Vivian Cook   MC site  Online Writings


Wholistic multi-competence - jeu d'esprit or paradigm shift?

V.J. Cook, University of Essex

Talk given at first EUROSLA conference, Salzburg, 1991
In Current Issues in European Second Language Acquisition Research , ed. B. Kettemann, Narr, 2-8, 1993

About eighteen months ago I was asked to give a paper on the role of negative evidence in Universal Grammar.  To my surprise as I wrote it I discovered I needed a new term to fit the argument I was making about the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument; I needed something to describe the total state of a person who was learning an L2, including both the L1 competence and the L2 interlanguage.  Hence the term 'multi-competence' which I defined as 'the compound state of a mind with two grammars' (Cook, 1991), contrasted with mono-competence, the state of a mind that knows one grammar. 

The term multi-competence makes claims about the nature of the mind that knows an L2.  My starting point for this was the paper by Francois Grosjean called 'Neurolinguists beware!  Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one person'.  In this paper Grosjean (1989) argues powerfully for the special state of the bilingual mind.  A person who knows two languages is different from one who knows only one language in other respects than simply knowledge of an L2.  In other words an L2 user does not just have a second L2 competence tacked on to the original L1 competence, an extension built on at the back of the house; rather the L2 user's mind is different as a whole - the whole house has been rewired. 

1. Are L2 users' minds different?

For much of the past year I have been butterfly collecting to support this, searching for miscellaneous evidence for distinctive qualities of the L2 user's mind.   I won't go into chapter and verse for all the types of evidence for this but will give you some prize specimens, the full collection appearing in Cook (to appear). 

- the knowledge of the first language is different

Having two languages in the mind rather than one has effects on the first language as well as on the second.  Multicompetent people differ in their knowledge of their first language from monolinguals.  Several experiments show that bilinguals have different VOTs from monolinguals in the L1 (Flege, 1987; Nathan, 1987).  Some influence from the L2 onto the L1 is also found in vocabulary (Caskey-Sirmons and Hickson, 1977).  This brings us back to something suggested by Weinreich in 1953: interference goes in both directions, from L2 to L1 as well as from L1 to L2.

- the knowledge of the second language is different

The multi-competence concept suggests that L2 competence differs from the L1 competence of monolinguals.  Coppetiers (1987) found that the competence of effectively bilingual speakers of French was systematically different from that of French monolinguals.  People who would otherwise have been considered balanced bilinguals had different intuitions of grammaticality from native speakers, even if these could not be detected in their speech.

- the awareness of language is different

Over the years there has been much discussion whether bilingualism affects people's thinking, for good or for bad.  A consensus opinion seems to be that bilingual children are more self-conscious about the form of language than monolinguals (Ianco-Worrall, 1972; Bialystok, 1987).  The multi-competent child has a slightly different metalinguistic awareness of language from the monolingual; indeed this extra awareness is often held to be a goal of language teaching. 

- the cognitive processes are different

In terms of cognitive processes, it has been claimed that L2 users are more flexible at creativity tests (Lambert et al, 1973), and at divergent thinking (Landry, 1974).  This difference of the L2 user is again often recognised in language teaching. 

So there seem at least four ways in which multicompetent people have different minds from monocompetent people, usually to the advantage rather than the disadvantage of the bilingual.  Multi-competence in this sense recognises something important and real about L2 learning; SLA research needs to remember that the people it is studying differ from monolinguals in all sorts of ways.  

2) do the two languages form one system?

A second claim about multi-competence is more debatable.  So far I have examined evidence that multicomponent minds are different from monolingual ones.  This still tells us nothing about the relationship of the two linguistic competences; it does not preclude the mind from having two independent language systems, each separate from the other.  Adapting terms from Grosjean (1989), this view can be called separatist multi-competence.  Or the two systems might actually be merged at some level; multi-competence would consist of one linguistic system rather than two; instead  of two discrete grammars, the L2 user knows a single complex grammar.  This view can be called wholistic multi-competence.  Is there any evidence that people who know two languages indeed have a merged language system rather than two separate systems? 

- the L1 and L2 have the same mental dictionary

There is a vast and complex literature on the relationship between the L1 and L2 lexicons.  As I understand it, most current opinion agrees that there is a close inter-relationship between the two lexicons (Cristoffanini, 1986; Beauvillian and Grainger, 1987).  The only alternative to the interdependent view seems to be the possibility that there is a language independent cognitive store, for example Schwanenflugel et al (1986).

- L2 users can switch readily from one language to the other

The ability to codeswitch continually from one language to another is now seen as a highly skilled and complex mode of language unique to bilinguals (Grosjean, 1989).   While this ability shows the two languages are intimately related in the mind, it does not directly show that they are one system rather than two.  For the present argument we seem to find partial support for wholistic multi-competence.

- L2 processing cannot be cut off from L1

Evidence that the L1 is not turned off but is still on-line while the L2 is being processed has been given for phonology by Altenberg & Cairns (1983), for lexis by Hamers & Lambert (1972), and for semantics by Blair & Harris (1981).  These experiments suggest that the L2 user does not effectively switch off the L1 while processing the L2 but has it constantly available.  Having the other language on tap does not unerringly point to one system, convenient as this might be, but to a usable access system for both languages.

- both languages are stored in the same areas of the brain

Again there is a vast, if rather speculative, literature on the storage of L2s in the brain.  On the one hand there was the conjecture that second languages involve the right hemisphere of the brain rather than the left.  A recent survey by Zatorre (1989) concludes 'there is very little evidence that the right hemisphere participates in multiple languages in any way significantly different from the case of a single language'.  Alternatively L2s might be stored in different areas of the same hemisphere; research in this area by Ojemann and Whittaker (1978) suggests at best that the physical locations of both languages are complexly intertwined. 

3) General issues

 Let us come back to more general concerns.  The original impetus for the term 'multi-competence' was in part a devil's advocate one.  L2 learning is usually conceived as special and demanding, going beyond the normal human being in some sense.  But suppose it is normal for the human being to be multi-competent, abnormal to be a monolingual.  Being an Englishman this may be hard for me to digest, but if I came from Belgium, or the Cameroon, or Hong Kong I might find it easier.  In statistical terms most human beings in fact know two or more languages rather than one: it may well be unusual to possess only mono-competence.  To give a few disparate figures: Harding and Riley (1986) point out 'there are 3000-5000 languages in the world but only about 150 countries to fit them all into'; the European Commission (1987) found that 83% of 20-24 year olds in Europe had studied a second language; the population of the United States in 1976 included nearly 28 million who had a non-English mother tongue (Wardhaugh, 1987); the Linguistic Minorities Project (1983) found 30.7% of children in the London Borough of Haringey spoke another language than English at home.  Multi-competence is probably more typical of the human race than monocompetence.

Right you are now saying, but people who can use two languages with equal ease in a range of situations are rarely found; how can multi-competence be normal?  But this is accepting that the target of L2 learning is indeed equivalent to an L1, the balanced bilingual; anyone who does not achieve equivalence in the L2 to their L1 is in some sense a write-off.  Schachter (1988) and Bley-Vroman (1989) both use this as  a means of demonstrating the unavailability of UG in L2 learning.  But why should monolingualism and monolingual competence be the target?  The efficient L2 user is not an ersatz native speaker but a different type of being; the wrong yardstick is being used if we compare him or her to a monolingual.  The interlanguage assumption was that we should not compare the grammars of L2 learners to those of natives; this did not go far enough in that the ultimate destination of interlanguages was still seen as monolingual competence.  Much of the research in the SLA field has been carried out by researchers coming from monolingual cultures, often English in particular; too little research has emerged from countries where bilingualism is taken for granted, say the countries of Central Africa.  We may have been stressing the peculiarity and the difficulty of L2 learning because of our own cultural assumptions.  

So the motivation behind the concept of multi-competence was partly to try to avoid monolingual prejudices.  A person who is using a second language to whatever extent is not a deficient native speaker functioning at, say, 20% of the monolingual norm but a multi-competent user functioning at 120% of the monolingual.  Rather than lamenting continually how bad L2 learners are, we should commiserate with monolinguals about the language deprivation that has cut them off from their natural multilingual potential.  Studying language acquisition in monolinguals may be as relevant as studying walking in people with one leg.

As you can see, I have found the concept of multi-competence a stimulating source of ideas on L2 learning.  Exploring this concept leads to byways of L2 learning and linguistics I hardly dreamt existed; in particular it introduced me to the neglected work of the 1950s on language contact (Weinreich, 1953) and of the 1970s on polylectal grammars (Bailey, 1973), both of which have multi-competence overtones.  The concept of multi-competence also leads to a revision of the UG hypothesis in L2 learning in terms of continuously switchable parameters rather than two alternative values, to be developed in Cook (in preparation).  Whether multi-competence has more precise value in its own right will depend on research specifically carried out to put its claims on a firmer basis.  Having started it in a light-hearted spirit as a jeu d'esprit, I have begun to wonder whether it is does not reflect a serious need in our field to shift to a perspective in which knowing a second language is taken to be normal rather than possessing merely one.


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