Vivian Cook: The goals of ELT: Reproducing native-speakers or promoting multi- competence among second language users?

In J. Cummins & C. Davison (eds) Handbook of English Language Teaching, Kluwer, 2007

Other papers Multi-competence Words


Why do people learn a second language? One answer comes from the students themselves: Coleman (1996) found that the six most popular reasons among UK university students of modern languages were 'For my future career', 'Because I like the language', 'To travel in different countries', 'To have a better understanding of the way of life in the country or countries where it is spoken', and 'Because I would like to live in the country where it is spoken'. Another answer comes from the expectations of the educational systems in various countries: the UK Modern Language Curriculum (DfEE, 1999) expects pupils to 'understand and appreciate different countries', to 'learn about the basic structures of language', and how it 'can be manipulated'. Another perspective comes from SLA, which sometimes states the target of L2 learning overtly: ‘LP [language pedagogy] is concerned with the ability to use language in communicative situations’ (Ellis, 1996: 74) – the point of language teaching is to help the students communicate, but more often puts it covertly: Long (1990) assumes that discussion of age concerns 'whether the very best learners actually have native-like competence', i.e. successful L2 learners become like L1 native speakers.

The purposes of language teaching are far from straightforward. The multifarious goals include benefits for the learner's mind such as manipulating language, for the learner's future career and opportunities to emigrate, and effects on the society whether through the integration of minority groups, the creation of a skilled work-force, the growth of international trade, or indeed ‘good citizenship, moral values and the Malaysian way of life’ (Kementarian Pendidikan Malaysia, 1987). Cook (2002) made an open-ended list of the goals of language teaching that includes:

self-development. The student becomes in some way a 'better' person through learning another language. This goal is unrelated to the fact that some people actually use the second language, as in the group-related dynamics of Community Language Learning.

a method of training new cognitive processes. By learning another language, students acquire methods of learning or new perspectives on themselves and their societies.

a way-in to the mother-tongue.The students' awareness of their first language is enhanced by learning a second language.

an entrée to another culture. Students can come to understand other groups in the world and to appreciate the music and art of other cultures.

a form of religious observance. For many people a second language is part of their religion, whether Hebrew for the Jewish religion, Arabic for Muslims, or indeed English for Christians in some parts of the world.

a means of communicating with those who speak another language. We all need to cope with people from other parts of the world, whether for business or pleasure.

the promotion of intercultural understanding and peace. For some the highest goals of language teaching are to foster negotiation rather than war or changes in the society outside the classroom. (see for example Gomes de Matos, 2002)

None of these goals directly state that the learners should approximate native speakers, even if they are waiting in the wings. They are instead concerned with the educational values of the second language for the learner. Indeed many of them might be achieved without actually learning the new language per se; degree courses in literature may be carried out through translations; courses in French civilisation have been taught in English schools through the mother tongue.

Internal and external goals

These goals can be divided into two main groups – external and internal (Cook, 1983; 2002).

External goals dominated language teaching methodology for most of the last century, first through situational teaching and then through audio-lingualism with its emphasis on external situations. Then communicative language teaching introduced syllabuses based on language function and interaction in the world outside, not in the world inside the student. Lists of language functions such as Wilkins (1976) ignored the internal functions that L2 users accomplish in the second language as self-organisation (keeping a diary etc), memory tasks (phone numbers), and unconscious uses (singing to oneself) (Cook, 1998).

The task-based learning approach, ultimately derived from the class-room based schemes of Prabhu (1987), has recognised that classroom tasks do not necessarily have external outcomes in the world outside. Skehan (1998, p.96) for example thinks that it desirable that tasks have real-world relevance ‘but difficult to obtain in practice’. Task-based learning has not, however, mostly tried to see what long-term internal goals such tasks might have for the student beyond the sheer acquisition of linguistic knowledge.

The platitude that obsessed language teaching for thirty years has been that the goal of language teaching is 'communication'. On the one hand this skirts the issue of communication where, with who and for what: 'communication' is too vague a term to bear the weight that has been given to it in language teaching. If the goal is indeed external communication with other people who do not speak your first language, this is beside the point for many EFL students; few students in China, Cuba or Chile, for instance, can realistically expect to speak with people in English outside the classroom. On the other hand equating language with communication misses its other functions; communication is only one role of language in human life, as proclaimed by linguists from Malinowski's phatic communion to Halliday's interpersonal function and Chomsky's pragmatic competence. Enabling students to use a second language does not just give them a tool for talking to people through a different language but changes their lives and minds in all sorts of ways (Cook, 2002).

The native speaker as the target of language teaching
The external goal implicit in much language teaching has been to make the students approximate to native speakers. ‘After all, the ultimate goal – perhaps unattainable for some – is, nonetheless, to "sound like a native speaker" in all aspects of the language’ (González-Nueno, 1997: 261). Students are successful according to how close they get to these native speakers; ‘The native speaker’s ‘competence’ or ‘proficiency’ or ‘knowledge of the language’ is a necessary point of reference for the second language proficiency concept used in language teaching’ (Stern, 1983, p.341). The best teacher is therefore a native speaker who can represent the target the students are trying to emulate. A language school in London invites one to ‘Learn French from the French’; a school in Greece proclaims 'All our teachers are native speakers of English'.

Within the past decade the term 'native speaker' has been deconstructed, partly by recognising that people are multi-dimensional; the role of native speaker is a comparative minor part of one's identity compared to citizenship, membership of ethnic minorities, football fan clubs, social classes, professional groups etc (Rampton, 1990). Its basis in power has also been described; native speakers assert power over their language and insist that they only can control its destiny. Unlike DNA, nobody has copyrighted a natural language (computer languages and Klingon are a separate issue as they do not have native speakers!). The denial of the right of L2 users to sound as if they come from a particular place speaks of power; native speaker are not treated in the same way; it is acceptable for someone speaking English to sound as if they come from London, Chicago or Auckland but not from Paris, Beijing or Santiago. As la Rochefoucauld wrote in 1678, 'L’accent du pays ou l’on est ne demeure dans l’esprit et dans le coeur comme dans le langage' An example is the denigration of Joseph Conrad for having a Polish accent, despite his being one of the stylists of English prose of the twentieth century. The native speaker concept has contributed to denying the rights of human beings to show their membership of particular groups.

The concept of native speaker has little meaning as an L2 goal. In the literal sense it is impossible for an L2 user to become a native speaker, since by definition you cannot be a native speaker of anything other than your first language. Phrasing the goal in terms of the native speaker means no-one can possibly achieve it; L2 learning can only lead to different degrees of failure, not degrees of success: 'Relative to native speaker's linguistic competence, learners' interlanguage is deficient by definition' (Kasper & Kellerman, 1997: 5). In a wider sense accepting the native speaker goal still does not specify which native speaker in what roles: native speakers of English come from all parts of the globe, classes of society, genders and ages.

Indeed many L2 users speak to people who are not native speakers, whether the German businessman negotiating contracts with a Dane, the Chinese air-line pilot using it to talk to the control tower in Singapore, or the Japanese tourist buying a film for her camera in Spain: English is a useful lingua franca for much of the globe. The Israeli National Curriculum (2001) '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.' Perhaps the majority of 'communication' in English does not involve native speakers. The native speaker goal can have a limited currency for some students; it has no relevance as an internal goal since learning a second language makes people different from monolingual native speakers.

the L2 user concept

An overall alternative to the native speaker goal is the concept of the L2 user, which refers to people who know and use a second language at any level, similar to functional definitions of bilingualism: 'the point where a speaker can first produce complete meaningful utterances in the other language' (Haugen, 1953: 7). The term 'L2 user' is however preferred to 'bilingual' because of the numerous definitions for 'bilingualism', many of which refer to the native speaker: 'bilingualism, native-like control of two languages' (Bloomfield, 1933, p.56) – the bilingual is the sum of two monolinguals rather than something sui generis.

Perhaps the majority of people in the world are L2 users. While figures are impossible to come by, it is certainly suggested by countries like the Congo with 213 languages or Singapore, where 56% of the population are literate in more than one language, or indeed Europe, where 53% of the population can speak at least one additional language (European Commission, 2001). The British Council (1999) estimates one billion learners of English in the world. Everyday life in many societies demands more than one language, for example the Cameroon or India. Other L2 users are members of linguistic minorities who need another language for education or health, like Bengali speakers in the East End of London, or businessman using another language than their own such as Luc Vandevelde, the Belgian head of Marks and Spencers, or international sports personalities using English in interviews with the mass media, say Martina Hingis, Michael Schumacher or Frankie Dettori. In short the second language increases rather than diminishes human diversity.

Both linguistics, SLA research and language teaching have primarily taken the monolingual native speaker as their starting point. Chomsky (1986) set the goals of linguistics as accounting for knowledge of language, not knowledge of languages. Both language teachers and students have seen their goal as getting close to native speakers. To people who treat L2 users as deviating from native speaker norms, the important questions are the cognitive problems of bilingualism, not the cognitive deficits of monolingualism, and why L2 students can't speak like natives, rather than why monolinguals can't speak two languages.

The L2 user concept is rooted in difference rather than deficit, following Labov (1969). L2 users are different kinds of people from monolingual native speakers, and need to be measured as people who speak two languages, not as inefficient natives. Their differences from native speakers reflect the complexity of a mind with two languages compared to the simplicity of a mind with one. The L2 user concept arose in the context of the multi-competence approach to SLA. Multi-competence is 'the knowledge of two or more languages in the same mind' (Cook, 1992). It extends the concept of interlanguage by recognising the continual presence of the first language in the learner's mind alongside the second language; there is little point in studying the second language as an isolated interlanguage system since its raison d'être is that it is added to a first language. Indeed it may be wrong to count languages in people's minds – L1, L2, L3 as the language system exists in a single mind as a whole – akin to Chomsky's notion that the mental reality is a grammar, not a language (Chomsky, 1986). If the L2 user is the norm in the world, the monolingual mind has a more basic system because of the impoverished language it has encountered.

The term 'L2 user' is conceptually different from 'L2 learner' even when it refers to the same person. L2 users are exploiting whatever linguistic resources they have for a real-life purpose – ordering a CD on the internet, talking about Manchester United, translating a letter, visiting the doctor … L2 learners are acquiring a system for later use; they interact in information-gap games, they make up sentences, they plan activities in groups … Sometimes 'learner' and 'user' overlap: a student learning English in a classroom can also use it over coffee five minutes later. But it is demeaning to call a person who has been using a second language for, say half their life, a learner.

The nature of the L2 user

So what is the purpose of L2 teaching? Put it in a simplistic form, there are some qualities in people who use second languages that society or the individual student values. Language teaching serves to foster these qualities in students. Let us then look at the qualities of L2 users that students can strive to emulate.

If the aim were to clone the native speaker, this would limit the functions of a second language to those that native speakers can carry out in their L1. While some L2 users may indeed need to speak to native speakers, the language that natives use to non-natives is a specific variety. The presence of a non-native speaker alters the behaviour of native speakers, changing their syntax and the information they provide (Arthur et al, 1980). The L2 user needs to master the skill of conversing with native speakers in this particular mode. Data-bases of native speech such as COBUILD and the BNC have not provided any information about the native to non-native English the L2 user will actually encounter (let alone any insight into the non-native speakers they are more likely to talk to). Continental businessman have told me that they have no problems speaking English to fellow non-native speakers; it is the English person who gives them problems.

L2 users also have distinctive uses for language unavailable to monolinguals, most obviously when two languages are on-line. Translation is an everyday activity for many L2 users, for instance children translating for their non-native parents in consultations with doctors (Malakoff & Hakuta, 1991). Some L2 users are indeed professional interpreters, foreign correspondents, bilingual secretaries, and the like. Is there any L2 user who has not at some time been called on to translate something, ranging from a book title up to a letter? Discouraging translation as a teaching technique does not mean it is a valid external goal. Indeed 'translation provides an easy avenue to enhance linguistic awareness and pride in bilingualism' (Malakoff & Hakuta, 1991: 163).

Another distinctive L2 use of language is code-switching. L2 users commonly switch from one to the other according a variety of rules depending on social roles, the topics that are being discussed, the grammatical overlap between the two languages, and many more (for example Auer, 1998). One example might be a Japanese university student remarking: 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). Another might be T.S. Eliot: London Bridge is falling down, Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina, Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow, Le Prince d'Aquitaine á la tour aboli (T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, V).

Code-switching is a highly skilled L2 use. Grosjean (1989) distinguishes two modes of language in L2 users, a monolingual mode in which one language is used at a time and a bilingual mode in which both are used simultaneously. Whether or not code-switching should be encouraged in the classroom is a separate matter for methodologists to decide; traditionally the teacher was supposed to frown upon students using their L1 in group and pair-work, though Jacobson (1990) has described a teaching method based on systematic code-switching. But clearly most effective L2 users are capable of this feat of using two languages at once.

Paradis (1997) has argued that these L2 uses are simply extensions of what monolinguals do; translation is the same as paraphrase on a larger scale; code-switching is a more complex form of dialect or register-switching. From a multi-competence perspective, the boot is on the other foot: the monolingual uses restricted forms of the language functions available to the L2 user.

As we see below, however, L2 users have more subtle differences from native speakers in their use of both their first and second languages, mostly due to the links between the two languages in their minds. Whichever language they are using, they are still to some extent affected by the other language they know – its rules, concepts and cultural patterns. An L2 user is essentially a product of métissage – 'the mixing of two ethnic groups, forming a third ethnicity' (Canada Tree, 1996; see also Lionnet, 1989). The danger is not seeing themselves as fully members of either cultures, rather than as fully-paid up L2 users. L2 users form the majority in many countries of the world where it is taken for granted that everyone uses whatever languages are necessary for their everyday lives, whether the Cameroon or Pakistan. Both their first and second languages may differ from those of monolingual native speakers: so what? L2 users stand between two languages, having the resources of both languages available should they need them.

Some researchers have argued people speak a second language like a native speaker; others have denied this possibility. On the one hand it is not significant if a handful of people can pass for natives; it may be possible to find dogs that look like rats or indeed to train dogs to behave like rats but this does not mean they are not different species. On the other hand it is the wrong comparison; an L2 user should be compared with another successful L2 user – a member of the same group – not with a native speaker – a member of another group the L2 user could not belong to by definition.

Arguments based on the achievements of a select few should be set to one side; despite the achievements of a tiny minority, the knowledge of the second language of the vast majority of L2 users differs from that of native speakers. Mostly these differences are blindingly obvious. Though many spelling mistakes are common to all users of English spelling whether native, non-native, young or old, L2 users soon give away their first language: volontary and tissu (French), theese and precios (Italian), lavel (level) and congratale (Urdu) and so on (Cook, in progress). In Voice Onset Time (VOT) for plosive consonants L2 users have timing that deviate slightly from native speakers (Nathan, 1987). Even at advanced 'passing for native' levels, there are still concealed differences between L2 users and native speakers in grammaticality judgments (Coppetiers, 1987).

Recent research has been discovering that the L2 user also has a different command of the L1 from a monolingual native speaker (Cook, in press).). The knowledge of vocabulary in the first language is affected by the second so that for example when a French person who knows English encounters the French word coin they are aware of the English meaning 'money' as well as the French meaning 'corner' (Beauvillain & Grainger, 1987). In syntax L2 users process their first language differently so that for instance Japanese, Spanish and Greek users of English look for the subject of the sentence in Japanese in slightly different ways (Cook et al, in press); some can be said more appropriately to have an extended L1 competence rather than a declining L1 competence (Jarvis, in press). In other words the first language competence of L2 users is not the same as that of monolinguals. Within the multi-competence approach, such changes are seen as inevitable: at some level the two languages form a single complex system within the individual mind; the totality of the L2 user is more than just adding a second language to a mind that has a first. While an overt goal of second language teaching may not be to alter the first language of the learner, this is a necessary consequence.

But the distinctive characteristics of L2 users extend outside what is normally thought of as language knowledge and use. L2 users also differ from monolinguals in terms of interior aspects of mind that go beyond the external uses of language detailed so far. Indeed this is implicit in the concept of internal goals of language teaching; as well as enabling students to 'communicate' with other people, language teaching also affects their minds in ways that society can find beneficial – the traditional virtues of classical language teaching.

One such aspect is language awareness. Bilingually educated children are sharper at making grammaticality judgments about sentences than monolinguals (Bialystok, 2001). Afrikaans/ English children aged 4-9 who know a second language are ahead of monolinguals in developing semantic awareness of words (Ianco-Worrall (1972). Hungarian children who know English produce Hungarian sentences that are more structurally complex (Kecskes & Papp, 2000). Yelland et al (1993) employed all possible combinations of big and large objects with big and large words (ant, caterpillar, airplane, whale) to show that bilingual children are better aware that big words do not necessarily denote big The wider world of English literature soon shows us L2 users who have shown this extra facility with language such as Milton, Beckett and Nabokov.

A variety of measures have also shown that the actual processes of cognition are affected by the knowledge of a second language. Contrary to early findings about cognitive deficit in bilinguals, research has usually shown that bilingual children perform better than monolinguals on both verbal and non-verbal IQ tests (Peal and Lambert, 1962); bilingual five-year-olds showed advantages for ‘object constancy, naming and the use of names in sentences’ (Feldman and Shen, 1971). Ianco-Worrall (1972) showed that bilingual children think more flexibly. Even code-switching by bilingual children is not a sign of deficit but of 'a kind of linguistic competence that exceeds that which is demonstrated by monolinguals' (Genesee, 2002). Diaz (1985) lists other pay-offs from knowing a second language on 'measures of conceptual development', 'creativity', and 'analogical reasoning'. The only negative findings seem to be a slight deficiency on certain STM tasks; for example Makarec & Persinger (1993) found that male L2 users, but not women, had some memory deficiencies compared to monolinguals.

L2 user goals in language teaching: problems and issues

The goal of becoming an L2 user is more valid and more achievable for most L2 students, emphasising both external and internal goals of language teaching. Let us bring together the threads.

Most importantly L2 users have to be credited with being what they are – L2 users. They should be judged by how successful they are as L2 users, not by their failures compared to native speakers. L2 students have the right to become L2 users, not imitation native speakers. This is not to say that all of them would agree to this. Like all of us, L2 students are formed in part by the attitudes and stereotypes of the society of which they form part. If there is constant pressure to be like native speakers, they are likely to accept this as their role rather than to work out the advantages of L2 users. In my own experience with talking to groups of teachers about the shift from native speaker to L2 user goals, some feel insulted because I have undermined a life-time goal, others feel liberated by knowing that they have value in their own right rather than in relationship to native speakers. In education one always has to acknowledge Peters' (1973) pithy remark 'What interests the students may not be in the students' interests'. The L2 user goal may not at present be exactly the most popular among students or teachers. But this is more ignorance and than deliberate choice. To some the L2 user goal may be a blessed relief, to others an infringement of their right to set their own goals. As we have seen the problem with the native speaker goal is that it is essentially unachievable for many students. Are we to write off the vast majority as failures to become natives or to accept them as successes as L2 users? Kramsch (1998, p.28) sums it up: ‘Traditional methodologies based on the native speaker usually define language learners in terms of what they are not, or at least not yet’. Or, one might add, probably not ever.' We need at least to explain this to the students.

A major problem is to spell out what the L2 user goal actually means. Because linguistics has been concerned almost exclusively with natives there are no descriptions of L2 users. By default the only adequate descriptions that teaching has to go on are those of natives. The ultimate requirement is then descriptions of what L2 users are actually like, say their basic common grammars as established by the ESF project (Perdue, 2001), their phonological systems (Jenkins, 2000), the types of use that they actually make of the L2, the cognitive and processing differences, and all the rest. But ignorance is no more excuse in language teaching than it is in the eyes of the law. Teachers can start by building on their own experiences as L2 users. Native speakers were formerly the teachers who spoke with authority because of their ownership of the language; now non-native teachers are the authentic sources of knowledge about what it is like to be an L2 user. Descriptions of native speaker English are a stop-gap while proper descriptions of L2 users are made.

Furthermore L2 users differ extremely in their attainments and in their needs. Often this variability has been held against L2 users; since native children get to the same adult target in L1, obviously L2 learners were supposed to get to the same adult native target: one target does for all. But the nature of L2 learning is the sheer variety of goals, as we saw above. One may become a perfectly adequate L2 user for one's purposes with only a small system; my few words of Italian enable me to go to a restaurant or a concert in Italy; my knowledge of French however enabled me to read Piaget in his original language (incidentally much clearer than in English translation!); while I can't read anything in Italian and can't have a conversation in French, yet my L2 needs are adequately served in both cases despite their intrinsic limitations. In the first language native speakers mostly have a greater range of uses, though reading Piaget may not typical. In short, once the native speaker norm is abandoned, there is no need to aim at superfluous uses of language, just as native children are not taught to write sonnets. In some ways this is the philosophy of ESP: teach the aspects of language appropriate to the students' anticipated uses and regard them as successes when they can carry them out, not as failures for still having a foreign accent.

One important lessons is recognising the importance of internal goals. Part of the value of acquiring another language is the pay-off in internal terms, whether awareness of language, more flexible approach, different cognitive strategies or whatever. This is already mentioned in some official syllabuses and curriculums: 'Through the study of a foreign language, pupils … begin to think of themselves as citizens of the world as well as of the United Kingdom (DfEE, 1999). Most teaching methods and course-books are nevertheless still designed to foster external goals. Language teaching could help people's lives in many ways, even if they never meet a native speaker. One extreme example is the use of Community Language Learning (Curran, 1976) as a form of therapy for patients with mental illnesses; talking about your problems in another language may help you to solve them. Language teaching should emphasise the internal educational goals in the changes in the individual L2 user

So far as external goals are concerned, despite their prominence in language teaching methodology, they have not been related to the actual L2 uses of language. The only exception is the vast number of situations in course-books where apparent L2 users seek help or guidance from natives – shops, surgeries, stations etc. In as much as these actually reflect L2 use, they show low-level communication by powerless L2 users; the native speakers are almost invariably the experts in control. Teaching the L2 user goal means teaching for the situations that L2 users encounter, and modelling L2 roles and situations. At a simple level it means using famous L2 user achievers into course-books, Ricky Martin rather than Elizabeth II.


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Challenging traditional assumptions