The Multi-competence Perspective and the Teaching of British Sign Language

Vivian Cook  
Online Writings 
SLA Topics

In M. Mertanzi (ed.) Sign Language Teaching and Learning, Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol, 135-143, 2009

This contribution presents some ideas from the multi-competence perspective on second language acquisition that may be helpful to the teaching of British Sign Language (BSL). In other words it does not come out of any personal experience with teaching of sign languages or indeed knowledge of BSL but assumes that ideas which have been found useful by other language teachers may be of interest in the specialised context of sign language teaching.

The ideas in question emerge out of the multi-competence perspective on second language learning. This says quite simply that second lang­uage (L2) users are people in their own right. This means that they should not be compared with the monolingual native speakers they can never be but should be treated as speakers of their own unique form of language, distinct from the native speaker but not inferior. An example might be a deafened native speaker of English who acquires BSL as a second language; they may never use signs identically to born-deaf users of BSL but nevertheless may be highly skilled L2 users as interpreters, parents or in other roles.

The relationship of sign languages to bilingualism is fascinating. Conceivably there may be monolingual sign users who know no other language; particular self-contained communities like the historical deaf community in Martha’s Vineyard may not have need for any other language in their lives. But many more are essentially literate in a written form of the spoken language that surrounds them – what Grosjean (2008) calls bimodal bilingualism in which one language is sign, one language is written. Perhaps the majority of BSL users are then bimodal bilinguals. Additionally there may be other language systems available to them, say Signed English, finger-spelling (using written English) or lip-read English. The typical BSL user has then a complex system of languages in their mind. In one way this is not unusual in multilingual communities; Schmid (2005) describes Italian children in the Swiss-German area of Switzerland who speak an Italian dialect and standard Italian at home and use Swiss German and High German at school – literacy comes in their fourth language. The unusual element in the BSL/English bilingual is the combination of a sign language and a written language.

So on the one hand the multi-competence perspective suggests that the target of language teaching is not imitation natives but successful L2 users. Students should aim at the attainable target of using the second language adequately for their needs, not at the unattainable nirvana of using it like a native. On the other hand it suggests that language teaching should always be aware of, indeed exploit, the two languages in the students’ minds. These two points will be the theme of this chapter.

What’s special about L2 users?

So what are the distinctive features possessed by people who speak more than one language?

· L2 users use language in different ways

Restricting the target of language teaching to what monolingual native speakers can do, neglects those uses of language that L2 users can carry out which monolinguals cannot. The L2 user doesn’t just imitate the native speaker rather badly but has language uses denied to the native. The most striking is the ability to code-switch, that is to say, to go from one language to another in mid-conversation, mid-utterance or mid-sentence. Here is a Japanese student talking to another Japanese student in English: Reading sureba suruhodo, confuse suro yo. Demo, computer lab ni itte, article o print out shinakya (The more reading I have, the more I get confused, but I have to go to the computer lab and need to print out some articles). She is switching effortlessly from one language to another when convenient. It is not that she doesn’t know Japanese words for reading and print out; rather it is a particular type of talk between people who know each others’ languages. And impossible for monolingual native speakers, by definition as they do not have two languages to switch between. The BSL/English combination has another intriguing possibility in that the two languages could in principle be used simultaneously since they are using different modes of language.

The other obvious use of language unavailable to monolinguals is translation. Some, though not all, L2 users can turn one language into another, whether immigrant children interpreting for their mothers in doctor’s surgeries or simultaneous interpreters in the European Parliament. The ability to go from one language to another is then the core ability of interpreters. With regard to BSL/English bilingualism, this switch also involves the language modes of sign and writing. Interestingly one theorist on the relationship between spoken and written language has already formulated it in terms of translation from written to spoken language (Haas, 1970).

A third use that people have become increasingly aware of is the L2 user’s ability to communicate with other non-native speakers. A frequent complaint at international meetings using English is that the L2 users can understand each other very well but cannot understand the English native speakers present. The native speaker appears to lack flexibility of adaptation to non-native speakers, except through such crude devices as speaking louder and more slowly. L2 users can adapt to the new circumstances where monolingual native speakers cannot. Interestingly this has been found in the specialised discourse of aviation English where native speakers of English have more problems than non-native speakers (Alderson, 2009). Whether this is a possibility for BSL bilinguals would be a matter of possible uses; for example a French person who knew BSL could communicate with an English person who knew BSL though BSL, rather like the correspondence between Henry James and Joseph Conrad which took place in French, the first language of neither.

· L2 users have an increased awareness of language itself

One of the reasons put forward for studying second languages is that it makes you better able to think about language. Research with bilingual children has indeed shown that they are better at making grammaticality judgments about sentences than monolinguals (Bialystok, 2001). In one well-known test, children were told the way to say ‘we’ is with “spaghetti” and then asked ‘How would you say “We are good children?"’; bilingual children seemed to grasp the arbitrary nature of word meanings more easily than monolinguals (Ben Zeev, 1977). In another experiment children were asked to say which was the biggest word in such pairs as ‘hippopotamus’ and ‘skunk’; bilinguals were able to keep the word size distinct from the object size and to answer the question correctly (Bialystok, 1990); again they could see the arbitrary nature of language. Evidence for the heightened awareness of language may also be the cause of success of bilingual writers such as André Brink, John Milton or Vladimir Nabokov. One can imagine that the cross-fertilisation of signed BSL with written English will be uniquely productive.

· L2 users have a slightly different knowledge of their first language

Most L2 users speak their second language differently from native speakers. After a few seconds of listening to someone we have a good idea of whether they come from Dallas or Hyderabad. This is true not just of accent but also of grammar and vocabulary: apart from the very few who can pass as native speakers, the language identity of the L2 user is stamped with their origins, just like the native English inhabitants of Newcastle or Bristol. In multi-competence terms this is not taken as a deficiency, only as a difference; there is no more reason for prejudice against people speaking English with a German accent than against people speaking with a London accent – but then of course such popular prejudices never really have a reason other than as ways of discriminating against non-standard speakers. Doubtless the signs of deafened BSL users are similarly stamped with their original spoken language, just as the signs of deaf-born speakers give away which regional dialect of BSL they use, or indeed at one stage in Ireland whether they were using male or female versions of Irish Sign Language.

Recent research has shown that it is not just the second language but also the first which is affected by the other languages the person knows (Cook, 2003): language transfer goes in both directions. L2 users’ pronunciation of their L1 is subtly different from monolingual native speakers, for example in the timing of plosive consonants (Zampini & Green, 2001). Their processing of syntax is changed too. For example languages have different ways of indicating the subject of the sentence: Japanese speakers rely on the subject being animate, English speaker on it coming first in the sentence (Cook et al, 2003). So in a test sentence like The ball hits the boy, a Japanese will say the boy is the subject, an English speaker the ball, with rather different meanings of who is doing what to whom. Sure enough Japanese people who know English no longer treat subjects in the same way as Japanese monolinguals but are influenced by English. The L2 user does not then have the same knowledge of their first language as a monolingual speaker. To extrapolate, a BSL user who knows English may well use BSL slightly differently from a monolingual BSL user; to quote Grosjean (1989) ‘A bilingual is not two monolinguals in one head.’

· L2 users have greater effectiveness in their first language

Another benefit of learning second languages has often been held to be that it improves the command of the first language. Indeed research with Hungarian school children shows that those who know another language use sentences that are more structurally complex when writing essays in Hungarian (Kecskes & Papp, 2000). After five months of one hour a week of Italian, English-speaking ‘bilingual’ children were learning to read better than their peers (Yelland et al, 1993); the pay-off from language teaching may not be in their minimal command of Italian but in their enhanced reading skills. Originally this was held to be one of the virtues of learning classical languages; Milton wrote in Latin and Dryden felt it advantageous to write poetry in Latin and translate it into English. In both the direction of English speakers learning BSL and BSL users learning sign the unexpected benefit may be that they use their first languages more effectively.

· L2 users have different ways of thinking

One of the more intriguing ideas about L2 users that have emerged recently is that they may in fact think differently from those who speak only one language, measuring thinking in terms of various processes of classification, memory, etc. For example Japanese tend to categorise objects in terms of material, English people in terms of shape; shown a cork pyramid and asked to say whether a plastic pyramid or a piece of cork is most like the original, Japanese go for the cork, English speakers for the plastic pyramid (Imai & Gentner, 1997). After living in England for three years, however, Japanese people use categorisation by shape much more than their monolingual counterparts (Cook et al, 2006). Another area is colours where speakers of different languages tend to perceive colours differently; research has shown that L2 users now perceive colours differently from their monolingual peers (Athanasopoulos, 2009). Bilingual cognition has become a developing new area of research; a selection of current research is reported in Cook and Bassetti (2010). The consensus is that learning another language subtly affected the way you think, sometimes in unexpected ways that are not predictable from the combination of languages involved. It would be exciting to see to what extent the thinking of monolingual BSL and English users differed and how it changed in bilingual users of both languages.

To sum up, L2 users have a distinct range of language abilities and think in different ways from monolingual native speakers. Learning another language has transformed them in several ways. Learning another language doesn’t just add another language: it changes the whole person. It’s not a matter of adding an extension to the back of your house but of remodelling it by shifting all the internal walls. The goal of language teaching is then to create skilful L2 users with all their extra attributes. This new goal is now being adopted by some countries. In Japan the goal is ‘Japanese with English Abilities’, not imitation native speaker (MEXT, 2003). In Israel the curriculum ‘does not take on the goal of producing near-native speakers of English, but rather speakers of Hebrew, Arabic or other languages who can function comfortably in English whenever it is appropriate’ (English Curriculum for Israel, 2002). The aim of teaching BSL to an English person should not be just to make them use BSL like monolingual native speakers but to equip them for the unique position of L2 users, a person with joint nationality not a naturalised citizen.

Questions for language teaching and teaching of BSL as a second language

- what is the status of the BSL native signer for teaching?

One of the issues arising out of the multi-competence perspective is a re-evaluation of the role of the native speaker. Most language teachers and students believe that what they want to be is a native speaker of the target language and so teachers and teaching methods are lambasted for not reaching this target and students are made to feel guilty that they have not lived up to this ideal. In terms of the usual definition of the native speaker as a person speaking the language they acquired from birth, this is in principle unobtainable; L2 learners will never become native speakers unless they can find a time-machine. Hence most L2 users are apologetic about their ability in a second language; at a conference reception in Belgium, I was surrounded by people slipping in and out of four different languages; almost invariably they apologised for their poor level of English, while I should have been apologising for my inability to speak the three other languages.

Why should people using another language fluently and successfully still feel this urge to apologise? Because they had been infected by what Grosjean (1989) calls the monolingual perspective on bilingualism: learning another language means speaking it like a monolingual native speaker not like a successful L2 user: monolinguals rule. From the multi-competence perspective the bilingual is a different person who uses language in different ways and has slightly different knowledge of both languages. This is a necessary state for bilinguals and a step beyond monolingualism, not a deficient version of the monolingual native speaker they can never now be in either language. From my own experience, after seven years or so studying I still can’t open my mouth in French at receptions; in terms of the blame-assigning monolingual paradigm, possibly I was a terrible learner and had terrible teachers in acquiring say 10% of the competence of a French native speaker. But I also have 100% of English: added together this comes to 110%, more than any monolingual can have in one language. Small as my achievements may be they go beyond those of monolingual native speakers.

Language teaching has then to adopt the goal of the successful L2 user, not the imitation native speaker. This has consequences for the type of language taught, which should be based on the people the L2 user will be encountering, some of whom may be native speakers but the vast majority may not, at least when the second language is English. It has consequences for the language teaching methods employed which need to recognise that the classroom is not an imitation native space but a genuine L2 space. And it has consequences for assessment where the attainment of students needs to be measured against criteria of second language not native use.

Extrapolating this to the teaching of BSL leads one into a substantially unknown territory which may not be analogous to spoken language teaching. The equivalent to monolingual native speaker is presumably a born-deaf user of BSL. The multi-competence perspective suggests that this is not an appropriate target for students and that the alternative is to teach them what they need to become efficient L2 users, since again by definition they could achieve a monolingual target without time-travel. They need language for specifically L2 uses such as interpreting as well as those of monolinguals. BSL students should be measured by how efficiently they can use the L2 in the appropriate situations they will take part in, which may diverge from those of monolingual BSL users if only for the obvious reason of hearing sounds.

- what is the role of English in the BSL teaching classroom?

An issue for language teaching arising from the multi-competence perspective is the role that the first language should play in the classroom. Since the Direct Method of the late nineteenth century the first language has been minimised in the language teaching classroom. The audio-lingual teaching method recommended ‘render­ing English inactive while the new language is being learnt’ (Brooks, 1964, p.142). The contemporary task-based learning method suggests ‘Don’t ban mother-tongue use but encourage attempts to use the target language’ (Willis, 1996, p. 130). In England teachers are told they ‘should insist on the use of the target language for all aspects of a lesson’ (OFSTED, 1993, section 37). Yet most teachers grudgingly admit they do use the first language for particular classroom reasons, over 80% for explaining grammar Franklin (1990), over 50% for tests, correcting written work, and teaching background.

The multi-competence perspective, however, claims that banning the first language only drives it underground: it is always present in the students’ minds whatever the teacher does. Forcing the student to perform entirely in one language enshrines a view of bilingualism in which the two languages are in separate compartments, called by Weinreich (1953) ‘coordinate bilingualism’, as opposed to the two languages being inextricably linked together, Weinreich’s ‘compound bilingualism’, the position favoured by multi-competence and supported by much of the research cited above. The issue for teaching is not trying to ban the first language from the classroom but learning how to live with it. Cook (2001) suggested that the teacher should take advantage of the first language whenever it could be more effective while at the same time not forgetting the classroom is the major source of input in the second language. Activities for which the teacher might consider using the first language include: conveying meaning or words or sentences, giving instructions for teaching activities, explaining grammar and so on.

The classroom is not then a pretend monolingual situation; it is a genuine bilingual situation. Natural bilingual uses such as codeswitching should not be discouraged as this is how L2 users behave. The application to BSL is that the bilingual nature of the classroom has to be recognised, in particular the bimodal bilingualism of many BSL users. The students do not park their English outside the door but are actively using it inside the class to make sense of what is going on. Rather than banning it – the equivalent to deaf children having to sit on their hands at school to prevent them signing – teachers should exploit English as a short cut or an aid whenever it does not detract from providing a proper supply of BSL.

Whether this perspective has anything to offer teachers of BSL is now up to them. In language teaching some people have adopted the ideas with enthusiasm (Ortega, 2009; Scott, 2009); others have been concerned by the abandoning of the native speaker target they have spent their lives teaching and by implications about the advantages of teachers who are L2 users rather than those who are native speakers. The multi-competence perspective does however raise ideas that teachers do need to consider, even if they ultimately reject them.


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