Second Language Acquisition and the Impact of First Language Writing Orientation

Second Language Acquisition and the Impact of First Language Writing Orientation

Samia Naqvi (Middle East College, Oman), Jesudasan F. Thomas (Middle East College, Oman), Kakul Agha (Middle East College, Oman) and Rahma Al-Mahrooqi (Sultan Qaboos University, Oman)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6619-1.ch003


Arabic has a right to left writing orientation, whereas English, which Arab students learn as a foreign language, uses a left to right orientation. This reverse directionality leads to such issues as the jumbling and mixing of letters within words among adult learners. Hence, this chapter identifies, describes, and diagnoses Omani Arabic speakers' errors when writing English and also attempts to find the sources of these errors and possible remedies. It further seeks to determine whether these phenomena are transient in nature and thus subject to correction. Comparable populations of foundation-level students are studied and also the potential effects on adult learners of content delivery methods in English that mimic the writing orientation of their L1. In addition, EFL teachers with diverse multicultural backgrounds are surveyed to find the extent of the problem, the level of teacher awareness, and whether ongoing limited classroom intervention could tackle the problem.
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‘To use two languages familiarly and without contaminating one by the other is very difficult’, said Samuel Johnson, in 1761.

This contamination is termed Negative First Language (L1) Transfer or Mother Tongue Influence (MTI) in the ESL field. The role of students’ mother tongue has been a debatable issue in second language acquisition, to the extent that Gabrielatos (2001) calls it a ‘bone of contention’. Ellis (2008) agrees, saying that there is a conflict, a ‘constant warfare’, between two language systems in a learner.

Because English and Arabic have a different writing orientation, this causes such problems as jumbling and mixing letters within words among adult Arab learners. Hence the focus of this research. There are three main systems of writing orientation, running from left to right, right to left, and top to bottom. Griffin (2004) linked eye movements to the manner in which learners organise and perceive information. Hence these differences in perception and organisation of information cause confusion in reading and writing among SL learners of English. It must be kept in mind here that this confusion is not only observed in Arab learners but also in Japanese and Chinese learners and others. Chan and Bergen (2005) mention this when they argue that “The way we gaze at locations is associated with how we process information. If we are used to collecting information from left to right, we may tend to look at things on the left side of our visual field first. (p. 2)

However, the intensity of the problem might vary from one situation to another. In an EFL context, however, it is particularly severe. The cohort chosen for this study comprises learners of English as a foreign language with a very limited exposure to English outside the classroom. Prior to entering their tertiary-level institution, i.e. the Middle East College, cohort members had studied all their core subjects in Arabic. Hence, Arabic orthographic features are deep-rooted and have been practiced for so long that they have an automatic life in learners’ brains, as in a computer. Hence, word recognition and writing in students’ L1 is faster and faultless in most cases. But this may severely hinder L2 acquisition. It has been observed that there is difficulty in structural modification in order to fulfill the demands of English when cognitive processing mechanisms for a particular orthography have been established (Hung & Tzeng, 1981).

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