LINGUIST List 11.1985

Wed Sep 20 2000

Review: Kecskes & Papp: Foreign Lang & Mother Tongue

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  1. Ingrid Piller, Kecskes Review

Message 1: Kecskes Review

Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 19:55:46 +1000
From: Ingrid Piller <>
Subject: Kecskes Review

Kecskes, Istvan, and Tunde Papp. (2000) Foreign Language and Mother Tongue,
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. xxv+148pp. $39.95

Reviewed by Ingrid Piller, University of Sydney

The central concern of this volume is the effect that foreign language
learning (FLL) has on the development and use of the first language (L1).
Many people, like myself, who were told throughout many years of intensive
Latin learning in high school that being able to read and write in Latin
would boost our overall cognitive and linguistic skills, probably have no
doubt whatsoever that FLL is of benefit beyond the learning of another
language. However, this continental European common sense notion that higher
education and FLL go together is not as widely shared in the US. Therefore,
the research of Istvan Kecskes and Tunde Papp, which goes a long way to
prove that FLL can indeed enhance L1 skills, is a most welcome addition to
the literature in Educational Linguistics, Second Language Learning (SLL),
Bilingualism, and Cognitive Linguistics.


The Preface (ix-xxv) sets out the book's theoretical framework: drawing on
Cook's (1992) notion of multicompetence the authors point out that the
competence of multilinguals differs significantly and substantially from
that of monolinguals, and that FLL is best understood as one form of
multilingual development. Unfortunately, few researchers do indeed view FLL
as a form of multilingual development, and as a result the possibility of
transfer from the FL to the L1 in this setting tends to be ignored.
Ch. 1, "Mother Tongue and Subsequent Languages", (1-14), clarifies the basic
terms used in the book, such as "mother tongue", "foreign language" (learnt
in the classroom), and "second language" (learnt in its sociocultural
environment). Unlike the authors, I think that "mother tongue" is too
ideologically fraught to be of any use as a research term, which is why I am
departing in this review from the usage of the authors, and substitute
"mother tongue" with L1 in most cases.
The authors argue that FLL and SLL differ substantially in the fact that it
is skills which matter in the latter, while knowledge is focused upon in the
Ch. 2, "Foreign Language Influence on Written L1", (pp. 15-36), details a
research project in Hungary in which L1 (Hungarian) essays of students who
studied a FL (English, French or Russian) in an immersion program, in an
intensive program, and in a non-intensive program (three hours a week;
"control class") were collected over a time-span of almost three years. At
the beginning of the research project when students had just started in the
different FL programs, the syntactic complexity of their essays did not
differ significantly. However, in the long term, the Hungarian essays
written by the immersion and the intensive students increased much more in
syntactic complexity than did the essays of the students in the control
class. Thus, structural well-formedness in the L1 clearly benefits from
reaching threshold proficiency in an L2.
Ch. 3, "Language Processing Device of Multilinguals", (pp. 37-54), addresses
the question of the relation between the two language systems of a
bilingual. The authors argue that "the bilingual or multilingual Language
Processing Device (LPD) consists of two (or more) Constantly Available
Interacting Systems (CAIS) and has a Common Underlying Conceptual Base
(CUCB)" (p. 38). FLL does not only entail the acquisition of grammatical and
lexical knowledge but also the acquisition of conceptual knowledge, i.e.
knowledge about the ways in which concepts are encoded in the FL.
Conceptualization and language learning go hand in hand in the L1, and the
conceptual base is thus language-dependent. Thus, in order to become fluent,
FL learners need to adjust their conceptual base so that this partly
language-specific knowledge can be used through their L2 channel, too.
The next chapter, "Thought and Word", (pp. 55-72), discusses how this
reconceptualization can be achieved. Based on the assumption that the
conceptual base is a least partly language-specific, and that the L1 played
a crucial role in concept formation, the authors argue that a process of
"neutralization" of L1 concepts needs to occur for L2 concepts to get a foot
into the door. In the process of neutralization, L1 concepts are modified
under the influence of L2 concepts. The result is the unique conceptual
field of bi- and multilinguals which differs from that of monolinguals
because it represents a merger of the concepts of two or more languages.
Ch. 5, "Transfer of Skills in the LPD", (pp. 73-86), relates the authors'
findings from the Hungarian research project to the work of other
researchers in bilingualism who concur that bi- or multilinguals have a
metalinguistic advantage over monolinguals and are superior to monolinguals
in manipulating language for their communicative purposes. However, most
such research demonstrated these benefits for simultaneous childhood
bilinguals (e.g. Bialystock 1986) rather than for FL learners. The authors'
argument that positive transfer from the FL into the L1 does not entail
linguistic elements, but rather conceptual knowledge, cognitive skills, and
metalinguistic awareness, however, entails that these positive functions of
FLL can only be achieved by learners after age 10 or 11 when these
higher-level cognitive operations are usually thought to start occurring.
Ch. 6, "Language Distance and Multicompetence", (pp. 87-105), discusses how
language distance, whether objectively given in the form of typological
distance or subjectively perceived in the form of psychotypology, influences
the FLL process and its outcome, multicompetence. The authors suggest that
the acquisition of a more distant language is more beneficial than learning
a close language because the English and French learners in their Hungarian
study achieved slightly higher syntactic complexity in their Hungarian
essays than did the Russian learners. This difference might be do to the
fact that both Hungarian and Russian are free word-order languages, while
English and French are fixed word-order languages.
Ch. 7, "Pragmatic Knowledge of Multilinguals", (pp. 106-18), examines the
"Intercultural Style Hypothesis" put forward in Kasper and Blum-Kulka
(1993). According to this hypothesis bilinguals may create an intercultural
speech style for themselves which draws on both codes but is distinct from
either. Kecskes and Papp basically concur with this hypothesis but emphasize
the role of individual agency in pragmatic and discursive practices in the
L2. They argue that high levels of grammatical and lexical proficiency can
be achieved without acculturation but pragmatic and discourse proficiency is
predicated upon the identity choices learners make.
The conclusion (pp. 119-23) outlines three implications for educators:
namely, that the conceptual base of multilinguals is always dominated by one
language and that educational success depends upon one set of concepts being
fully in place before another one is added. Second, monolinguals and
multilinguals have different competences, and therefore tests developed for
monolinguals are useless for multilinguals. Third, FLs are not just another
school subject. They should be taught not just for themselves but also for
general educational enhancement and development.


For continental Europeans, and indeed most people of non-English speaking
backgrounds, to become educated means to become bi- or multilingual. And
this is not only due to utilitarian reasons but also to a strong belief that
learning languages brings cognitive and linguistic benefits. In German,
Goethe is often quoted as saying "Only someone who has learnt a foreign
language can truly understand their mother tongue", and Vygotsky claimed
almost a century ago that FLL can affect mental development positively
(Vygotsky 1934; 1962: 109). However, these insights have for a long time
been neglected in mainstream Linguistics and Applied Linguistics. It is the
strength of this book that it carefully examines the idea of educational
benefits inherent in FLL, and supports this common sense notion with the
authors' research and their review of a wide variety of research in the
field. Furthermore, it consistently favors a multilingual over a monolingual
perspective, and a cognitive-pragmatic perspective over a lexico-grammatical
one. Given the importance of the book's message, it would have deserved a
more accessible and reader-friendly style and more careful editing.


Bialystock, E. (1986). "Factors in the growth of linguistic awareness."
Child Development 57: 498-510.
Cook, V. (1992). "Evidence for multicompetence." Language Learning 42:
Kasper, G., and S. Blum-Kulka, Eds. (1993). Interlanguage Pragmatics.
Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1934; trans. 1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.


Ingrid Piller (Ph.D Dresden, 1995) has teaching and research interests in
Multilingualism and Second Language Learning, Sociolinguistics, Discourse
Analysis and Advertising Discourse, and Language and Gender.
Dr. Ingrid Piller
Linguistics Department, F12
University of Sydney
NSW 2006, Australia
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