THE INTRAFERENCE PHENOMENON IN SPANISH VERB CONJUGATION AMONG MALAYSIAN CHINESE STUDENTS: A CASE STUDY
Edison Mejia Vasquez
Faculty Bahasa dan Kommunicasi
Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris
Abstract. This study examines the written production of four Malaysian Chinese students when they were in the middle of the first semester (Spanish 1) of their under graduation of the Spanish language course at University of Malaya (UM). More specifically, this study employs Error Analysis (EA) to determine the type of errors committed in verb conjugation in the simple present tense of the indicative mood. The results revealed that errors in verb conjugation in Spanish do not have anything to do with how many languages they speak or how inflected their second languages may be, but are rather influenced by other different and yet interrelated aspects in Second Language Acquisition such as: linguistic input and individual differences, this raises crucial theoretical questions as to whether L2 acquisition is influenced by the environmental factors that govern the input to which learners are exposed, or of internal mental factors which somehow dictate how learners acquire grammatical structures. Moreover, it was found that if problems in conjugating verbs in Spanish are to be attributable to one phenomenon, that phenomenon is intraference and not so much interference.
Keywords: interference, intraference, linguistic input, individual differences, error analysis, contrastive analysis, developmental errors, transitional contructions, u-shape of development, interlanguage.
Teachers of a second or third language must know that the learning process in the acquisition of a foreign language is a succession of different stages ranging from the simplest to the most complex, in which the learner adds, deletes and restructures his grammar rules. In other words, this interlanguage continuum is the construct through which the learner will internalize the norms that make up a language as a means of communication ; these set of grammatical, lexical and functional tools will help him develop his linguistic and communication strategies at any particular point in time.
Teachers might wonder why students repeat the same errors and what it can be done to help them overcome such errors. The problem is that until now it has not been possible to construct a theory that can comprehensively and reliably explain the errors occurring during the acquisition of a foreign language. This is fundamentally due to the fact that the phenomenon is very complex and the studies in the area are relatively new. Furthermore, it was not until the end of the 1960’s that theoreticians began to understand errors produced by foreign language learners.
First, it was thought that the structures from one language to another were copied, the influence or interference of the mother tongue on the new language as a source of errors began to be investigated. That is how the Contrastive Analysis theory (CA) came into conception, which pretended to describe formally the mother tongue and the foreign language, contrasting them to establish the different structures between each one and so predict the errors that may appear in the learning process. This process has been referred to as “negative transfer” or “interference” by a number of researchers [2-7]. However, new studies in the 70’s showed that not all the errors catalogued as possible by the Contrastive Analysis were produced and that many of the errors made could not be explained as influenced from the mother tongue. This was the break-point for Error Analysis (EA) to appear.
The transition about the development of learner language helps teachers to assess teaching procedures based on what they know the students can accomplish in the classroom. Teachers analysing learner language try to determine whether their students have learnt what they have been taught, and how closely the students’ language matches the target language. However, progress cannot always be measured in these terms. Sometimes, movement from one milestone in a sequence of language development to another can actually lead from apparently correct performance to incorrect performance.
Thus, an increase in the number of errors may be an indication of progress. An example of this is the use of irregular verbs. Similar to young children, adult second language (L2) and foreign language (FoL) learners usually learn the regular form of verbs before the irregular ones. This may result in learners applying conjugation rules relating to regular verbs onto irregular ones. For example, a learner of Spanish might produce yo no cabo instead of no quepo (I don’t fit). Although the learner makes an error, this may constitute a trial and error process in which the learner is simply hypothesising what the correct target verb form would be.
This paper, therefore, examines samples of learner language to determine the types of verb conjugation errors that learners of Spanish make and discusses what these errors can tell us about the learners’ knowledge of the language and their ability to use that knowledge. This information has practical pedagogical value, about which  commented that “the influence of L1 on L2 acquisition cannot be ignored” (p. 225), and  noted that “understanding the variety of structures that different languages and dialects use to show meaning, including grammatical meaning such as verb inflections, can help teachers see the errors of their students who are learning a second or foreign language” (p. 16).
The objectives of the study are to categorize the errors by different types and to identify the problems the subjects face and to determine the level of influence the mother tongue has on the word conjugation choice of the subjects. As such, the study proposes to seek answers to the following research questions:
1- To what extent do verb conjugation errors present evidence of students’ misinterpretations of the verbal systems in Spanish?
2- To what extent do students’ errors in verb conjugation reflect or confirm the complexity of conjugating verbs in Spanish?
3- To what extent the influence from all the languages these Chinese students speak account for all the verb conjugation errors?
This study uses Error Analysis and not Contrastive Analysis as a theory to predict and explain learners’ mistakes or errors because researchers have found that not all errors predicted by the CAH are actually made. Furthermore, many of the errors, which learners make, are not predictable on the basis of the CAH. For example, adult beginners use simple structures in the target language either because of simplification or overgeneralization, such as, yo sabo or yo he escribido; instead of yo se (I know) and he escrito (I have written), just as children do in their native language. Thus, such sentences are more similar to a child’s first language (L1) production than a translation from another language.  (p. 75) have referred to these error types, which are common to both learners, as “developmental errors” and sustain that indeed some of these errors are shared by many learners across the world regardless of their L1 backgrounds. According to  (p. 361) like children, adults can go through 3 phases in their learning process of an irregular Spanish form:
Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3
No quepo no cabo no quepo
In Phase 1 the learner uses the correct term, but at this point the learner’s grammar does not relate the form quepo to caber. The words are treated as separate lexical entries. In Phase 2 the learner constructs a rule for forming the present tense and attaches the regular present tense morpheme to all verbs. Learners look for general patterns and for syntactic occurrences. What the learner does not know at phase 2 is that there are exceptions to the rule, yet he is creatively constructing his own interpretation of the rule to arrive at the correct term in the target language, implying that a learner who says cabo may know more than a learner who says quepo because the latter may just be guessing what the correct form would be.  claimed that when learners produce correct sentences, they may simply be repeating something they have already heard; when they produce sentences which differ from the target language, we may assume that these sentences reflect the learners’ current understanding of the rules and patterns of that language.
In Phase 3 the learner learns that there are exceptions to the rules and then once again uses quepo with the difference being that at this stage the learner is able to make connections between the irregular forms to the root forms. In other words, when learners acquire a grammatical structure they do so gradually, moving through a series of stages to acquiring the native-speaker rule. According to  (p. 23), “The acquisition of a particular grammatical structure, therefore, must be seen as a process involving transitional constructions” and adds: “acquisition follows a U-shape of development; that is, initially learners may display a high level of accuracy only to apparently regress later before finally once again performing in accordance with target-language norms”.
E A, therefore, is based on the assumption that like child language, the language of adult second language learners is a system in its own right; that is, it is one which is rule-governed and predictable.  used the term “interlanguage” to refer to learners’ developing second language knowledge.  referred to the same general phenomenon in second language learning but stressed the successive approximation to the target language in his term approximative system.  used the term idiosyncratic dialect to connote the idea that the learner’s language rule is unique to a particular individual alone.
According to  (p. 19) “errors are not only systematic, but many of them are also universal and some are common only to learners who share the same mother tongue or whose mother tongue manifest the same linguistic property”. Errors, then, can have different sources. Some errors seem to be universal, reflecting learners’ attempts to make the task of learning simpler; as is the case when they commit errors of simplification or omission. They also overgeneralize forms that they find easy to learn and process. The use of “oiges, ois, acostas” in place of “oyes” and “acuestas” (as we will see later) is an example of an overgeneralization error.
Another concept in E A is intraference, which refers to “the confusion a language learner experiences when confronting conflicting patterns within the structures of a newly acquired language, irrespective of how the target language patterns might contrast with the learner’s mother tongue”  (p. 51). It is intraference more than interference that leads L2 learners to take a guess about what could be grammatically acceptable in their new language. These inferences are not always correct, but they are an indicator of the learners’ creativity in the Second or Foreign Language Acquisition process and show furthermore, that they are not just responding from the habits they acquired while picking up their L1s, as the behaviourists would claim. As defined by  “errors are a way the learner has of testing his hypothesis about the nature of the language he is learning” (p. 22).
From a behaviourist’s perspective, “interference is based on old habits whereas intraference is based on new habits”  (p. 53). Like children who acquire their L1 by creating new words and new rules, adult learners create new L2 or FoL constructions increasing in degrees of complexity from their overgeneralizations of what they have acquired in the target language.  (p. 54) coined the term “creative construction” to describe this innovative view of learner’s errors.
Selinker’s process of overgeneralisation can be related to the regularised forms produced by children. This had already been pointed out by, for example,  in Czechoslovakia when she analysed her students’ written errors and found that more than half of them could not be ascribed as influence from Czech. Rather, they appeared to be based on an L2 rule, which the learners had not yet fully mastered.
Inspired by Chomsky’s review of Skinner’ book (verbal behaviour), published in 1959, researchers such as , set out to investigate the acquisition of language in young children. These investigators found that children all over the world, whatever the language they were learning go through similar stages, use similar constructions to express similar meanings, and make the same kind of errors.
Where the CCH is concerned, the most salient proof of the close relationship between L1 and L2 acquisition was the sequence of development, that is, the consistent order of acquisition in the emergence of a number of structures in English by children, which is not unlike the order found in L2 learners. The findings of  on the acquisition of 14 grammatical morphemes in English by three children of different backgrounds not only provided a crucial notion of a fixed sequence of development but was also very influential for second language acquisition research because it prompted  to advance the idea of an internal syllabus for L2 learners and it was also this finding that lay at the heart of the CCH that came to dominate L2 research in the 1970’s.
The Creative Construction model therefore, is a school of thought, which was developed as an alternative to the IL approach. According to the Creative Construction theorists, language development is not dictated by the environment, as the behaviourists claimed, but rather the learner subconsciously selects from all the information available to him only portions of it. That selection process is part of an internal programme, which is, they claim, essentially the same programme that drives mother tongue acquisition.
This study examines the leaner language of four Malaysian Chinese students studying Spanish as part of their Degree requirements at University of Malaya (UM). The students who participated in the study are all local female Chinese students with ages ranging from 20 to 22 years old. The fact that the group analyzed is limited in number may be seen as a limitation in the design. Therefore, this is mainly a case study that was conducted when they were in the middle of their first semester (week 7); that is when they were in level 1.
These students have to take 6 levels of Spanish in one and a half years; that is to say, 2 levels of Spanish in one semester (14 weeks) with an intensity of 16 hours a week. By the time the data was collected, they had already completed level 1; that is, they had already been studying Spanish for 7 weeks (almost two months) or 112 hours of instruction (contact hours). The data analyzed was taken from a midterm test the students sat for and which was designed by their Colombian lecturer. The test comprised a reading passage, followed by open-ended comprehension questions, gap filling, text completion and sentence construction. As the teacher’s ability to design exams was not the issue here, a closer look at whether any of the errors presented by these students were the result of any misunderstanding in these examinations’ directions or layout (exam design bias) was not verified, which might have led to another limitation in this study.
The students’ production in the test was analysed to determine the type of verb conjugation errors that are most frequently made by these Chinese students of Spanish as a foreign language. Since the errors analyzed are in the written form, it is worth citing Krashen’s monitor hypothesis (1982), in which he states that, “writing may be more conducive than speaking to monitor use because it usually allows more time for attention to form”  (p. 38). It is needless to say that the students’ speech was not analyzed; in which errors may have quite differed from the ones collected for this study.
Data Analysis and Findings
First, all the errors were classified according to the different grammatical functions they serve whilst taking into consideration, the different error categories proposed by . It is important to note, however, that only those syntactical errors that are directly related to verbs were analysed; some other categories like article omission, preposition addition, complement of time, placement (ordering) and so on, though presented in the graphs, were not discussed.
When analysing the information gathered in the first test, this is what was found:
The most generalized breakdown can be made, according to  (p. 222) by identifying errors of addition, omission, and substitution, following standard mathematical categories. Some examples of these errors are listed below:
The words in bold show when the verb conjugation error occurred and the words in parenthesis show the correct conjugation for each one of the sentences.
1- “Mi amiga y yo juego (jugamos) tenis en el parque”
2- “Nosotros vais (vamos) a estudiar”
3- “Tú oigo (oyes) la radio con mucha frecuencia”
4- “Tú oís (oyes) la radio con mucha frecuencia”
5- “Mis hermanos va (van) a beber la cerveza”
Other errors, known as local errors, affect only a single constituent in the sentence and are perhaps less likely to create any processing problems.  (p. 223) says: “local errors do not prevent the message from being understood, usually because there’s only a minor violation of one segment of a sentence, allowing the reader or hearer to make an accurate guess about the intended meaning”.
These are some examples taken from the examination.
1- “Tú oiges (oyes) la radio con mucha frecuencia”
2- “Yo pueno (pongo) los libros sobre la mesa”
3- “Tú me (te) acostas (acuestas) a las 10 pm”
4- “Las clases empienzan (empiezan) a la una de la tarde”
5- “Vosotros pensa (pensáis) solo en divertirse”
6- “Nosotras estudamos (estudiamos) Español”
7- “Los viernes ellos salin (salen) de compras o van a el (al) parque”
8- “El teléfono de tu casa sueno (suena) muy duro”
All in all, there were 15 sentences in which the verb was wrongly conjugated as opposed to the other categories; in other words, the errors present in this first test clearly show that most of them were made in verb conjugation. Figure 1 shows a classification of the above errors from the grammatical perspective to show in a clearer way the syntactical errors these Chinese students made by the time they had finished Level 1.
The above erroneous utterances may be due to the fact that Chinese is a non-inflected language. “What Spanish achieves by changing verb forms, Chinese expresses by means of adverbials, word order and context; therefore, Spanish inflexion seems generally confusing for Chinese learners of Spanish and causes frequent errors”  (p. 228).
 conducted a research (the verbal systems of Malay and Spanish), in which he analysed the written production of 9 Malays who were taking up Spanish as elective. He found out that 32% of his respondents made errors in “ignorance of rules restrictions”; in which error in subject-verb agreement in person and number was one of the criteria and 55% made errors in what he called “wrong verbal form”. He attributed his findings to the fact that whereas in Spanish almost all grammatical persons contrast with each other in most tenses, Malay takes the same zero verbal ending in all persons. Example:
Yo estudio I study Saya belajar
Tu estudias You study Awak belajar
Él estudia He studies Dia belajar
Nosotros estudiamos We study Kami/ Kita belajar
Ellos estudian They study Mereka belajar
 states that many Bahasa Malayu verbs can be used in their root form, but in many cases they need prefixes or suffixes before they can be used in sentences and in a few other cases, they have to take both prefixes and suffixes. Examples of verbs taking prefixes are:
Melawat (to visit), berpuasa (to fast), terminum (to drink by accident); some examples of verbs that take both a prefix and a suffix are: membukukan (to make a book), memasuki.(to join, to enroll). So, just by affixing the verb with a prefix or a suffix, which can be added to other verbs or other parts of speech such as: nouns, adjectives or adverbs, we can change the shade of meaning of the Bahasa Malayu verbs. As  (p. 166) puts it: “where Malay uses prefixes or suffixes in its verbal formation; Spanish depends heavily upon its conjugation. It is by a system of affixation that the Malay verbs achieve its subtlety of shading”.
Chinese verbs do not conjugate like the verbs of most Indo European languages such as English and Spanish. In English, for example, the verb "to eat" has many forms compared to its Chinese equivalent: "to eat" (infinitive), "eat, eats" (present), "ate", (simple past), "eaten" (past participle), "eating" (present participle), etc. Chinese only has one basic form, used for every person and tense; thus "chi" (¿) can equal all these forms. ("ta chi" ¿¿: he eats, "ni chi" ¿¿: you eat, etc.). In other words, whereas the Spanish verbs show a multiplicity of forms and each form is generally marked morphologically for person (first, second and third), number (plural and singular), tense (simple and compound), mood (indicative and subjunctive) and voice (active and passive), Chinese does not express these differences through inflectional suffixes .
Some researchers like  (p. 49) have concluded, when analysing Spanish speakers learning English as a second language, that even advanced students of English omit or leave out the “s” in the third person singular (he, she, and it). If the lack of inflection of the languages these students speak (English, Malay and Chinese) is the reason for their inability to master the verb-conjugations in Spanish, then Spanish learners of English should not have any problems with verb conjugations in the TL; however, this has been found not to be the case. The reason for which Spanish speaking and Chinese speaking ESL students tend to have similar difficulties picking up the third person “s” suffix, may lie in the intraference phenomenon, which is, according to , the confusion a language learner experiences when confronting conflicting patterns within the structures of a newly acquired language, irrespective of how the target language patterns might contrast with the learner’s mother tongue.
The first question that this study proposed to address was:
- To what extent do verb conjugation errors present evidence of students’ misinterpretations of the Spanish verbal systems?
It can be observed, that learners tend to make changes in all persons, believing that once a verb undertakes a change in any of the persons, all the other persons will also undergo changes. It also seems, that students not only tend to carry over the changes a verb suffers to all the pronouns in one tense but also the change of certain verbs from one tense into another where it does not necessarily apply. The analysis indicated that, there is a misunderstanding or confusion of the syntactic rules in the conjugation of the Spanish verbs; in other words, these students are not applying the rules accurately and properly. Thus students’ errors are a direct reflection of their misinterpretations of the verbal system because of the complexity of suffixation that Spanish verbs present. So, the difficulty that these students and the ones in ’s study encountered is their inability to recognize the different verb types or to learn the different classes of verbs in which they are classified or grouped based on their conjugation.
The second question was:
- To what extent do students’ errors in verb conjugation reflect or confirm the complexity of suffixation of the verb in Spanish?
Spanish verbs are one of the trickiest, if not the trickiest areas of Spanish grammars for foreigners of different languages to master. The answer lies in that a verb in Spanish is said to be irregular when they undergo changes in their conjugation. These changes in conjugation take place mostly in the root (radical stem changing verbs first, second and third classes). But, there are also verbs which undergo changes in the endings (formants). That is, a verb is irregular when there is a change in the pronunciation of the base or of the formants. According to  (p. 279-80): “Los verbos irregulares que más abundan son los que alteran en alguna de sus formas la base que aparece en su infinitivo. Otros verbos irregulares, pocos, pero muy usados, alteran en alguna de sus formas no solo la base, sino los formantes, o bien solamente estos, o intercalan sonidos entre uno y otros”
It can be concluded then, that much of the problem in learning and applying the correct verb forms in Spanish comes from the confusing information about verb suffixation that Spanish itself presents to any learner; that is to say, it comes from within the language itself because, though each verb does not function as an entity onto itself, in that the majority of irregularities that are found in the verbs are not exclusive of one of them, but shared by a more or less numerous group, the infinitives into which the Spanish verbs are classified (ar – er – ir) do not give any clues as to whether the verb is regular or irregular or if it is a Yo-verb (verbs which are only irregular in the first person singular) or what type of irregularity in the stem or ending (formant) or both it suffers when conjugated and in which pronoun (s) and/or tense or mood and so on.
The third question that this study aimed at answering was:
- To what extent does the influence from the different languages they speak account for all the verb conjugation errors?
The analysis already revealed that the different languages these students know or speak do not play any significant part, if any, in their understanding of the Spanish verbs; that is to say, neither English, Malay nor Chinese are likely to be the cause of the problems they are facing in verb conjugations. Though, we cannot overlook the possibility of mother tongue interference or cross-linguistic influence because errors are a multi-factor phenomenon and interference is at least one of possibly three of them.
The learner’s L1 seems to be an important determinant of SLA but, it is not the only one and may not be the most important. But it is almost impossible here to determine its precise contribution because it has to do, among other things, with the linguistic factors on the one hand and the learner’s stage of development on the other.
If we know how a language is learnt, we can know why certain errors are committed and establish therefore the means to avoid them; in this sense, there is a direct relation between error and acquisition.
The learning process is a series of stages that suppose a continuous overcoming of the acquired knowledge that allows the learner to get closer to the target language. However, a learner can perfectly, in a grammar lesson, understand an explicitly presented rule, but it is not the same when he or she has to use the language freely. Here is when errors are normally made, in speech and writing.
Spanish has a system of tenses much more inflected and complex than Chinese, English and Malay because Spanish is relatively synthetic language (a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio, as opposed to a low morpheme-per-word ratio in what is described as an isolating language) with a moderate-to-high degree of inflection, which shows up mostly in Spanish verb conjugations.
The data gathered from the examination given to the students analysed, accord with the fact that verbs are one of the trickiest areas of Spanish for foreigners as they are fairly complex, with over fifty conjugated forms per verb. Another possible reason for which Spanish verbs appear to be quite difficult to speakers of other languages is that in Spanish, subject pronouns are relatively unimportant. It is the ending of the verb that indicates the doer of the action.
An important aspect of this study is that it provides an interesting comparison of four languages, namely Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and English. The combination of two Asian and two European languages is a move away from a previous research which focused mainly on the European languages and this is useful for the current local teaching context.
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