Bilingual Cognition and Language Teaching

Vivian Cook 
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  Draft of paper for talk in Taiwan 2004


Recent years have seen a revival in interest in linguistic relativity – whether people who speak different languages 'think' differently. The interesting question for L2 learning is whether L2 users keep their L1 concepts, adopt the L2 concepts, or create unique new concepts – i.e. where they are on the integrative continuum. Research with colours suggests that monolingual Greeks see 'blue' differently from Greeks who know English (Athana-sopoulos, 2002) and that monolingual Japanese divide the blue/green/yellow area differently from Japanese who know English (Sasaki, Athanasopoulos & Cook, submitted): research with shape and substance hints that Japanese people move towards English categorisation by shape after three years in Eng-land (Bassetti, Cook, Kasai, Sasaki, Takahashi & Tokumaru, 2002). Learning another language does seem to change people's 'thinking' to some extent.

Bilingual cognition research contributes to the view of the L2 user as differing from the monolingual in many ways, in particular having a different knowledge of the L1 in terms of syntax, vocabulary, phonology, pragmatics, and so on. One implication is that language teaching has for many years paid more attention to 'external' goals relating to the world outside – social interactions – than to the traditional 'internal' goals of the student's self-development, such as cognitive training, greater understanding of other peoples, often still laid down in national curricula. Language teaching means, among other things, making people think differently. Research into bilingual cognition documents some of the impact that learning another language can have on our minds.

1. The concept of multi-competence

The starting point is the concept of multi-competence – the knowledge of two or more languages in one mind. This term was devised to encompass both the language systems present in the same mind – the first language (L1) and the interlanguage (Selinker, 1972). Hence multi-competence means all the language systems that a second language (L2) user possesses, say L1 French plus L2 English at some stage of development.

The term 'multi-competence' started almost as a convenience. While 'interlanguage' had become the standard term for the speaker's knowledge of a second language, no word existed that encompassed their knowledge of both the second language and their first: on the one hand the L1, on the other the interlanguage, but nothing that included both. Hence 'multi-competence' was introduced to mean 'knowledge of two or more languages in one mind' (Cook, 1991), as seen in Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Multi-competence

Since the first language and the other language or languages are in the same mind, the concept of multi-competence suggests that they must form a language super-system at some level rather than completely isolated systems: bilinguals don't have two heads. One set of spin-off questions then concerns the relationship between the different languages in use: how do people code-switch fluently from one language to another? how do they 'gate out' one language while using the other (Lambert, 1990)? how do they manage more than one pragmatic and phonological system? how does the second language affect the first language?

The current formulation sees this in terms of an continuum seen in Figure 2 (Cook, 2003).

Figure 2. The integration continuum of possible relationships in multi-competence

This reflects the idealised relationship of the two languages in the same mind (LA and LB). At one end of the continuum the two languages are quite distinct; at the other end they are completely merged; in between come different ways in which the two languages can be linked together. This continuum represents the logical possibilities for multi-competence but does not in any way imply a progression or a value judgement; people do not necessarily start at one end and move towards the other; full integration is not necessarily to be preferred over total separation. Nor does it necessarily apply in the same way to all aspects of language; people's vocabularies and phonologies may be fully integrated, their syntactic knowledge distinct.

2 Thinking and Language

One interesting aspect of the about multi-competence idea has turned out to be whether the L2 user's mind changes in other ways than language. Do L2 users for instance actually think differently from monolinguals?

Obviously this is based on the view that human beings do not all think in the same way. The starting point must be to show that speakers of different languages indeed have different concepts, known in linguistics as 'linguistic relativity', a regeneration of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Examples that have been worked on in the past decade include:

In the light of this recent research, at least it cannot be taken for granted that language varies between people but concepts do not, even if it is unclear how important these differences may be. Knowing a particular language goes with knowing one set of concepts rather than another.

Where do these differences come from? Two main possibilities are the environment and the language. Segall et al (1966) for example traced differences in susceptibility to visual illusion to 'carpentered' versus 'non-carpentered' buildings etc - i.e. the presence of square-cut corners, walls and ceilings; the very facts of the everyday environment led to a difference in thinking. Imai & Gentner (1997) found a different bias towards perceiving things as shapes or as substances in English and Japanese speakers which they attributed to the presence of a count/mass distinction in English but not in Japanese: the syntax of the language was the cause.

We can then now ask the question: what happens to this variation in concepts when the speaker knows two languages that express different concepts? The possibilities might be:

i) L2 concepts are not acquired. The L2 user acquires the language, not the conceptual system, and effectively uses L1 concepts with the L2. For instance, the Italian blu corresponds to a darker shade than the English blue. An English-Italian bilingual might therefore talk about blue and blu and always refer to the (English) lighter shade.

ii) the two sets of concepts exist in separate compartments. The L2 user effectively thought-switches between the two concept-systems when appropriate. The English-Italian bilingual might therefore think about a darker shade of blue when speaking Italian, and about a lighter shade when speaking English.

iii) the two sets of concepts are integrated to some extent. The L2 user has partially over-lapping concept-systems. An English-Italian bilingual might therefore think of an inter-mediate shade in between the English dark one and the Italian light one when speaking both languages.

iv) a new conceptual system has been created. The L2 user thinks neither in the same way as the native speaker of the first language nor in that of the native speaker of the second language but in a distinctive way that differs from both. An English-Italian bilingual might therefore think of a new shade, perhaps closer to violet or to green, than any of the shades that monolingual English and Italian speakers call blue or blu.

These four possibilities represent different points on the integrative continuum for relating the languages in the L2 user's mind (Cook, 2003), applied to the domain of concepts rather than language.

3. Investigating L2 users' perception of shape and material

Let us out some flesh on these bones by describing an experiment that has been recently reported (Bassetti et al 2002). We investigated whether Japanese speakers’ categorisation in terms of shape and material is influenced by acquiring English, based on Imai and Gentner (1997). Subjects were presented with an object such as a cork pyramid and asked to choose between two other objects that matched it for shape (plastic pyramid) or for substance (piece of cork). This design is shown in Figure 3 below, which shows a typical triad used in the experiment. The prediction is that monolingual English speakers will go for the plastic pyramid (same shape, different substance), the Japanese for the piece of cork (different shape, same substance).

The triads were divided into three types and given nonsense names, as shown in Table 1:

- complex objects; these had a specific functional use, like a juicer

- simple objects; these were straightforward shapes with no particular function, like a pyramid

- substances: these are piles/pieces of substances

The idea was that L2 users of Japanese would be influenced in their categorisation by their knowledge of English. The specific hypotheses were that the number of shape-based categorisations would increase according to experience of English and that the preference for shape and material-based categorisations of Japanese speakers of English would differ from mono-lingual speakers of both languages. The subjects were 36 adult Japanese users of English who had lived in England for at least six months continuously and who scored above criterion on Paul Nation's 'levels' vocabulary test (Nation, 1990), divided equally into a short-stay group (who had been in England up to 3 years) and a long-stay group (who had been there 3 years and over). The main results are given in Figure 4. Subjects preferred material responses for simple objects and substances but not for complex objects, like monolinguals; the long-stay group showed more shape preference than the short-stay; the short-stay group were significantly different from Americans while the long-stay were not.

Figure 4. Comparison of short-stay and long stay Japanese L2 users of English

This shows then that, in at least one respect, speakers of two languages think differ-ently from monolinguals. Rather than multi-competence being a case of 2+2=4, it is 2=2=5: there are knock-on consequences for the person who acquires a second language beyond the addition of another language to their repertoire.

4. Language Teaching

Let us turn to some consequences of this for language teaching. Learning another language means changing the contents of your mind. Language teachers are engaged inter alia in the task of affecting the whole minds of the students. The multi-competence idea and the changes in cognition affect not only the goals but also the techniques of language teaching.

It is crucial to distinguish external and internal goals of language teaching (Cook, 1983; 2001a). External goals are about using the L2 outside the classroom: being able to buy a meal in a foreign country, being able to negotiate with foreign businesspeople, being able to study in another language, and so on. Internal goals relate to the general aims of education in the society: having better attitudes towards speakers of other languages, being able to carry out projects in groups, helping with mental illness, and many others. Both external and internal goals are officially recognised in most syllabuses for language teaching. The UK National Curriculum includes external goals such as developing 'the ability to use the language effectively for the purposes of practical communication' and internal goals such as promoting 'learning of skills of more general application (e.g. analysis, memorising, drawing of inferences)' (DES, 1990).

The emphasis in the twentieth century teaching was on external goals of 'behaving' in the L2 environment, rather than the internal goals of better cultural attitudes or greater cognitive flexibility. Nevertheless, in many educational systems, communication is only one among many overt or covert goals, often a subsidiary or far-distant goal; few students of English in China, say, can realistically expect to use the language for spoken communication. The concept of the L2 user is relevant both for goals where students take part in external L2 use situations or are transformed internally by the other language. It has little relevance to, say, a student who wants to acquire an academic knowledge of the structure and semantics of another language.

Some of the reasons for teaching second languages that are current are (Cook, 2001a):

  • a vehicle to self-development, as in Community Language Learning,

  • a method of training new cognitive processes, as in the rationale for the teaching of Latin,

  • a way-in to the mother-tongue,

  • an entrée to the culture of another group,

  • a form of religious observance, as in the use of Arabic, Hebrew or Latin, or indeed, in some parts of the world, English,

  • a means of enabling people to communicate with other people through another language.

  • a way of promoting intercultural understanding and peace

The argument then is that many of these goals fit with the multi-competence perspective by concentrating on internal factors in the learner that are changed by second language acquisition. Multi-competence suggests language teaching changes people, not just externally in their relationships with the world but also internally with their knowledge of language and their other mental processes. Language teaching has to balance the twentieth century emphasis on external goals with the types of internal goals we have seen here. The responsibility of teachers is not just to enable their students to function externally but also to change their student's minds. This correcting of the imbalance towards external goals typical of the last century actually brings back what were for centuries the traditional humanistic goals of language teaching.


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