Some Ideas to avoid L1 interference

Alcione Tavares

Alicone Tavares shares her experiences teaching EFL to Brazilian Portuguese learners of English, and the solutions she found useful for helping them to avoid L1 interference.

‘L1 interference’ has been replaced by ‘language transfer’. Language transfer (Thornbury 2006) is the effect that one language – particularly the first language – has on another. Transfer can occur at all levels: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and discourse. Interference was seen as something negative, whereas transfer may also be positive, especially if the L1 and L2 share many features in common. However, I have decided to use L1 interference and the reason for this choice is explained below.

I taught EFL (English as a Foreign Language) to Brazilian learners for a long time. So, my students’ first language is Brazilian Portuguese. When teaching them how to use ‘there is/are’ a very strong interference occurs. While learners do controlled practice activities, they use these verbs correctly. But the moment they are allowed to use ‘there is/are’ in a productive context they substitute ‘there is/are’ for ‘have’ in sentences like these: Have ten chairs in the classroom. Or On the corner of 4th Street and 10th Street have a supermarket.

If the learner is being taught by a Brazilian teacher, these mistakes are predictable. However, although teachers know why these mistakes occur, the same is not true with learners. I have heard B1 or even B2 learners using ‘have’ instead of ‘there is/are’, showing that they have fossilized the error.

So, here are some ideas to help Brazilian learners overcome this interference.

1)     Learners analyze L1

Ask students to fill in the blanks in the following sentences. They will answer with the verbs in red. All three examples below have the same translation in English.

In the classroom there are many chairs.

1.     Na sala de aula tem muitas cadeiras.
2.     Na sala de aula existem muitas cadeiras.
3.     Na sala de aula muitas cadeiras.

In sentence #1, the verb tem (infinitive: ter) is used here meaning the same as the other verbs but in this meaning it is only used in colloquial Portuguese, that is, spoken Portuguese. At the same time, this is a highly frequently used verb because ‘ter’ means ‘possession’.

João tem um livro. = John has/has got a book.

Brazilians know how to use all three verbs in sentences #1, #2 and #3, but most speakers are not aware to the fact that the first verb is only used in spoken Brazilian Portuguese and it has more than one meaning: ‘possession’ (sentence #1), ‘description’, and ‘direction’ (please, see chart below).

2)     Learners compare L1 and L2
Brazilian Portuguese English
João tem um carro. (possession) John has a car. / John has got a car.
Tem uma bola no jardim. (description) There is a ball in the garden.
Tem vinte pessoas no teatro. (description) There are twenty people in the theater.
Na Rua 10 tem uma biblioteca. (directions) On 10th St. there is a library.


3)     Learners correct their mistakes
Brazilian Portuguese Interlanguage English
Tem uma bola no jardim. (description) Have a ball in the garden. There is a ball in the garden.
Tem vinte pessoas no teatro. (description) Have twenty people in the theater. There are twenty people in the theater.
Na Rua 10 tem uma biblioteca. (directions) On 10th St. have a library. On 10th St. there is a library.


Brazilian learners must know why they replace ‘there is/are’ by ‘have’. And this mistake occurs not only in the Simple Present Tense, but also in the Simple Past Tense, when they learn ‘there was/were’.

One important observation here is that this type of error is reinforced by the fact that we teach ‘there is/are’ in A1 or A2 level course books. At these levels, we also teach the Simple Present Tense of several verbs with a lot of emphasis on the verb ‘have/have got’.

Jim Scrivener (2005) affirms that “Activities that involve use of the learners’ L1 (their first language) in the language classroom haven’t had a terribly good press. Many teachers feel their training has discouraged them from it at all in class. But this supposed prohibition was an over-strong reaction to some traditional teaching styles in which teachers used only L1 to explain and discuss language, and learners hardly got to hear or use any English. But there are many helpful ways of using L1 in class…”

So, following one of Scrivener’s suggestion, I truly believe that “When a new grammatical item is learned, encourage learners to think how they would say the same things in their own language. Don’t just ask for a translation, but encourage learners to consider if there is a direct one-to-one correlation with L1 and English. Get learners to work like laboratory scientists, trying out experiments to see if they can notice and characterize important differences.”


Scrivener, J. 2005. Learning teaching. Oxford: Macmillan.
Thornbury, S. 2006. An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

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