The Nature of the L2 User

Vivian Cook 
SLA Topics
Writing Topics

Written draft of EUROSLA Plenary 2006. Reprinted in L. Wei (ed.) (2011), The Routledge Applied Linguistics Reader, Routledge 77-89. An expanded version is Prolegomena 2010

The idea of linguistic multi-competence was first proposed in the early 1990s as the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind (Cook 1991). Recently it has been discussed in areas far outside its original remit – dynamic systems (De Bot, Lowie & Verspoor 2005), multilingualism (Herdina & Jessner 2002), macroacquisition of language by communities (Brutt-Griffler 2002), post-structuralist construction of identity (Golombek & Jordan 2005), lingua francas (Jenkins 2006), heritage languages (Valdés 2005) and cross-linguistic influence (Pavlenko & Jarvis 2006). This paper tries to accommodate these developments within a multi-competence framework. Since they raise fundamental issues and complex about the nature of language and of the language learner and user and range across many approaches to language, this can be far from a final account. Three questions will be tackled:

- who are the second language users?

- what is the ‘language’ they know?

- what is the community they belong to?

The classic view of second language acquisition (SLA) saw it as the learner creating an interlanguage by drawing on the first language (L1), second language (L2) and other factors (Selinker 1972). Initially the term multi-competence was devised as a convenient term for the knowledge of languages in one person’s mind (Cook 1991), i.e. the L1 plus the interlanguage. This had the consequence of separating someone who knows two languages from the native speaker as a person in their own right: the relationship between the L1 and the interlanguage within one mind is different from that between the interlanguage in one mind and the L2 in another mind (which is actually a first language for the person involved). Hence the term ‘L2 user’ became preferred over ‘L2 learner’ and its variants as it conferred separate identity rather than dependent status, implying the person is always learning, never achieving. The research that span off from this conceptualisation of multi-competence has concerned itself with the relationships between the two language systems in one mind, particularly reverse transfer from L2 to L1 (Cook 2003) and with the relationships between the language systems and the rest of the L2 user’s mind (Cook et al. 2006), visualised as an integration continuum between the two language systems (Cook 2003) rather than as the conventional division between compound and coordinate bilingualism< (Weinreich 1953).

Question 1. Who are the L2 users?

People usually accept the idea of the monolingual native speaker without much quibbling; they feel they know what they’re talking about when they say ‘a native speaker of English’ or ‘belonging to the English-speaking community’. Despite warnings such as ‘a linguistic community is never homogenous and hardly ever self‑contained’ (Martinet 1953: vii), they tend to accept that native speakers form a uniform community. The arguments against this idealisation will not be developed here as it has been a well-worn path in applied linguistics to reject Chomsky’s definition of linguistic competence (Chomsky 1965) in favour of Hymesian communicative competence (Hymes 1972); nevertheless SLA research and language teaching have paid little attention to native speaker variation whether within or across individual. Defining the L2 user or the community of L2 users has proved far more problematic. The standard solution is to speak only of the community of monolingual native speakers, whether of the L1 or the L2, as a monolithic whole. Almost invariably this leads to successful L2 users being seen as those who can pass as members of the monolingual native speaker community rather than having membership of a community of their own, a condition that very few would pass, seen clearly in typical quotations like 'Relative to native speaker's linguistic competence, learners' interlanguage is deficient by definition' (Kasper & Kellerman 1997: 5).

The aspect focused on here is to remind researchers that both the languages that the L2 users know and the communities they belong to are rarely static. The classic SLA interlanguage model assumed clearly defined entities for L1 and L2; we all knew what these entities were. But, as Dynamic Systems Theory insists (DeBot et al. 2005) and attrition studies have shown (Schmid et al. 2004), language is rarely if ever still. Communities too are variable and flexible, adapting and changing continuously through macro-acquisition (Brutt-Griffler 2002). This section raises some issues about the changing languages and communities of L2 users.

First language change

- static first language

The first language may be static or changing. An individual may be an adult with a so‑called steady state of language knowledge, even if one accepts this is relative stasis rather than frozen. Only one’s vocabulary is believed to change appreciably during adult life. Similarly the language of a community may have the appearance of a static standard form. The English language is spoken of as if it has now achieved a fixed final form that brooks no change and to which everything else has been prologue. There is also the language frozen in time of some emigrant groups: an Italian-American actor-director who was interviewed on Sicilian Television used an Old Sicilian dialect that had to be translated for a modern Sicilian audience ( For some purposes in some cases a first language is static albeit in a highly idealised way. In most SLA research, stasis of the L1 is taken as the norm rather than seen as a moment when time stands still. The L1 is treated as fixed in the L2 user’s mind and in the community they belong to.

- developing first language

The individual may be a child developing their first language or, in the case of early bilinguals, first languages. Many L2 learners are not at an adult stage of development in their first language, particularly those in schools. The first language can also be developing in the L1 community, as in the case of creolisation where the group is inventing a new language from scratch, like the Nicaraguan sign language that sprang into being twenty years ago (Senghas et al. 2004). Like it or not, many, perhaps most, languages are developing in the individual and in the community. The L1 in many L2 users is not a constant static object that SLA research can take for granted and in some cases is being created in the L1 community.

- reducing first language

Alternatively a first language may be reducing, declining in some way. Individuals appear to lose some aspects of their first language, whether through lack of everyday use, brain injury or the effects of normal aging. In terms of the community, languages too may reduce. At one extreme there is the emotive issue of language death; languages may lose their last speakers, say Dyirbal speakers in Australia (Schmidt 1985). The languages may be temporarily suppressed like Min in Taiwan (Sandal et al. 2006) or Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland, now a recognised minority language in the European Union. It cannot be assumed that the L1 in the L2 user’s mind and L1 community is a constant.

The first language component of the multi-competence in the L2 user’s mind is not then necessarily static but developing in the case of children or reducing as in attrition. The individual’s first language, taken for granted in SLA research, is complex and shifting. The ‘L1’ construct is an abstraction, a snapshot of a moving target. The same is true of the language as the possession of a community. Notionally there may be a synchronic moment that isolates a state of a language from previous and future states – Modern English as spoken in 2006 – fleeting as this may be. The dynamic nature of the L1 community needs to be taken into account in SLA research.

Second language change

- static second language

The static L2 user is an individual with a putatively constant L2 knowledge, someone using the second language as part of their repertoire for their own purposes, say Roger Federer being interviewed in English or a doctor in Spain treating a Japanese patient in English, that is to say ordinary people anywhere happening to use another language than their first. The L2 user community may also be notionally static in that it involves a long-standing use of the two languages, such as the Polish/English community living in West London. For children it may be the micro-community of the bilingual family. This is distinct from the notion of ‘fossilisation’, with its negative connotations; people and communities reach a stable level of language for their purposes.

- developing second language

The developing L2 user is the classic figure studied by second language acquisition research – the L2 learner, who forms the subject matter of the vast majority of SLA research and hardly needs enlarging on here. Communities also develop second languages in many ways. One case is the Italian learnt by Spanish-speaking migrant workers in German-speaking Switzerland, a logical if surprising solution to working together (Schmid 1994). While the change in the individual is taken for granted, the change in the community may also be relevant to SLA research.

- reducing second language

L2 attrition is also prevalent in the individual. Many school learners retain rather little of their second language ten years later. Expats’ children returning to their home country may rapidly lose their other language (Kanno 2000). While ‘attrition’ is the usual term for this phenomenon, this involves a negative metaphor of invasion by the first language, which may well characterise some cases, not others, which are more driven by lack of use or other factors. In terms of L2 user communities, this reduction is most well-known as the familiar three-generation shift from first language to second language seen in many immigrant populations (Fishman 1991).

So the individual’s language knowledge may be notionally static, developing or reducing. The L2 community similarly stays the same or changes in various ways. The second language in SLA research models is as much a label for a mass of varying attributes as the first language. Till now the specialist area of SLA research that has concerned itself with language change in general is attrition. But attrition as language change is not so much an extra area of study as an integral part of any SLA model. The ideal situation of the unvarying L1 and L2 is seldom found in individuals or communities and should perhaps form an exceptional situation in SLA research rather than the norm.

To sum up this section, L2 users have a varied set of first languages and a varied set of second languages, whether static, developing or reducing. The habit of identifying the first language and second language as solid entities in SLA research belies their inherent variability and diversity. At some level it may indeed be necessary to reify the L1 and L2 into these highly abstract entities for our own research objectives but, like the Chomskyan definition of linguistic competence, we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The classic interlanguage triad of L1, L2 and interlanguage ignored the variation within the constructs of L1 and L2.

Question 2. What is the language the L2 user knows?

The other construct that forms part of the classic SLA model is language. The issue of what language the L2 user knows depends on the meaning given to the word ‘language’, barely debated in SLA research, apart perhaps from discussions about language versus dialect, for instance Li Wei (2000), which we will not develop here (but see Cook (2006) for some discussion). Five meanings of the word ‘language’ will be distinguished here, not intended as final definitions, but reflecting some of the broad meanings that ‘language’ has within linguistics that are relevant to SLA research. Figure 1 summarises these five meanings for convenience.


a representation system known by human beings


an abstract entity – ‘the English language’


a set of sentences – everything that has or could be said


the possession of a community


knowledge in the mind of an individual

Table 1 meanings of ‘language’

 Lang1 human representation system

At some level human beings are different from other creatures because they possess a systematic representation system that allows an indefinite number of sentences to be spontaneously created within a shared context. Exactly where the differences between human language and animal communication systems lie is as controversial as ever,  currently over whether the distinctively human aspect of the Narrow Language Faculty is recursion, as asserted by Hauser et al. (2002), or whether this can be used by other species such as starlings (Gentner et al. 2006). Whether human language is primarily for communication, for taking part in a group (Malinowski 1926) or for organising the contents of the mind is similarly a bone of contention. Nevertheless in one way another a central meaning of ‘language’ is as a defining property of human beings.

Lang2 abstract external entity

Language is also a countable noun in English, as in ‘the English language’ or ‘the Chinese language’. There are discrete entities called ‘English’ and ‘Chinese’, codified in the rules of a grammar book and the entries of a dictionary and sometimes controlled through an institution such as the French Academy. Often this sense refers to a prestige ‘standard’ variety of the language spoken by a minority of people and jealously guarded against dialectal forms and historical shift, as witness the perpetual defence of standard English against the barbarians in books such as Truss (2003). Chiefly this standard is seen as the written language rather than the spoken; the exception is the question of accent, usually defined in terms of the status speakers of a class and regional variety of the language such as British Received Pronunciation (RP) rather than Geordie or Parisian French rather than Geneva French. English in this sense is no concern of the person in the street but belongs to the cultivated elite living in the capital city of an ex-colonial power. Yet no single person actually knows a language in this sense – the Oxford English Dictionary has some 650 thousand entries of which no speaker of English knows more than a fraction. While the institutional object of language bears some relationship to what people know it is more like that between the ideal model of driving laid down in the UK Highway Code and an individual’s behaviour driving to work in the morning. In some ways Lang2 represents the maximum that a speaker of a standard variety of a language could know, rather than the small amount that any actual individual knows or the variations in any individual’s speech due to age, region, class and all the other sociolinguistic variables.

Lang3 a set of sentences

Lang3 language means a set of produced sentences all the actual or potential sentences that could be said or written. This sense has recurred throughout linguistics, starting with Bloomfield – a language is ‘the totality of utterances that can be made in a speech-community’ (Bloomfield 1927/1957: 26) down to Chomsky –  ‘a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements’ (Chomsky 1957: 13). A language is the sum of all the sentences its speakers have said or, in Chomskyan vein, could say. Language as a set of sentences is studied by corpus linguistics, whose task is to define the properties in a specific collections of texts, carefully chosen in advance. And it seems to be the sense in which language is internalised in usage-based learning and emergentism (Tomasello 1998): language emerges from the array of language data that the learner encounters, extracted from a corpus. In this sense language is not an abstraction but a concrete object, made up of physical sounds, gestures or written symbols. Patterns can be extracted from these primary data, both by the linguist and the learner. But they remain patterns of data rather than systems of knowledge or behaviour.

Lang4 shared possession of a community

The Lang4 sense of language treats it as a social phenomenon, a shared cultural product – ‘the English-speaking world’, ‘native speakers of Chinese’ etc. A language belongs to a particular human group and confers identity as a member of that group; according to Smolicz et al. (2003), one of the shared core values of a community is its language. It is tempting to equate the community with national boundaries – Japanese speakers tend to live in Japan –  but language communities pay little attention to political borders – Chinese is used all over the world. Nor is it necessary to have a country to have a language – versions of Romani are spoken in most European countries by tens of thousands to hundred thousands of people. A language in the Lang4 sense is possessed by everybody who can understand each other, setting aside the difficulties over language versus dialect.

Lang5 mental knowledge system

The final Lang5 sense of ‘language’ crucial to most linguistics is language as the mental possession of an individual – ‘a language is a state of the faculty of language, an I‑language, in technical usage’ (Chomsky 2005: 2). Language is not only out there in the world but inside the mind. A person who knows English in the Lang5 sense can connect the world outside to the concepts inside their minds in a particular way. The problem is how this sense corresponds to the abstract entity called English in the Lang2 sense or to the set of English sentences people encounter in the Lang3 sense. The mental knowledge of a grammatical rule is not the same as the rule in the Lang2 grammar book or as the same as the patterns in a Lang3 set of sentences.

The Chomskyan solution is to call what is in the mind a ‘grammar’, not a ‘language’: 'The grammar in a person's mind/brain is real; it is one of the real things in the world. The language (whatever that may be) is not' (Chomsky 1982: p.5). Hence the word ‘grammar’ is ‘systematically ambiguous’ between the Lang2 and Lang5 senses. Language in the mind is an epiphenomenon, a side-effect, rather than the real thing. What the speaker knows is a state of their mind and does not necessarily correspond to any of the actual languages of the world in a Lang3 sense, only to the possible schemata laid down in the Universal Grammar.

The other major quandary is the relationship between Lang5 mental knowledge and Lang3 set of sentences, usually phrased in terms of competence and performance. Discussions of linguistic competence usually point out: (a) studying the sentences produced in the past is looking at accidental creations rather than the potential sentences created by the mental language system; (b) many mental rules of grammar are not derivable from the properties of sets of sentence, as the vain hunt for discovery procedures showed (Harris 1951; Chomsky 1957), though similar to the path taken by emergentism (Tomasello 1998): the relationship between Lang3 and Lang5 is as murky as it has ever been. As is indeed the relationship between social Lang4 and mental Lang5, which continues to attract sniping from entrenched views on both sides, generative linguists insisting on the purity of their Lang5 accounts of competence, sociolinguists on the complex realities of Lang4 interaction between people. The Lang4 community and Lang5 mental senses are inextricably entwined, as de Saussure pointed out early in the last century, ‘le langage a un côté individuel et un côté social, et l’on ne peut concevoir l’un sans l’autre’ (de Saussure 1976: 24): language is two-sided as being both individual knowledge and collective possession.

So people have ‘language’ in the sense they speak a Lang1 human language, which apes and dolphins do not; they have some relationship with a Lang2 abstract entity called the English language, etc, which speakers of other languages do not; they produce a Lang3 set of sentences labelled English rather than French; they are members of various Lang4 communities of English speakers that exclude, say, French speakers; and they have a mental Lang5 system of knowledge/processes, an English grammar, that differs from a mental grammar for French etc.

 ‘language’ and SLA research

Let us now try to link these five senses of the word ‘language’ to SLA research. Obviously once again this is a first attempt rather than the last word.

Lang1 applied to the second language

In the Lang1 sense of a human representation system, adding a second language, say Chinese, to the repertoire of an individual who speaks English makes no difference: Chinese is another human language, another representation system. Occasionally SLA research claims that second languages are not learnt as languages at all but as some other type of knowledge (Clahsen & Muysken 1989). This would then put second languages in the same bracket as artificial computer languages like Prolog, which human beings can obviously learn and use but do not have the characteristics of human language. The Lang1 sense is not relevant to SLA research unless we deny second languages are human languages.

Lang2 applied to the second language

In the Lang2 sense of an institutional entity, an L2 user can be linked to two standard varieties of a language say, say British RP in the L1 and Northern Chinese Mandarin in the L2. But the knowledge of the second language in the L2 user’s mind in Lang5 is as remote from the abstract entity of Lang2 in the second language as in the first. If these two senses are not kept separate, language teaching and indeed SLA research may measure the L2 user against this Lang2 entity and find them wanting. Hardly surprising as these Lang2 entities do not represent the Lang5 linguistic competence of any individual. SLA research has tended to assume that the native speaker essentially has a perfect command of this abstract Lang2 entity and has compared this with the faltering steps of the L2 user (Cook 1979). If it is at all necessary to compare the languages of the monolingual native speaker and the L2 user, the same meaning of ‘language’ needs to be used for both, whether Lang5 mental knowledge with Lang5 or Lang3 set of sentences with Lang3.

Lang3 applied to the second language

In the Lang3 sense, the second language is another set of sentences. We will grant that it is possible to describe the input that the L2 user has received as a Lang3 set of L2 sentences. The problem is the L2 set that the L2 user produces. Selinker called interlanguage ‘the utterances which are produced when the learner attempts to say sentences of a TL [target language]’ (Selinker, 1972). It would be convenient if there were a set of L2 sentences: Weinreich (1953: 7) said that ‘A structuralist theory of communication which distinguishes between speech and language ... necessarily assumes that “every speech event belongs to a definite language”’. But code-switching research has shown that L2 users’ sentences can in effect belong to both languages simultaneously, say the matrix model of Myers-Scotton (2002). It is hard, if not impossible, to decide that some sentences of the L2 user belong to one language, some to another, without bringing in criteria from other senses of ‘language’; which sentences, say, use the word order of Lang2 English, which Lang2 Chinese?

The Lang3 starting point has to be the set of all sentences the L2 user produces, not just those assigned to a second language using a criterion from another sense. This demands an analysis of the whole, not an arbitrary division of sentences into languages A and B. There has been an increase in the use of learner corpora such as the Seidlhofer (2002) and Granger (2003) projects, which will hopefully start producing results. But corpora-based studies that concentrate solely on the second language may miss half the picture. One of the revelations of SLA research in the past few years has been the influence of the second language on the first (Cook 2003). A full account of the L2 user’s actual and potential sentences means looking at everything and not assuming that the first language can be taken for granted as if it were identical to that of a monolingual. Duncan (1989) argued that bilingual speech therapy should be based on the child’s first language as well as their second language; you can’t see what’s wrong with either if you don’t look at both (Stow & Dodd 2003). The same applies to SLA research. Studying the second language without the first is missing the unique feature of second language acquisition, namely the presence of a first language.

Lang4 applied to the second language

In the Lang4 sense ‘shared possession of a community’, much SLA research is crucially concerned with how people gain membership of a community along with the identity that comes with it, whether this community is in their present situation or their future plans, an abstract imagined community or a concrete reality. Language community and identity are basic to second language acquisition in terms both of the community the learners start out from and of the wider community they end up in.

But is there an L2 user community different from the monolingual native speaker community? According to Chomsky ‘A community with more than one language, or indeed more than one dialect, would not be homogenous: the language of a mixed community: 'would not be "pure" in the relevant sense, because it would not represent a single set of choices among the options permitted by UG but rather would include "contradictory" choices for certain of these options’ (Chomsky 1986: 17). Classically SLA research tacitly adopted this Chomskyan view of the homogenous monolingual community. L2 learners were assumed to want to belong to the community of native speakers; passing for a native speaker was a crucial test issue, which virtually all of them failed. Passing or a native speaker became a shibboleth for L2 research whether in discussions of the availability of Universal Grammar (Cook & Newson 2007) or of the age factor: ‘Those studies cited for phonology have shown that some learners can achieve very high levels of native-like pronunciation in mostly constrained tasks but have yet to show that later learners can achieve the same level of phonology as native speakers in production’ (de Keyser & Larson Hall 2005: 96): the only thing that proves L2 users have UG or that they are affected by age is whether or not they speak like natives. The concept of community will be returned to in the next section.

Lang5 applied to the second language

The Lang5 mental sense of ‘language’ for second language acquisition research means that the two languages are present in the same mind, i.e. multi-competence. In this broad sense all second language acquisition involves multi-competence. However, the two languages seem to be regarded by researchers as sharing the same mind more or less by accident. We study the first language or we study the second; we search for different locations for languages in the brain as if there were separate pigeonholes; we compare how good people are at one language and how bad they are at the other, usually to the detriment of the second language. At some level, however, the mind is a whole; the question for SLA research is where, if at all, it divides into different languages, according to the possibilities in the integration continuum (Cook 2003), and how it keeps them separate when necessary (Lambert 1990). As with Lang3, looking at the mental system of the second language and excluding the first ignores the basic premise of L2 acquisition that two languages are involved.

Second language acquisition research has again to take on board that the Lang5 language in the L2 user’s mind has as much and as little connection to the abstract entity of Lang2 as the information in the Highway Code has to someone’s driving. A Lang5 mental system within the speaker’s mind is not an external Lang2 institutional entity. Nor is the Lang5 linguistic competence of individuals the same as their Lang3 performance even if once again there is a relationship of some type. Extrapolating from sentences that people have said to what they know is as problematic as it has always been.

So what does ‘an L2 learner of English’ mean or ‘acquiring L2 English syntax’ or ‘speaking L2 English’? In the SLA literature these have frequently collocated with words like ‘fail’ and ‘lack of success’. The first three senses seem to have little connection with success: L2 users do not succeed at Lang1 human language because they have it already; they do not succeed in learning a Lang2 entity because nobody has done or ever could; they do not produce a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ Lang3 set of sentences, but neutral patterns. Success may be a legitimate question to ask in terms of Lang4 and Lang5. For Lang4, L2 users are gaining membership of an L2‑using community and we can ask whether they are succeeding or not; it is uninteresting to ask whether they succeed in passing as members of a monolingual native speaker community as this denies their distinct status; it could only be valid for those who wish to deny or disguise their origins, say spies and terrorists. In the Lang5 sense, L2 users are gaining another language system in the mind, a grammar in Chomsky’s sense, not a language. We have to ask at what level one mind has a single grammar with two subsystems say or two distinct grammars. Once we acknowledge the arbitrariness of calling the systems of the mind in the Lang5 mental sense by the name of Lang2 objects like English or Chinese, the language system in the L2 user’s mind can be explored as a whole, no longer counting languages.

Question 3. What is the community the L2 user belongs to?

We can now turn to the community that L2 users belong to. In language-related research language is assumed to be a crucial feature of one’s identity as a member of a community: Pennycook (1994) says ‘Anything we might want to call a language is not a pre-given system but a will to community.’ It should perhaps be remembered that language is not necessarily criterial to a community as in the historical case of Jewish communities speaking diverse languages (Myhill 2003): it is one of the core values of the community but not the only one (Smolicz et al. 2003).

The overall issue is whether the language communities formed by L2 users are distinct from those of monolinguals. English has an international L2 user community of people across the world for which the native speaker community is virtually irrelevant; it is the interaction of academics, businessmen, tourists and others with each other and with non-native communities that matters. Global English, International English, English as Lingua Franca (Jenkins 2006), whatever these different concepts amount to, they demonstrate the existence of a widespread L2 user community. Having two languages makes people part of a different language community, not just a minority group with an added language but what Brutt-Griffler (2002) terms the ‘multi-competence of the community’. This section attempts to pin down some of the different communities to which L2 users may belong. These compartments are far from watertight and are obviously open-ended.

- the community of native speakers – first language

The least problematic community for most people is native speakers using their first language: L1 monolinguals and L2 users alike have a first language and belong to the community of its L1 users, remembering the caveats about the homogenous community mentioned above. So the native speakers of English in Newcastle-upon-Tyne can speak with each other and with anybody else in the wider English-speaking community. But a community of native speakers may also be an island within a sea of another language; the resident Chinese community in Newcastle speak Cantonese amongst themselves as L1 native speakers. Native speakerdom is not forfeited because the community is the minority rather than the majority group. And of course many native speakers may be L2 users rather than monolinguals. We can call this the first language community. Ideas both of assimilation of speakers of other languages into the majority community and of ethnic minority groups sharing a language rely on the first language community as the only true language community. But is it the only language community?

- the community of minority language speakers communicating with the majority – service language

Many people also have to speak a different language from their first language with the majority group in their setting, say resident Turks in Berlin using German for their everyday contacts with the German-speaking majority or Bengalis living in the East End of London. Their first language is spoken and used by an established resident community. Nevertheless most of them have to use the second language for dealing with the rest of the society around them. They constitute a multi-competent L2 user community as well as an L1 community. Their use of the second language makes them a member of a new community with an L1 for some purposes and an L2 for others, thus distinguishing them from the ‘pure’ monolingual community. The second language is being used for practical purposes – the classic ‘second language’ situation. We can call this a service language community.

- the community of minority language speakers communicating with other minority language speakers – cooperation language

Additionally most cities of the world now have, not just isolated groups of service language users, but also permanent communities of L2 users who use the majority language to mix with each other faute de mieux. London has speakers of 300 first languages, most of whom will be using English to talk to other people (Baker & Eversley 2000). The second language is functioning as a local lingua franca, sometimes with legal status, such as English as a national language of India. This language is not necessarily the language of the majority community in the country, as with Swahili in many African countries (770 thousand native speakers, 30 million lingua franca speakers) (Gordon 2005). We can call this a cooperation language.

- the community of minority speakers (re)-acquiring the minority language – identity language

Another community of L2 users consists of people descended from a particular group learning the language of their historical origin – language maintenance or heritage. In Singapore, English has been the official first language in the schools for some time; children now attend classes in their mother tongues whether Mandarin, Tamil or Bahasa Malaysia. Language maintenance classes take place in most places, in Newcastle for Chinese for example. These people do not necessarily need the second language for practical everyday purposes so much as for identification with their roots, as in the Chinese people learning Mandarin in Confucian Institutes around the world. We can call this an identity language. A sub-category are returnees – children or adults going back to the country they or their family originally came from having to re-acquire the language of the homeland, whether Japanese expat children returning to Japan (Kanno 2000) or Puerto Ricans returning from the US to Puerto Rico (Clachar 1997).

- the community of short-term visitors to a country – visitor language

The language communities seen so far are geographically based in one location, whether an island within the society or the surrounding sea. But people also form mobile communities by going to countries where they have to speak another language: they are incomers for temporary or permanent stays. These short-term visitors include inter alia: pilgrims to Mecca, tennis-players coming to Wimbledon, migrant workers picking strawberries in Kent, and expats, the stereotype being tourists. Other groups may be more permanent, such as migrant workers, missionaries, prisoners, retirees and refugees. An overall term can be visitor language community. Visitors mostly have no real connection with the main society around them since they are not committed to permanent residence. Nor do they necessarily have any links to native speakers: 74% of tourism through English involves only L2 users (World Tourism Organisation, cited in Graddol, 2006). Their uses for the second language reflect the purposes of their visit, ranging from the minimal use of embassy staff to the maximal expertise that some British Colonial Officers had with local languages.

- the international professional community of L2 users – international function-driven language

We have already alluded to the L2 user community that consists of people using a second language for diverse reasons around the globe with other people who are mostly not native speakers, whether through actual physical contact or through e-mails and telephones. English has become a Lingua Franca among many professions, for instance  academics using English as the language for journals and conferences everywhere. Particular religions have expected believers to learn the language of their religious texts, whether Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, or, occasionally, English. We can call this an international function-driven language. Its speakers are members of communities that cross frontiers, whether professional or religious.

- the micro community – personal language

People have often joked that the best way of learning a language is to marry someone who speaks it. Ingrid Piller (2002) has documented the successful use of language by couples who speak different first languages. The community here is micro – two people. Parents can decide to have a micro-community in which they use a language to their children they will not encounter outside the home whether George Saunders (1988) using German in Australia or d’Armond Speers using Klingon (d’Armond Speers 2006). But pairs of people can also decide to use a second language: Henry James used to converse with Joseph Conrad in French. We can call this a personal language community.  

- the community of L2 educated students – educational language

Another community of L2 users is those seeking education through another language. On the one hand this may be another L2 island in an L1 sea; in the Netherlands universities use English alongside Dutch. In reverse students go to another country to get their higher education, Zaireans to Paris, or Greeks to England. In other words a second language is the vehicle for getting an education, more or less regardless of the native speakers (except in so far as they can profit by teaching ‘their’ language). We can call this the education language community.

- the community of students learning L2 in school – school language

Finally the most numerous group of second language learners are probably children based in countries where the language is not spoken being taught another language within the educational system, nowadays in many cases from the age of two upwards. This is the classic foreign language situation whether French in England or Spanish in Japan. The traditional aim has been to make the students members of one of the communities we have already described – future tourists or tourist workers, future international users etc. They do not form a community of use in the same sense as the others, perhaps the only group that can really be called learners rather than users since they have target communities to aim to belong to. But often the goal is simply to get through the hurdles set by the examination system: language is a school subject, taught and assessed like other subjects. We can call this the school language community.

Once we give up the illusion that the L2 user is trying to become part of the native speaker community, there are many sets of people that they can join, doubtless many more than mentioned here. The L2 users’ identities and goals are related to what they can achieve in these groups – by surviving successfully in a country where their language is in the minority, by conducting business profitably through another language, by maintaining a happy marriage, and all the other aims that human beings may have to which language is relevant. The distinctive feature of second language acquisition is that people may become part of many different types of L2 user community, unlike the comparatively simple monolingual native speaker community. SLA research has to consider how to accommodate this variation rather than assuming that L2 users are peripheral members of a monolingual community.


At one level this paper is a plea to SLA research to make clear what it is talking about. The nature of the first language in the individual and the community needs to be spelled out for any piece of SLA research; neither the first language nor the second are by any means a given, whether static, developing or reducing. It is vital for any SLA research to make clear how the term ‘language’ itself is being used. The L2‑using community that the L2 users belong to, or want to belong to, needs careful consideration, rather than a knee-jerk reaction that the monolingual native speaker community is all.

At another level this paper shows the difficulty in separating the two languages whether in the individual or the community. An individual or a community that know another language are not monolingual with an added language but something else. SLA research involves looking at both languages in the community or in the individual; their separation perpetuates a deficit model in which the L2 user lacks elements of language rather than possesses extra elements of language; seeing them as a whole tackles the true complexity of the mind that knows more than one language, getting away from separating languages and counting them to treating the L2 user as a whole within a community of their own.


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