Consequences of the Multi-competence
Perspective for
Second Language Acquisition

Vivian Cook Newcastle University

[This paper was intended as a survey of issues and arguments relating to multi-competence. It was rejected by an eminent journal in 2010 on the grounds of being unoriginal, non-empirical, out-of-date, and negative in tone (partly true, partly missing the point), but also because it was freely available on the web (i.e. on as a discussion draft). Reader, beware: online circulation of drafts may constitute publication for traditional journals, though say they have never heard of this happening before. The paper has not been rewritten or resubmitted, as it is now superseded by Cook and Li Wei Handbook of Multicompetence, CUP (2016). Links to some available online references are given at the end.]

What are the consequences for Second Language Acquisition (SLA) of multi-competence, defined as “the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind or the same community”? First we present evidence that second language (L2) users differ from monolingual native speakers, in thinking, in knowledge of the first language and  in brain structure. Next we provide three arguments for regarding L2 users as the norm: acquisition models should be independent of environmental issues; L2 users outnumber pure monolinguals in the world; SLA research is biased towards one group of speakers in a fashion not tolerated in other areas of language research. Then we draw conclusions for SLA research: all the languages in the minds of research participants need to be accommodated; research design should be based on the successful L2 user, not on the monolingual native speaker; research methods should measure  the L2 user against users of two languages, not users of one; language acquisition models need to reflect the universal human potential to acquire more than one language. In conclusion, SLA research should either explicitly justify its monolingual perspective by refuting these claims or should accommodate them by realigning with a multilingual perspective.

The paper looks at the consequences of multi-competence for Second Language Acquisition (SLA), building on arguments and research developed in disparate contexts over the past two decades as well as on new ideas. The first section presents evidence that second language (L2) users differ from monolingual native speakers in other respects than knowing a second language. The second section provides arguments for regarding such L2 users as typical human beings rather than the exception. The third section draws some logical conclusions for language acquisition research arising from this position.

The first conceptualization of multi-competence was as “the compound state of a mind with two grammars” (Cook, 1991). This filled a lexical gap for a term to describe the total language knowledge in one mind; multicompetence thus includes the first language (L1), the second language as known to the person (the interlanguage), and other relevant aspects of the L2 user’s mind. The word grammar in the original definition was intended in the Chomskyan sense of knowledge of all aspects of language – “we call the theory of the state attained its [the language faculty’s] grammar” (Chomsky & Lasnik, 1993). That is to say, it included all aspects of linguistic knowledge such as vocabulary and phonology, not just syntax alone.

Multi-competence has also been extended to multilingual communities by Brutt-Griffler (2002). Instead of a community being defined by a single language, “Linguistic diversity is at the heart of multilingual communities. There is constant interaction between language groups, and they overlap, interpenetrate, and mesh in fascinating ways” (Canagarajah, 2007, 930). The multi-competence of the community includes the languages in active use by all its members; a community is not defined by one over-arching language but by the simultaneous use of several languages. A definition of a community based on a single language ignores the multilingual communities in the world with more than one language at their core, such as the Indian “Three language formula” (Laitin, 2000).

The current definition of multi-competence to be used here is then “the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind or the same community” (Cook, 2011). This incorporates both mental and social aspects and extends the scope to three languages or more rather than restricting it to two.

Multi-competence is in essence a perspective from which second language acquisition can be viewed rather than a theory or model in its own right; it looks at second language acquisition from the perspective of the L2 user, not from that of the monolingual native speaker. In Grosjean’s terms (Grosjean, 2008), it is a bilingual “wholistic” interpretation of bilingualism as opposed to a monolingual “fractional” interpretation of bilingualism.

From the multi-competence perspective, the term L2 learner prevalent in SLA research implies that the person who knows a second language has not achieved their language goal but is still in the process of getting there. A radio interview with Dr Frederick Leboyer, the advocate for water birthing, showed that, at the age of 92, he still had a marked French accent in English – can he really be described as an L2 learner rather than a successful user of a second language? Hence a more neutral term seemed to be needed. The term bilingual is also problematic since the word has many conflicting meanings, ranging from the maximal “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield, 1933, 56) to the minimal claim that bilingualism starts at “the point where a speaker can first produce complete meaningful utterances in the other language” (Haugen, 1953, 7). So the term L2 user has come to be preferred in the multi-competence perspective for “somebody who is actively using a language other than their first” (Cook, 2011), as distinct from an L2 learner who is learning but not using a language.

If L2 users were only monolinguals who had added another language to their minds, SLA research would be a footnote to L1 acquisition, simply detailing its limitations and deficiencies, as is indeed often the case. But, if L2 users differ from monolingual native speakers in demonstrable ways beyond the sheer possession of a second language, then multi-competence will have many repercussions. It is first necessary to put to the test the hypothesis that the L2 user is “a specific and fully competent speaker/hearer who has developed a communicative competence that is equal, but different in nature, to that of the monolingual” (Grosjean, 1994, 1657).

Evidence for differences of L2 users from monolinguals

Twenty years have elapsed since evidence for the uniqueness of the L2 user was assembled in Cook (1992). Much more can now be added in support, some gathered specifically to test the multi-competence idea, some carried out independently. This section examines some of the main evidence for this claim.

- L2 users think differently from monolinguals

The first research into bilingual cognition took place in the early days of psycholing-uistics (Ervin-Tripp, 2011) but fell prey to the general reaction against linguistic relativity. With the renaissance in studies of language and thinking in the 1990s (Lucy, 1992; Levinson, 1996; Roberson, Davies, & Davidoff, 2000), it was possible once again to argue that people who speak different languages do in fact think differently.

The question then arises of what happens when you know two languages, leading to the burgeoning field of bilingual cognition. There has been a recent flood of research specifically aimed at investigating L2 users’ thinking (Cook & Bassetti, 2011; De Groot, 2010; Han & Cadierno, 2010; Pavlenko, 2011). Typically the research paradigm involves comparing low-level L2 users (in the absence of pure monolinguals) with high level L2 users, using well-established tests of cognition. In their review, Bassetti and Cook (2011) described recent work in four main domains of thinking: sensory perception and categorization; time, space and motion; reasoning; and emotion and person cognition. To take some examples:

  • Color perception has been particularly fruitful within the area of sensory perception. Greek-English bilinguals with higher English proficiency consider dark blue and light blue – different colors in Greek but not in English – as more similar than do Greek-English bilinguals with lower English proficiency (Athanasopoulos, 2011). Andrews (1994) had a similar result with dark and light blue Russian-English bilinguals and Russian monolinguals.
  • The expression of path and manner has been widely researched in the area of time, space and motion, based on Talmy (1985): English learners of French cannot talk about path and motion as easily in their second language as in their first (Hendriks & Hickmann, 2011); the performance of English learners of Chinese with directional expressions “was positively related to their overall Chinese proficiency” (Wu, 2011).
  • Research in reasoning shows English /Chinese bilingual students understand geometric ideas better than their monolingual peers (Han & Ginsburg, 2001). Russian/English bilinguals are influenced in their causal reasoning in their L1 by English (Wolff & Ventura, 2009).
  • The area of emotion and person cognition has generated much interest, mostly in individuals’ accounts of their experiences. L2 users of English for instance have to adjust to new concepts of “friendship” (Besemeres, 2011). The classic account is perhaps Hoffman’s Lost in Translation (Hoffman, 1989), describing her emotional changes as a Polish girl living in Canada.
  • In short, L2 users’ thinking has been changed in subtle ways by their experience of another language. Learning a second language is a process of transformation.

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

The question of how knowing a first language affects the acquisition of a second has been the subject of a hundred books and a thousand dissertations; both common sense and research concur on its important role. From a multi-competence perspective looking at both languages in one mind, the new question is how the presence of a second language affects the first language, i.e. reverse transfer. This was tackled by the contributors in Cook (2003) across a broad scope of vocabulary, pragmatics, codeswitching and syntax, finding differences in the first language of the L2 user in almost every case. Here are some current areas, illustrated with a handful of examples.

  • The syntax of the first language may be influenced by the second language in a variety of subtle ways. Speakers of Japanese, Spanish and Greek who knew English judge the grammatical subject of the sentence in their first language differently from their fellow native speakers (Cook et al, 2003). High level Spanish learners of English attach relative clauses differently in Spanish from those with lower levels of English (Dussias & Sagarra, 2007). Child L1 speakers of English learning heritage Cherokee are better at over-regularization of past tense forms such as taked than their monolingual contemporaries (though other areas showed no differences) (Hirata-Edds, 2011).
  • The phonology of the first language may be changed by the second. Voice Onset Time (VOT) in the L2 user’s first language phonology is influenced by the second, for example English/Spanish (Zampini & Green, 2001), though in simultaneous bilinguals this may apply only to voiced stops (Macleod & Stoel-Gammon, 2006). L1 intonation is affected by the second language in Dutch users of Greek (Mennen, 2004) and in Turkish users of German (Queen, 2001).
  • The pragmatics of L1 use are changed by the second language. Russians who know English interpret film sequences differently from monolinguals (Pavlenko, 2003).
  • The lexiconin the first language may change in the L2 user. Word associations of L2 users are unlike those of monolinguals of either language (Zareva, 2010).

This selection of research on reverse transfer suggests that L2 users indeed have a different knowledge of their first language from monolinguals. Arguably indeed in some ways L2 users are more effective in their L1 than monolingual native speakers (Kecskes & Papp, 2000), despite the warnings of “catastrophic interference of L2 back on L1” (MacWhinney, 1997, 136).

- The languages of L2 users are integrated at some level

Further evidence for the uniqueness of the L2 user concerns the relationship of the two or more languages in the mind. If the two languages are not isolated from each other, the L2 user’s mind differs from the monolingual’s.

On the one hand this is a matter of whether the two languages systems are separate or form a single integrated system. Typically this has been investigated through vocab-ulary: are the two languages kept separate in two distinct lexicons in the mind or are they merged into a single super-lexicon? Following Caramazza and Brones (1980), many have argued for a single lexicon combining words from one language with words from the other. Meanings of translation-equivalent words are for example shared across languages; i.e. the words may be distinct but their meanings are stored together (De Groot, 2002). Kroll’s asymmetric model connects the three components of L1 lexicon, L2 lexicon and cognition with different weightings (Kroll, 1993): the L2 word connects strongly with the L1 word but the L1 word connects weakly with the L2 word, the strength varying developmentally and synchronically. While there are vast controversies about the various lexical models, probably everyone agrees that the two lexicons interact in one way or another and do not have a rigid barrier between them.

On the other hand there is the question of whether it is possible to operate in only one language – can one of the two languages be turned off while the other is being used? Studying people’s eye-movements as they process pictures of objects shows they never switch off either language entirely (Spivey & Marian, 1999, 2003). The classic study by Beauvillain and Grainger (1987) demon-strated that when using the word coin L2 users of English and French activated both the French meaning “corner” and the English meaning “piece of money” whichever language they were using. Both phonological systems are activated when producing cognates (Friesen & Jared, 2011; Hermans, Ormel, van Besselaar, & van Hell, 2011). Van Hell & Djikstra (2002, 1) claim that “the multilingual’s processing system is profoundly non-selective with respect to language”. Monolingual native speakers do not have this complex interwoven system, except in as much as it parallels the use of two dialects by the same person or the developmental issue of transitions from one grammar to another – universal bilingualism in the terms of Roeper (1999). Indirect evidence for the constant connection between the two languages comes from research showing slower reactions in the L1 for bilinguals; “The very fact of hav­ing available more than one response to the same stimulus may lead to slower reaction times unless the two response systems are hermetically isolated from each other” (Magiste, 1986, 118).

Thus the mind of the L2 user always has two languages available, each activated to a greater or lesser degree. Even when using the first language, L2 users are different.

- L2 users have different brains

An important shift in scientific thinking in the past few decades has been the realization that the human brain is not static but can be changed by experience. The best known example is the changes in the brains of taxi-drivers who have acquired the “Knowledge”, i.e. an encyclopedic knowledge of London streets that qualifies them to drive a black cab (Maguire, Johnson, Good, Asburner, Frackowiak, & Frith, 2000).

So does an L2 user have a different brain from a monolingual? Starting with developmental changes in L2 learners, to cite the title of Kwok, Niu, Kay, Zhou, Jin, So, & Tan, (2011), “Learning new color names produces rapid increase in gray matter in the intact adult human cortex”; this effect was visible after people had learnt new color words for one hour 48 minutes spread over 3 days. Similarly there are measurable changes in Event Related Potentials (ERPs) after people have been taught French words for 14 hours (McLaughlin, 2004); using a variety of brain measurement techniques, Osterhout, Poliakov, Inoue, McLaughlin, Valentine, Pitkanen, Frenck-Mestre, and Hirschensohn (2008) found that “structural changes … can be observed after a relatively short but intense instructional period”, namely first year French at a US university. Such research demonstrates that some effects of learning a second language can be immediate, though it is not clear whether these brain changes persist. Clear differences have been found in the brains of bilingual babies in the first few months of life (GarciaSierra, Rivera-Gaxiola, Percaccio, Conboy, Romoc, Klarman, Ortiz, & Kuhl, 2011; Petitto et al, 2011), showing that changes may be quick. More long-term physical effects are seen in a significant increase in proportional size in the corpus callosum in language teachers who had studied the second language for more than seven years (Coggins, Kennedy,  & Armstrong, 2004).

Turning to synchronic differences in language processing, much research has demonstrated the physical counterpart to the claim that neither language can be switched off. Again the title of Martin, Dering, Thomas, and Thierry (2009) is indicative: “Brain potentials reveal semantic priming in both the 'active' and the 'non-attended' language of early bilinguals”. For instance Chinese speakers still have Chinese active while reading English (Wu & Thierry, 2010). The processing of both languages by L2 users activates some of the same areas of the brain, namely the left interior frontal gyrus (Tatsuno & Sakai, 2005). Word retrieval largely activates the same area of the brain, to a greater degree in the languages in which the participants are more proficient (Halsban et al, 2002; Videsott, Herrnberger, Hoenig, Schilly, Grothe, Wiater, & Spitzer, 2010). To quote Paradis (2001, 10), “There may be qualitative differences at the level of what is represented but there are only quantitative differences in how it is represented and processed”.

Though there are strong critics of the use of brain studies in SLA research (De Bot, 2008; Paradis, 2004), it appears tenable to say that the brains of bilinguals differ in several ways from monolinguals and that the two languages are physically linked at all times. If bilinguals are the norm, some potential aspects of language have not been activated in the monolingual. Petitto et al (2011) talk of the transforming nature of second language acquisition; “exposure to greater than one language may alter neural and language processing in ways that we suggest are advantageous to language users”.

This section has assembled considerable evidence for the uniqueness of L2 users, more or less across the board. The relevance of the multi-competence perspective then rests on a solid foundation of evidence.

Arguments for L2 users as the norm

Following on the evidence in the last section, this part gathers together arguments that L2 users should be treated as the normal potential for human beings.

- The need for acquisition models to be independent of environmental variation

A standard Chomskyan argument takes the form that we should study the potential for language acquisition of all children, not the restrictions imposed by lack of input in particular circumstances (Cook & Newson, 2007). Any model of language acquisition has to be immune to differences in the language input short of total linguistic deprivation. In some cultures parents literally do not speak directly to their children; they are not considered conversational partners. In other cultures children are bombarded with speech and closely interacted with. Even within a single culture, some parents speak to their toddlers in baby‑talk, others insist on speaking to them as they would to adults. Yet, whatever their up-bringing, children all acquire linguistic competence successfully, bar the 1.5% with Specific Linguistic Disability (Rondal, 1987). In other words, if a human child encounters a language, they will acquire it:

Under widely varying environmental circumstances, learning different languages, under different conditions of culture and child rearing, and with different motivations and talents, all non-pathological children acquire their native tongue at a high level of proficiency within a narrow developmental frame. (Gleitman, 1984, 556).

The only constraint that an acquisition model can impose on language input is that it actually occurs; language acquisition models cannot depend upon the provision of particular types of input or social interaction or upon frequency of occurrence of items unavailable to all children: a child can learn language regardless of variations in surrounding environment. An acquisition model must be robust enough to function in the whole range of circumstances in which children are reared, short of linguistic deprivation of any language input at all as in cases such as Genie (Curtiss, 1977).

If the argument works for first language acquisition, there is no reason why it can’t apply to second language acquisition (Cook, 2009): we cannot build a view of language acquisition on the lack of certain kinds of input. Children who are exposed to two languages early on in life acquire two languages. The circumstances in which they do not acquire a second language are when they hear only one language. Just as all children have the potential to acquire a first language so do they have the potential to learn a second: all children are potentially multi-competent. Hence multi-competence is the potential norm for all human beings and so is the paradigm core of language acquisition. L2 acquisition and L1 acquisition need to be integrated inasmuch as all people have the ability to know more than one language, even if some are deprived of this by force of circumstance.

- The overwhelming numbers of L2 users in the modern world

An alternative argument bases itself on the proportions of monolingual native speakers and L2 users in the world. Is it statistically correct that monolinguals form the majority of the human race?

Obviously the numbers of L2 users depend on the definition of L2 user, taken above to be people who can use a language successfully for their own purposes, similar to the minimal functional definition of bilingualism. A common-sense assumption is that effects of multi-competence only come with considerable exposure or practice in a second language. However, one hour a week of Italian in a classroom had significant effects on the L1 reading of primary school children (Yelland Pollard, & Mercuri, 1993); three days of teaching color names showed changes in brain structure (Kwok et al, 2011). It cannot be taken for granted that the distinct qualities of L2 users only emerge at late stages of language acquisition since, if anything, some empirical research has shown the reverse.

The actual numbers of L2 users are virtually impossible to calculate – not that it is any easier to count monolinguals. Many estimates, for instance Harding and Riley (1986) compare the large number of languages in the world, say 6909 (Lewis, 2009), to the small number of countries, around 150. Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009) uses such figures to quantify multilingualism through Greenberg’s linguistic diversity index (LDI) (Greenberg, 1956). This works out the probability of two people randomly chosen from a country speaking different languages. Thus, using Ethnologue figures, Papua New Guinea, where 830 languages are spoken, has an LDI of 0.990, China with 296 languages has 0.509, while Japan with 16 languages has 0.028 and Cuba with 4 languages has 0.001. The LDI is, however, based on proportions of monolinguals of different languages and makes no claims about their use of a second language; it is an arithmetical calculation, not a survey; Canada has an LDI of 0.549, Switzerland of 0.547 yet the speakers of the official languages spoken in these countries live in geographically different areas; the schools in Switzerland do not even teach each other’s local varieties as second languages but the “standard” languages spoken in other countries, i.e. France and Germany. Clearly countries with a high LDI are likely to have many L2 users, if they are to function at all.

Other figures include:

  • the European Union has 23 official languages and 60 regional and minority languages (European Commission, 2011);
  • 438 languages are spoken in the EU (VALEUR, 2007);
  • 300 languages are spoken in London (Baker & Eversley, 2000);
  • 42.6% of people in California speak another language than English in the home (Sin & Kominski, 2010);
  • Toronto has 2,746,480 speakers of English and 58,590 of French, the official languages of Canada, but 2,160,330 speakers of neither English nor French (2006 census, Statistics Canada, 2007).

Large numbers of people in all these countries are undoubtedly L2 users in that they need at least to use the central language of the country in De Swaan (2001)’s terms. The number of inhabitants of officially multilingual countries only partially corresponds to the number of people using each other’s languages. Indeed the figures for Toronto cited above show that multilingualism in Toronto is more likely to be a matter of English and one of the other languages spoken by 43.5% of the population than of English and French, spoken by 2%, or indeed of speakers of other languages talking to each other through a second language, for example Italian as a workplace lingua franca (Norton, 2000).

Direct figures about L2 users are harder to find, due to the way censuses are organized around national “standard” languages.

  • 71% of Singaporeans are literate in more than one language (Singapore Statistics, 2011);
  • 56% of EU citizens can have a conversation in another language than their mother tongue and 10% can do so in three languages (Eurobarometer, 2006);
  • 83% of young people in the EU have been taught a second language (Commission of the European Communities, 1987).

On these figures, L2 users seem to be a majority in many countries of the world.

Another route is to consider the numbers of children learning another language in school. Figures for English generated by the computer model used by Graddol (2006) predicted some two billion learners of English in 2010, or one third of the world’s population. In most European secondary schools over 90% of children are taught English (Education, Audiovisual and Culture Agency, 2008). If all the school learners of second languages in the world were added together, they might well form a numerical majority. Doubtless for many learners a second language is just another school subject, to be dropped as soon as the necessary educational hurdles have been jumped. But, as we saw earlier, even a minimal exposure to a second language may turn someone into an L2 user distinct from a monolingual. Exposure to another language through education is now a norm for the human race.

Arguably the majority of the people in the world have some knowledge of another language. If L2 users are a minority, they are a very large one. Needless to say, this will not convince those who view Chomsky (1965)’s linguistic competence as a necessary idealization; an ideal speaker might still speak a single language even if no such individual actually exists.

The bias towards monolingual native speakers in SLA research

An important argument for multi-competence concerns the independence of particular groups. An axiom in linguistic research is that languages, dialects etc exist in their own right. While they may be compared in all sorts of ways, one language is not regarded as better or worse than another: value judgements are not part of a scientific discipline. This is far from the attitude to language in popular culture, as witness the lauding of the superiority of English (Bryson, 1991) or the diatribes against incorrect punctuation (Truss, 2003).

In the dawn of American linguistics, anthro-pologically-oriented researchers saw indigenous American languages as languages in their own right, in no way inferior to those of say Western Europe (Boas 1920/1940). The general attitude is reflected in: “The lowliest South African bushman speaks in the forms of a rich symbolic system that is in essence perfectly comparable to the speech of the cultivated Frenchman” (Sapir, 1921, 22). It is rare nowadays that anyone professionally concerned with language would call a language primitive.

This independent status was extended in the 1960s to children’s languages. Children are not poor imitators of adult language but authentic speakers of children’s language. The purpose of research such as Braine (1963) and Brown (1973) was to establish children’s grammatical rules in their own terms, not as defective versions of adult rules. By and large this has remained the assumption in L1 acquisition research, with occasional sports such as Smith (1973).

In Labov’s seminal paper (Labov 1969), he argued that it is wrong to judge the language of a group by the standards of another group to which they cannot belong. Black American English is not defective compared to White English but a dialect as complex and fit for purpose. People have the right to their own dialect and should not be judged against the status “standard” dialect spoken by another group. Halliday, McIntosh, and  Strevens (1964, 105) remarked: “a person who is made ashamed of his own language habits suffers a basic injury as a human being: to make anyone, especially a child, feel so ashamed is as indefensible as to make him feel ashamed of the color of his skin”.

Bernstein’s theory of working class Restrict-ed Code versus middle-class Elaborated Code (Bernstein, 1971) emphasised the differences between the codes rather than the deficiencies of Restricted Code, even if some educators took it differently. The working class have as much right to speak their own variety of English as the middle class; the working-class child has nevertheless the problem of encountering the Elaborated Code generally used in education. Groups defined by social class then speak differently. Gender researchers such as Tannen (1990) similarly insisted on women’s right to speak in their own way rather than to use men’s language.

So, whether people speak different languages, come from different age-groups or sexes, or belong to different minority groups or social classes, language research assumes that they are different, not deficient. This is not so much adopting a politically correct attitude towards human difference as taking a scientific neutral stance about the subject matter of language studies; an electron is no worse than a proton any more than a person who says ain’t is worse than someone who says isn’t. The facts of language variety are neutral, even if people’s social beliefs about them are not. It may be illuminating to compare two groups with each other but it is never proper for linguists to say professionally that one group’s language is right and another’s is wrong, whatever their private opinions may be.

Except of course when one group consists of native speakers, the other of non-native speakers. In most SLA research the only true speakers of a language are considered to be its native speakers; non-natives are successful to the extent that they can speak like natives. This can be illustrated by some quotations, typical of most publications on second language acquisition:

  • A central challenge to second language acquisition researchers is the construction of an account of imperfect knowledge in the domain that is controlled by principled constraints in native speakers. (Kweon & BleyVroman, 2011, 222)
  • [we] have yet to show that later learners can achieve the same level of “phonology as native speakers in production. (DeKeyser & Larson Hall, 2005, 96)
  • … the possibility that absolute native-like command of an L2 may in fact never be possible for any learner. (Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2003, 575)
  • … when human beings later in life try, sometimes very hard, to acquire these very same abilities, most will not succeed, and they will be betrayed by their non-native accent. (Sebastien Galles & Bosch, 2005, 68)

The underlying assumption in these quotat-ions is, not that the native speaker is an interesting object of comparison with L2 users, but that L2 users are successful to the extent that they speak like native speakers. L2 users have “imperfect knowledge” where native speakers have perfect knowledge; L2 learners cannot achieve the same level as natives, who define the ultimate level; L2 users can never have “native-like command of an L2”; most L2 users “will be betrayed by their native accent” as if it is a terrible secret that an L2 user comes from Paris but perfectly acceptable for someone to sound as if they come from Brooklyn or Glasgow. The prevailing climate in SLA research treats second languages as attempts at first languages, i.e. measures the language of one group by that of another. This is very different from the neighbouring climate in bilingualism research epitomized in the following quotation:

"It is clear that a reasonable account of bilingualism cannot be based on a theory which assumes monolingual competence as its frame of reference" (Romaine, 1989).

Is there indeed something unique to the native/non-native divide that justifies judging one group by the standards of another or is it as untenable as the other divides have proved historically? The usual definition of native speaker is “a person who has spoken a certain language since early childhood” (McArthur, 1992). Hence it is impossible for any L2 user to achieve native speaker status – by definition, just like the other formerly stigmatised groups. L2 users too have the right to use language appropr-iately for their needs, not for the needs of a native speaker group to which they can never belong. And, as we have seen earlier, they have many additional qualities not found in monolingual native speakers. A side-issue to the research argument is the semi-political debate about native speaker power, in which the control of English by its native speakers from England and the USA is shown to be a substantial political and financial asset (Phillipson, 1992).

A linguistic argument for the monolingual norm is put forward by Chomsky in an often cited unpublished interview with Francois Grosjean (mimeo, no date):

"Why do chemists study H2O and not the stuff that you get out of the Charles River? … You assume that anything as complicated as what is in the Charles River will only be understandable, if at all, on the basis of discovery of the fundamental principles that determine the nature of all matter, and those you have to learn about by studying pure cases."

The concentration on the native speaker is one aspect of the idealization of linguistic competence as “concerned with an ideal speaker-listener in a completely homogeneous speech community” (Chomsky, 1965, 4). The monolingual person within a monolingual community is the “pure” form to be analysed, even if such purity does not exist outside the laboratory.

This argument only works if monolingualism is indeed the pure natural state of the mind. Suppose a chemist decided that the pure state of water was hydrogen and oxygen and that water was, so to speak, an impure combination of two elements. This would be denying its molecular nature as built up out of two elements. If the natural state of the human mind is the complex state of bilingualism, it is just as absurd to treat monolingualism as the norm. To change metaphors, it would be like basing the study of how humans walk on people with only one leg.

This section has produced three arguments to support the view that L2 users not only reflect the potential for all human beings but also are as numerous as “pure” monolinguals. Multi-competence is arguably the normal condition of human beings, potentially for all and actually for most.

Consequences for second language acquisition

If the arguments in Parts 1 and 2 are correct, what are the logical conclusions for SLA research? Multi-competence has in fact led to specific research questions of its own, which were barely considered previously, such as reverse transfer and the nature of thinking in bilinguals. But multi-competence has implications for SLA research in general and indeed for much other language-related research. Some of the spin-off consequences will be illustrated through some examples of current SLA research practice to show how all-pervasive the monolingual perspective still is.

- All the languages in the individual mind need to be acknowledged in acquisition research

A crucial element of research design is the choice of participants to represent the standard for language performance and knowledge. Much language research draws on native speakers either as the main source of evidence or for comparison with other groups. The norm for monolinguals has, however, often been established from people who are in actuality L2 users. Whorf’s Hopi informant was living in New York (Whorf, 1940/1956) and so his Hopi thinking may have been infiltrated by English. Boroditsky (2001) used Chinese native speakers who were students at Stanford University, presumably all speaking English at university level; her English native speakers were also students at Stanford University, probably speaking an unmentioned number of second languages, given the LDI of 0.3219 for the USA. “Pure monolingualism was not a requirement” for the native speakers in Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2009, 264), provided their lives had been spent in Swedish-speaking contexts but no details are provided on other languages known.

Monolingual native speaker research partic-ipants need to be completely untouched by other languages, since their L1 may have been affected by the L2 even in minimal L2 users. When analyzing native informants’ speech or judgments, linguistic or psychological research depends upon them being uninfluenced by other languages. Kato (2005) for instance found that the accepted values for VOT in Japanese had been based on Japanese living in the USA, and so touched by English, and differed from those for monolingual Japanese living in Japan. People who know an L1 as part of multi-competence are not an accurate reflection of monolingual native speakers. Donaldson (2011) for example uses “native controls”, none of whom “reported being bilingual from birth, although several had acquired knowledge of an L2 as adults.” And so were at the least suspect as guides to monolingual native French. L2 users do not necessarily speak only two languages; an account of any other languages they know or have been exposed to is also necessary to include any possible effects. Language history was indeed included in Grosjean’s comprehensive counsel of perfection for the specification of individual bilingual participants (Grosjean, 1998) but seems not to have been met by most of the field.

The main insight from multi-competence for SLA research is that one language is already there in the L2 user’s mind, linking to the second in many subtle ways. It is arbitrary and unrevealing to treat L2 acquisition as a second run at L1 acquisition by studying the L2 cut off from the L1. Perhaps such isolation occurs in a few coordinate bilinguals – indeed it has been a widespread belief in L2 teaching since the nineteenth century – but it seems an exception to the rule. SLA research without the first language becomes a pale shadow of L2 acquisition, deprived of its very nature. The development or attrition of the L2 grammatical system in the L2 learner is not independent of the first language in the mind whether for processing the L1 or L2, for developing the L2 through aspects of the L1, or for changing the L1 or L2 grammatical systems.

- SLA research design should base itself on the successful L2 user, not on the monolingual native speaker

The move away from the native speaker target affects research design and methods. If the monolingual native speaker is no longer the only true owner of a language, research needs to investigate L2 learning and use as properties peculiar to L2 users. They are not failed native speakers but L2 users in their own right, successful in the second language to a greater or lesser degree.

The area of age effects in SLA research can highlight the issue. Let us take the massive project reported in Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2009) as representative, selected by the Board of Directors of Language Learning as the outstanding article of 2009. The title of the paper itself explicitly brings in the native speaker: “Age of Onset and Nativelikeness in a Second Language: Listener Perception Versus Linguistic Scrutiny”. A central question for them is “Can L2 learners ever attain nativelike proficiency?” Their participants are “L2 speakers all of whom had passed for native speakers of Swedish”, whose accents are judged as native Stockholm speaker, native non-Stockholm speaker or non-native speaker by “10 different native speakers of Stockholm Swedish” and converted into scores of “perceived nativelikeness”. The results are inter alia “differences do exist even between early learners’ ultimate attainment and native-speaker proficiency”. So the question of age amounts to whether L2 users can become native speakers, judged by the reaction of native speakers to their accent.

From the multi-competence perspective, this is beside the point. Why should successful L2 use be measured by successful L1 use? Why should the only relevant L2 users be those who can pass for native speakers? Why should the measure be whether native speakers themselves think L2 users belong to their group? The relevant question for SLA research is whether there are differences between L2 users who start an L2 early and those who start off late; their resemblance to native speakers is a side issue. Nevertheless the overwhelming bulk of the literature on age effects, surveyed say in Singleton and Ryan (2004), shares this monolingual perspective.

Far from addressing a L2 user-related question, the age research is concerned with a native speaker-related question; it is squarely from the monolingual perspective. Imitating the native speaker is in a sense not succeeding as an L2 user but failing to acknowledge the L2 user state and identity as having value of its own, a version of what Grosjean (1989) calls the monolingual fallacy. The condition of passing for a member of another group may have interesting properties in say the study of race or transvestism but it is not the main issue in defining the groups themselves.

While the framing of SLA research questions in relationship to native speakers comes up particularly in the age effects research, it also applies to other SLA research questions. To take some recent examples:

  • Generative grammar. In a penetrating review of the generative approach to Second Language Acquisition, Slabakova (2009, 171) claims:

There is, however, a more fundamental (pun intended) question that underlies all these research questions; that is, whether the linguistic representations of L2 learners and native speakers are fundamentally different and whether the ways L2 linguistic representations are established are fundamentally different from the ways children acquire their native language.

So the generative SLA approach still seems locked in to testing L2 access to Universal Grammar by the extent to which L2 users duplicate the syntax of native speakers, as in the classic  paper by Clahsen and Muysken (1986): Universal Grammar is whatever monolingual native speakers know. Perhaps however monolinguals have been stifled by the lack of L2 input and only have a partial version of the full Universal Grammar available to L2 users.

  • Phonology. Piske, Flege, MacKay and Meador (2011) compared the production of vowels in nonwords and in conversation by groups of Italian-English bilinguals and native speakers, judged by six native speakers of English, showing that non-word tasks overestimated their problems. Again the context is “errors” related to native speakers and judged by native speakers, not the independent phonology of L2 users.
  • Brain imaging studies. Mueller (2006) tested an artificial miniature version of Japanese called Mini-Nihongo using ERP on native speakers of Japanese and German speakers trained for 7.2 hours with results that “Nonnative participants seemed to underuse automatic syntactic processes” (p.255). The “underuse” of a native process is regarded as crucial. In the words of Green, Crinion, and Price (2006, 100) “a natural expectancy is that the neural representation of a second language (L2) will converge with that of the native speakers of that language as proficiency improves.” This is another area dominated by the monolingual perspective, taking L2 users as approximations to L1 users.

Of course sometimes the native speaker is concealed below the surface. For example research into syntactic acquisition utilizes descriptions of the rules of the language, say right-dislocation in French (Donaldson, 2011), pointing out “Dislocations are characteristic of informal spoken French rather than written French or formal, planned discourse”. In other words the true syntax of the language as used in SLA research is that of native speakers, not L2 users.

Certain things about L2 users can be revealed by using a comparison group of native speakers to highlight similarities and differences. But much SLA research goes beyond comparison and takes the monolingual perspective so much for granted that it feels no need to justify it. There is nothing methodologically wrong with comparison in itself: we can compare ducks with swans. Comparison is wrong when it assumes deficit: ducks are not failed swans; native speakers are not a “control group” for L2 users. And comparison fails to bring unique factors to light: ducks have special qualities that are not expressible in terms of swans. Treating monolingual native speakers as the pinnacle of L2 achievement rather than as objects of comparison is tangentially relevant to SLA research. How monolingual native speakers differ from L2 users is a side-issue to questions about the mental representations of L2 users and how they develop. To adapt the research cited here to a multi-competence perspective would mean reanalysis and reinterpretation, possible in some cases, impossible in others where the native speaker is too deeply embedded in the whole design.

- SLA research methods should measure the L2 user against successful users of two languages, not users of one

The corollary of the need to free SLA research from monolingualism is that the actual research methods have to be independent of native speakers. Current SLA research techniques come from a number of sources in linguistics, applied linguistics, first language acquisition and psychology. Probably the majority of them include overt or covert reference to the native speaker (Cook, 1997). Let us take two of the most typical.

  • Grammaticality judgments.This technique asks people to evaluate sentences as grammatical, acceptable or possible; the results are taken to reflect their competence. The classic age research by Johnson and Newport (1989) asked L2 users to judge the grammaticality of spoken English sentences such as The farmer bought two pig at the market. The results “support the notion that children have an advantage over adults in acquiring a second language.” The test sentences were devised to illustrate 12 types of rule, i.e. to be sentences produced by native speakers. Johnson and Newport report that “native speakers of English found the test very easy” and that “virtually perfect performance is shown on the same task by 6- and 7-year old native speakers”.

The grammaticality judgments technique is based solidly on the monolingual perspective; L2 success is a matter of approximation to native speakers. The sentences tested are constructed to obey or break the rules of native speakers. Grammaticality judgments are one way of comparing groups of L2 users and may indeed unearth important differ-ences – ducks differ from geese in terms of the properties of swans. Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2009) too explicitly want “to produce a representative ‘across-the-board’ measurement of nativelikeness,” and use “Grammaticality judgments (written and auditory test modes with latency times)”.

Outside the age genre, recent work still relies on straight grammaticality judgments. Kweon and BleyVroman (2011) for example look at contraction through inter alia getting grammaticality judgments of sentences such as What do you think they wanna see in Hawai’i? from Korean L2 users of English and English native speakers. Results showed “nearly 100%” of native speakers fell into a category “correctly differential”, to which only 34.69% of L2 users belonged.
But why not measure ducks by ducks? Or compare ducks and geese without appealing to swans? The relevant grammaticality judgments norm for L2 users is the sentences of successful L2 users judged by L2 users, not L1 sentences judged by L1 users.

  • Elicited imitation. Under the impetus of L1 acquisition research (Slobin & Welsh, 1971), the technique of accessing children’s competence by seeing how they repeated sentences has a long tradition in second language acquisition research from Cook (1973) onwards. One of the tasks in Hirata-Edds (2011) for example was repeating sentences such as The boy in the boots painted the funny, old picture with various types of past tenses; scoring was in terms of correct or incorrect. From a multi-competence perspective, the test sentences represent native speaker competence and so correctness is approximation to native speakers. The measure depends on the native speaker lurking in the wings, both in the language presented and in the method of assessment. In this case the research is comparing two groups of Cherokee speakers, so it is not using native speaker comparison directly – ducks are different from geese – but it does so indirectly by judging two L2 user groups with a native speaker-based measure – what both groups would be like if they were swans.

Kweon and BleyVroman (2011, 213) use an interesting related technique called “oral repair” which asks participants to listen and repeat sentences such as *Who do you wanna help you with your homework? but tells them they can modify them “if they seem unnatural.” The results show significant differences between L2 users and native speakers. Again the syntax tested is that of native speakers, who not surprisingly do well. Kweon and BleyVroman (2011) assert, quite correctly, that the native speakers’ grammars differ from the L2 users’. But this does not allow one to argue for “imperfect knowledge of the constraints” (p.224), unless the native speaker is regarded as perfection. In the 1970s Williams (1972) showed that speakers of standard American English fail at tests of Black English: why not test the monolingual native speakers against the grammar of L2 users?

It is apparent from these examples that the monolingual perspective is deeply embedded in SLA research techniques (Cook, 1997). This is also usually true of:

  • the Error Analysis technique in which errors are mostly defined as things native speakers would not do, still popular in studies of spelling in adapted forms for instance Van Berkel (2005).
  • the obligatory occurrences technique (Pienemann, 1998) in which the speech of native speakers defines what is obligatory.
  • reaction time techniques in which the response times of L2 users are compared with those of native speakers, as in say Neubauer and Clahsen (2009), who investigate “the question of how non-native language processing differs from native language processing”.

- Language acquisition models must accommodate the potential for the acquisition of more than one “language” L2, L3 etc

A clear implication of multi-competence is that language acquisition models cannot apply to a single language alone. Children do not set a parameter such as the null subject parameter once and for all, except when they are monolinguals; children acquiring two languages need simultaneously to have both settings of the parameter, if say they know Japanese and English. Ayoun proposes to extend this notion “to all adult speakers of so-called ‘mixed languages’, i.e. languages which apparently exhibit both settings of parameters of Universal Grammar traditionally considered to be mutually exclusive” (1999).

We argued earlier that the reason a monolingual child acquires a single setting for a parameter is the lack of input from another language. This implication has little relevance to models of language acquisition based on general learning principles such as structuralist behaviorism or emergentism rather than those specific to language; acquiring a second language is another instance of general human learning – indeed one might suspect that this does away with any need to have an independent discipline of Second Language Acquisition.

A further implication is that second language acquisition is the general case – the default – and single language acquisition is a special case due to restricted circumstances. The normal potential of language acquisition is not monolingualism but bilingualism. Insights from bilingual children’s development can be used as a control on L1 children’s development rather than the other way round. A typical child’s vocabulary will be spread across two languages, a monolingual child’s confined to one. The monolingual child may have a larger vocab-ulary in one language compared to the monolingual but this due to the concentration on one language rather than two. In other words, turning the tables by treating bilingualism as the norm leads to a re-examination of L1 acquisition as well as L2 acquisition.


SLA research needs to deal with the multi-competence perspective. One way is to show that the uniqueness of L2 users and the arguments for them as the norm for human beings are irrelevant to its domain, i.e. that the monolingual perspective is correct. Another way is to rethink SLA research questions and techniques from a multi-competence perspective. Even if models of acquisition do not take multi-competence as their starting point, it is at least incumbent on them to justify their preference for the monolingual perspective. The overwhelming majority of current SLA research is based on the monolingual perspective, albeit often covertly in the methodology rather than overtly in the aims. If the premise is dubious, this work is unsound. This underlying monolingual premise needs either to be properly justified or to be abandoned.

It has become apparent then that multi-competence is not so much a model as a challenge to the implicit monolingual perspective that pervades most linguistics and psycholinguistics. It is an argument rather than a testable model, a paradigm for doing research rather than a theory. Kuhn (1962) claimed that science does not advance by steady accumulation of evidence for or against a theory (normal science) but by a shift in the whole paradigm (revolutionary science). This paper presents a case for a potential Kuhnian paradigm shift in research into the human acquisition of languages, whether first, second or multiple, in the light of the concept of multi-competence.


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