Are First Language Difficulties Causing Second Language Learning Struggles?

This is the fourth and last in a series of posts giving brief insights into why students studying English as a foreign or second language may not be succeeding in their studies. Hopefully these posts will inspire teachers to ask questions, research and discover more.

What is the Linguistic Coding Differences Hypothesis?

The ‘Linguistic Coding Differences Hypothesis’ was proposed by Sparks and Ganschow. It theorises that there is a causal relationship between L1 (native language) and L2 (second language). For example, if a student had or has difficulties in the first language in the following areas:  phonological ability (language sounds), orthographic ability (written representation), and morphological ability (word structure), their word recognition, reading, and vocabulary skills will be affected.

The same difficulties your student encounters while acquiring their first language will transfer to the same language areas when acquiring a foreign language.  This hypothesis is based on comparative research between foreign language students with language learning difficulties and foreign language students without language learning difficulties.

What do teachers need to do?

If a student seems to be having difficulties with their English language studies, you may have to investigate the cause in order to provide a solution.

First check to see whether other causes maybe be impeding second language learning. If you feel the problem is only a language learning based one, you should check whether your students had difficulties acquiring any of the language skills in their L1 and if they still have difficulties in their native language and in which skills do they struggle with.

Example questions to ask about L1 skills:

• Do you remember any difficulties you had in learning your L1?
• Describe the difficulties you had when learning your L1, in reading, writing, spelling, oral expression.
• How would you describe the way you acquired reading, writing and spelling in comparison to your class mates? Slow, normal, fast?
• Describe any current difficulties in your L1 in reading, writing, spelling, oral expression.

Example questions to ask about L2 skills:

Describe the difficulties you have in learning English:
• Reading
• Reading Comprehension
• Spelling
• Writing
• Vocabulary
• Grammar
• Understanding
• Speaking

If a student has a fundamental underlying language deficiency or specific learning disorder, these very basic questions and the student’s qualitative answers should show a direct correlation between the problems found in L1 acquisition and those being experienced in L2. These answers will help direct teachers towards looking for solutions and adjusting their teaching methods for those students.  

What can you do now?

Carry on getting the informative benefits from these posts and read:

Understanding Struggling Students: Learning Disability Definitions Unraveled

Get Free Resources

Join other teachers and professionals. Download free handbooks, how-to-guides and tool-kits. FIND OUT MORE HERE


  • Sparks, Richard L. & Leonore Ganschow. (1991). “Foreign Language Learning Differences: Affective or Native Language Aptitude Differences.” The Modern Language Journal, 75, 3-16
  • Sparks, R. et al,. “Native Language Predictors of Foreign Language Proficiency and Foreign Language Aptitude.” Annals of Dyslexia, Vol. 56, No. 1. (2006):129-160.

Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Disclaimer: Content on this site is for educational purposes. If you re-use any content please include original source and copyright information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s