Interlanguage Definition and Examples

Interlanguage is a type of language used by second-language learners

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Interlanguage is the type of language or linguistic system used by second- and foreign-language learners who are in the process of learning a target language. Interlanguage pragmatics is the study of the ways non-native speakers acquire, comprehend, and use linguistic patterns or speech acts in a second language.

Interlanguage theory is generally credited to Larry Selinker, an American professor of applied linguistics whose article "Interlanguage" appeared in the January 1972 issue of the journal International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching.

Examples and Observations

"[Interlanguage] reflects the learner's evolving system of rules, and results from a variety of processes, including the influence of the first language ('transfer'), contrastive interference from the target language, and the overgeneralization of newly encountered rules." (David Crystal, "A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics")


"The process of learning a second language (L2) is characteristically non-linear and fragmentary, marked by a mixed landscape of rapid progression in certain areas but slow movement, incubation, or even permanent stagnation in others. Such a process results in a linguistic system known as 'interlanguage' (Selinker, 1972), which, to varying degrees, approximates that of the target language (TL). In the earliest conception (Corder, 1967; Nemser, 1971; Selinker, 1972), interlanguage is metaphorically a halfway house between the first language (L1) and the TL, hence 'inter.' The L1 is purportedly the source language that provides the initial building materials to be gradually blended with materials taken from the TL, resulting in new forms that are neither in the L1 nor in the TL. This conception, though lacking in sophistication in the view of many contemporary L2 researchers, identifies a defining characteristic of L2 learning, initially known as 'fossilization' (Selinker, 1972) and later on broadly referred to as 'incompleteness' (Schachter, 1988, 1996), relative to the ideal version of a monolingual native speaker. It has been claimed that the notion of fossilization is what 'spurs' the field of second language acquisition (SLA) into existence (Han and Selinker, 2005; Long, 2003).

"Thus, a fundamental concern in L2 research has been that learners typically stop short of target-like attainment, i.e., the monolingual native speaker's competence, in some or all linguistic domains, even in environments where input seems abundant, motivation appears strong, and opportunity for communicative practice is plentiful." (ZhaoHong Han, "Interlanguage and Fossilization: Towards an Analytic Model" in "Contemporary Applied Linguistics: Language Teaching and Learning")

Universal Grammar

"A number of researchers pointed out quite early on the need to consider interlanguage grammars in their own right with respect to principles and parameters of U[niversal] G[rammar], arguing that one should not compare L2 learners to native speakers of the L2 but instead consider whether interlanguage grammars are natural language systems (e.g., duPlessis et al., 1987; Finer and Broselow, 1986; Liceras, 1983; Martohardjono and Gair, 1993; Schwartz and Sprouse, 1994; White, 1992b). These authors have shown that L2 learners may arrive at representations which indeed account for the L2 input, though not in the same way as the grammar of a native speaker. The issue, then, is whether the interlanguage representation is a possible grammar, not whether it is identical to the L2 grammar." (Lydia White, "On the Nature of Interlanguage Representation" in "The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition")


"[T]he significance of interlanguage theory lies in the fact that it is the first attempt to take into account the possibility of learner conscious attempts to control their learning. It was this view that initiated an expansion of research into psychological processes in interlanguage development whose aim was to determine what learners do in order to help facilitate their own learning, i.e., which learning strategies they employ (Griffiths & Parr, 2001). It seems, however, that the research of Selinker's learning strategies, with the exception of transfer, has not been taken up by other researchers." (Višnja Pavičić Takač, "Vocabulary Learning Strategies and Foreign Language Acquisition")

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Nordquist, Richard. "Interlanguage Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). Interlanguage Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Interlanguage Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).