A learner’s primary or home language is frequently referred to as L1. The learner’s target language is L2, even though at times, it may well be a third, fourth or other additional language. For example, a learner may speak English (L1) and be learning Mandarin (L2). A good rule of thumb is to not assume that a learner’s L1 is the language they communicate in with you or with friends at school. In some instance, the learner’s L1 is actually an additional language, i.e. many Spanish speaking learners of English actually speak Náhuatl, Mayan, Mixteco, or another indigenous language.
Linguists assess the language proximity by comparing the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics of a language. The number of cognates – those that share Latin roots are a good indicator of language distance. Languages that share a common branch on the language tree are more likely to have a greater language proximity. A good analogy is thinking about families and relatives – how closely related and similar are you to your aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.
Some “sister” languages like French, Spanish and Italian share many connections and similarities in syntax, sounds written alphabet and cognates.
However, caution is best as not all similarities are present. Letter sounds and alphabet configurations might cause confusion. In Spanish, there are 5 vowels and 5 vowel sounds. In English there are 5 long vowels, 9 short vowels and 1 reduced vowel. The /h/ in English is pronounced and the /h/ in Spanish is silent unless part of the /ch/ configuration, The /j/ in Spanish has the same sound as the English /h/.
Spanish syntax is different from English: Modifier words go after the word being modified in Spanish for the most part and content and function words agree in gender and number. In English, modifiers go before the modified word, pluralization rules are different and the are no gender rules.
Why is this important? ELs need to know the difference for proper pronunciation, they can use what they know if it is a cognate or a root word to help them be successful in English. Teachers need to know the specific pieces of a language that might be different for a learner. Teachers will have to help emergent bilinguals learn new letter sounds and combinations, cadence and syntax.
A subset of language distance describes how a language is written and how it is different from the target language. Some writing systems are the same. English, Spanish, French and others use the Roman alphabet. A Chinese or Korean emergent bilingual learning English will need to learn a new writing system. An Arabic bilingual will need to learn a new system and direction to write in English. Writing systems that are similar take less time for learners to master.
When talking about language distance in spelling and reading, we use the terms transparent and opaque. A transparent language has greater text to sound correspondence. You read and say what you see. Opaque language have less correlation from text to sound. Spanish is a transparent language. You pronounce what you see. English, unfortunately after years of additions from Saxons, Normans, Latins, Germans, Greeks and the rest is rather opaque.
So what? The more you know about the transparency and opacity or your ELs L1, the more you will be able to target lessons and supports to help them be successful in acquiring English.