be taught in class. In my view, reflecting on cognition is an effective strategy, which makes
their covert interlanguage system become overt. Specifically speaking, after the target language information has
been given, teachers may take flexible measures, such as recording students’production, exchanging information
with students, and so forth, in order that students may have opportunities for output. More importantly, with the
help of teachers, students can contrast their output (interlanguage) with input (target language) to find out the
differences and their causes. This is a process of reflection on their cognition, during which students can develop
their ability to learn autonomously and avoid the negative influence which their existing interlanguage system has
upon their learning process.
3.2 Attitudes towards errors
“Error” is a grammatically incorrect form, and in linguistics, it generally refers to the learner’s misuse or
misunderstanding of the target language, grammatically or pragmatic ally. However, “mistake”is the improper use
of a language form that looks grammatically well-formed. “Lapse”refers to the slips of the tongue or pen. In the
view of Richards et al (1998), “error”refers to the use of a linguistic item in a way which a fluent or native
speaker of the language regards as showing faulty or incomplete learning in the speech or writing of a second or
foreign language learner. A distinction is sometimes made between an error, which results from incomplete
knowledge, and a mistake made by a learner when writing or speaking and which is caused by lack of attention,
fatigue, carelessness, or some other aspects of performance. Errors are sometimes classified according to
vocabulary (lexical error), pronunciation (phonological error), grammar (syntactic error), misunderstanding of a
speaker’s intention or meaning (interpretive error), production of the wrong communicative effect, e.g. through
the faulty use of a speech act or one of the Rules of Speaking (pragmatic error).
In our traditional teaching activities, teachers usually cannot tolerate language errors from their students.
Harsh error correction, ridicule and uncomfortable handling of mistakes in front of a class are among the most
important instructor-learner interaction issues related to language anxiety. It is evidenced that language anxiety
ranks high among factors influencing language learning, regardless of whether the setting is informal (learning
language on the streets) or formal (in the language classroom). Language anxiety is fear or apprehension
occurring when a learner is expected to perform in the second or foreign language (Gardner & Maclntyre, 1993,
cited in Oxford, 1999). This anxiety is linked directly to performing in the target language, so it is not just a
general performance anxiety. It is a common phenomenon that what students have learned is “silent English”or
“dumb English.”On the basis of these, we can say that this kind of attitude is controversial. Interlanguage is a
legal language system with a series of rules, of which students are the creators. Students are not using the rules
randomly but consciously and creatively. Accordingly, teachers should tolerate interlanguage errors made by their
students, giving interlanguage a legal position in teaching.
There is another kind of attitude towards interlanguage errors, namely, teachers never or seldom correct
students’errors, as a result of which students cannot sense the errors which they have made so that the proportion
of error repetition is very high. Furthermore, if some students’errors have not been corrected for a long time, it is
possible that their errors will be considered as the correct input by other students. In this regard, teachers can

Interlanguage in college English teaching

never overlook students’errors. For the errors made in speech, teachers may repeat the meanings students express
in the right form to correct students’errors skillfully; for the serious errors made in written work, teachers should
point them out immediately to students.
According to Brown (1994), the following general classroom implications deserve our attention:
(1) Try to distinguish between a student’ s systematic interlanguage errors (stemming from the native
language or target language) and other errors; the former will probably have a logical source that the student can
become aware of.
(2) Teachers need to tolerate certain interlanguage forms that may arise out of a student’ s logical
developmental process.
(3) Do not make a student feel stupid just because of an interlanguage error; quietly point out the logic of the
erroneous form (“I can understand why you said ‘I go to the doctor yesterday,’but try to remember that in English
we have to say the verb in the past tense. Okay? ”).
(4) Your classroom feedback to students should give them the message that mistakes are not “bad,”rather
that most mistakes are good indicators that innate language acquisition abilities are alive and well. Mistakes are
often indicators of aspects of the new language that are still developing. Some mistakes in the classroom should
be treated by you, but when you choose to treat them, do so with kindness and empathy so that the student will not
feel thwarted in future attempts to speak.
(5) Try to get students to self-correct selected errors; the ability to self-correct may indicate readiness to
regularly use that form correctly.
(6) In your feedback on students’ linguistic output, make sure that you provide ample affective
feedback— verbal or nonverbal— in order to encourage them to speak.
(7) As you make judicious selection of which errors to treat, make sure that your feedback doesn’t thwart
further student attempts to speak.
It is believed, with the effort that teachers and students make, that students can be spared the pain of severe
language anxiety and can experience what it means to succeed in the language classroom.
3.3 The assignment of teaching time in class
Nowadays, in English teaching there exist two distinct methods: one is teacher -centered, and students are just
listeners and note-takers; the other is called students’English corner, and teachers are listeners and referees.
Neither of the two kinds of methods is clearly aware of the significant effect of input and output in the
teaching-learning process. There is enough input of the right form in the former, but students are lack of the
occasion of language output, as a consequence of which neither teachers nor students can reach the
communicative goal. On the other hand, the latter leaves students enough time to speak English but they lack
enough input of the right form. Consequently, a great number of non-standard pronunciations and intonations,
incorrect lexemes and ungrammatical sentences and varieties of pragmatic errors are considered as the right input.
As teachers of English, we should emphasize on the role of input. This kind of English corner in class
mentioned in the previous paragraph is similar to interlanguage talk (ILT) suggested by Ellis (1994). According to
him, ILT consists of the language that learners receive as input when addressed by other learners. ILT constitutes
the primary source of input for many learners. There is enough evidence to show that ILT cannot provide learners
with adequate access to the grammatical properties of the target language. ILT has been found to be less
grammatical than FT (the foreigner talk used by native speakers when communicating with non-native speakers)
or teacher talk, and it has been found to be socio-linguistically deficient (Ellis, 1994). Not surprisingly, learners

Interlanguage in college English teaching

often fail to use polite strategies to the same extent as native speakers in a number of speech acts such as
expressing opinions, agreement, and disagreement. In general, they do not generate the kind of socio-cultural
input needed for language learning.
Likewise, the significance of learners’output should not be overlooked either. Learners need the opportunity
for meaningful use of their linguistic resources to achieve full grammatical competence. Swain (1985) holds the
view that when learners experience communicative failure, they are pushed into making their output more precise,
coherent and appropriate (Ellis, 1994). In her opinion, production may encourage learners to move from semantic
(top-down) to syntactic (bottom-up) processing. Whereas comprehending a message can take place with little
syntactic analysis of the input, production forces learners to pay attention to the means of expression.
From the discussion above, we can conclude that both comprehensible input and output play an important
role both in English learning and interlanguage development and that teachers should not ignore either of them but
try to make good use of both of them. In English teaching, therefore, teachers may join students’groups in talking,
create an interactive and emotionally safe environment, and provide them with more authentic meaningful
materials, encouraging them to participate in classroom activities more actively to get more opportunities for
comprehensible input and output.

4. Conclusion

All in all, teachers should keep in mind that interlanguage is neither the native language nor the target
language and that interlanguage is a process which is approaching the target language step by step. During this
process students slowly revise the interim systems to accommodate new hypotheses about the target language
system. Teachers should pay much attention to the studies of interlanguage so as to treat students’interlanguage
fairly and properly. And they should also make reasonable plans for teaching, taking into account the content of
teaching-learning and the assignment of teaching time in class, in order to develop students’interlanguage quickly.

Brown, H. D. 1994. Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. New York: Prentice Hall Regents.
Ellis, R. 1985. Understanding second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
----- 1994. The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
----- 1997. Second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Oxford, R. L. 1999. Anxiety and the language learner: New insights. In: Arnold, J. (Ed.), Affect in language learning. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

                                                      (Edited by Jessica, Stella and Hanna)