A transference error is a certain type of mistake, common to foreign language learners, which can be particularly difficult to stop making. The hardest part is becoming aware of the error; once you’ve done that, it’s just a matter of figuring out the correction and practicing your way to perfection.
Transference errors occur when students assume that aspects of their native language apply to the one they’re learning: they transfer the rules of one language onto another. These types of errors can be tricky to overcome because students are typically unaware that they’re making them. When you want to say “eagle,” for example, and realize you don’t know how, you’re aware of this gap in your knowledge and you can look it up in the dictionary or ask someone. But transference errors are much more difficult to spot – you usually need someone to point them out to you, or you need to explore contrastive analysis (the study of structural differences between two languages) in order to pinpoint the ones you’re making without even realizing it.
Grammar gaffes – Gazapos gramaticales
Beginning and even intermediate students often assume that they can say something in Spanish just by changing the words, without looking at the underlying grammar. But there are many structural differences between English and Spanish (indeed, between any two languages), so you definitely need more than a bilingual dictionary to communicate effectively in a new language.
Here are just a few big differences between English and Spanish:
- Age: English uses “to be” with age, while Spanish requires tener (to have). Plus, años is required but “years old” is not.
I’m 22 (years old). – Tengo 22 años.
- Can: This is what’s known as an English modal verb, meaning that it has only one form. The Spanish equivalent, poder, has 6 conjugations, one for each grammatical person.
I can, you can, he can … – Puedo, puedes, puede …
- Reflexive verbs: Sometimes the English possessive + noun is equivalent to a Spanish reflexive verb.
My name is Laura. – Me llamo Laura. (literally, “I call myself Laura.”)
- Weather: English uses the verb “to be” for weather, while Spanish often requires hacer (to do/make).
It’s cold. – Hace frío.
False friends – Falsos amigos
English speakers learning Spanish are fortunate that so many words are spelled the same or very similarly in the two languages. However, they don’t always mean exactly the same thing; assuming that they do is a transference error.
- actually ≠ actualmente
actually = realmente
right now = actualmente
- embarrassed ≠ embarazada
embarrassed = avergonzado
pregnant = embarazada
- to molest ≠ molestar
to molest = acosar sexualmente
to bother = molestar
- to record ≠ recordar
to record = registrar
to remember = recordar
Error check: There are thousands of “true friends,” but don’t automatically assume that similar words have similar meanings – always confirm with a teacher or dictionary.
Idioms – Modismos
Another common transference error is the word-for-word translation of idioms (idiomatic expressions) into a foreign language. Idioms are particularly tricky because they often don’t make much sense when you really look at the words, and the foreign language equivalent may be straightforward or equally non-sensical upon analysis.
A few examples:
- like two peas in a pod – como dos gotas de agua (“like two drops of water”)
- to shake like a leaf – temblar como un flan (literally, “to tremble like a flan”)
- to be broke – estar sin blanca (“to be without white”)
- when pigs fly – cuando las gallinas meen (“when hens pee”)
Error check: Once again, dictionaries and native speakers are your friends.