Is Transfer the right word?

Vivian Cook

Talk to Budapest Pragmatic Symposium, IPRA, July 2000

Some OHPs not attached

One advantage about speaking about something so far from one's usual topics is that it makes one think about things one had never considered before. Another is that one doesn't have the same inhibitions about saying daft things in public. I hope that the disadvantages of being a non-specialist will not stop some parts of this talk being useful.

The relationship between two languages in the same mind is at the heart of second language acquisition. If people simply acquired their second language in the same way as they acquired their first, if they used their second language in an identical fashion to their first, there would be no need for a separate discipline of SLA research. The major factor in the different courses of first and second language acquisition must be the relationship between the two languages. Any investigation of L2 learning or use that does not take account of the fact that the person already knows a first language is not SLA research.

Transfer is one of the words that has been used to capture this relationship. Whatever the theory of SLA somehow or other transfer creeps back in. But is tranfser the word we should be using?


How do we actually visualise people who know two languages? One way is to look at the covers of books on bilingualism and SLA.

Bilingual model two heads

The first one here sees a bilingual as a clone of a monolingual, an identical replica.

Bilingual Model Homunculus

The second one sees a bilingual as a thin monolingual trying to talk through a fat bilingual; the monolingual homunculus drives the bilingual.

Bilingual Model two people

The third sees a bilingual as two people, one a shadow of the other - in fact these are really two people, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, drawn by the former.

Bilingual Intertwined Model

The fourth cover sees the bilingual as intertwined heads, overlapping noses and eyes; the bilingual is a combination of two equals.

Bilingual Model Chaos

The last sees second language learning more like chaos theory, where strange attractors whirl about in an oddly coloured space. OK these are just book covers. But they do tell us something about the lack of unity people perceive in L2 users; these are people with two distinct sides, not unified wholes.

Nature of transfer

What does this have to do with transfer? The central dictionary meaning of transfer is 'To convey or take from one place, person, etc. to another'. In other words 'transfer' means that something moves from point A to Point B. The verb transfer typically has four arguments, namely an Actor, an Object, a source location and a destination; 'John transferred his account from the NatWest to Barclays'. The verb then reifies at least three distinct objects - the source, the destination, and the object that is transferred - and one process, that is to say the act of transferring.

The basic concept of 'transfer' in SLA research is that, when you learn a second language, you transfer some or all of the properties of the L1 into the L2. Japanese students of English spell advantage as adavantage and difficulty as difficulity because they transfer their CVC syllable structure from Japanese. Arabic students spell every as evry without an <e> because they transfer the vowel-less writing system of Semitic languages to English.

To preserve the arguments of the verb 'transfer' then, something is transferred between one object labelled L1 and another object labelled L2, whether this consists of syllable structure, vowel-less script or whatever. Transfer has been a perennial issue in SLA research. The acquisition of writing systems for example has basically only investigated the extent to which overall properties of an L1 writing system such as orthographic depth affect the acquisition of an L2: do speakers of Chinese do better at learning Japanese script than speakers of English, say? While terms such as 'cross-linguistic influence' may change a process of transfer into a relationship of influence, they still accept the same set of L1 and L2 objects.

In some of the first writings on transfer Weinreich acknowledged that transfer can go in both directions, from L1 to L2 and from L2 to L1. Almost all subsequent SLA research however went in the single direction from L1 to L2. What effects there might be of L2 on L1 were considered under the headings of attrition or language loss, i.e. viewed in a negative fashion as people losing their first language. Recently however the people sitting on this panel have started to show the extent to which transfer goes in both directions.

But all of this assumes the reification of the three objects and the process in the user's mind; it's a spatial metaphor involving three things and a movement. We need to ask whether there are indeed the three separate entities and movement implied or whether transfer is better considered as relationships within a single mental system.

Transfer and cognition

We can now turn to the question of cognition and L2 users. Do L2 users have a single conceptual apparatus or do they have two separate sets of concepts for the two languages?

The initial problem is distinguishing universal aspects of cognition from those that are language-specific. Take Anna Wierzbicka's semantic primitives common to all human beings by virtue of their shared human experience and endowment. These include substantives such as I, and YOU, determiners such as this and THE OTHER and Time concepts such as WHEN, BEFORE and AFTER. These are part of our conceptual knowledge, whichever language we speak. But the concept of YOU is not exactly acquired in English and then transferred to French vous; the concept is instantiated in English in one way, in French in another. The concept YOU reflects a common primitive feature. So, to capture cognition in the multilingual mind, we need a component consisting of universal elements that are not tied down to a particular language and hence are not really covered by any transfer metaphor.

Some elements of cognition are nevertheless specific to particular cultures. For example the universality of the concept YOU is presumably grounded in the human ability to recognise participants in a scene. Yet some languages use the well-known distinction between singular T forms to show social closeness and plural V forms to show distance, some languages don't. A language-specific system is grafted on to the universal second person pronoun. French mountain climbers are said to change from vous to tu above a certain altitude when the common danger brings them closer together. To use orthography again, literate people have acquired the concept that there can be a relationship between written signs and meanings regardless of whether they use sound-based or meaning-based scripts. This affects any language that they know and any language that they will learn in future.

The problem with establishing the difference between universal and language-specific is the usual chicken and egg conundrum of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Take the example of cooking. We all have a universal idea of saltiness in things that we taste. Bahasa Malaysia recognises several degrees of saltiness. O’Mahoney and Muhiudeen (1977) tested the ability of speakers of Bahasa and English to distinguish solutions with different amounts of salt. Malaysians were indeed able to make much finer distinctions than English speakers. So has our conceptual world of taste been influenced by our culture? Do I need to know the Hungarian for beetroot before I can appreciate borscht? Do my taste-buds send different messages if the food is called borscht or beetroot soup?

A person who knows a language then possesses one set of cognitions available to all human beings through shared experience, another built up of a specific cultural experience. For monolinguals this is it: they cannot tell which parts of their thinking are based on their culture, which are part of everybody's. In the writing systems area for instance people used to a sound-based system cannot conceive that a meaning-based character system is just as natural for its users. Even books by linguists often assert the superiority of their own writing system. L2 users, however, have acquired a second set of cognitions, potentially contrasting with their L1 set. The question is the extent to which these cognitions become an overall single set or remain in separate compartments labelled L1 and L2, to be transferred from point to point.

About the only relevant L2 research on this is Caskey-Sirmons and Hickson (1977). They found that monolingual speakers of Korean use the Korean word for 'blue' (paran sekj) to mean something greener and less purple than Koreans who know English. Their colour concepts form a single system in which there is no L1 value, no L2 value, but a combined value. Looking at cognition in terms of transfer then creates severe problems. The L2 user has at least three types of element in the mind: universal elements, L1 specific elements, and L2 specific elements, related in some complex way.

It seems that the transfer metaphor will not work for the universal elements; whether it works for the culture specific-elements in general remains to be seen; certainly it does not for Koreans' view of colour. At the level of cognitive knowledge, it is hard to argue for the separation of the three objects L1, L2 and object transferred in the mind of the L2 user. The position is more like the strange attractors image; everything part of one system rather than having three distinct entities.

Transfer and pragmatics

Let us now turn to what we can call social cognition - the ways in which language is used within social relations. In the L2 literature pragmatics has mostly meant speech act theory, with a variety of approaches. In communicative language teaching, it soon became apparent that, while there may be universal functions, particular languages did not employ all of them. Take the ritual at the beginning of a meal called 'appetite-wishing', in German 'Mahlzeit' or 'Guten Appetit', in French 'Bon appetit', in Italian 'Bon appetito'. And in English? Well we don't actually bother, perhaps something to do with the cognitive aspects of food reflected in English cuisine. So chain restaurants had to invent expression like 'Enjoy', previously used intransitively only of religious experience. Again the area of language functions can be divided into universal elements arising from our common human experience and particular elements due to the cultures we have encountered.

The main SLA research has been more concerned with sociopragmatics in Leech's sense, that is to say, the way in which pragmatic use depends on specific social roles of the participants, usually perceived through the lens of transfer. The way in which Japanese learners of English express refusal to different addressees differs from that of native speakers; for example the conventional Japanese way of refusing by making a statement of principle I never yield to temptations.

This implies some aspect of the first language sociopragmatic system is used in the L2. Little attention is given to L2 to L1 transfer, though one study found English speakers of Japanese nod their heads for agreement when talking English. And indeed the L2 users use of such transfers from the L1 is regarded as pragmalinguistic 'failure'.

The knowledge of speech acts of the ideal L2 user is being treated as a compound of the L1 plus the L2. If they know all the language functions in both L1 and L2, then they have succeeded. But the L2 user's role may be different from that of any L1 monolingual. Some early research of mine compared L2 learners and natives thanking people. While native speakers use 'thanks' to young addressees and 'thank you' more to old addressees, L2 users tend to say 'thank you' rather than 'thanks' regardless of age and to add 'very much' or 'indeed' to old addressees - 'Thank you very much indeed''.' The L2 user is more formal

When I did this research, I interpreted the L2 users' behaviour as pragmalinguistic failure to speak like natives; the students had not succeeded in mastering how native speakers use English. Later however I concluded that the L2 users were actually right: they were not supposed to be native speakers, they were blatantly L2 users talking to natives and should behave as such. People expect non-native speakers to be extra-polite, and the L2 users were living up to this image. The L2 user has a distinctive way of using the language which is not appropriate to the monolingual in either language.

So the concept of transfer between L1 and L2 cannot account for those aspects of the L2 user's use of language that are not part of either the L1 or the L2. The most obvious language functions distinctive to L2 users are going to be code-switching, adopted for a range of discourse motives, and translation, for example by young children in ethnic communities.

Models of L2 production

Can this view be accommodated within existing models of speech production? The answer seems to be 'with difficulty'. The original Level 89 model looks like this;

Levelt Speech Model

there is no obvious way of treating conceptual knowledge as having distinctive L2 user aspects. Cognitive knowledge comes before the conceptualiser, which generates the preverbal messages. Modified by De Bot 92 for second language acquisition, it looks something like this OHP. The message generator now has both macro-planning, which is language-independent and micro-planning, which is language-specific. If the conceptual base is, however, already culturally different, macro-planning must include language-specific aspects.

The more recent Levelt 1999 model

Levelt 1999 speech model

also has no way of introducing this bilingual conceptual organisation. Roelofs adapts it for bilinguals by assuming parallel sets of production rules for the two languages OHP. Again it seems a bit late in the process; the pre-existing lexical concept may already need to have some bilingual adaptation. Both these L2 models treat the bilingual as a person with an extra language; hence you simply multiply the processes or lemmas that the monolingual needs by the number of languages they know.

Finally Green 1998 has presented a specifically L2 model, which we see here OHP. I have found this rather difficult to interpret. But from the quotes listed below you can see that the conceptualiser is independent of language, although the conceptual representation is not. Yet from what we have been saying the concepts that the conceptualiser draws on have these two sources plus this merged system.

Michael Tomasello's cultural learning theory sees the core of human cognition as being intersubjectival and perspectival. The major advance in human history was the ability to see the view of conspecifics, to understand that other people have minds and intentions of their own. Tomasello sees it as intrinsic to language that the same event can be seen from more than perspective. However the knowledge of more than one language takes people one step beyond this. As well as seeing a different perspective through another mind with one language, the L2 user has acquired another perspective, another set of views on the world. Hence the importance of L2 learning to human beings is far more than the ability to order coffee in a foreign bar, as one of my theoretical colleagues put it, but speaks to the defining aspects of the human condition. Transfer is not enough as a term because it restricts L2 user to the position of cumulative monolinguals rather than seeing the richness of the L2 mind.


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