LINGUIST List 14.1391

Thu May 15 2003

Review: Language Acquisition: Kecskes (2002)

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  1. Jes�s Romero, Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2

Message 1: Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2

Date: Thu, 15 May 2003 13:21:07 +0000
From: Jes�s Romero <>
Subject: Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2

Kecskes, Istvan (2002) Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2, Mouton
de Gruyter, Studies on Language Acquisition 19.

Announced at

Jes�s Romero Trillo, Universidad Aut�noma de Madrid

First and second languages have something in common that transcends
any linguistic theory: the same speaker. This direct, but not always
obvious, statement might be the cornerstone of the approach to
Situation-Bound utterances (SBU's) in bi-and multilingual speakers
presented in this book.

Kecskes' work represents an eclectic attempt to depict the L1 and L2
phenomena without any concessions to the traditionally accepted
ancillary nature of the latter, and the presumed superiority of the
former. He defends from the beginning of the book his ''strong belief
that monolingual approaches and theories are not the best means to
explain second language use and bi-and multilingual development''
(p.1). In my opinion, this is the key to the development of Kecskes'
theory: ''The emergence of another language directs attention to the
bi- directional influence between the two languages, highlights the
decisive role of the interplay of language and culture in shaping
meaning, and shifts the explanatory movement from the linguistic level
to the conceptual level'' (p.1).

How is this possible? Can we accept that a bilingual speaker is
cognitively better equipped than the mere addition of a one-plus-one
language user? Yes and no -the author would answer- this depends on
the level of development of the cognitive impedimenta that the
individual has internalised which, as the book points out, does not
always correlate with the language proficiency in the L2.

The book delves into the explanation of this dilemma starting from a
step-by-step explanation of Situation-Bound utterances as the skeleton
of the model. It first describes the linguistic journey of L2 learners
from use to meaning and from use to concept, concluding that L2
awareness can only be shaped in use, and this use within a certain
culture which, by definition, is always different from the L1.The
notion of culture enters at this point with impetus since the main
interest of situation-bound utterances is that they are formulae
anchored to a specific context.

At this point Kecskes admits that language is multi-faceted and, as
such, there cannot be only one lens to look at it. Therefore, he
advocates for the reconciliation of the cognitive-pragmatic approaches
in this multilingual arena; and he calls for the work in unison of the
study of mind and function in the multilingual zone. For this purpose,
the author proposes the notion of the ''Common Underlying Conceptual
Base'' which would be responsible for the operation of two or more
languages in the speaker's mind. According to the author, this tool
would be at the source of the language process for one or more
languages and would have the capacity of melting and creating
meanings, taking into consideration the conceptual socialization and
conscious awareness processes proper to language learning.

The book then focuses on the meanings of SBU's and their presence in
real contexts, and how they contribute and reflect L2 acquisition from
a cognitive-pragmatic stance. To obtain a clarifying description of
this influence, the author proposes the Dynamic Model of Meaning (DMM)
as an alternative to the generative view that places the lexicon at
the origin of structure formation (Chomsky), and also as an
alternative to the cognitive approach which considers the analysis of
grammatical units only ''if there is information about the cultural
and sociolinguistic conventions that are necessary to interpret
grammatical patterns'' (p.16). The DMM proposes that ''a lexical item
both in context and without context... assimilates present
(synchronic) and past (diachronic) information, incorporates
conceptual and lexical properties, and has both permanent and
temporary aspects'' (p. 19), i.e., it views meaning as situated in
specific social and cultural practices.

In fact, multilingual speakers know that the problem in language
acquisition is manifested in the relationship between the concepts and
the lexicon. In other words, a lexical item can be learned but its
true conceptual representation in the L2 is not acquired until there
is a deeper cultural knowledge of the language. This leads to a
tri-level production system, connected to modularity approaches,
namely the ''grammatical, lexico-semantic and conceptual'' levels.

To obtain a better theoretical background on this issue, Kecskes makes
a relevant revision of the semasiological and onomasiological
approaches to language and revisits some of the classical problems,
like for example the definition vs. prototype approaches, in the light
of L2 learning in its contextual use. The point here is how this
context often adds extra meanings to words in what the author calls
Word -Specific Semantic Properties (WSP) situated cognitively at the
results-end of the cultural-conceptual-contextual language process.
This leads to the useful dichotomy presented by Kecskes: the
''coresense'' (basic conceptual and stable information), vs. the
''consense'' (the contextual, dynamic information) of a lexical unit.
This differentiation, carefully explained in the volume and then
applied to other language phenomena (synchronicity and diachronicity,
denotation vs. connotation etc..), opens a window from which the
reader may ook at the language-learning and use process from a safe
and elevated distance.

Obviously, this position demands the understanding of where the
communication processes take place: the context, its definition and
its limits. The book takes a bi-directional approach to the issue and
describes context as the selector of lexical units, and the lexical
unit as a creator of context. And, as in a painting, in the context
there is always something that is salient and attracts the attention
of the viewer. This salient feature is usually cognitively represented
by the frequency of use, as Romero Trillo (2001) showed in his
mathematical description of variation in discourse, and is the point
of departure of the description of a specific context of use.

Next, the book explains the conceptual origin of SBU's, their
functions and realization in different languages, their
characteristics in comparison with other linguistic elements, and
draws on the empirical results of varied data from several
languages. This detailed description opens paths for further research,
especially as a direct mention to second language learners and the
relationship between language and cultural distance is made.

The book then deals with the classical quandary about creativity vs.
repetition (formulaicity in Kesckes' terminology) in language, and its
relationship to language acquisition, to then move to the complex
issue of conceptual socialization and its relationship with SBU's. The
issue is treated from the perspective of social formulae and their
contribution to weave the social threads of a culture. Because of its
far-reaching implications, the insight is sketched out and opens a
field of research for sociolinguists and scholars interested in
language variation.

The book finishes by making a summary of the description of SBU's in
the author's interdisciplinary approach with an open proposal for
further research and discussion of the theory presented, something
which is always welcome.

One of the most important assets of this work, which I would like to
rescue, is the revision of some classical philosophical and linguistic
approaches to the problems discussed in the book. This enables the
reader to make a direct link with the origins of linguistics, showing
that current worries were also worries in the past, especially in the
case of the relationship between an L1 and and an L2 in the human


Romero Trillo, Jes�s (2001) A mathematical model for the analysis of
variation in discourse. Journal of Linguistics 37, 527-550.


Jes�s Romero Trillo is Associate Professor in the Department of
English Philology at Universidad Aut�noma de Madrid. He is interested
in interlanguage and intercultural pragmatics, discourse modelling and
corpus linguistics. Some of his recent publications have appeared in
the Journal of Pragmatics, Journal of Linguistics and International
Journal of Corpus Linguistics.
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