Prolegomena to Second Language Learning
Draft of paper in Seedhouse Jenks and Walsh (eds) Conceptualising Language Learning 2010. Earlier version in ‘The nature of the L2 user’, in L. Roberts, A. Gurel, S. Tatar & L. Marti (eds.) EUROSLA Yearbook, 7, 205-220, 2007. Reprinted in L. Wei (ed.) (2011), The Routledge Applied Linguistics Reader, Routledge 77-89
The aim here is to discuss the ‘second language’ in second language acquisition ( SLA ) research. The phrase ‘second language learning’ involves three parameters of variation: the nature of language, the nature of a second language and the nature of learning. Prolegomena are the preliminary matters to be considered before the main work, as in Hjelmslev (1943/1961) Prolegomena to a Theory of Linguistics. This paper argues that discussions of learning depend on what is learnt – language – and what makes a language ‘second’. Virtually no book on SLA current today defines these two terms more extensively than the odd footnote on second versus foreign language learning. Yet they are the rationale for the existence of second language acquisition as a distinct area of enquiry. As VanPatten & Williams (2007: 7) say, ‘Any theory about second language acquisition needs to be clear what it means by language’.
Is, say, the concept of language used in Universal Grammar-based L2 research the same as that in Vygotskyan studies? The language used in studying bilingual social networks the same as that in psycholinguistics processing? The language used in post-modern studies of discourse the same as in procedural/declarative models? The language in transfer studies the same as that used with emotion? If SLA research indeed has a framework within which it can reconcile all these views of language, it is a major intellectual feat. If not, then SLA research needs to state explicitly the meaning of ‘language’ that it is using in each area.
English word ‘language’ has many different meanings. One danger is that its
apparent translation equivalents in other languages convey different
implications, particularly troublesome in a field of multilingual researchers
largely writing in English. For example, de Saussure’s three-way French
distinction between ‘langue’, ‘langage’ and ‘parole’ (de Saussure 1915/1976)
has been a stumbling-block for English translators and linguists for almost a
century. Table 1 gives six thumbnail meanings of ‘language’, for
convenience given the labels Lang1 to Lang6. The
meanings of ‘language’ used here have been chosen to cast light on
human representation system
abstract external entity
set of actual or potential sentences
possession of a community
knowledge in the mind of an individual
form of action
1. Six meanings of ‘language’
language as a
human representation system
second language learning as second Lang1
learning leads to the question of ‘the extent to which the underlying
linguistic competence of learners or speakers of a second language (L2) is
governed by the same universal properties that govern natural language in
general’ (White, 2003: xi): does the ‘language’ in second language
learning qualify as a human language?
It has indeed been asserted that
‘L2 learners are not only creating a rule system which is far more complicated
than the native system, but which is not definable in linguistic theory’
(Clahsen & Muysken, 1986: 116). The consequence of
second languages not being Lang1 languages would be that SLA research
could be investigated in the same way as the learning of any human cognitive
abilities like chess-playing and would presumably be handled by psychologists
within general human learning rather than by SLA researchers, as indeed happens
in some psychological approaches. Second Lang1 learning research is
then concerned with the ultimate question of the species-specificity of language
itself, not with the details of any individual second language.
language as an abstract external entity
‘Language’ also refers to an abstract entity – objective knowledge in Popper’s world 3 of abstract ideas (Popper, 1972: 159), as in ‘the English language’ or ‘the Chinese language’. A Lang2 is something out there in the world of abstractions, like the rules of football – a creation of the human mind that stands outside any individual and that can be captured in codified rules in a dictionary and a grammar book, Le Petit Robert (2006) for French words, A Grammar Of Contemporary English (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech & Svartvik, 1972) for English grammar, sometimes legislated for by institutions such as the French Academy. No single person knows a Lang2 language as such – no speaker of English knows more than a fraction of the 263,917 entries and 741,149 meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2009). Lang2 entities are countable – English, Chinese and so on up to the 6,912 in Ethnologue (Gordon, 2005). A Lang2 often becomes a symbol of a particular culture or country and hence one language gets lauded over others: ‘Most books on English imply in one way or another that our language is superior to all others’ (Bryson, 1991: 3). People are proud of their Lang2 and loyal to it, even if they see their own knowledge of it as imperfect. Lang2 has been used to justify wars of territoriality, as in Hitler’s claims to German-speaking areas of Europe, fostered as part of the independence movement for minority groups such as Catalans, imposed upon conquered territories as in the imposition of Japanese names on Koreans in 1939, and used as a unifying lingua franca to fight against its native speakers as in the Black People’s Convention in South Africa (Biko, 1978).
L2 user does not know a complete Lang2 language any more or less than
the monolingual. The relationship between the abstract Lang2 entity
and the speaker is as indirect and as debatable in a second language as in the
first. The object learnt cannot be defined as a Lang2 as this is not
actually knowable by any human being. Methodologically for instance it is unsafe
to take the description of the past tense in English in Quirk et al (1972) as
being what any individual speaker of English knows, even if there is an indirect
relationship involved. When people have compared L2 users with native speakers,
there has always been the danger of ascribing Lang2 knowledge to the
native (Cook, 1979): for instance when I tested the UG related syntax area of
subjacency I found 15% of native speakers did not know it – which led to me to
abandon that line of research.
Lang2 to which L2 learning relates is usually taken to be the status
spoken or written dialect within a particular country, say standard English with
an RP accent rather than Geordie, or Mandarin dialect for Chinese rather than
Taiwanese. Or it could be a choice between local standards, say Patagonian Welsh
versus Welsh Welsh or Indian English versus British English.
language as a set of sentences
the Lang3 sense, a language is a set of sentences:
all the sentences that have been said or could be said make up the language –
‘the totality of utterances that can be made in a
speech-community’ (Bloomfield, 1926/1957: 26) or ‘a
set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out
of a finite set of elements’ (Chomsky, 1957: 13). English is the name
for one such set of sentences,
Chinese for another. Lang3 seems to be the sense in which language is
internalised in usage-based learning (Tomasello, 2003): language knowledge
emerges from the array of data that the learner encounters, distilled from a
corpus. Lang3 is not an abstraction but a concrete object, made up of
physical sounds, gestures or written symbols. Patterns can be extracted from
these primary data, whether by the linguist or the learner. But they remain
patterns of data rather than systems of knowledge or behaviour.
Lang3 learning concerns
the second language as a set of recorded phenomena,
for example ‘the utterances which are produced when the learner attempts to
say sentences of a TL [target language]’ (Selinker, 1972). The relevant
evidence for Lang3 research is L2 users’ sentences,
as in the Vienna Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE) (Seidlhofer,
2002), and the L2 spelling corpora of van Berkel
(2005). The overall research questions concern the regularities and frequencies
in L2 language data.
unique problem for second Lang3 learning research is how to
categorise the set of sentences
produced or encountered by a L2 user as belonging to one Lang3
language or another. Weinreich (1953: 7) said that ‘A structuralist
theory of communication which distinguishes between speech and language ...
necessarily assumes that every speech event belongs to a definite language’; a
recent variant is ‘I define bilingual
input as dual‑language input consisting mainly of substantial numbers
of utterances that both lexically and structurally belong to one language
only’ (De Houwer, 2005: 31). But how do you tell which bits belong to which
language? How can the total set of sentences
produced by an L2 user be divided neatly into two ‘languages’ without
invoking a meaning of language other than Lang3?
The L1 sentences a L2 user produces
often differ from those of a monolingual native speaker for example. Second
Lang3 learning needs to include the whole set of sentences produced
by the learner; only later can they be assigned to languages according to other
criteria. Bilingual speech therapists have indeed long argued that therapy
should be based on the child’s first language as well as on their second: you
can’t tell what’s wrong with either if you don’t look at both (Stow &
Dodd, 2003). Second Lang3 learning research consists of the
description and analysis of occurring language data.
language as the shared possession of a community
the possession of a language community, is often seen
as complementary to Lang5, the knowledge in the individual’s mind:
‘although languages are thus the work of nations
… they still remain the self-creations of individuals
’(Humboldt, 1836/1999: 44) or ‘le langage a un côté individuel et un côté
social, et l’on ne peut concevoir l’un sans l’autre’ (language has an
individual side and a social side and one cannot imagine one without the other)
(de Saussure, 1915/1976: 24). Lang4 is a social phenomenon, a
cultural product shared among a group – ‘the English-speaking world’,
‘native speakers of Chinese’ etc. Possession of a language confers
membership of a particular group. The language community is often equated to the
nation – people born in
then depends upon the concept of the language community. ‘Language acquisition
and use are viewed here as indicators of individual and group integration into
the host society and/or alienation from it’ (Dittmar et al, 1998: 124).
As this quotation illustrates, the normal community is typically assumed to be
monolingual: ‘An individual’s use of two languages supposes the existence of
two different language communities; it does not suppose the existence of a
bilingual community’ (Mackey, 1972: 554).
can imagine the difficulty for people in my region to identify themselves as
native speakers of “a” language. People may identify themselves as speakers
of different languages very fluidly, based on the different contexts of
interaction and competing claims on their affiliation.
Lang4 learning research has to decide whether the community that its
research is dealing with is monolingual or multilingual – the multi-competence
of the community (Brutt-Griffler, 2002; Cook, 2007, 2009).
knowledge in the mind of the individual
is also the mental possession of an individual, Lang5: ‘a language
is a state of the faculty of language, an I‑language, in technical
usage’ (Chomsky, 2005: 2), the other side of the coin to Lang4. An
individual has a mental state, consisting of rules, weightings, principles or
whatever, which constitutes their language – competence alias ‘the
speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language’ (Chomsky, 1965: 4). Speakers of
Lang5 English possess something that allows them to connect the world
outside to the concepts inside their minds in a particular way. Competence then
contrasts with performance – ‘the actual use of language in concrete
situations’ (Chomsky, 1965: 4). Partly the competence/performance distinction
recognises the difference between Lang3 sets of sentences and Lang5
mental knowledge, partly between competence as a declarative state and actual
Lang5 learning involves
what the L2 user knows: ‘the goal is to provide a clear and accurate account
of the learner’s competence’ (Ellis, 1994: 38). Lang5 is perhaps the most typical
meaning of ‘language’ underlying SLA research, as stressed in Firth and
Wagner (1997). If mental knowledge is equated with Chomskyan linguistic
competence, the problem has always been how this relates to performance. Data
from any form of performance is dubious evidence for competence, a gap as hard
to bridge in
language as action
Lang6 tradition of language as a form of action goes from
Malinowski’s language ‘is a mode of action and not an instrument of
reflection’ (Malinowski, 1923: 312) through to Schegloff et al (2002: 5),
‘People use language and concomitant forms of conduct to do
things, not only to transmit information’. Language as action is an integral
part of Vygotskyan theory: language starts as external social action by the
child and development consists of internalising this external action (Vygotsky,
1934/62). In a sense this might seem to combine other meanings already
discussed, say elements of external Lang3 with social Lang4 and
mental Lang5. There is nevertheless a tenable view that language is a
set of observable actions, an external cultural construction.
Lang6 learning is
about how people act in second languages: ‘a competence-in-action… socially
situated, collaboratively established and contingent with regard to other
competencies’ (Pekarek Doehler,
2006), distinct both from the neutral descriptions of Lang3 and from
the community-based Lang4 in its assertion of an individual
its Vygotskyan guise, ‘sociocultural research
seeks to study mediated mind’ (Lantolf, 2000: 18).
an orthogonal point has to be mentioned that, whichever meaning of
‘language’ is used,
come back to the general argument, the six meanings of ‘language’ can now be
applied to language learning. Tomasello (2003: 7) for example states ‘the
principles and structures whose existence is difficult to explain without
universal grammar … are theory-internal affairs and simply do not exist in
usage-based theories of language – full stop’. Exactly: statements about
Lang3 are not statements about Lang5,
any more than swallows are fish; why should they be? The usual linguists'
criticisms of connectionism are, not that it is wrong: but that it is not about
language as conceived of by linguists; Lang3 and Lang5 are
incompatible once again but is that a reason for denying a universe in which
other words, views of language learning based on a particular meaning
of ‘language’ are often incompatible with views of language learning based
on another. Only those who are proselytising for the dominance of a particular
view of language need to spend time arguing it against all rivals; most of
us can continue to cultivate our own gardens without throwing weedkiller
over the fence into the next. Paradis (2009: 3) talks of:
the arrogant attitude of those who are convinced that they hold the Truth and
who treat anyone with diverging views as muddleheaded, using intimidation to
impose their views – only to discover a decade or less later that they were
wrong, at which point they go on to defend and try to impose the new Truth with
the same determination and contempt for diverging views.
people agree on the underlying meaning of
‘language’, these arguments are unwinnable – or both sides claim victory
because the opposition cannot account for some aspect of language learning whose
very existence the other denies, say the Lang1 principles denied by
usage-based learning or the Lang5 abstract structures denied by
connectionists. Take the continuing debate initiated by Firth and Wagner (1997:
is little point in refuting a theory based on one idea about language with
arguments based on another. Wagner and Firth (2007) document the reactions to
their original paper, which amount largely to ‘my view of language is
Kasper, Poulisse and Gass … lay down the law by defining SLA’s ‘proper’
intellectual territory (e.g., ‘learners’, ‘language’, ‘cognition’),
delineating its ‘key concerns’ (e.g., ‘acquisition’, not ‘use’,
‘language’, not ‘communication’), and by pointing to its borders (e.g.,
by stipulating what is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ SLA).
the Feyerabend approach to science, all avenues should be explored
simultaneously (Feyerabend, 1975).
more subtle danger is switching from one meaning
to another in the course of discussion. Let us take a seminal SLA paper by Diane
Larsen-Freeman (1997) to try to demonstrate how SLA research employs multiple meanings
of ‘language’; this paper brought to SLA research for the first time the
ideas of chaos theory and started an influential line of thinking to this day.
It consisted half of a presentation of chaos theory, half of speculations how
these ideas might be used in
6 presents a selection of citations for the word ‘language’ from the paper
arrayed according to the meaning of
‘language’ they seem to use. While this is hard to do, some clearly belong
more to one meaning of language than another.
Statements like ‘language is a fractal’ (p.150) presumably belong to Lang1
human language; statements about change like ‘anything borrowed into the
language’ (p.150) seem to refer to Lang2 abstract entities; many of
the uses of ‘language’ envisage it as a constantly changing pool of elements
‘every time language is used, it changes’ (p.148), clearly a Lang3
view of language as a set of actually occurring pieces of spoken or written
text. Lang4 community is implied by the attribution of ‘proficient
speakers of a given language’ (p.151), Lang5 mental state by ‘UG
the initial state of human language’ (p.150). The recognition that ‘language
is a dynamic system’ (p.147) and similar claims seems to belong to Lang6
language as action.
is also complex’ p.149; ‘if language is as complex as it is’ p.154
is a fractal’ p.150; ‘the fractality of language’ p.150
and language acquisition
are like other complex systems in the physical sciences’ p.152
like all natural languages, are unstable’ p.156
changes which languages undergo diachronically’ p.147
source language, the target language’ p.151
borrowed into the language’ p.150
can be conceptualised as aggregations of paradigmatic and syntagmatic
time language is used, it changes’ p.148
use and language change are inseparable’ p.158
law is not only applicable to a language in general’ p.150
speakers of a given language’ p.151
might call UG the initial state of human language’ p.150
do we not each wind up each creating our own language…?’ p.153
as a dynamic system’ p.147
grows and organises itself from the bottom up in an organic way’ p.148
2 ‘language’ in Larsen-Freeman 1997
other words the paper shifts through the gamut of meanings
of ‘language’. Chaos theory affects our ideas of the nature of language, of
individual language change, of language as a set of sentences,
of language in the community and in the mind, and of language in action. Yet the
arguments for human language being fractal are not necessarily the same as those
for chaos theory applying to a set of sentences
or to the changes in a named language like English, and so on. The illusion is
that all the uses of ‘language’ are about the same thing, amounting to a
sleight-of-hand, equivalent to saying ‘I’m just popping out to the bank’
and returning a week later having visited the Dogger Bank in the
now turn to the word ‘second’ in ‘second language learning’. The rare
discussions of this in
kinds of order could ‘first’ and ‘second’ represent?
- official first language by fiat
has often used ‘first’ and ‘second’ language alongside ‘official’
language. Countries adopt their national languages by constitution – the
European Union currently has 23 official languages, having the most multilingual
institutions in the world (De Swaan, 2001: 144). In Canada, ‘English
and French … have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to
their use’ (Official Languages Act, 2006: preamble); all Canadian
citizens belong to one or other or both of the two official language communities
regardless of mother tongue (Churchill, 2004). The official language of a
country has little to do with whether many people speak it as their Lang4
or Lang5; French is the official language of .
languages are examples of countable Lang2 nation-bound entities: it
is taken for granted that the language of
first and second as sequence of acquisition
numbering of languages may also correspond to the
chronological order of an individual’s development or acquisition: ‘the
learning of the “second” language takes place sometime later than the
acquisition of the first language’ (Mitchell
& Myles, 1998: 1). The first language is thus acquired before the
second in the lifetime of the individual; Joseph Conrad learnt Polish before he
learnt French, making Polish his L1, French his L2. This applies both to the
individual gaining membership of a second Lang4 community and to them
gaining a second Lang5 mental system: one language comes before
another in their life-history. Simultaneous early bilingualism in which the baby
handles two languages from birth is something else, covered in Swain’s
memorable phrase ‘bilingualism as a first language’ (Swain, 1972).
use of ‘second’ should not be taken too literally. Many sources maintain
that it subsumes later languages; Doughty and Long (2003: 3)
of acquisition thus involves several meanings of ‘language’. One is the
official standard language that the person encounters first, a Lang2,
English before French say. A second is the Lang4 community the person
belongs to first compared to a community they join later, say the Chinese
community in Singapore before the English-speaking bilingual community. A third
is the Lang5 mental system that the person acquires after their first
multi-competence approach argues, however, that the mind is a single linguistic
system at some level; it is arbitrary to divide up this complex mental system
into bits labelled ‘first’ and ‘second’ rather than treating it as a
first and second by priority
and ‘second’ can also be a matter of value judgement: something which comes
first is better than something which comes second – ‘first choice’,
‘First Lady’, ‘first class degree’. Your first language is the language
you command best; your second is therefore worse: ‘ “second language”
indicates a lower level of actual or perceived proficiency’ (Stern, 1983: 13).
much-explored topic over the years has been language dominance: ‘We use the
terms "first language" and "second language" to refer to
relative language dominance’ (Chee et al, 2004: 15270). This could be the
dominance of one Lang4 community over another: ‘A language used by
a socio-economically dominant group in society or which has received a political
or cultural status superior to that of other languages in the community’ (Hamers
& Blanc, 2000: 373). French was the dominant language in
often, dominance has meant psychological dominance of one Lang5
language in the individual mind – ‘the second, and less dominant,
language’ (van Hell &
Dijkstra, 2002: 780). Considerable effort was expended
to establish a speaker’s dominant language, reviewed in Flege et al (2002),
for example the test batteries by Lambert (1955), leading to the concept of
balanced bilinguals as ‘those equally fluent in two languages’
(Grosjean, 1982: 233). However the L2 repertoire of an
L2 user may be wider than their L1; they cannot be judged just on how well they
can carry out L1 functions in the L2: Greek students in
senses of dominance give priority to the first language. The dominance of one
community over another is not relevant to multilingual
communities where several languages are in balance. As Canagarajah (2005: 16)
Although the now discredited notions such as native speaker or mother tongue speaker require us to identify ourselves according to our parental language or language of infancy, even the alternatives such as L1 and L2 force us to identify a single language as receiving primacy in terms of our time of acquisition or level of competence.
does the dominance of one Lang5 language in the individual’s mind
square with the idea that the two languages form an interrelated system. It is
only in these senses that your first language may change into your second when
it becomes dominant in your external or internal life; otherwise a second
language will remain second for evermore.
and foreign by situation
can now come back to the second versus foreign language distinction, introduced
into EFL teaching in the 1950s (Howatt, 1984). A typical definition can be found
in Klein (1986: 19):
“foreign language’ is used to denote a language acquired in a milieu where
it is normally not in use … A “second language” on the other hand, is one
that becomes another tool of communication alongside the first language; it is
typically acquired in a social environment in which it is actually spoken.
incorporates two contrasts. One is function: a second language meets a
real‑life need of the L2 user, say to communicate with the majority
community – a Chinese speaker using English in Newcastle upon Tyne; a foreign
language fulfils no current need for the speaker – a
SLA discussion does not take the second/foreign distinction on board, either
rejecting it explicitly (Mitchell & Myles, 1998: 2), or playing safe by
referring to ‘the learner
of a second or foreign language’ (Council of Europe, 1997: 12), or using
alternative formulations such as ‘first’ versus ‘foreign’ (Johnson,
2001). The second/foreign distinction is far from transparent. I used to teach
English as a Foreign Language in
Groot & Hell (2005: 25) perceive a difference between North American usage,
where a language not native to a country can be either ‘foreign’ or
‘second’, and British usage, where ‘foreign’ means not spoken in a
country and ‘second’ means not ‘native’ but used widely as medium of
communication, say English in Nigeria. There is the additional confusion that
what is referred to as ‘foreign language teaching’ in North America is often
called ‘modern language teaching’ in
distinction was useful for EFL teachers in capturing two broad perspectives on
their work. It applies most easily to languages that are confined to one locale:
Finnish is either a foreign language outside
wide variety of people are learning second languages in diverse
situations for multiple functions. ‘First’ or ‘second’ language
are historical terms inadequate to cover the complexity of language in our
societies and in our minds. The second/foreign language distinction
oversimplifies the myriad dimensions of second language learning, as the papers
in VanPatten and Lee (1990) bear out. In particular it applies uneasily to
heritage language learning where people are acquiring a language that is
culturally important to them, say Mandarin for those of Chinese origin (who may
speak other Chinese dialects such as Cantonese), or Polish for those of Polish
descent in London: 140,000
people are attending heritage Chinese classes in the United States (Brecht &
Rivers, 2005). The reason for learning a heritage language is not primarily to
use it as a second or foreign language but to identify with a particular
cultural tradition. Similarly while school teaching of a modern language has
often been seen as involving a ‘foreign’ language, many students will never
use it for second or foreign purposes; it is just a subject on the academic
curriculum, neither second nor foreign.
researchers manage perfectly well without the second/foreign distinction. Ellis
(1994: 12) nevertheless claims ‘it is possible there will be radical
differences in both what is learnt and how it is learnt’ in second and foreign
situations. True as this may be, without more evidence, we cannot tell if this
two-way distinction is more crucial than any of the others. Cook (2009) argues
for a spectrum of at least six groups of language users. Rather than a simple
opposition of second and foreign, we need multiple distinctions to capture the
range of people acquiring second languages. While SLA research is doubtless
stuck with the word ‘second’ in its name, this does not means it cannot be
more rigorous in the ways it actually approaches the diverse situations of
second language learning.
paper has tried to demonstrate that discussion of second language learning
depends on getting straight what is learnt and the
circumstances in which it is learnt, i.e. ‘language’ and ‘second’.
Communication depends on a shared set of meanings,
whether between people or between rival theories of language learning. There may
be occasions when different meanings of
‘second language’ can be fruitfully combined. But in each case it has to be
shown that there is sufficient compatibility between them. Without agreement
over ‘second language’,
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