Premises of Multi-competence

Vivian Cook

Draft of background chapter for Cook, V. & Li Wei (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistics Multi-Competence (2016)

MC web    MC definition

This chapter introduces the concept of linguistic multi-competence and sets the scene for the rest of the book. It looks first at issues of definition and then at three premises that have become part and parcel of multi-competence. The aim is to examine the ideas underlying multi-competence rather than to present new views of multi-competence or to summarise existing research, to be tackled in Chapter 2.

Monolingual and bilingual perspectives

There are two alternative ways of looking at people who speak more than one language. On the one hand there is the monolingual perspective that sees second language (L2) users from the point of view of the monolingual first language (L1) user. In this case the second language is added on to the speaker’s first language, something extra; the L2 user’s proficiency in the second language is measured against the sole language of the monolingual; ideally the L2 user would speak the second language just like a native speaker. The research questions and methodology in classical second language acquisition (SLA) research are mostly concerned with this monolingual perspective and try to account for L2 users’ lack of success in learning how to speak like a monolingual L1 user.

On the other hand there is the bilingual perspective that sees L2 users from the point of view of the person who speaks two or more languages. From this angle, the other languages are part of the L2 user’s total language system, each language potentially differing from that of someone who speaks it as a monolingual. It is beside the point whether the L2 user’s final ability is identical to that of a monolingual native speaker. Bilingualism and multilingualism research have mostly asked questions about how L2 users use the other languages and how the languages connect in multilingual communities, not about how L2 users compare with monolingual individuals and communities.

One interpretation of the bilingual perspective is captured by the notion of multi-competence, glossed here as ‘the overall system of a mind or a community that uses more than one language’. Multi-competence thus covers the knowledge and use of two or more languages by the same individual or the same community. At some level, all the languages form part of one overall system, with complex and shifting relationships between them, affecting the first language as well as the others.

Defining Multi-competence

Let us start with the conceptual history of multi-competence. Franceschini (2011) interprets the history with a slightly different focus, largely as development from a psychological generative tradition to a dynamic sociolinguistics of multilingualism.

i. ‘the compound state of a mind with two grammars’

The term ‘multi-competence’ was first used in an SLA context to mean ‘the compound state of a mind with two grammars’ (Cook 1991), partly to complement the term ‘interlanguage’, which refers solely to the L2 component in the bilingual mind, ignoring the L1 component. Multi-competence saw second language acquisition as involving the whole mind of the L2 user, not just the second language; multi-competence included all language-related aspects of the mind. The word grammar in the original definition was intended in the Chomskyan sense of knowledge of language -‘we call the theory of the state attained its [the language faculty’s] grammar’ (Chomsky and Lasnik 1993). That is to say, grammar includes all aspects of linguistic knowledge such as vocabulary and phonology, not just syntax alone. However, this Chomskyan sense of grammar turned out to be misleading as it led some researchers into thinking that multi-competence was only about syntax rather than the totality of language knowledge.

ii. ‘the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind or the same community’

The definition of multi-competence was later modified to ‘the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind’ (Cook 2003) and, more recently, to ‘the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind or the same community’ (Cook 2012). These changes affected the original definition by:

This 2012 definition (ii) is the one that most of the contributors in this volume refer to, apart from Hall (Chapter Eight) who uses the 1991 definition (i).

iii. ‘the overall system of a mind or a community that uses more than one language’

Yet the change from ‘the compound state’ in definition (i) to ‘the knowledge of more than one language’ in definition (ii) has the unintended consequence of implying a static view of language as knowledge rather than a social definition of language or a multifacetted view of language and language use. On reflection, a preferable working definition is ‘the overall system of a mind or a community that uses more than one language’. This changes ‘knowledge’ to the more neutral ‘system’, does not confine multi-competence to language alone, brings in language use and implies that language is not separate from the rest of the mind. This definition is not fully acceptable to all the contributors to this volume and it still leaves the concepts of ‘system’ and ‘community’ open to interpretation.

As the multi-competence approach developed and broadened, it became evident that it was more a perspective from which to view the acquisition and use of multiple languages than a theory or a model. Multi-competence is a way of looking at things from another angle rather than of exploring the implications and contradictions within the same perspective, ‘revolutionary’ rather than ‘normal’ science (Kuhn 1962). The monolingual perspective yields SLA research questions and methods that are inextricably linked to monolingual native speakers; the multi-competence perspective relates its questions and methods to L2 users. Thus many classic ‘normal’ issues are neither here nor there for multi-competence research. The failure of L2 users to speak like natives, the inability of L2 users who start learning at an older age to sound like natives, the L2 user’s lack of elements of Universal Grammar possessed by natives - none of these are meaningful from a multi-competence perspective. The monolingual perspective in essence restricts the field of SLA research to enumerating the similarities and dissimilarities between L2 users and native speakers. If L2 users are independent persons in their own right rather than the shadows of native speakers, the comparison between L2 users and monolingual native speakers is about as revealing as, say, discussing how apples resemble pears, of little interest for those concerned with the distinctive qualities of apples.

The second language user

The other term that seemed to go naturally with multi-competence was ‘L2 user’ meaning ‘people who know and use a second language at any level’ (Cook 2012), rather than L2 learner or bilingual. It seemed better to treat people as users of a language whatever their level rather than as learners who would never be complete; ‘SLA researchers often portray development as a transitional state that is (or should be) ever changing towards the target’ (Ortega 2007, p.140). It would be insulting to call Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba, Joseph Conrad the novelist or Aung Sung Lee the politician L2 learners of English when they are capable of using their second language to function in their respective ways at a level beyond the dreams of most monolingual native speakers. Calling people L2 learners confirms their subordinate status as learners for the rest of their days.

The term ‘L2 learners’can then be reserved for people who are learning another language but are not using it, in other words those whose sole purpose is learning the language, say Chinese children learning English in Shanghai. Of course some L2 learners go on to become L2 users in later life and some L2 learners use the language for real-world functions in the classroom when they step outside, like Chinese students in Newcastle upon Tyne. In other words a particular individual may be an L2 learner or an L2 user at different times in their life or indeed at different times of day. Classroom L2 learners at best are deferred L2 users. In practice this virtually restricts L2 learner to students or pupils since people acquiring another language outside education will almost always be using the second language. And this necessarily raises the issue, not to be developed here, of whether there are in effect two branches of SLA research, one concerned with ‘natural’ acquisition and use, the other with teacher-induced learning in classrooms, and so results from one branch do not necessarily apply to the other.

In some ways the distinction between user and learner overlaps with the traditional, slightly confusing, distinction in language teaching between secondlanguage learners using a language for everyday living in a country where it is the main community language, and foreign language learners who are not learning a language for immediate use in a country where it is spoken (Klein 1986). One problem with this distinction is the conflation of function and location (Cook 2010): students at English-medium universities in Saudi Arabia or the Netherlands may be using English as a second language; overseas students at UK language schools may be learning English only to have a qualification to show back home; waiters use Spanish as a lingua franca in London (Block 2006), giving it a second language function in an English-speaking country.

There were also reasons for minimising the use of the term ‘bilingual’. Most people tend to assume that bilingual conveys Bloomfield’s maximal meaning of ‘native-like control of two languages’ (Bloomfield 1933), rather than Haugen’s minimal meaning of ‘the point where a speaker can first produce complete meaningful utterances in the other language’ (Haugen 1953). Multi-competence did not assume that L2 users were at a high level in the second language, particularly when, like Bloomfield, this is defined in terms of likeness to native speakers. Multi-competence concerns the mind of any user of a second language at any level of achievement. There may well be a maximal level for the L2 user, sometime called ‘the successful L2 user’. But until a norm is set for L2 use that does not refer to the native speaker, we don’t know what this might be. And it might indeed vary considerably between the different users and uses of the second language. Additionally bilingual conveys the notion that two languages are involved when there may be an indefinite number. The term ‘multilingual’ is perhaps closest in connotation to L2 user, not excluding more than two languages and not hinting that language proficiency has to be high.

Moving from the monolingual perspective that a human being knows one language to the multi-competence perspective that all human beings potentially, and some actually, know more than one language changes the view of the whole landscape. Thus SLA theories as diverse as generative grammar and usage-based acquisition can be conceived from both monolingual and bilingual perspectives, as we see in the rest of this book. On the one hand, say, ideas of innateness are seen from the angle that it is normal to know more than one language (Cook 2008a), on the other usage needs to start from the total language input not just that in one language, in both languages hinting that knowing and using only one language is a form of deprivation, not so much linguistic deprivation which fails to provide a child with crucial aspects of one language but language deprivation which deprives them of a whole second language. Multi-competence is not confined to psychological theories of the mind but applies also to the networks of connectionist models, to generative theories of language knowledge and to sociological models of social interaction and practice: it is the perspective from which the languages in the mind are viewed that matters regardless of the theory involved.

Multi-competence alters the way in which people view the acquisition and use of multiple languages, rather like the shift from seeing Short Term Memory as boxes to seeing it as depth of processing (Craik and Lockhart 1972), which essentially restated how the very same facts about human memory were viewed. In part it leads to research with specifically multi-competence aims, in part to reinterpreting existing research that can be compatible with multi-competence, in part to a critique of SLA research that is uninterpretable from a multi-competence perspective.

A logical problem arising out of this addressed in Cook (2010) is the meaning of second language and L2 (and indeed of language, to be discussed below). Second language and L2 are not equivalent in meaning despite most researchers’ habit of reading L2 aloud as second language. The word second is ordinal counting for sequence - King Edward II came after King Edward I  - or for quality  - a second-class degree is less valued than a first-class degree. The number 2 on the other hand is cardinal counting of quantity - two drinks, two Houses of Parliament. The meaning of L2/second in SLA research could be any of these; Hammerberg (2010, p.93) describes ‘the linear model’ of counting languages involving ordinal counting in which a second language comes chronologically after a first and a third language after that -‘Joseph Conrad’s first language was Polish, second language French, third language English’.

Undoubtedly some of the overtones of the ‘quality’ ordinal meaning carry across to SLA research; second is by and large not a good thing to be - second-hand, second-rate, second home.

Although the now discredited notions such as native speaker or mother tongue speaker require us to identify ourselves according to our parental language or language of infancy, even the alternatives such as L1 and L2 force us to identify a single language as receiving primacy in terms of our time of acquisition or level of competence. (Canagarajah 2007, p.16)

The letters of the alphabet are used in a similar ordinal fashion for defining priority in putting airplane passengers into boarding Groups A, B or C or marking essays as A, B ... F, and so on.

In cardinal counting the meaning is more neutral: how many languages you know -‘Joseph Conrad spoke three languages, Polish, French and English’ - rather than the order or priority between them, in linguistic terms a synchronic state rather than a diachronic process. Similarly, thinking ‘cardinally’, the alphabet has 26 equal letters, that happen to occur in an arbitrary order. Hammerberg’s (2010) alternative terminology of primary, secondary and tertiary languages still carries the ordinal overtones of primary being superior and essential. Dewaele (Chapter 19, this volume) uses the more neutral term LX to refer to any language beyond the first.

The academic discussion of first and second languages is also muddied by the different ways in which countries define their first languages. In Singapore schools for instance the first language is English; Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil, the mother tongues of most inhabitants, are regarded as second languages. Another problem is where counting stops - L3, L4, Ln. Most SLA books claim second subsumes later languages, whether ‘second (third, etc) languages and dialects’ (Doughty and Long 2003, p.3) or the third or fourth language’ (Lightbown and Spada 2006, p.204). This simplification assumes that multi-competence with three or more languages is just a more complex version of that with two languages rather than something qualitatively different, strongly denied by those interested in trilingualism and multilingualism who stress ‘the unique properties that differentiate L2 from L3/Ln’ (Cabrelli Amaro, Flynn and Rothman 2012, p.3).

Three Premises of Multi-competence

A way of drawing out the implications of the multi-competence position for second language acquisition is to derive three premises from the developing stream of multi-competence-related work. They can be seen as threads running through the following chapters, which the contributors are free to accept or reject.

The historical development of the concept of multi-competence has perhaps been more a matter of teasing out and clarifying the implications of the original proposal rather than of changing direction. The rest of this chapter deals with three premises that seem to underly multi-competence. It was only at the turn of this century that people began to use multi-competence to explore the research questions to be discussed in the next chapter, as it fitted in with the Zeitgeist about the role of the native speaker and with developing ideas about multilingualism.

Premise 1. multi-competence concerns the total system for all languages (L1, L2, LN) in a single mind or community and their inter-relationships.

Despite the many books on bilingualism whose covers feature two heads (Romaine 1994; Skutnabb-Kangas 1981; Pavlenko 2005, among others), bilinguals do only have one. (The web page Images of SLA illustrates this from the covers of bilingualism books, the main alternatives to two heads being diagrams of chaos and pictures of homunculi, i.e. one head inside another). At the highest level of all, the languages must be an inter-connected whole within a single mind, an eco-system of mutual interdependence. At the same general level, a multi-lingual community is an interconnected network of different languages; in London in 2011 6.5 per cent of the population spoke Polish, Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati (Office for National Statistics 2013), not to mention the other 300 odd languages in the community (Baker and Eversley 2000); in Vancouver in 2011 57.7 per cent of the population spoke an immigrant language at home (Statistics Canada 2012). The question is not how linguistic enclaves function in isolation from each other but how the whole city functions through multiple languages. To take an example of street signs, it is not which language is used in which signs that matters so much as how the street signs make up a total multi-competent system (Cook 2013).

The description of L2 users and communities has thus in principle to account for all the languages they use, both their first language and any others, as part of one complex system. Isolating L2 syntax from L1 syntax in the L2 user’s mind is a simplification for convenience of research. The reality is the overall system that unites the first language and the other language or languages of multi-competence. SLA research that ignores the first language element is blind to the one inescapable feature of the L2 user’s mind that distinguishes it from that of a monolingual -the first language system: it is yin without yang. As Stern (1992, p.282) puts it, ‘whether we like it or not, the new language is learnt on the basis of a previous language’. Unless the presence of the first language is acknowledged, second language acquisition research inevitably becomes a footnote to first language acquisition.

It is an empirical question how and at what level the languages of multi-competence separate in the mind or indeed whether it is meaningful to attempt to separate them at all, as de Bot suggests in Chapter Six. Cook (2009a) argues for an overall unified grammar in the mind as the basis of Universal Grammar theory. The reverse question is whether languages can be kept separate in the mind: can one be turned off while the other is being used? Lambert (1990, pp.203-204) posed the question in terms of gating:

How is it that the bilingual is able to 'gate out' or set aside a whole integrated linguistic system while functioning with a second one and a moment later, if the situation calls for it, switch the process, activating the previous inactive system and setting aside the previous active one?

An alternative is that, rather than one language being activated, the other language is turned off, as in the Inhibitory Control Model (Green 1998), leading to the emphasis on executive control in contemporary bilingualism research (Bialystok 2009) .

Turning to some evidence, if L2 users are shown pictures of objects named in one language, their eyes are attracted by objects that have similar names in the other language: they never switch off either language entirely (Spivey and Marian 1999; 2003). Both phonological systems are activated when producing cognates (Hermans et al 2011; Friesen and Jared 2011). Monolingual native speakers do not have this complex interwoven system, except in as much as it parallels the use of two dialects by the same person or the developmental transition from one grammar to another -universal bilingualism in the terms of Roeper (1999) or Mehrsprachigkeit in those of Wandruszka (1971).

We will not review here other evidence for the inter-relationships between languages in multi-competence, which will come out in many guises in the following chapters. The integration continuum model used in Cook (2003) was drawn as an aid for visualising the diversity and complexity of the relationships between the languages, going along a continuum from total separation through different levels of interconnection to total integration.

      At the separation pole of the continuum, the languages are completely independent of each other, like Weinreich’s coordinate bilinguals (Weinreich 1953); at the integration pole, they are totally integrated with each other; in between come many possible degrees of interconnection. The two poles are ideals that could never actually exist; all L2 users are somewhere on the continuum in between. And of course different aspects of language may be located at different points of the continuum; the lexicon may be well integrated, as we have seen, syntax perhaps less so. The continuum is not static but dynamic, moving constantly as the influence of particular languages waxes and wanes, variously through attrition and transfer between some or all of the languages in multi-competence, and through activation of language mode in speech. But the direction of movement may be in either direction; an L2 user’s multi-competence may separate the languages more over time or integrate them more.

This implies then that individuals vary greatly in the relationships between the languages of their multi-competence, depending on many factors. To progress, SLA research needs to get away from generalisations that apply to all L2 users. Rather than a single common system for L2 users, there may be many possible systems, unlike the relatively uniformity of monolinguals. Putting learner groups to one side, Cook (2009b) defined five groups of L2 users:
- ‘people using an L2 globally for a wide range of functions’,
- ‘people using an L2 internationally for specific functions’,
- ‘people using an L2 within a larger community’,
- ‘people historically from a particular community (re-) acquiring its language as an L2’
- ‘people using an L2 with spouses, siblings or friends’.

Such a scheme begins to cover the varieties of L2 users and uses. In particular it distinguishes between research with L2 learners and with L2 users; L2 learners in classrooms are subject to a different set of influences and language input than L2 users, inevitably reflecting decisions made by language teachers and educational systems about teaching goals, methods and techniques; they are more the product of their circumstances than specimens of ‘pure’ language learning.

Multi-competence has affinities with other views within SLA research that treat the languages of the L2 user within a single over-arching system. For example Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) captures the flexibility and interconnectedness of language systems that are never static over both short and long periods of time; any description is a single frame taken from a continuous movie, as described by De Bot in Chapter Six (this volume).

Recently the idea of Dominant Language Constellation (DLC) has been proposed by Aronin (2006, p.145) (see Chapter Seven): ‘the group of the most important languages for a particular individual, enabling as a whole unit, the person to act in a multilingual environment and to meet all his/her needs’. This conceptualises the relationship between the languages of multi-competence in the individual and in the community as a constellation of inner circle languages, orbited by the languages of the linguistics repertoire, surrounded by an oort cloud of languages the person is merely aware of to some degree. In practical terms the number of languages in a DLC seem to be about three, with the others coming into play in particular circumstances. DLC is one useful way of looking at multilingualism from a multi-competence perspective.

The concept of transfer, alias cross-linguistic influence, also takes on a different meaning in multi-competence (Cook to appear): the L1 part of the system may influence the L2 part; the L2 may influence the L1; the L3 may influence the L2; and so on for all the relationships detailed in Jarvis and Pavlenko (2009). Attrition of the first language too comes to have a different meaning (Schmid 2011); rather than the metaphor of the first language being lost or ground down, multi-competence balances itself in a kind of eco-system: one language’s gain is another language’s loss. Multi-competence is not a frozen state but a continuous interaction between the different languages in the community and the individual.

The consequences of Premise 1 extend beyond the areas of bilingualism and SLA research to all of linguistics. For example, historically the norms for native speakers have often been established from L2 users, whether Voice Onset Time for Japanese based on Japanese in the USA, as pointed out by Kato (2004), Hopi grammar established from a native speaker living in New York (Whorf 1940/1956), or Greek path preference based on Greeks living in the USA (Paprafragou et al 2008). The language informants called on by linguists or the participants in experiments may respond differently from monolingual native speakers because of the influence of their other languages. People who know more than one language are suspect informants on their first language: ‘the judgments about English of Bloomfield, Halliday or Chomsky are not trustworthy, except where they are supported by evidence from “pure” monolinguals’ (Cook 2002a, p.23), by virtue of the influence of the second language that each of these linguists knows. For these reasons, multi-competence research has often dealt with speakers with minimal or maximal knowledge and use of another language, not with polarised monolingual and balanced bilingual speakers, as we see in Chapter Two. In multilingualism research, the argument has been taken further; much SLA research is using participants who know more than two languages and hence fails to distinguish the nature of L2 learning from L3/Ln learning; ‘the control for this variable is often poor, inadequate, if not lacking altogether’ (De Angelis 2007, p.6). At the very least this suggests that all participants and informants in language-related research need to be described in terms of their full language backgrounds, in linguistics as much as in second language acquisition research.

Premise 2. multi-competence does not depend on the monolingual native speaker

A native speaker is typically considered to be ‘a person who has spoken a certain language since early childhood’ (McArthur 1992, p.682). The crucial elements in this definition are: the speaker acquired language as an infant, and has spoken it continuously throughout life. Clearly this state cannot be achieved by any L2 user, with the exception of early childhood bilinguals. An element that seldom emerges overtly in the definition is that a native speaker is assumed to speak only one language: ‘From Saussure to Chomsky "homo monolinguis" is posited as the man who uses language’ (Illich and Sanders 1988, p.52). The native speaker in question is also tacitly assumed to speak a status version of the language, in terms of British English, a Received Pronunciation accent actually found in a small minority of native speakers, using ‘standard’ grammar, not the you/yous distinction found in Geordie or the multiple negation I never did nothing to no-one nowhere found in many regional and historical varieties of English other than the present-day ‘standard’. Indeed some Japanese students of English apparently think of the native speaker as male, white and, hopefully, handsome (Takamishi 2013).

The concept of native speaker is then highly simplified, excluding all but the monolingual speakers of a standard form of the language. The native speaker is seen as knowing the abstract institutional form of the language meant when people say ‘I love the French language’ (Cook 2010). This reflects the prestige form of the language that grammar-books and dictionaries of the language are based on, usually associated with the pretensions of a nation-state, English as the language of England, Chinese as the language of China. Hence the term ‘native speaker’ invokes aspects of national or group identity; it is a small step further to assume that a native speaker of French has to be born in France, not Burkina Faso, another step to assume that they come from Paris, not Marseilles.

Undoubtedly most commonsense thinking about second language acquisition by both the general public and linguists takes this idealised monolingual native speaker to be the goal of second language acquisition: ‘Relative to native speaker's linguistic competence, learners interlanguage is deficient by definition (Kasper and Kellerman 1997, p.5) or the book title Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism (Montrul 2008). Many bilinguals, teachers, psychologists and SLA researchers believe that the more your speech resembles the native speaker’s the greater the achievement: they too adopt the monolingual view of bilingualism (Grosjean 2008). Conversely you have failed if other people can detect your foreign accent, spelling mistakes etc. The native speaker is the touchstone against which all other speakers are tested - ‘an idealised monolingual native speaker, who is held to be the ultimate yardstick of linguistic success’ (Ortega 2007, p.140). Yet it is logically impossible for any L2 learner to achieve native speaker status according to the definition given above; you can’t change your early childhood experiences. Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2003) for instance suggest ‘absolute native-like command of an L2 may in fact never be possible for any learner’ - how could it be? Why should it be? Ducklings grow into ducks; cygnets into swans: there is little point in lamenting the deficiencies of the duck compared to the swan. As the APA Guidelines (2010) say:

Bias may occur when the writer uses one group (usually the writer's own group) as the standard against which others are evaluated. ... Authors should recognise that differences arising from racial/ethnic comparisons do not imply deficits.

But this is exactly the bias that occurs when research from the monolingual perspective takes the native speaker group as the norm rather than the L2 user. As Mauranen (2012, p.4) points out, ‘monolingualism is neither the typical condition nor the gold standard’.

Looking at multi-competence as ‘the overall system of a mind or a community that uses more than one language’ implies that it exists in its own right, not as an ancillary to the systems in monolingual minds or communities. L2 users are unique users of multiple languages, not pale imitations of native speakers. The presence of the first language in second language acquisition makes the whole language system different from that of a monolingual, affecting both the second language, the first and any others in the system. Birdsong (2005, p.320) claims ‘Neither of the two languages of a bilingual can be expected to resemble that of a native monolingual. Accordingly, non-nativelike performance is not necessarily indicative of compromised language learning abilities’.

Premise 2 is then a declaration of independence for the L2 user from the monolingual native speaker and the mono-language community. To quote Francois Grosjean, the bilingual is ‘a specific and fully competent speaker/hearer who has developed a communicative competence that is equal, but different in nature, to that of the monolingual’ (Grosjean 1994, p.1657). There may indeed be languages that do not have living native speakers as in the revival of Hebrew in Israel in the twentieth century, or Miami-Illinois, taught as an ancestral language to children by parents who do not speak it natively (Hirata-Edds and Peter, Chapter 14 this volume). There is inevitably a danger of emphasising the advantages of bilingualism, the disadvantages of monolingualism and the like. However, whichever direction the comparison faces, it is ultimately a question of difference not superiority or deficit, of independence for both monolingual and bilingual.

The history of modern SLA research starts with the independent grammars assumption that L1 children have their own language systems at different ages, independent of adult grammars (e.g. Klima and Bellugi 1966). The version of this assumption that dominated SLA research for many years was ‘interlanguage’ - ‘the utterances which are produced when the learner attempts to say sentences of a TL [target language]’ (Selinker 1972). This quotation shows that interlanguage had not cut the umbilical cord between SLA research and native speakers; learners’ sentences were still seen as approximations to those of native speakers through the construct of target language. Spolsky summarised this as ‘Native Speaker Target condition ...: Second language learner language approximates native speaker language’ (Spolsky 1989, p.34). Perhaps the bulk of classical SLA research ever since has described and explained approximation to the monolingual native speaker.

A few researchers have nevertheless insisted all along on the L2 user’s independence, as in the Comparative Fallacy of comparing L2 users with native speakers (Bley-Vroman 1983). Yet many still imply covertly that the goal of learning a second language is to speak like a native. For example a highly thought-of paper by Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2009) is entitled ‘Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language’: the important question about age of acquisition is taken to be whether it helps learners become like native speakers, not like successful L2 users; the measure of success is ‘perceived nativelikeness’ of L2 Swedish speakers’ accents in terms of Stockholm speech. It seems hard to counter the assumption implicit in so much SLA research that linguistic difference is linguistic deficit, even if this has been denied by Labov (1969) for American Black English, Boas (1920/1940) and Sapir (1921) for non-European languages and Bernstein (1971) for working class dialects. The monolingual perspective in much research is not acknowledged, let alone justified.

Apart from clinical linguistics, no area of language study starts from the assumption that its speakers are deficient in terms of some other group, the ‘monolingual bias’ described in Cook (1997); it is the fallacy that Plato drew attention to of dividing the people in the world in two, one group consisting of Greeks, the other of non-Greeks (Plato ca 187BC, 262c). When L2 users differ in pronunciation or syntax from monolingual native speakers, this does not mean they are wrong - as L2 users in their own right. A foreign accent does not necessarily show lack of proficiency, only difference from the ideal native speaker, and may often be a sign of national, ethnic or dialect identity. If it is acceptable for your English to show you come from Glasgow, Texas or Sydney, why is the same not true if you come from Tokyo, Berlin or Santiago?

The advocacy of premise 2 coincided with a movement in applied linguistics to question the power of the native speaker. Phillipson (1992) argued that the role of the native speaker in language teaching was a form of linguistic imperialism. Ex-colonial countries assert their power by claiming to own their national language. When a language becomes supercentral or hypercentral (De Swaan 2002), it is a great asset to a country in political and economic terms. For example the view that native speakers based in England should write the textbooks for teaching English around the world was a godsend for many British publishers. People in different countries nevertheless have the right to use a language as they see fit; they are not tied down by the wishes of other countries. Some may indeed choose a native model to aspire to, others may decide a local variety, a form of English Language Franca and or an L2 user variety are more appropriate. The same argument has been used by British jazz critic Stuart Nicholson (2005) to argue for the independence of European jazz from American jazz as a form of music in its own right, not be judged by its Americanness.

Inevitably this line of thinking leads to questioning the appropriateness of the native speaker model for language teaching (Llurda 2005). It seems a universal, almost instinctive, assumption that native speakers make better language teachers because of the authenticity of their language and their immersion in the native culture: generations of expat English teachers have made their living out of this. But, if native speaker language and culture is no longer the target, there is no absolute virtue in being a native speaker, whether linguistically or culturally. Non-native speaker teachers may make better role models for the students because they have travelled the same route as them and are living exemplars of successful L2 users able to handle two languages at the same time. Indeed Brown (2013) suggests that ‘L2 performance be assessed by multi-competent speakers of the L2’: the appropriate people to judge L2 users must themselves be L2 users.

This is not to say that the change in attitudes towards non-native speaker teachers has improved their job prospects. In 2015 the University of Essex website proclaimed ‘All languages are taught by native or bi-lingual teachers’, the University of East Anglia ‘The majority of our undergraduate students are taught by native French, Spanish or Japanese speaking lecturers and tutors’, the Modern Language Centre in Kings College London ‘All teaching staff are native speakers of the language they teach’: native speaker teachers are alive and well and teaching at English universities.

If the monolingual native speaker is no longer the only true owner of a language, SLA research needs to investigate L2 learning and L2 use as distinctive properties of L2 users. Research questions need to be couched in terms that refer to L2 users as independent people rather than subordinating them, implicitly or explicitly, to native speakers; SLA research is not a matter of investigating the shortfall of L2 users compared to natives but of seeing them as themselves. While lip-service is now often paid to the multi-competence perspective in SLA research questions, the native speaker is still a ghost in the machine in terms of research methodology, whether grammaticality judgements, error analysis, speech processing or obligatory occurrences, all of which typically involve ‘monolingual bias’ through implicit comparison with natives (Cook 1997), a point developed by Vaid and Meuter in this volume (Chapter Four). This is not to say that SLA research cannot borrow techniques derived from other areas, such as fMRI, L1 developmental scales, and so on, provided they are used for its own purposes, not as a way of putting down the L2 user. Comparison of one group of language users to another can sometimes be an effective research tool - among many others; we can learn from the variety of language users what is special about each. But the uniqueness of L2 users will be forever hidden if they are always described in terms of native speakers, rather like trying to fit a quart into a pint bottle.

From a multi-competence perspective, classical SLA research has established very little about L2 users themselves, only vast quantities of information about their differences and similarities compared to native speakers. Some classical research can be reinterpreted by stripping away the native speaker element and discovering what it may show about L2 users in their own right. However, as we see in the next chapter, multi-competence has posed its own research questions and utilises research methods that do not invoke the native speaker.

This premise has perhaps the most implications for language teaching. We have already seen that the role of the native speaker teacher needs reassessing. But so do the very goals of language teaching and those of many language students (Cook 2007). If the purpose of language teaching is not to speak like a native speaker, then just what is it? For practical purposes much second language use may be with non-native speakers, for example the use of English in the tourist industry regardless of the traveller’s first language or the use of English by air traffic controllers everywhere in the world. And indeed, if both the first and second languages are so inextricably woven into everything that an L2 user does, we need to rethink the widespread view in language teaching that the students’ first language has no role in classroom learning.

Premise 3. multi-competence affects the whole mind, i.e. all language and cognitive systems, rather than language alone.

As the concept of multi-competence developed, it became apparent that it concerned the whole mind of the L2 user, not just language and so was linked to wider cognitive processes and concepts. One theoretical slant in contemporary acquisition studies is called by Chomsky (2013) the ‘no-language’ position, typified by ‘language is entirely grounded in a constellation of cognitive capacities that each - taken separately - has other functions as well’ (Enfield 2010). In other words, language is a mere artefact of other cognitive processes. The alternative position is that language is a unique part of the human mind with its own characteristics that cannot be explained solely in terms of other ‘cognitive capacities’. Essentially this is another skirmish in the territorial battle between linguists and psychologists that has been waged for many a generation. The multi-competence perspective can presumably be adopted equally by those who see language as an independent cognitive system, mostly linguists, and those who see it as an interaction of other cognitive systems, mostly psychologists. The import of this premise depends more on one’s overall theoretical orientation than do the other two premises, which in a sense apply to any research with second languages.

Premise 3 extends multi-competence to cover any aspect of the L2 user’s mind that may be connected to their multilingualism. In one view, the linguistic and conceptual systems are partitioned from each other and do not contribute to each other's development or use. Cognition consists of a set of unvarying universal concepts ‘essentially available prior to experience’ (Chomsky 1991, p.29) and ‘assumed to be both fundamental and universal in the semantic organisation of language’ (Talmy 2007, p.81). While languages vary in principled ways, concepts are constant, thus rejecting the linguistic relativity hypothesis that language affects concepts -how could it if concepts are invariable?

The recent wave of research has, however, shown that some version of linguistic relativity is tenable and empirically supported, even if still hotly disputed. In the 2000s multi-competence research started to ask, if speakers of different languages think differently, how do L2 users who know more than one language think (Cook 2002b; Cook and Bassetti 2011)? Going beyond the crosslinguistic comparison of most linguistic relativity research, the purpose was to see whether speakers of two languages think differently from monolingual native speakers and how an individual L2 user deals with such conceptual differences. Linguistic relativity could be tested, not just by comparing the thinking of monolinguals across languages, but by comparing L2 users with monolinguals. If there are indeed cognitive differences between monolingual native speakers and L2 users, the obvious conclusion is that this is an effect of the other language or languages they have acquired.

The cognitive effects of L2 learning might be general for anylearning of other languages regardless of language, such as the benefits of greater metalinguistic awareness (Bialystok 1991) or reasoning (Han and Ginsburg 2001). Peal and Lambert (1962, p.20) summed up some fifty years ago: ‘Intellectually [the bilingual child’s] experience with two language systems seems to have left him with a mental flexibility, a superiority in concept formation, a more diversified set of mental abilities’. Language teaching has indeed often maintained that learning another language helps children to think better, particularly classical languages. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London in the 2010s, claims ‘Latin and Greek are great intellectual disciplines, forcing young minds to think in a logical and analytical way’, a claim that probably has more to do with the teaching methods employed than the languages concerned.

Or these effects might appear only for relationships between specific first and second languages rather than second language learning in general (Bassetti and Cook 2011). If you speak Japanese, which calls both the leg and the foot ashi, what happens when you learn English, in which there are different words leg and foot?

In the view reflected in say Levelt et al (1999) and Slobin (1991), lexical concepts underlie speech production: speech to Levelt involves connecting lexicalised concepts to the mental lexicon, to Slobin selecting concepts that can be expressed in a particular language, ‘thinking for language’. The concepts they are interested in are those that are intimately tied to language production, not those which lie behind it. Concepts lie on a continuum between lexicalised concepts, which are necessarily embedded in language and non-lexicalised concepts, which are minimally linked to language itself.

As the following chapters show, many L2 researchers have used multi-competence in the context of the thinking for language approach (Pavlenko 2011; Han and Cadierno 2010). It is not clear that this is actually linguistic relativity. In one sense it is tautologous to say that lexicalised concepts affect the language we use. To explore the effects of language on non-language-related concepts not involved in the selection of concepts to be expressed, we need on the one hand to minimise the amount of language involved in the task, on the other to examine aspects of language such as word order that have purely syntactic meaning rather than such language-related semantic notions as gender and motion. The test of linguistic relativity is whether L2 users differ in concepts that are not explicitly used in speaking (Cook 2015), an issue developed by De Groot (Chapter 11).

Finally the conundrum that still has to be solved is the meaning of the word language, as we see in several chapters that follow, taken up by Singleton (Chapter 24). In most SLA research language is taken as a primitive term, so obvious in meaning that it needs no discussion. However its meaning changes from one theory to another and one context to another and indeed does not necessarily translate into other languages (Wierzbicka 2014). For example the difference between English two-way language and speech and French three-way langue, langage and parole (de Saussure 1916/1976) has often puzzled English-speaking linguists. The division between the ‘no language’ position and generative linguistics arguably reduces to a dispute over the meaning of language and is unresolvable without agreement on a mutually acceptable meaning of language.

In Cook (2010) I argued that this issue lies at the heart of the disputes that have riven SLA research. Jackendoff (2002) distinguishes:

Cook (2010) tried to sketch six meanings of language that are encountered in language research, namely:

- Langhuman representation system: i.e. ‘humans possess language’
- Langan abstract external entity: ‘The French language’
- Lang3 a set of actual or potential sentences:
‘the language of Moliere’
- Langthe possession of a community: ‘
the language of French people’

- Lang5 the knowledge in the mind of an individual: ‘I know French’

- Lang6 a form of action: ‘I sentence you to twenty years imprisonment’

We always need to be aware how the many concepts of ‘language’ are used in second language and multilingualism research. Tomasello (2003, p.7) for example claims that ‘the principles and structures whose existence is difficult to explain without universal grammar ... are theory-internal affairs and simply do not exist in usage-based theories of language - full stop’. Statements about Lang3 are indeed not statements about Lang5. But the reverse also applies; statements about mental Lang5 make no claims about corpus-based Lang3, an issue discussed at least since Chomsky (1957). Neither do statements about mental Lang5 always connect to the institutional Lang2; individuals do not necessarily use the rules etc of the formally described language in their everyday speech and writing. Indeed any individual person only commands a fraction of the lexical and grammatical resources of the standard Lang2 in their mental Lang5.

The Lang2 sense of an abstract entity - objective knowledge in Popper’s world 3 of abstract ideas (Popper 1972, p.159) - is central to any discussion of second language learning since we need a label for the overall object, whether the French language, Chinese or whatever. Dictionaries and grammar books are usually descriptions of Lang2; since the eighteenth century, national identity has been seen as a matter of Lang2 (Anderson 1983), leading to the rise of the assumption that monolingualism is the norm (Yildiz 2012). But this does not necessarily have implications for the organisation of language in the mind of the individual, called Lang5; the mental representation of language is a complex system with all sorts of internal and external relationships; it may be quite arbitrary to divide a bilingual system into separate areas, modules and subsystems, that can be called languages in the plural; multi-competence is a complex overall system that may be indivisible into languages. Language in sense Lang2 is countable, in sense Lang5 uncountable. So, while we can say someone speaks two languages, English and French, in sense Lang2, this does not mean that they necessarily have two discrete languages in their mind in sense Lang5. It is easy to slip into reifying objects called languages in the mind which relate together like the coloured balls in Bohr models of the atom. Lang5 is, however, more like an amorphous indeterminate entity from quantum theory than a clearly defined object.

So it is a moot point whether one can count Lang5 languages in the mind: can the multi-competent system be divided into separate sub-systems labelled languages without destroying or denying the whole system, as discussed in De Bot (this volume)? And the same for the community; the Polish of the London Polish community is not the Polish of Warsaw, the Cantonese of the Newcastle community is not that of Hong Kong, and so on: the languages in the multilingual community are so tied in to each other that it becomes arbitrary to separate them. What is needed is more like a DST of constantly changing relationships in which some grouping of elements may be arbitrarily and temporarily called a language in sense Lang5 without accepting that it is a discrete ‘language’ object. Just like the phoneme, so Lang5 language can be seen as a convenient shorthand for a complex of features.


The idea of multi-competence then raises a number of issues for all the disciplines dealing with the acquisition and use of language. These concern fundamental assumptions about language, about community and identity and about research methodology. They have yielded a generation of research on different lines, to be described in the next chapter. We should never forget that the L2 user is not an outsider lurking on the outskirts of society but is in the main throng of humanity today. It is for instance notoriously hard to find participants for language research anywhere in the world who are ‘pure’ monolinguals untouched by other languages, particularly English. Human beings have a potential, not for acquiring one language as in Chomskyan discourse, but for acquiring more than one language. Monolingualism is a problem in that it is a restriction on human potential and a partial account of what makes a human being: ‘Speaking another language is quite simply the minimal and primary condition for being alive’ (Kristeva 2007).

In terms of numbers, it is no more possible to count how many L2 users there are in the world than to count how many monolinguals there are. Claims that the majority of the human race are now L2 users (Clyne 1997) are impossible to substantiate, however plausible. The sheer numbers of speakers of languages that are not the central languages of their countries go some way to show how many L2 users there must be. To take some arbitrary figures related to English:

Research into second language acquisition, bilingualism and multilingualism is not a fringe discipline but concerns central aspects of human life for individuals and for communities in the 21st century. Indeed the argument for the normalcy of L2 users means that linguistics has to decide whether basing itself on the question ‘What constitutes knowledge of language?’ (Chomsky 1991) is a significant distortion of the real question What constitutes knowledge of languages?’


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