The term 'multi-competence' was originally defined as 'the compound state of a mind with two grammars' (Cook, 1991); in the context of that paper, ‘grammar’ was used in the Chomskyan sense of the total knowledge of language in the mind (the I-language) leading some people to infer wrongly that multi-competence was restricted to syntax. So multi-competence is now usually said to be ‘the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind’ (Cook, 1994). Multi-competence thus presents a view of second language acquisition (SLA) based on the second language (L2) user as a whole person rather than on the monolingual native speaker. It is neither particularly a psychological concept, as some have claimed (Kelly Hall et al, 2006), nor particularly sociological: It is a perspective for viewing both approaches to SLA and thus applies both to the individual and to the community. It is perhaps closest to approaches that treat language as a continuously changing system (De Bot et al, 2005; Herdina & Jessner, 2002). Accounts of the historical development of the concept can be found in Cook (2006; 2007a); a bibliography is available (Murahata & Murahata, 2008).
Multi-competence therefore involves the whole mind of the speaker, not simply their first language (L1) or their second. It assumes that someone who knows two or more languages is a different person from a monolingual and so needs to be looked at in their own right rather than as a deficient monolingual, an idea put forward by Grosjean (1989) from a different background. Multi-competence is thus not a model nor a theory so much as an overall perspective or framework: It changes the angle from which second language acquisition is viewed. It constitutes a bilingual ‘wholistic’ interpretation of bilingualism as opposed to a monolingual ‘fractional’ interpretation of bilingualism, in Grosjean ( 2009)’s terms.
In the 1960s the conceptual breakthrough in the linguistic study of language acquisition was the independent grammars assumption that children do not distort the adult language system but invent systems of their own, put forward by McNeill (1966) and Braine (1963) among others. This insisted that children are not defective speakers of adult language but speakers of a distinct language with its own rules, vocabulary and phonology, which gradually develop into the adult’s linguistic competence. The idea soon crossed over into the nascent field of second language acquisition (SLA) research through such concepts as 'approximative system' (Nemser, 1971) and ‘interlanguage’ (Selinker, 1972). It was generally assumed that L2 learners too speak languages that do not correspond to established languages such as Spanish or English but have their own properties, created by L2 learners in a similar way to L1 children. Interlanguage opened the floodgates of SLA research and became an almost unchallenged axiom.
the native speaker
Multi-competence proposed to take the concept of interlanguage seriously.
If L2 users are to be treated in their own right, the native speaker has no particular status: It
is the users’ own language that matters. This
remains the key aspect of multi-competence. If a native speaker is someone who still
speaks the first language (L1) that they learnt in childhood, being a native
speaker is “an unalterable historic fact; you cannot change your native
language any more than you can change who brought you up” (Cook, 1999);
you can try to pass as a native speaker of another language but never become one
– by definition. Multi-competence thus includes the first language, the
and other aspects of the L2 user’s mind.
Some arguments in favour of multi-competence are:
the normality of the L2 user. In many parts of the world like India and the
Cameroon, monolinguals form a small minority: Everybody has to use more than one
language in their everyday lives. Brutt-Griffler (2002) has argued for the
multi-competence of the community: Rather than a community being defined by a
single language, many communities in say India or Central Africa have multiple
languages at their core, specialized by function and so on. While it is hard to
get exact figures, multi-competence is probably not so much an exception as the
norm for twenty-first century human beings.
the rights of individuals. Linguistics has progressively refused to
classify speakers in terms of groups of which they are not, and never could be,
members, first granting independence to primitive languages (Boas, 1920/1940),
then freeing children’s language from adults’ (the independent grammars
assumption), then liberating black English speakers from white (Labov, 1969),
working-class restricted code from middle-class elaborated code (Bernstein,
1971) and women’s language from men’s. The only group still to be judged by
the standards of another is L2 users. But they too have the right to use
language appropriately for their needs, not for those of a native speaker group to which they can never belong.
Despite its acceptance of interlanguage, much SLA research has continued
to measure L2 users against native speakers.
Inevitably what L2 users do is seen as a mistake whenever it fails to conform to
the language of monolingual native speakers and the L2 users’ level of
language proficiency is seen as deficient rather than different: It’s all
right if your English accent proclaims you come from Newcastle upon Tyne but not
from Paris. This native speaker comparison lurks behind such typical statements
as: “Unfortunately, language mastery is not often the outcome of SLA”
(Larsen Freeman & Long, 1991, p. 153); or “The lack of general guaranteed
success is the most striking characteristic of adult foreign language
learning” (Bley-Vroman, 1989, p. 42). It is possible to measure ducks in terms of
swans. But when everything has to satisfy the swan criteria, the unique
qualities of ducks will always elude the observer, just as black English,
working-class English and women’s language were once seen as pale shadows of a
‘true’ variety. Uniquely bilingual functions of language like codeswitching
and translation will never show up in a native speaker model; unique grammatical
forms of L2 users like the rules of the Basic Variety (Klein & Perdue, 1997)
will appear just as mistakes.
overt denigration of L2 users for not being native
speakers is now less common, the perennial SLA research
questions continue to revolve around whether the L2 user is like a native
speaker: Whether age affects L2 learning depends on speaking like a native –
yet to show that later learners can achieve the same level of phonology as
native speakers in production” (DeKeyser & Larson Hall, 2005, p. 96); the ultimate attainment of L2 learners is assessed in terms of “absolute
native-like command of an L2” (Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2003); whether L2
learners have access to Universal Grammar is seen as depending on whether they
attain the identical grammar
to native speakers (Clahsen & Muysken, 1987). The typical SLA research
techniques outlined in Cook (1997) consist of Error Analysis (i.e. mostly
defining errors as things native speakers would not do), obligatory occurrence
(Pienemann, 1998) (omitting elements that native speakers would not leave out), grammaticality judgements (based on the
‘correct’ native speaker grammar), elicited imitation (Cook, 1973) (defined
by how the native speaker would repeat), and so on. The commitment to the
independent L2 user is often a matter of rhetoric rather than the reality
reflected in the research questions and techniques of SLA research.
what term should be used to describe people who are multicompetent? People
who acquire their first language are not regarded as L1 learners for the rest of
their lives. Why should people who know more than one language be treated differently? Calling
people L2 learners seemed to confirm their subordinate status. Hence
the more neutral term ‘L2 user’ was introduced. ‘L2 user’ refers to
people who know and use a second language at any level; multi-competence is
not restricted to high-level balanced bilinguals but concerns the mind of any
user of a second language
at any level of achievement.‘L2
learner’ is reserved for people who have no everyday use of the second
language, say children in foreign language classrooms. Of course L2 users
may also be L2 learners at different times of life or indeed times of day –
an L2 learner of English in London who steps out of the classroom immediately
become an L2 user of English. More recently at least five different groups of L2
users have been distinguished (Cook, 2009a): Those
using an L2 within a larger community, say Arabic residents of Berlin using
German; those using it internationally for restricted functions, for example
Muslims using Arabic for religious purposes regardless of their first
language and the country in which they live
whether Germany or Saudi Arabia; those using it globally for a wide range of
functions, primarily nowadays the use of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) say
for business, tourism or electronic communication; those using it with
spouses, siblings or friends with different first languages (Piller, 2002);
and those historically from a particular community (re-) acquiring its
language for cultural use, say British Chinese speakers of Cantonese learning Mandarin. Each of these groups undoubtedly have specific
qualities that do not generalize to L2 learning
in general. The people usually studied in SLA research are classroom L2
learners, many of whom are not and never will be L2 users, for example Chinese
children learning English at school in Shanghai, and immigrants adjusting
to a new country (hence the importance of Age of Arrival in much SLA research).
multi-competence perspective was first supported by reinterpreting
research from various domains to show the effects of second languages on the human mind (Cook, 1992). But
it led to research specifically aimed at multi-competence that generated
research questions which had previously barely been mentioned.
of the L2 on the L1
vast amount of SLA research has looked at the effects of the first language on
the second, labelled ‘transfer’ or ‘crosslinguistic influence’, still a
favorite topic for dissertations exploring yet more first
novel aspects of language. By looking at the whole learner’s mind, multi-competence opened up reverse transfer from the second language to the first and
other forms of transfer (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2009). A new research question
was then: Do you still speak your first language like a monolingual
native speaker when you know another language?
A negative answer to this could reverberate across SLA research, and indeed much
linguistics, as it would be unsafe to regard any person who knows another
language as having ‘normal’ monolingual linguistic competence; “the
judgments about English of Bloomfield, Halliday or Chomsky are not trustworthy,
except where they are supported by evidence from ‘pure’ monolinguals” (Cook, 2002): the founder of linguistic
relativity, Whorf (1941/1956), based his ideas about the indigenous
American language Hopi in large part on an informant living in New York and so
an L2 user.
In virtually every aspect of language studied, L2 users have turned out to be different from monolinguals. To take some representative studies:
research has shown the changes in Voice Onset Time (the duration of silence that
distinguishes voiced and unvoiced plosive consonants) in the L2 user’s first
language, for example English Spanish (Zampini & Green, 2001). L1 intonation
is also influenced by the L2, for example in Dutch users of Greek
lexicons. Since Caramazza & Brones (1980), many have argued for a single
lexicon in the L2 user’s mind where words from one language are stored
alongside words from the other. An L2 user seems unable to switch off one
language entirely while processing another, only to lower the level of
activation. Spivey & Marian (1999) for example showed in an eye-tracking
task that words from one language were activated even when processing the other.
syntax. The L1 syntax
of the L2 user is subtly altered by the second language they know. Using a Competition Model paradigm,
Cook et al (2003) found that the cues to the processing of L1 word
order change when another language is known. Balcom (2003) found that French L2
users of English had different grammaticality judgements of French
‘middle’ constructions from monolinguals.
- pragmatics. Russians who knew English interpret film sequences differently from monolinguals (Pavlenko, 2003). L2 users indeed have a range of functions for language such as codeswitching and translation unknown to monolinguals.
Rather than enumerate further examples, the reader is referred to Cook (2003), which was devoted to this issue.
than language has changed in the L2 user’s mind. Learning another
language helps with learning
to read the first
language (Yelland et al, 1993), with
metalinguistic awareness (Bialystok, 2001), and with the ability to write essays
in the first language (Kecskes & Papp,
2000). Knowing another language delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease
(Bialystok, Craik, Klein & Viswanathan, 2004),leads to greater
density of connections in the corpus callosum area that connects left and right
hemispheres of the brain (Coggins et al, 2004), and develops the areas of the
brain responsible for control (Green, 2010.). All of these support the
proposition that the L2 user is a distinct kind of person from a monolingual.
The focus in recent research has been on the different ways in which L2 users think, surveyed in Cook & Bassetti (2010). The research looks at well-known areas where cognitive difference have been shown to occur crosslinguistically between a pair of languages and then sees how L2 users of the two languages think. Typical areas include:
- shape and material. Imai and Gentner (1997) showed that Japanese classify objects more by material, English speakers by shape. Cook et al (2006) found that Japanese L2 users of English living in England had moved some way towards the English preference.
- colors. Many languages recognize two distinct ‘blue’ colors where English has only one. Athanasopoulos (2009) showed that speakers of Greek who had learnt English had altered classifications of colors.
- gender. Speakers of grammatical ‘arbitrary’ gender languages tend to assign gender to inanimate objects in the natural world; this effect is diminished for those who know two languages with different gender systems (Bassetti, 2007).
- motion. Descriptions of motion events in L2 learners are affected by their first language (Jarvis & Odlin, 2000). In particular Talmy’s (1985) division between satellite and verb-framed languages has generated masses of L2 research, showing effects of bilingualism on ideas of motion, for example Hohenstein, Eisenberg & Naigles (2006).
and language teaching
multi-competence< idea has important
implications for language teaching, which has often
seen its task as making students as like native speakers as possible. Multi-competence
is now starting to be utilized in books on SLA and language teaching such as
Cook (2008), Ortega (2009) and Scott (2009).
of language teaching. Multi-competence
takes the goal of language teaching as producing a successful L2 user, not an
imitation native speaker. It thus aligns with the English as Lingua Franca (ELF)
movement (Seidlhofer, 2004) rather than with the Common European Framework of
Reference (Council of Europe, 2001), which seems to use the native rather than
the L2 user as a touchstone.
language teaching classroom. The multi-competence
perspective does not see any virtue in making the students use only the second
language in the classroom since this denies the very existence of the first language in their minds. It
advocates principled use of the second
language when classroom goals can be achieved more efficiently by its use
- Native speaker language teachers. A non-native speaker teacher (NNST) is an L2 user who has acquired another language; a native speaker teacher (NST) is not. Hence the NNST can present a role model for the students, has learnt the language by a similar route to the students and can codeswitch to the students’ own language when necessary. The NST’s only substantive advantage may be a greater facility in the target language, but as a native speaker not as an L2 user. Recent attitudes are conveyed in Llurda (2005).
the development of a multi-competence perspective has been
fruitful in suggesting not only new interpretations of existing theories and
phenomena but also new research questions to be tackled. It has gone some way to
redressing the bias in favor of the native
speaker. But its importance extends beyond SLA research to linguistics,
psycholinguistics and psychology in its insistence on the uniqueness of the L2
user. The fundamental questions of linguistic competence and language
acquisition are different if most human minds in fact know more than language.
In particular it is a “question whether UG
theory can achieve its basic task of describing how human minds acquire, store
and use language without taking into account the minds that cope with more than
one language” (Cook, 2009b). Chomsky’s four questions for linguistics
(Chomsky, 1988), namely accounting for knowledge of language, its acquisition,
use and physical manifestation in the brain, are transformed when multi-competence –knowledge
of languages in the plural – is the
normal state of the human mind, is the norm: rather than the dominant form of
language knowledge, monolingualism becomes
an aberration due to linguistic deprivation of second
language input. ‘The monolingual native
speaker is language-deprived; they would have acquired multi-competence in more
than one language if their caretakers had not deprived them of a second
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Working definition of multi-competence (2014): the overall system of a mind or a community that uses more than one language’.