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The Learning Conference 2003

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Interlanguage and communication strategy: A study of advanced learners of Putonghua (Mandarin) in Hong Kong

Ben Zhang.

Since the handover of sovereignty in 1997, more and more Hong Kong people have been engaging themselves in learning Putonghua (Mandarin), but, as very few people use Putonghua to communicate with others, there has been no an identified Putonghua speech community in Hong Kong. In fact, Putonghua has been taught in Hong Kong as a second language (L2) to date, if not as a foreign language. Hong Kong learners of Putonghua have little opportunity to talk with native speakers of the target language (TL), and, most of the time, they have to use Putonghua only in classroom or with other learners who come from the same Cantonese speech community.

Most existing studies on second language communicative strategies have mainly concentrated on productive strategies of language learners interacting with native speakers of the TL, where the simplifying assumption has been made that the interlocutor has ‘perfect’ command of the language system and also ‘perfect’ command of the topic of discourse. But, in fact, much communication occurs not only between a language learner and a native speaker of the TL but between language learners themselves or between a learner and an interlocutor whose language knowledge is even lower than the speaker’s. The present study provides an example on this by examining some communication errors in the interlanguage of advanced learners of Putonghua in the context of Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, most Putonghua teachers, who are serving in primary and secondary schools, are neither native nor like-native Putonghua speakers. They themselves are learners, though learners at higher levels or, as I refer to them in this paper, advanced Putonghua learners. Their first language is Cantonese and they usually talk with their students in Cantonese outside Putonghua classrooms. In other words, Putonghua teachers and their students belong to the same Cantonese speech community and they attempt to practice Putonghua only in Putonghua classrooms. What kind of Putonghua is used by Hong Kong Putonghua teachers to talk with their students? Or how does an advanced learner of Putonghua communicates with others who are beginning or intermediate learners of Putonghua? Trying to answer these questions, as a case study, over 30 secondary in-service Putonghua teachers were studied in this piece of research. The main reasons for choosing them as the sample for my research were that they were all advanced Putonghua learners with Putonghua teaching experience in the secondary schools of Hong Kong.

This paper investigates some language errors found in the spoken data collected from them and focused on the lexical, semantic and syntactical ‘errors’ of the sampled teachers, rather than on phonological ‘errors’. Three significant findings regarding the speaker’s Putonghua are discussed in the light of theories on ‘interlanguage’ and second language communication. They are:
1. more unintentional lexical or semantic borrowings from Cantonese were found if the listeners were at a lower level of Putonghua proficiency;
2. more syntactical problems were found if the listener was at a higher level of Putonghua proficiency;
3. some ‘creative errors’ arise more often if the listener was at an advanced Putonghua proficiency level.

In conclusion, in conditions where the speaker and listener share the same L1, as the present study is concerned with, there are two major findings about interlanguage in this study. First, the ‘errors’ in the interlanguage used by the speaker who is an advanced learner of the TL are dependent on the listener’s proficiency levels of the TL. It means that the structure of interlanguage used by an advanced language learner is partly determined and influenced by the current communicative needs. Second, in the situation of communication with listeners whose proficiency of the TL is at a lower or beginning level, the interlanguage used by an advanced learner as the speaker will be mixed with more lexical or semantic borrowings directly from the L1. If the listeners are at a higher or advanced level of proficiency in the TL, more grammar or syntactical errors will occur in the interlanguage used by the speaker who is an advanced leaner of the TL.


Ben Zhang  (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China)
Senior Lecturer
Department of Chinese
The Hong Kong Institute of Education

  • interlanguage
  • communication strategy of second language acquisition
  • Cantonese learners of Putonghua (Mandarin)
  • language errors

(30 min Conference Paper, English)