English as a Third Language (L3) in Our Classrooms!?

by contributor · 4 comments

By Charissa Reijmers
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks


This article is aimed at ESL teachers worldwide. As the term ESL (English as a Second Language) indicates, the way we teach is usually focused on learners who learn English as their second language. For many learners English might not be their second (L2) but their third (L3) (or fourth, fifth etc.) language.

What – if anything – does this change in the way we decide to teach and in the way learners learn the target language? A brief introduction on how to deal with L3 learners in our classrooms, including some history, tips and ideas can be found in this short article.

English as L3 in our classrooms?!

It can be hard enough to keep track of common errors and difficulties our ‘average’ learners experience in their language learning reality. What happens when the language we are trying to teach our learners is not their L2 but their third language L3?

Many do not know that multilingualism is actually the norm in the world, not the exception. While learning more than two languages does not have to be a problem, it can certainly present a challenge to learners and teachers alike.


Research concerning L3 acquisition is still rather scarce. Most research aimed at multilingualism and learning languages looks at L2 acquisition. For some time it was simply assumed that learning another language after that was a very similar experience – if not exactly the same – as learning your L2. In fact it is a bit more complicated. Both the learner’s L1 and L2 have some influence in the way their acquire their L3. These influences are something we should be aware of.

The obvious

What we might notice right away is that a learner’s competence in their L2 – usually the country’s main or official language – is often less than satisfactory. This can complicate communication in the classroom. We can avoid this problem by making English our main language in our lessons. Think of foreign language courses which have learners without a common language other than their target language. The key with young students is to be as creative as possible when putting together lessons in English.

Cross Linguistic Interaction (CLIN)

We are often focussed on the problems certain situations create. In most writings the term ‘Cross Linguistic Interference’ (CLI) is used to describe the negative influence of a learner’s other languages on the target language. However, ‘Cross Linguistic Interaction’ (CLIN) takes the positive effects into account as well. Multilingual learners often have better metalinguistic awareness which can help them internalise new grammatical structures more easily. Learning vocabulary might also be easier at times because of the word roots shared across typologically similar languages.

Interference (the negative transfer – using vocabulary or grammatical structures from L1/L2 in L3) does happen. For example, Dutch learners learning English as their L2 might produce sentences such as “I go tomorrow to the store” which shows us that they either do not yet know the correct English alternative, or that they have trouble staying it in ‘English-only mode’. Interference does not have to be more common for L3 learners, but it might be.

It is good to be aware of the fact that interference can originate in both the learner’s L1 and L2. Some researchers believe L1 has a big influence on a learner’s L3 and that L2 rarely is the source for interference. Others have found that L2 interference can actually be a bigger problem. I think it probably depends on several things: the learner, the languages involved (and how similar they are) and how proficient a learner is in both their L1 and L2.


  • Be aware
  • Limit the use of languages other than the target language as much as possible
  • Ask the learners involved what works best for them
  • Emphasise the positive side of multilingualism
  • Avoid comparing grammar to L1/L2 if this confuses the learners
  • Do some research on third language acquisition
  • Eliminate the need for translation as much as possible (L3 learners might have to translate something from L3 (English) to their L1 and then to their L2 if you ask them to translate English to the country’s main language)


Mono/multilingual modes of speech

While it might seem logical that when we speak a language we operate in a monolingual language mode connected to that particular language, this seems to be a false assumption. It is true that when we speak in our L1 most of us are using a ‘monolingual language mode’ (meaning that our L1 is the only language which is active). Yet, the better you know a language the harder it is to ‘switch off’ that language.

I have had moments when my Dutch or English ‘jumps in’ at the wrong moment. (For example speaking the wrong language to a certain person, using an English word in my Dutch without realising it. Even though English is my L2.) In reality you can’t switch off a language completely once you know it very well. Instead you deactivate it as much as possible. Apparently this does take up quite some brain power, though. When you are using your L3 you have to deactivate both your L1 and L2.

Sometimes this could mean a learner needs more time to form a sentence in their L3 or that the system fails and interference occurs (and words/grammatical structures of their L1/L2 are used in their L3). Patience is the key here.




Charissa Reijmers is a Dutch third year student at an English teacher training college. Having lived in both London and Johannesburg, and using English as the main language of her life about 60 % of the time, she considers herself to be a late bilingual. She loves teaching but enjoys exploring themes such as multilingualism and the process of learning languages even more.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff Winchell November 21, 2011 at 6:47 am

I have experienced my current L2 has a bigger effect than my L1 language on my L3/4/5 languages I try to SPEAK. When I can’t think of a word when speaking a L3/4/5 language, it is a word from my L2 language that pops in my head.

I believe brain researchers have said that the languages learned after about age 5 are located in a different part of the brain than the language(s) learned earlier in life.

This might explain how the brain seems to make a quicker jump to my L2 language when I’m in foreign language mode.

I have talked to others who notice this same thing, when speaking their non-native languages.


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Great point, Jeff! I have noticed this as well. I remember practicing my French (which I learned for 4 years in high school) while learning my German and the two would get mixed up a lot. I would love to read more studies about this – I’m sure there are a bunch out there! Let me know what you find!


3 Jeff Winchell November 21, 2011 at 6:53 am

It seems like most research I run across on bilingualism/multilingualism comes from North America or Europe – places where it is not common for the community speaking members speaking more than one language on a daily basis.

My son’s cousins come from the only significant everyday bilingual/multilingual population I know of in Europe (Luxembourg). But oddly enough, I don’t even see studies on that country (other than the EU Commision poll from 2006 saying that 88% of the country could hold a conversation in 3 languages and I think about 60% in four languages).

It would be nice to find internet sites/articles/books from people studying where bilingual/multilingualims is considered normal or even uninteresting. (most of Africa, India, probably many other places in Asia and South America, etc). Can you point out a few good examples? Thanks.


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:17 pm

I don’t have any specific recommendations – maybe Charissa or other contributors to Multilingual Living will be able to suggest articles! Great suggestion!


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