Vivian Cook

Draft of chapter in Cook ad Bassetti (2011) Language and Bilingual Cognition

If the people of the world differ in how they think as well as in how they speak, what does this mean for the teaching of second and foreign languages? The topic of linguistic relativity has been barely broached in language teaching yet it raises crucial issues concerning what language teaching is actually about, most of which are still necessarily speculative. This contribution starts by discussing various alternative relationships between linguistic relativity and teaching, in particular whether second language (L2) users are different from monolingual native speakers. These are then related to the main areas of language teaching, namely goals, syllabuses, methods, and examinations; these can only be sketched here as they are complex areas of education in their own right; a fuller account can be found in Cook (2008). As always, one has to be careful not to accept the simplistic discourse of language teaching methodologies as necessarily reflecting more than a fraction of the complex realities of language teaching classrooms (Swan, 2009): What methodologists suggest is often far removed from what actually happens in the class.


Before the days of Universal Grammar, linguists used to claim that “[L]anguages can differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways” (Joos, 1957). If cognition varied in a similarly uncontrolled fashion, language teaching would be difficult, if not impossible. Acquiring another language would mean acquiring a complete new set of concepts, not just learning say the subjunctive tense in French but also its very meaning. Doubtless there are cases where both language and concept differ between languages. Every teacher of English encounters students who have problems with the present perfect tense I have been to China compared with the past tense I went to China; it is not just that the form of the auxiliary have + past participle ‑en is difficult as the notion it expresses of ‘contemporary relevance’. I have been to China shows something eternally true -- it’s a response to the question Have you ever been to the Far East?; I went to China describes a single past event, answering the question When did you visit China?

 Some language teaching theorists have recognized that learning a language means not just learning the language but also the way of life that goes with it: Language teaching is the creation of intercultural competence (Byram, 1997). Indeed it was possible in the UK to give students a course on another culture without learning the language or get them to study a foreign literature only in translation. This takes linguistic relativity more as social customs, ‘the possession of a community’ rather than thought patterns, ‘the knowledge in the mind of an individual’ (Cook, 2010).

If people who speak different languages don’t think differently, language teaching is just a matter of teaching people aspects of language. This presumably is the consequence of any theory that insists on a strict separation of language and cognition, such as Chomsky’s Minimalist Program with its interface between the computational system and the intentional-conceptual system (Chomsky, 1995): The conceptual component is independent from language and unvarying. If thinking is independent of knowledge of language, then language teachers can ignore cognition and concentrate on the language that connects to the concepts. In other words linguistic relativity has no bearing on their concerns.

The belief that there is a Chinese wall between the language component and the rest of the mind is probably the position that most of the contributors to this volume have taken issue with. Pace Chomsky, it is not just the language systems of the world that differ but also the concepts that are expressed through them, however much interpretations of these and of their origins may vary, as we see in the examples in the first chapter of this book.

Yet language teaching has essentially adopted the position that language is all that needs to be taught, with a nod in the direction of culture. Take the audiovisual teaching method popular in the 1960s and 1970s based on the complex theory of structuro-globalism (Guberina, 1964); this emphasized the association of visual images of situations with complete sentences of the target language. For example beginners had to repeat sentences in association with pictures, whether a film strip of cartoons projected on a screen or the equivalent in a book; a picture of a debonair man goes with “Hello, Jim”; a picture of a town house with “This is my house”; a pot of tea with “Come and have a cup of tea” (Dickinson, Leveque, & Sagot, 1975). The student learns to associate the picture with the sentence by saying it over and over according to the model on a tape-recording. The difficulty, as Corder (1966) pointed out, is that a picture is inherently ambiguous; does the man look debonair to you or just eccentric? Or is it indeed a man? In other words a practical illustration of Quine’s famous ‘gavagai’ example of the problem learners face in knowing which attribute of an object a word refers to -- if a native speaker of another language points to a rabbit and says gavagai, does this word refer to a rabbit, to a part of a rabbit, to food, or to what (Quine, 1964). The assumption of audiovisualism is that pictures show concepts that are independent of language: Anybody who sees them will interpret them in the same way, arguably true of universal Roschian prototypes but hardly true of the ‘visual grammar’ used in some audiolingual course materials where a cross over the picture signifies negation, a speech balloon colored blue signifies the future.

The language teaching fashion that succeeded audiovisualism in the 1970s was the communicative language teaching syllabus which saw the purpose of language teaching as getting students to communicate. The classroom was therefore a place to practice communication rather than to learn aspects of language directly. It assumed that the target the learner was aiming at could partly be described in terms of ‘notions’ -- the ideas that people express through language (Wilkins, 1972; 1976), such as time, location, and quantity. Learning a second language means acquiring different ‘exponents’ for exactly the same ideas -- how to express past time in French, German or Chinese. Wilkins himself was cautious in insisting that he was dealing with European languages, thus at least ensuring some conceptual commonality. A Spanish-speaking teacher was, however, amused that the first item in Wilkins’ classification of notions was ‘time’, not a priority for Spanish speakers in his view. The overall idea was that a universal set of ideas was expressed differently in different languages, not dissimilar to many linguistic relativity researchers who treat languages as choosing out of a universal set of concepts.

The more recent fashion is the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for language teaching developed by the Council of Europe (Council of Europe, 2009), a cultural body not to be identified with the European Union and indeed not having the same membership. The CEFR calls for “exponence of general specific notions” (p. 115), for example “interlexical relations, such as: synonymy/antonymy, ... part-whole relations, componential analysis ...” Nevertheless the CEFR insists:

"A problem arises when a particular conceptual field is differently organised in L1 and L2, as is frequently the case, so that correspondence of word-meanings is partial or inexact. … it is not simply a question of learning new words for old ideas."

(Council of Europe, 2009)

So while the CEFR sees language teaching as teaching people how to express certain common concepts, it recognizes some variation in the concepts. The CEFR is then the response to the recommendations of the Council of Europe “To ensure, as far as possible, that all sections of their populations have access to effective means of acquiring a knowledge of the languages of other member states” (Council of Europe, 1982). The CEFR division of language proficiency into six levels A1 to C2, measured by ‘can-do’ statements, is now being widely adopted in language teaching education in Europe. It treats languages as discrete objective entities by adopting a creed of plurilingualism in which native speakers add another European language to their competence rather than multilingualism in which they become part of multilingual communities. “Plurilingualism differs from multilingualism, which is the knowledge of a number of languages, or the co-existence of different languages in a given society” (Council of Europe, 2009, p. 4). A more elaborated critique of the CEFR can be found in Cook (2013).

The methodology of language teaching that has attracted most attention in the past decade is task-based learning. This sees second language learning as arising from particular tasks that students do in the classroom, i.e. goal-directed communicative exercises; in a sense it reconceptualizes communicative language teaching as tasks rather than as the language or cognition based syllabuses of communicative language teaching or the CEFR. To some extent this resembles a version of cognitive psychology that can be labelled with Anderson’s phrase ‘cognitive behaviorism’ (Anderson, 1993). It is concerned with language as processing, how the mind handles speech and listening through networks, connections and the like, and how it learns to do this (Robinson, 2001). However its remit seems not to extend to cross-linguistic comparison of concepts and categorization, perhaps because these differences are not relevant to its worldview. While task-based learning methodology draws on the research that shows the classroom advantages of teaching organized around tasks (Skehan, 1998), it has not gone on to discuss the cultural differences involved in tasks or to organize teaching around concepts and categories that may differ from one language to another.


 There are in the main two positions that can be taken about linguistic relativity and language teaching. If we accept that speakers of different languages think differently in some respects, second language teaching has first of all to have some idea what these may be, secondly to decide which of them may be teachable, and thirdly to devise ways of teaching them. This can rely on the original cross-cultural approach showing differences between speakers of languages in thinking: If Japanese speakers classify some objects by material, English speakers by shape (Imai & Gentner, 1997), then teaching Japanese to English speakers involves familiarizing them with the Japanese classification of objects and substances, possibly in relation to the grammatical differences that may connect with the categorization difference. So far this does not seem to have occurred in language teaching, apart from nods in the direction of ‘culture’. The issue of what culture means in language teaching is vast and controversial; for more information see Kramsch (1994) and Byram (1994; 1997).

Most of the contributors to this book who are involved with bilingual and second language acquisition, however, assume a different possibility: Neither language nor cognition are static in L2 users; not only the first and the second languages but also the cognition of the learner are affected by the presence of two languages and two ways of thinking in the same mind. Language evidence is presented for this in Cook (2003); evidence for the change in cognition is presented in this book and in many other places, say Athanasopoulos (2006) and Bassetti (2007). The claim is that the thinking of L2 users is distinct from that of monolingual native speakers; their concepts are not precisely the same as those of either language, whether first or second, but are something distinctive of their own; they occur in a ‘third space’, which is neither A nor B but something in between (Cook & Bassetti, this volume); “The ‘third place’ of the language learner is an oppositional place where the learner creates meaning on the margins or in the interstices of official meanings” (Kramsch, 2009, p. 238). In this case L2 teaching should be not so much concerned with forcing the concepts of the second language on the learner, as allowing them to create their own unique blend of L1 and L2 ideas.


Despite the constant attempts to claim there is a single magic teaching method, there are many ways of teaching and learningsecond languages. Language teachingis not a global and unified pursuit; many teaching methods are in use, applied to the many aspects of the different language that are taught, the many situations in which it takes place and the many individual types of students. The following sections discuss the areas of teaching goals, teaching methods, and examinations.

Goals of Language Teaching

 At one level, why do we teach people second languages at all? In a sense this is as sensible as Benjamin Franklin’s question “What is the use of a new-born baby?”. Human beings have an infinite potential; language provides a tool for this. Teachers can no more determine what their students will eventually use the second language for than parents can determine what their children will do; one of my ex-students of English was exposed in a popular newspaper as an alleged torturer for the secret police in his home country. There are as many answers to the purposes of language teaching as there are educational systems and L2 learners. In most situations the implicit goal is to use the language like a monolingual native speaker, unachievable as this may be, rather than as an effective second language user, for example the CEFR’s use of ‘plurilingualism’ rather than ‘multilingualism’. Cook (2009) tries to split up the umbrella idea of L2 learners by looking at five different groups with very different purposes, partly based on the hierarchy in De Swaan (2001): L2 users of central languages such as Portuguese in Portugual; supercentral languages like Swahili in Africa; hypercentral languages like English used everywhere in the world as a second language; identity languages like Mandarin Chinese learnt as a heritage language by émigré Chinese speakers of Chinese, and personal languages used e.g. between married couple; plus a group of L2 classroom learners whose only purpose is to pass educational requirements. Many language students will join one or other of these groups of L2 users in due course, even if undoubtedly most of them see the purpose of language learning as a matter of getting as close as possible to the native speaker group; many classroom learners have no ambitions other than to emerge from their educational careers with the appropriate qualification, that is to say they are not L2 users except within the educational system of the school or college.

Recent national curricula insist that the goal of language students is not the native speaker but the L2 user, for instance the Israeli English curriculum starts “For Israelis, whatever other languages they may use, English is the customary language for international communication and for overcoming barriers to the flow of information, goods and people across national boundaries” (Israel Ministry of Education, 2007). In Japan there is an Action Plan to cultivate “Japanese with English abilities” (MEXT, 2005). However, most other syllabuses such as the CEFR assume that people add their L2 to their L1, not that they create a new form of language that is like neither the L1 of the target L2 speakers nor their original L1; in other words that they become plurilinguals who resemble monolinguals in both languages rather than multi-competent L2 users who resemble neither. In this case language teaching needs to take account of the different ways of thinking in the L1 and the L2 but not of the new combined knowledge of L1 and L2 as a third space.

If we take the view that L2 users are in fact different from monolingual native speakers (Grosjean, 1989), not only in language but also in thinking, then second language teaching can be seen in a different light. The objective of language teaching can be precisely the enhancements to cognitive processing that knowing another language brings -- the greater cognitive flexibility (Ben Zeev, 1977), metacognitive awareness (Campbell & Said, 1995) and indeed delay to onset of Alzheimer’s (Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004). At present, however, national syllabuses, for instance in the UK, see the payoffs from language teaching as greater awareness of language, increased language learning skills, and better intercultural understanding.

Methods and Techniques: Ways of Executing Teaching

The methods that are used for language teaching in principle depend upon the different views of the relationship of the first and second language in the same mind. Does the teaching technique assume a simple carryover of L1 concepts to the L2, as in translation methods, mostly derided by methodologists for the past century, the acquisition of new distinctive L2 concepts as in Direct method descendants, or the creation of a third space in-between? The current orthodoxy of task-based learning for example sees students as learning by carrying out specific tasks designed by the teacher or course-book writer, and which rely on concepts and processes that come out of the native speaker world of thinking, not that of second language users.

The well-known differences between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in terms of the relative importance of background versus foreground (Nisbett, 2003) or in terms of collectivist versus individualist culture (Hofstede, 1980) have made no impact on the design of teaching methods or course materials. These differences would at least suggest that the use of pictures in the audiovisual teaching method or the use of pairwork in communicative language teaching would be very different for students who do not think in the same way as ‘Western’ students. If second language acquisition transforms someone into a different kind of person -- a multi-competent L2 user -- then teachers should encourage the use of novel L2 thinking rather than either the L1 or L2 models. That is ruled out for the hitherto respected monolingual native speaker teacher but possible for teachers who are L2 users themselves. Students should not be restricted by teaching techniques that either force them into the mold of the L2 or keep them within the mold of the L1 but should be free to take advantage of the unique perspective of the L2 user.


The measure of students’ success in learning a second language is mostly treated by current examinations as approximation to a native speaker standard. Inasmuch as it is the business of language teaching to be concerned with the concepts that its students possess at the end of the day, implications of linguistic relativity could consist either of measuring the extent to which they had assimilated the concepts of the second language or of seeing whether they were cognitively different from their monolingual peers or of testing whether they were using L2 user concepts rather than monolingual ones. The first approach would then use a test such as foreground/background from Nisbett (2003); the second would compare them with their peers on say cognitive flexibility such as the tasks in Ben Zeev (1977); the third would see whether say they were treating colour perception in an L1/L2 way or an L2 user way. All of these are a far cry from existing ways of establishing people’s command of a second language, such as the popular ‘can-do’ self-assessment statements in the Language Passport (Council of Europe, 2007) which ask people to rate themselves on their abilities to use language in various ways -- “I can understand familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.”

Overall then it cannot be said that language teaching has yet given a passing glance to linguistic relativity. To the extent that it bases itself on the idea of the independent L2 user rather than the monolingual native speaker, language teaching will have to take into account L2 learners’ differences from monolinguals and explore ways of fostering students’ distinctive ways of thinking; the pay-off from language teaching should not be limited to the ability to use the new language to communicate with others, but should be extended to the transformation of the mind that >learning a second language involves for the individual.


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