Vivian Cook  Online Writings  SLA Topics

Multi-competence: Black Hole or Wormhole?

Vivian Cook

Draft of write-up of SLRF paper 2005

The purpose of this paper is to present some of the basic ideas and research associated with the multi-competence view of second language acquisition. If these are taken seriously, much of existing SLA research could disappear into a black hole as its methods and results are partial or irrelevant. Perhaps however there is a wormhole through which second language acquisition can escape to another universe

1. Multi-competence

 The common-sense belief about people speaking a second language is that they are imperfect imitations of native speakers, embodied in a typical Chomsky quotation:

‘We do not for example say that the person has a perfect knowledge of some language L similar to English but still different from it. What we say is that the child or foreigner has a 'partial knowledge of English' or is 'on his or her way' towards acquiring knowledge of English, and if they reach this goal, they will then know English.’ (Chomsky, 1986, p. 16).

The goal of second language acquisition  is then to acquire the language as spoken by the native speaker; ‘English’ or ‘Spanish’ is what native speakers know so all second language (L2) learners can do is try to become like them.

The first challenge to this was the concept of the ‘independent language assumption’ that learners are not wilfully distorting the target system, nor arbitrarily selecting bits of the system but are inventing a system of their own, mooted by McNeill (1966) and others in the 1960s for the first language (L1) and captured in the term ‘interlanguage’ (Selinker, 1972) for the second language. L2 learners do indeed speak interlanguages that do not correspond to established languages such as Spanish or English, with unique grammars, phonologies, etc; these are not just ‘partial’ grammars of the L2 any more than the three-year-old child’s L1 grammar is a partial grammar; rather they are grammars with their own properties, created by the learners out of their own internal processes in response to the L2 data they receive. Klein and Perdue (1997), for instance, demonstrated that L2 users of five L2s speaking six L1s produced the same basic interlanguage grammar. Figure 1 then represents this interlanguage as independent from both L1 and L2 and related to a host of other factors and processes internal to the learner’s mind.

                      first                               L2                            second

                   language                   interlanguage                    language

                      (L1)                                                                (L2)


Figure 1.  The learner's independent language (interlanguage)

The concept of multi-competence originally arose out of what seemed an anomaly with Figure 1 considered in the context of the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument (Cook, 1991). The L1, the interlanguage, and the other mental processes are all internal to the L2 learner; the L2 is, however, known by someone else, a native speaker of that language. Hence the figure is obscuring a major difference in its components. For it to make sense we needed a name for a complex mental state including the L1 and the L2 interlanguage, but excluding the L2. Hence the term multi-competence was originally coined to reflect this totality in one mind, originally expressed as ‘the compound state of a mind with two grammars’ (Cook, 1991), as shown in the redrawn Figure 2. However, the word ‘grammar’ led to some confusion as it was used in the Chomskyan sense of the total knowledge of language in the mind rather than just syntax. Hence multi‑competence is usually defined nowadays as ‘knowledge of two languages in one mind’, to make it clear that it is not restricted to syntax.

                      first                               L2                                second

                   language                   interlanguage                       language

                      (L1)                                                                   (L2)

Figure 2.  Multi-competence

 2. Development of the multi-competence idea

Once multi-competence had been proposed, it gradually became clear that it had a number of repercussions for SLA research. These have developed over the past fifteen years into a solid set of research and ideas which start from the point that the mind of the L2 user is different from that of the monolingual native speaker.


Re-evaluating the native speaker norm

Cook (1999) asked why, if the L2 user’s interlanguage is independent, it should be measured against the native speaker? In second language acquisition research it was common to speak about the learner as a failure for not being like a native speaker. To take three representative quotations: ‘when human beings later in life try, sometimes very hard, to acquire these very same abilities, most will not succeed, and they will be betrayed by their non-native accent’ (Sebastián-Gallés & Bosch, 2005, p. 68); ‘After all, the ultimate goal – perhaps unattainable for some – is, nonetheless, to “sound like a native speaker” in all aspects of the language’ (González-Nueno, 1997, p. 261); 'Relative to native speaker's linguistic competence, learners' interlanguage is deficient by definition' (Kasper & Kellerman, 1997, p. 5). So showing L2 learners have access to Universal Grammar means demonstrating that they possess identical knowledge to that of native speakers (Cook & Newson, in press). Even with the interlanguage assumption alone, the relationship with the native speaker’s competence is indirect since the L2 is simply one part in the equation rather than the necessary target. With multi-competence the competence of a monolingual native speaker became in a sense irrelevant; it was the competence of the successful L2 user that mattered. Of course this begs the question of the difficulty of defining exactly what a successful L2 user might be, perhaps as chimerical as the native speaker, as several people have pointed out, for example Han (2004); this issue is debated further in Cook (2006a, b) in terms of the de Saussurean combination of the social and psychological faces of language: ‘le langage a un côté individuel et un côté social, et l’on ne peut concevoir l’un sans l’autre’ (de Saussure, 1976, p. 24).

This argument was extended in Cook (1997) to the methodology of SLA research. Virtually all the L2 research techniques employed to date relied on the native speaker, such as:

- Error Analysis, which normally defined error as deviation from native speaker norms

- obligatory occurrence, defined as when native speakers would usually produce something

- grammaticality judgements, defined against native speakers

- elicited imitation, measured against what native speakers produce

There is no reason why one thing cannot be compared to another; it may be useful to discover the similarities and differences between apples and pears. SLA research can use comparison with the native speaker as a tool, partly because so much is already known about monolingual native speakers. The danger is regarding it as failure not to meet the standards of natives: apples don’t make very good pears. Comparing L2 users with monolingual native speakers can yield a useful list of similarities and differences but never establish the unique aspects of second language knowledge that are not present in the monolingual; moreover there is a potential trap of being too dependent on comparison as a research tool (Han, 2003). Hence, to respect the multi-competence idea, we can never regard an L2 user as an unsuccessful native speaker, only as a different kind of person in their own right, an extrapolation of Labov’s argument about difference between speakers not entailing deficit (Labov, 1969). So the term ‘L2 user’ often became preferred to ‘L2 learner’ since it allows the person to achieve a final state rather than to be a perpetual ‘learner’ always on the way to native speaker status but doomed never to get there.

 Seeing transfer as a two-way process

The next development in work on multi-competence was to look at the relationship between the L1 and the interlanguage in the mind of the L2 user. Weinreich (1953) had talked about interference as 'those instances of deviation from the norms of either language which occur in the speech of bilinguals as a result of their familiarity with more than one language' (Weinreich, 1953, p. 1). A large industry of SLA research traced the properties of the interlanguage back to the learner’s first language. Contrastive Analysis attempted to predict interference when the systems of the two languages were different and sometimes when they have slight but crucial differences. Error Analysis retained the L1 as probably the strongest source of errors. Researchers in the early 1970s, however, tended to take a position closer to interlanguage by insisting that sequences of acquisition such as grammatical morphemes development did not depend on the first language, as indeed was shown by Klein and  Perdue (1997) in a very different approach.

Yet people had not really absorbed a crucial part of Weinreich’s message: interference goes in two directions. The L2 interlanguage affects the L1 as well as the L1 affecting the L2. The exception was the tradition of attrition research, defined say as ‘dysfluency and the inability to retrieve lexicon, the inability to pronounce the L1 with a NS pronunciation, the production of syntax that would not be acceptable to NSs and the inability to make judgments of grammaticality in the same way that NS monolinguals would’ (Seliger, 1996, p. 606). From a multi-competence perspective, this assumes that L1 changes are a matter of loss and ‘inabilities’, not arising from the complexity of a new combined system – the usual dictionary definition of attrition involves ‘the action of grinding down, by friction’, particularly in ‘war of attrition’. Why is this considered loss? Because this is not how a native speaker would do it. Changes in the L1 can only be for the bad.

Reconceptualised as the influence of the L2 interlanguage on the first language transfer, sometimes known as ‘reverse transfer’, became an exciting new research question, as shown in the papers in Cook (2003), based on a paradigm of comparing L2 users with monolinguals in their L1, not with native speakers of the L2. A later section will present some of the evidence for this from different angles. Overall it became clear that the L1 in the mind of an L2 user was by no means the same as the L1 in the mind of a monolingual native speaker. Though it is hard to make value judgements, many of the changes were to the benefit of the L2 user, such as helping L1 reading development (Yelland et al, 1993), raising the standards of L1 essays (Kecskes & Papp, 2000) and increasing creativity (Lambert, Tucker & d'Anglejan, 1973).  

Looking at the L2 user’s mind

A further shift in multi-competence research has been to take in other aspects of the L2 user’s mind under the banner of ‘bilingual cognition’. The 1990s saw a revival of the debate over how language is linked to thinking. Levinson (1996) produced startling results that there were groups that used absolute direction based on points of the compass rather than relative direction based on the speaker’s own body. Roberson, Davies and Davidoff (2000) showed that people from Papua New Guinea looked at colours differently from other groups. Everett (2005) discovered that Pirahã speakers had no idea of number. In other words, human beings from different cultures and from different first languages in some respects think differently. Often of course this is a matter of preference for a particular way of thinking rather than absolute inability: Norenzayan, Smith, Kim and Nisbett (2002) established that Chinese people preferred intuitive reasoning rather than formal reasoning.

So what happens if someone speaks two languages or has two cultures? Perhaps the thinking style is so engrained in their minds that they continue to use the same style after acquiring a second language. Perhaps they switch, thinking in one style or another depending on situation. Or perhaps they have some merged intermediate style that is neither the first nor the second but something in between – an ‘intercognition’ if you like. Raising this question has led to a new wave of research comparing the thought processes of L2 users and monolinguals. As well as contributing to SLA research, this may also provide a way of tackling the culture versus language divide by seeing whether a change of language without a cultural change leads to a change of thinking.

 Applying multi-competence to language teaching

Over time the implications of the multi-competence approach for language teaching have become clearer. One aspect was the use of the first language in the classroom. The traditional view of language teaching going back to the late 19th century had insisted that the L2 was learnt in isolation from the L1: the model was always of complete separation. Hence, despite their other differences, teaching methods from the Direct Method to the audiolingual method to task-based learning were united in ignoring the first language already present in all the learners’ minds invisibly in the classroom.

Yet, despite the official advice from the authorities to minimise L1 use, teachers continued to make use of it while teaching, while harbouring feelings of guilt, as Macaro (1997) documents. If there are many possible relationships between the two languages as well as separation, if the L2 interlanguage is indissolubly wedded to the L1 in most L2 learners’ and users’ minds, separation is a misguided commonsense view of second language acquisition rather than something to be imposed upon all learners. Cook (2001) called for a rational evaluation of the ways in which the L1 could be used in the classroom, such as providing a short-cut for giving instruct­ions and explanations where the cost of the L2 is too great, building up the inter-linked L1 and L2 knowledge in the students’ minds, carrying out learning tasks through collaborative dialogue with fellow-students and developing L2 activities such as code-switching for later real-life use.

This leads into the fundamental issues of the purpose of language teaching and of the target that the learner is aiming at (Cook, t.a., a). The crucial point is basing the target on what learners are going to be, L2 users, not on what they can never be, monolingual native speakers of the L2. L2 users have distinctive uses for language such as translating and code-switching: they can do more with language than any monolingual. While some L2 users may need to speak to native speakers of the L2, they rarely need to pass as natives, even though this may still be a personal goal for many. For languages like English and French, however, the need is often to speak to fellow L2 users: English is a useful lingua franca for much of the globe. Sometimes indeed speakers of the same L1 may choose to use an L2 to each other, as happens with Arabic-speaking businessmen communicating in English e-mails between countries. Language teaching goals, teaching methods and coursebooks need to look at the achievable goal of creating L2 users. Hence, as the papers in Llurda (2005) attest, the day of the native speaker teacher may be over; the NS teacher is not a good model of an L2 user who has got there by the same route that the students will take and ceteri paribus does not have the appropriate experience or insight into the students’ situation; ‘in the new rapidly emerging climate native speakers may be identified as part of the problem rather than the source of a solution’ (Graddol, 2006, p.114).  Further discussion of multi-competence in language teaching will be found in Cook (t.a. a; b).

3. Differences of the L2 user from the monolingual native speaker 

As the discussion so far will have made obvious, the core concept is the L2 user – ‘any person who uses another language than his or her first language (L1), that is to say, the one learnt first as a child’ (Cook, 2002, p. 1). L2 users can be airline pilots communicating with the control tower in an L2, opera singers singing in another language, reporters for CNN, children translating for their parents in medical consultations, Samuel Beckett writing in French, refugees in camps, diplomats in embassies… In other words they are as diverse as any other arbitrary collection of human beings and probably outnumber the monolingual native speakers of the world.

The term ‘L2 user’ was originally intended to counteract the implication that people with a second language are learners for life and to give them an equal status with people with an L1. This is not to say that the same person cannot be both an L2 learner in a classroom and an L2 user in the street outside. Nor are ‘multi-competence’ or ‘L2 user’ related to a level of success in the second language, certainly not reserved either for ‘balanced bilinguals’ or for ‘native passers’. While doubtless both of these exist, they do not seem characteristic of the broad mass of L2 users; far too much time has been spent on this select few in the past.

The previous section alluded to some of the characteristics of L2 users that set them apart from monolinguals in the first language. Let us now try to give a brief overview of some of these.

·        The lexicon

Considerable research effort has gone into the question of how the L1 and L2 lexicons are related, primarily within the psychological tradition (De Groot, 2002). The usual question is how many lexicons are involved – one lexicon for the first language, one for the second, a single lexicon for both, or various amounts of overlap between the languages. In terms of word recognition ‘a large majority [of results is] in favour of a bilingual model of visual word recognition with an integrated lexicon in which access is language non-selective (parallel access to words of both languages)’ (van Heuven, 2005). That is to say, when English L2 users of French read the word chat, they do not at first know whether it is the English word meaning ‘talk’ or the French word meaning ‘cat’. For our purposes, the crucial point is that neither of the two lexicons is ever completely off-line but always present at some level of activation whichever language is actually being used. Spivey and Marian (1999) tracked the eye-movements of bilinguals naming pictures in their L1, showing they moved to distractors that had similar forms to L2 words. The L2 user has a different vocabulary network in their mind, which at some level combines both languages; hence neither L1 nor L2 lexicons will be the same as those of monolingual native speakers of the L1 or L2. Reaction time for a word is sensitive to the frequency of its cognate in a second language (Caramazza & Brones, 1979). Laufer (2003) documented the effects of L2 Hebrew on L1 Russian vocabulary, for example, telephone in Russian became wrongly connected with close, since in Hebrew you close the telephone when you hang up on someone’.

·        Pragmatics

The way that people convey meanings through the first language is also affected by the second language they know. For example English speak­ers of Japanese use aizuchi (nodding for agreement) when talking English (Locastro, 1987). Pavlenko (2003) asked L1 speakers of Russian in Russia and the USA to describe films, finding inter alia that ‘L2 influence on L1 prompted some study participants to frame emotions linguistically as states, rather than as active processes, violating both semantic and syntactic constraints of Russian.’ She quotes the Polish-English writer Eva Hoffman as saying ‘When I speak Polish now, it is infiltrated, permeated, and inflected by the English in my head. Each language modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. Each language makes the other relative’ (Hoffman, 1989, p. 273).

·        Phonology

Perhaps the most studied area of L2 influence on L1 is phonology. The study of Voiced Onset Time (VOT) for plosive consonants has shown that the timings of L2 users neither match the target language VOTs fully nor retain their first language VOTs completely, supported by research ranging over Spanish/English (Zampini & Green, 2001), Hebrew/English (Obler, 1982), and German/Spanish (Kehoe, Lleo & Rakow, 2004). Indeed the original VOTs for monolinguals often come from bilingual subjects in the USA tested in their L1 and hence are inaccurate as a measure of monolingual native speaker (Kato, 2004). More recently, similar effects have been found for intonation. There are differences in the intonation patterns in Dutch of Dutch people who speak Greek (Mennen, 2004) and in German of German children who speak Turkish (Queen, 2001).  

·        Syntax

A variety of studies from different approaches have shown that the L1 grammar of L2 users is no longer the same as that of monolingual native speakers. Within the UG approach, Tsimpli, Sorace, Heycock & Filiaci (2004) looked at the effects of learning an L2 that does not allow null subjects (non-pro-drop) on an L1 that allows them (pro‑drop); ‘near-native’ Greek learners of English produced far more definite preverbal subjects in Greek than monolingual native speakers, similar to what Cook, Kasai & Sasaki (2005) found for Japanese users of English judging sentences with and without subjects. Balcom (2003) studied how French speakers who know English react against French sentences using the middle voice Un tricot de laine se lave à l’eau froide. (*A wool sweater washes in cold water) compared to those who don't know English. Using a Competition Model paradigm (MacWhinney, 2005), Cook, Iarossi, Stellakis & Tokumaru (2003) found that Japanese, Greek and Spanish speakers of English prefer the first noun to be the subject of the sentence in The dog pats the tree (translated into their respective languages) to a greater extent than those who do not know English. Whether measured in a principles and parameters model of competence or the Competition Model of processing, the L2 user’s knowledge of the L1 differs from that of the monolingual.

·        Writing system

So far the impact of learning a second writing system (L2WS) on the first language has been little studied. L2WS readers of English are better at detecting word-final silent <e>s in text than English L1WS readers (Cook, 2004); Italian readers of L2WS English are less affected by phonological foils than English L1WS readers in English word recognition tasks (Sasaki, 2005); Chinese L2 users of English segment ‘words’ differently in Chinese compared to L1WS Chinese (Bassetti, 2004). In addition, some research has uncovered general beneficial effects on L1 literacy: English children taught Italian learnt to read English faster (Yelland, Pollard & Mercuri, 1993) and Hungarian children who were taught English learnt to write better essays in Hungarian (Kecskes & Papp, 2000).

·        Concepts

An active new area of L2 user research is the area of bilingual cognition research, building on the 1990s wave of research into whether language is related to thinking mentioned above. In the area of colour perception, Athanasopoulos (2001) showed that Greek L2 users of English had a different perception of the colour 'blue' from monolinguals; Athanasopoulos, Sasaki and Cook (2004) claimed that Japanese L2 users of English distinguished between two ‘blue’ and two ‘green’ colours differently from monolingual native speakers. Cook, Bassetti, Kasai , Sasaki and  Takahashi (2006) looked at categorisation of shapes and substances, finding that Japanese who had been in England longer than three years categorised objects more in terms of shape than Japanese who had been there less than three years. Athanasopoulos (2006) turned to number to show that Japanese learners of English move with level of English towards the English preference for counting objects rather than substance. Using another language means your thinking is changed in some respects.

4. Conclusions

At one level then little of current SLA research is acceptable to a multi-competence perspective essentially because of the insidious presence of the native speaker in the imagined target of second language acquisition and in the methodology of research. If we are interested in L2 users and L2 acquisition rather than closeness to native speakers we need to start from the mind of the L2 user in all its richness and complexity. Multi‑competence ideas have spawned new research questions about the nature of the L2 and the L1 and the relationships between them. Sometimes current or past areas of SLA research can be reinterpreted from a multi-competence perspective, for example, attrition. Multi-competence is a liberating process for SLA research in that it opens many doors and establishes second language acquisition not only independently of the language of native speakers but also as the core case of language acquisition, of which monolingual acquisition is a pale and limited version. Second language acquisition research is being destroyed by the black hole but is coming out the other side through a wormhole reconstituted into something else – the central area concerned with human acquisition of languages. As Julia Kristeva once remarked, ‘Speaking another language is quite simply the minimum and primary condition for being alive’.


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