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An interlanguage is an idiolect that has been developed by a learner of a second language (or L2) which preserves some features of their first language (or L1), and can also overgeneralize some L2 writing and speaking rules. These two characteristics of an interlanguage result in the system's unique linguistic organization.

An interlanguage is idiosyncratically based on the learners' experiences with the L2. It can "fossilize", or cease developing, in any of its developmental stages. The interlanguage rules are claimed to be shaped by several factors, including L1-transfer, previous learning strategies, strategies of L2 acquisition (i.e., simplification), L2 communication strategies (i.e., circumlocution), and overgeneralization of L2 language patterns.

Interlanguage is based on the theory that there is a dormant psychological framework in the human brain that is activated when one attempts to learn a second language. Interlanguage theory is often credited to Larry Selinker, who coined the terms "interlanguage" and "fossilization." Uriel Weinreich is credited with providing the foundational information that was the basis of Selinker's research. Selinker (1972) noted that in a given situation, the utterances produced by a learner are different from those native speakers would produce had they attempted to convey the same meaning. This comparison suggests the existence of a separate linguistic system. This system can be observed when studying the utterances of the learner who attempts to produce meaning in their L2 speech; it is not seen when that same learner performs form-focused tasks, such as oral drills in a classroom.

Interlanguage can be variable across different contexts; for example, it may be more accurate, complex and fluent in one domain than in another.

To study the psychological processes involved one can compare the interlanguage utterances of the learner with two things:

  1. Utterances in the native language (L1) to convey the same message produced by the learner.
  2. Utterances in the target language (L2) to convey the same message, produced by a native speaker of that language.

It is possible to apply an interlanguage perspective to a learner's underlying knowledge of the target language sound system (interlanguage phonology), grammar (morphology and syntax), vocabulary (lexicon), and language-use norms found among learners (interlanguage pragmatics).

By describing the ways in which learner language conforms to universal linguistic norms, interlanguage research has contributed greatly to our understanding of linguistic universals in second-language acquisition.


Before the interlanguage hypothesis rose to prominence, the principal theory of second-language (L2) development was contrastive analysis. This theory assumed that learners' errors were caused by the difference between their L1 and L2. This approach was deficit-focused, in the sense that speech errors were thought to arise randomly and should be corrected.[1] A further assumption followed that a sufficiently thorough analysis of the differences between learners' first and second languages could predict all of the difficulties they would face.[2] This assumption was not based in rigorous analysis of learner language but rather was often anecdotal, and researchers' claims were prone to confirmation bias.[2]

Robert Lado (1957) held that the claims of contrastive analysis should be viewed as hypothetical unless and until they were based on systematic analyses of learner speech data.[2] Around this time, second-language acquisition research shifted from hypotheses of language learning and the development of language-teaching materials to the systematic analysis of learner speech and writing with the practice of error analysis.[2] Although this was initially done to validate the claims of contrastive analysis, researchers found that many learner behaviours could not be easily explained by transfer from learners' L1 to their L2.[2]

The idea that language learners' linguistic systems were different from both their L1 and L2 was developed independently at around the same time by several different researchers.[2] William Nemser called it an approximative system and Pit Corder called it transitional competence.


Interlanguage is claimed to be a language in its own right. Learner language varies much more than native-speaker language. Selinker noted that in a given situation the utterances produced by the learner are different from those native speakers would produce had they attempted to convey the same meaning.[3] This comparison reveals a separate linguistic system.[4]

Interlanguage can be observed to be variable across different contexts. For example, it may be more accurate, complex and fluent in one discourse domain than in another.[5] Variability is observed when comparing the utterances of the learner in conversation to form-focused tasks, such as memory-based oral drills in a classroom. Spontaneous conversation is more likely to involve the use of interlanguage. A learner may produce a target-like variant (e.g. 'I don't') in one context and a non-target like variant (e.g. 'me no') in another. Scholars from different traditions have taken opposing views on the importance of this phenomenon. Those who bring a Chomskyan perspective to second-language acquisition typically regard variability as nothing more than performance errors, and not worthy of systematic inquiry. On the other hand, those who approach it from a sociolinguistic or psycholinguistic orientation view variability as an inherent feature of the learner's interlanguage. In these approaches, a learner's preference for one linguistic variant over another can depend on social (contextual) variables such as the status or role of the person the learner is speaking to.[6] Preference can also be based on linguistic variables such as the phonological environment or neighboring features marked for formality or informality.[7]

Variability in learner language distinguishes between "free variation", which has not been shown to be systematically related to accompanying linguistic or social features, and "systematic variation", which has.

Free variation[edit]

Free variation in the use of a language feature is usually taken as a sign that it has not been fully acquired. The learner is still trying to figure out what rules govern the use of alternate forms. This type of variability seems to be most common among beginning learners, and may be entirely absent among the more advanced.[citation needed]

Systematic variation[edit]

Systematic variation is brought about by changes in the linguistic, psychological, and social context. Linguistic factors are usually extremely local. For example, in earlier stages of acquisition, a learner will often display systematic constraints on their ability to use the correct tense.[8] They may say "Last year we travel to the ocean" rather than "Last year we travelled to the ocean." They also tend to make more mistakes when the word following a tensed word begins with a consonant (e.g., burned bacon). But they will show higher accuracy when the word following the tensed word begins with a nonconsonant (e.g., burned eggs).

Other factors[edit]

Social factors may include a change in register or the familiarity of interlocutors. In accordance with communication accommodation theory, learners may adapt their speech to either converge with, or diverge from, their interlocutor's usage. For example, they may deliberately choose to address a non-target form like "me no" to an English teacher in order to assert identity with a non-mainstream ethnic group.[9]

The most important psychological factor is usually regarded as attention to form, which is related to planning time. The more time that learners have to plan, the more target-like their production may be. Thus, literate learners may produce much more target-like forms in a writing task for which they have 30 minutes to plan, than in conversation where they must produce language with almost no planning at all. The impact of alphabetic literacy level on an L2 learner's ability to pay attention to form is as yet unclear.[10]

Affective factors also play an important role in systematic variation. For example, learners in a stressful situation (such as a formal exam) may produce fewer target-like forms than they would in a comfortable setting. This clearly interacts with social factors, and attitudes toward the interlocutor and topic also play important roles.

Stages of development[edit]

Individuals learning a second language may not always hear spoken L2 words as separate units.[11] Some words might blend together and become a single unit in the learner's L2 system. The blended words are called "prefabricated patterns" or "chunks". These chunks are often not immediately obvious to the learner or anyone that listens to them speak, but may be noticed as the learner's L2 system becomes more developed and they use the chunk in a context where it does not apply. For example, if an English learner hears sentences beginning with "do you", they may associate it with being an indicator of a question but not as two separate words. To them, the word is "doyou". They may happen to say "What do you doing?" instead of "What are you doing?" Eventually the learner will learn to break the chunk up in to its component words and use them correctly.

When learners experience significant restructuring in their L2 systems, they sometimes show a U-shaped learning pattern. For instance, a group of English language learners moved, over time, from accurate usage of the "-ing" present progressive morpheme, to incorrectly omitting it, and finally, back to correct usage.[12] Occasionally the period of incorrect usage is seen as a learning regression.[13] However, it is likely that when the learners first acquired the new "-ing" morpheme or "chunk", they were not aware of all of the rules that apply to its use. As their knowledge of tense in English expanded, this disrupted their correct usage of the morpheme. They eventually returned to correct usage when they gained greater understanding of the tense rules in English. This data provides evidence that the learners were initially producing output based on rote memory of individual words containing the present progressive "-ing" morpheme. However, in the second stage their systems contained the rule that they should use the bare infinitive form to express present action, without a separate rule for the use of "-ing". Finally, they learned the rule for appropriate use of "-ing".

The "chunking" method enables a learner to practice speaking their L2 before they correctly break the chunk up in to its component parts. According to interlanguage theory, this seeming progression and regression of language learning is an important and positive manifestation of the learner's developing understanding of the grammar of the target language.


An interlanguage can fossilize, or cease developing, in any of its developmental stages. Fossilization is the process of 'freezing' of the transition between the L1 and L2, and is regarded as the final stage of interlanguage development. It can occur even in motivated learners who are continuously exposed to their L2 or have adequate learning support.[14] Reasons for this phenomenon may be due to complacency or inability to overcome the obstacles to acquiring native proficiency in the L2. Fossilization occurs often in adult language learners. It can also occur when a learner succeeds in conveying messages with their current L2 knowledge. The need to correct the form/structure is therefore not present. The learner fossilizes the form instead of correcting it.

Linguistic universals[edit]

Research on universal grammar (UG) has had a significant effect on second-language acquisition (SLA) theory. In particular, scholarship in the interlanguage tradition has sought to show that learner languages conform to UG at all stages of development.[15]

Interlanguage UG differs from native UG in that interlanguage UGs vary greatly in mental representations from one L2 user to another.[16] This variability arises from differing relative influences on the interlanguage UG, such as existing L1 knowledge and UG constraints. An example of a UG constraint is an "island constraint," where the wh-phrase in a question has a finite number of possible positions. Island constraints are based on the concept that there are certain syntactical domains within a sentence that act as phrase boundaries. It is theorized that the same constraints that act on a native UG are also often present in an interlanguage UG.

Versus creoles and pidgins[edit]

The concept of interlanguage is closely related to other types of language, especially creoles and pidgins. Each of these languages has its own grammar and phonology. The difference is mostly one of variability, as a learner's interlanguage is spoken only by the learner and changes frequently as they become more proficient in the language. In contrast, creoles and pidgins are generally the product of groups of people in contact with another language, and therefore may be more stable.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Loewen, Shawn, Reinders, Hayo (2011). Key Concepts in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 98. ISBN 978-0-230-23018-7.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Tarone 2006.
  3. ^ Selinker, L (1972). "Interlanguage". International Review of Applied Linguistics. 10 (1–4): 209–241. doi:10.1515/iral.1972.10.1-4.209.
  4. ^ Tarone, E (2010). "Interlanguage". In Berns, Margie (ed.). The concise encyclopedia of applied linguistics. Oxford: Elsevier. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-08-096502-4.
  5. ^ Kasper, Gabriele; Blum-Kulka, Shoshana, eds. (1993). Interlanguage pragmatics. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 192. ISBN 0-19-506602-2.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Kasper, Gabriele; Blum-Kulka, Shoshana, eds. (1993). Interlanguage pragmatics. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-19-506602-2.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Fasold, R; Preston, D (2007). "The psycholinguistic unity of inherent variability: Old Occam whips out his razor". In Bayley, R; Lucas, C (eds.). Sociolinguistic Variation: Theory, methods, and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 45–69.
  8. ^ Wolfram, Walt (1989). "Systematic variability in second-language tense marking". In Eisenstein, Miriam R. (ed.). The dynamic interlanguage: Empirical studies in second-language variation. New York: Plenum Press. ISBN 0-306-43174-2.
  9. ^ Rampton, Ben (2005). Crossing : Language & Ethnicity among Adolescents (2 ed.). Manchester: St Jerome Pub. ISBN 9781900650779.
  10. ^ Tarone, Elaine; Bigelow, Martha; Hansen, Kit (2009). Literacy and second language oracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-442300-7.
  11. ^ Altarriba, Jeanette; Heredia, Roberto R., eds. (2008). An introduction to bilingualism : principles and practies. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 978-0-8058-5135-9.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Lightbown, P (1983). "Exploring relationships between developmental and instructional sequences in L2 acquisition". In Seliger, H; Long, M.H. (eds.). Classroom oriented research in second language acquisition. Rowley (MA): Newbury House.
  13. ^ Altarriba, Jeanette; Heredia, Roberto R., eds. (2008). An introduction to bilingualism : principles and practies. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 978-0-8058-5135-9.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  14. ^ Han, ZhaoHong (2004). Fossilization in adult second language acquisition (Online ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. pp. 12–24. ISBN 1-85359-686-8.
  15. ^ VanPatten, Bill; Williams, Jessica (2015). Theories in second language acquisition : an introduction (2 ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-82421-7.
  16. ^ VanPatten, Bill; Williams, Jessica (2015). Theories in second language acquisition : an introduction (2 ed.). New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-82421-7.


  • Fasold, R.; Preston, D. (2007). "The psycholinguistic unity of inherent variability: Old Occam whips out his razor." In Bayley, R.; Lucas, C.; eds. Sociolinguistic variation: Theory, methods, and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 45–69.
  • Lightbown, P. (1983). "Exploring relationships between developmental and instructional sequences in L2 acquisition." In Seliger, H.; Long, M.H.; eds. Classroom oriented research in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. pp. 217–243.
  • Rampton, B. (1995). Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents. London: Longman. ISBN 978-1900650-779
  • Selinker, L. (1972), Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209–231.
  • Selinker, L., & Douglas, D. (1985). Wrestling with 'context' in interlanguage theory. Applied Linguistics, 6, 190–204.
  • Tarone, E. (1979). Interlanguage as chameleon. Language Learning 29(1), 181–191.
  • Tarone, E., & Liu, G.-q. (1995). Situational context, variation and second-language acquisition theory. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principles and Practice in the Study of Language and Learning: A Festschrift for H.G. Widdowson (pp. 107–124). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tarone, Elaine (2006). "Interlanguage". In Brown, Keith (ed.). Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Boston: Elsevier. pp. 747–751. ISBN 978-0-08-044361-4.
  • Tarone, E. (2009). "A sociolinguistic perspective on interaction in SLA." in Mackey, A.; Polio, C.; eds. Multiple perspectives on interaction: Second language research in honor of Susan M. Gass. New York: Routledge. pp. 41–56.
  • Tarone, E., Bigelow, M. & Hansen, K. (2009). Literacy and second language oracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Chambers, J.K. (1995), Sociolinguistic Theory, Oxford, England: Blackwell; p249-251.
  • J. C. Richards, Error Analysis: Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition, Longman Press, 1974, pp. 34–36.
  • Tarone, E. (2001), Interlanguage. In R. Mesthrie (Ed.). Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics. (pp. 475–481) Oxford: Elsevier Science.