Creating second language Users

Vivian Cook 
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Jurnal Kurikulum JILID1 BIL 2, 1999 (Curriculm Development Centre, Kuala Lumpur)

Much English language teaching has been implicitly based on monolingual native speakers of English. The ways in which they speak are taken to be the proper model for students and teachers, even if few of them ever achieve it. At a conference in Belgium, I attended a reception where conversation switched smoothly between four languages; but, when people spoke to me, they apologised for their poor English. If these people do not consider themselves successes, then success is wrongly defined; we need goals for students and teachers that are attainable. Creating efficient second language users in their own right rather than imitation native speakers could not only be more achievable but also allow alternative approaches to teaching in which the native speaker is not the centre of the stage.

The nature of L2 users

In François Grosjean’s famous phrase, ‘a bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person’. L2 users differ from those who use one language in many ways:

All in all, learning another language changes people in many ways. The languages exist side by side in the same person, affecting both the two languages and the person as a whole. Acquiring a second language does not mean acquiring the self-contained language system of a monolingual but an L2 that coexists with an L1 in the same mind. Aiming to be like a monolingual native speaker may then be impossible for all but a handful of people. Trying to get students to be like native speakers is ineffective; their minds and their knowledge of language will inevitably be different. The benefits of learning a second language are becoming a different kind of person, not just adding another language.

The main obstacle to setting the successful L2 user as the goal is the belief that the native speaker speaks the true form of English. This implies the comparison of one group with another: the language of non-natives has always to be compared with that of natives; anything that deviates is wrong. For other areas of language study, William Labov established that it is discrimination to treat one group in terms of another group that they can never belong to, whether women as men, black Americans as white Americans, or working-class as middle-class. People must be allowed to be what they are when this is an unchangeable effect of birth or of early up-bringing. Very few people cross linguistically from one of these groups to another, even if some may try because of societal pressures. It is only L2 users that are constantly compared to a group that they can never join by definition—native speakers.

Yet L2 users of English have as much right to sound as if they come from Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo as L1 users have to sound as if they come from Birmingham or Houston. The identity of an L2 user should not be a fake native speaker but a genuine L2 user, except for the rare circumstances when someone wants to pass as native, say as a spy, or to produce native texts as in translating Shakespeare into another language. A French wine-grower summed it up: ‘I may not speak English very well but my French accent is perfect’.

An appropriate goal for many students is then using the L2 competently for their own purposes and in their own ways, which may very well not be the same as those of a monolingual native speaker and indeed may not involve native speakers at all. Students can become successful L2 users rather than forever ‘failing’ the native speaker target. The remaining argument for the English native speaker standard is only the convenience in enabling people from many different parts of the world to comprehend each other, the same motivation that uses the word dollar for different currencies in Hong-Kong, Australia and Canada, regardless of the fact that dollars were first adopted as a currency by the USA in 1785.

L2 user and teaching goals

Teaching might then be trying to achieve an L2 user model. This will mean:

i) specifying the description of the L2 user

Modern descriptions of English in grammar books or dictionaries are still based on the monolingual native speaker, even if they admit a greater range of native speakers and even if they are based on large samples of language. While these may provide some guide to what an L2 user could know, they are misleading if adhered to too closely since the L2 knowledge can never be the same as that of a monolingual. The syllabus needs to take into account what is special about L2 users’ grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, so that time is not wasted on teaching aspects of language that are unnecessary or impossible for L2 users.

ii) using L2 models in textbooks

The models of speakers in textbooks are usually native speakers. When L2 users are encountered, they are usually either students talking to each other or tourists or visitors seeking information, advice and help from the natives. Students never see L2 users who are successful and competent; there are no role models of successful L2 users for them to aim at. Few if any of the famous people that are mentioned are L2 users. Coursebooks should show successful L2 users on which the students can model themselves, not the native speakers that they can never be.

Bringing the L1 into the classroom

The classroom is full of L2 users; yet it is probably more monolingual than most situations in the world outside the classroom. One of the reasons that is often given for the L2 dominance is that the students can see the L2 being used for a real communicative purpose, that is to say teaching, and can thus pick up useful communicative functions. Yet, once one goes beyond greetings and pleasantries, the language of the classroom is precisely that—specialised language used for teaching where the vocabulary and the language functions are unlikely to be duplicated in the world outside.

Virtually all teaching methods popular in the twentieth century have insisted on only the L2 being used in the classroom, whether audiolingual methods, the communicative approach or task-based learning. In the 1990s the UK National Curriculum established this as the norm for the modern language classroom in England. The justifications put forward for banishing the L1 are usually that L1 acquisition does not rely on another language and that the two languages are ideally kept in separate compartments in the mind.

The appeal to L1 acquisition is simply beside the point: the fact that by definition L1 children could not fall back on another language has no implications for whether or not L2 students should make use of their L1 while learning an L2. The appeal to compartmentalisation treats all L2 learners as coordinate bilinguals, building up the new language entirely separate from the first. As suggested already, this is usually far from the case; the L2 is affected by the L1 and the L1 by the L2; general cognitive systems are changed. Even in terms of systems specific to language, there is an influence between the two languages in vocabulary, in phonology and in grammar, both in the process of acquisition of the L2 and in the process of using L1 and L2. L2 users do not compartmentalise the languages. Not using the L1 in the classroom only renders the L1 invisible by shifting it inside the students’ mind rather than eliminating it.

Uses of the L1 in the classroom

If the L1 ban is relaxed, teachers may be able to take advantage of the L1 in teaching rather than grudgingly falling back on it when they have to, in ways such as:

  1. managing the class—telling students off, asking them to move furniture, and so on, through the L1, i.e. forming a less distant relationship with them than through the L2

  2. giving instructions for teaching and testing activities, that is to say giving the impetus to the actual activities by taking an L1 short-cut. It should be a question of which language will get the activity going most easily rather than an absolute reliance on the L2

  3. conveying meaning, that is to say showing the students what words, sentences or functions mean by giving their equivalent in the L1. Again the main issue is effectiveness: which language will make the students understand and use the L2 most readily?

  4. explaining grammar through the L1. As an academic topic, the difficulty of grammar might be overcome more easily in the L2, unless of course the teacher treats grammar as simply another topic to talk about for ‘comprehensible input’.

    Students may be able to use L1:

  5. incidentally within classroom activities, say, allowing them to use the L1 in pair-work, always provided there is a short-term or long-term L2 output

  6. as part of the main activity, say discussing the L2 culture through the L1. Getting across some L2 concept may be easier in the L1 because of the possibility of making comparisons between L1 and L2 more easily rather than having to simplify for the sake of the low L2 knowledge.

In practice teachers have probably used all of these in their classrooms to some extent. Yet the whole trend of language teaching methodology in the twentieth century has disapproved of them. Teachers have felt guilty for employing them and so have treated them as something to be resorted to when things go wrong, not something to be actively planned for. When there is no absolute ban on the L1, each of them can be considered on its merits.

Teaching methods

Since the decline of translation as a teaching technique, methods that use the L1 have been under a cloud. Some methods that have introduced the L1 systematically into the classroom are:

  1. the New Concurrent Method. Jacobson & Faltis suggest that teachers can make systematic use of cognates and of code-switching between the two languages in the classroom.

  2. Community Language Learning. Curran’s method involves the teacher conveying the meaning of the students’ L2 sentences by translation.

  3. the Bilingual Method. Dodson’s bilingual method conveys the L2 meaning through the teacher’s ‘interpreting’ L2 sentences into the L1.

None of these involve the pilloried technique of translation in that students never have to translate texts themselves.

To conclude, putting the L2 user at the centre of language teaching rather than the native speaker liberates teaching from some long-standing assumptions. There may be perfectly proper reasons why the native speaker should be the model for language teaching and why the L1 should be used minimally in the classroom. But these assumptions need to be justified against the L2 user goal rather than from arguments based on the native speaker or on the acquisition of English as an L1. We should be telling our students what wonderful successes they are at using an L2, a feat which no monolingual can boast of, rather than implying they are failures for not becoming like native speakers. In an experiment Peynircioglu and Tekcan investigated how Turkish L2 users of English recognise words in letter squares based on the game of Boggle. They could find 21.4 words per square in Turkish and 12.8 words in English. Oh dear, they are still much worse than native speakers in English. But, when they had to find words in both languages, they found 15.6 Turkish words and 8.2 English words. Their score of 23.8 across languages is then better than the average of 20.4 for monolinguals. They were doing something no monolingual can ever do, even if their level of English could never pass as native. At the Belgian conference I felt that it was me that should have apologised for being a monolingual native speaker unable to use another language effectively.


More details of this approach, based on the idea of ‘multi-competence’ (knowledge of two languages in one mind), can be found in V.J. Cook (1999), ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching’, TESOL Quarterly, 33, 2, 185-209; V.J. Cook (1992) ‘Evidence for multi-competence’, Language Learning, 42, 4, 557-591; and V.J. Cook (2001) ‘Using the first language in the classroom’, CMLR