LINGUIST List 14.2780

Wed Oct 15 2003

Review: Psycholing:/Herdina & Jessner (2002)

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  1. Guillaume Gentil, A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism

Message 1: A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism

Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2003 15:12:51 +0000
From: Guillaume Gentil <>
Subject: A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism

Herdina, Philip and Ulrike Jessner (2002). A Dynamic Model of
Multilingualism: Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics,
Multilingual Matters.

Announced at

Guillaume Gentil, Modern Language Centre, OISE/University of Toronto

Herdina and Jessner's volume aims to propose a novel psycholinguistic
model of multilingualism from a dynamic systems perspective informed
by chaos and complexity theory that helps to explain and predict the
psycholinguistic dynamics of multilingualism. Multilingualism being
here broadly defined as including monolingual systems, second and
third language acquisition, as well as bilingualism and trilingualism,
the authors attempt to offer a coherent, unitary framework of
monolingual, bilingual, and multilingual development by drawing
together second language acquisition theory, bilingualism research,
and theories of dynamic systems that have been developed in biology,
physics, meteorology and psychology. The cross-disciplinary nature of
the book reflects the complementary research interests of the two
authors in dynamic systems theory and model development (Herdina), and
in third language acquisition and trilingualism (Jessner).

The book is divided into 9 chapters. The first five chapters provide
an overview of former and current research on second language
acquisition and bilingualism, highlighting major insights, unresolved
issues, and problematic theoretical assumptions. The remaining
chapters develop a dynamic model of multilingualism by attempting to
link dynamic systems approaches to development of multilingualism.
Chapter 1 briefly previews the focus and scope of the book. It is
clear from these introductory remarks that the book is primarily
intended for specialists in second language acquisition theory,
bilingualism, and cognitive linguistics, but might also be of interest
to advanced students of theoretical linguistics, psycholinguistics,
and applied linguistics.

Chapter 2 reviews the main developments of research into bilingualism.
Highlighting the impact of Peal and Lambert's study on the field, the
authors contrast earlier attempts to attribute the relative
underachievement of bilinguals compared to monolinguals to
interference or negative transfer, interlanguage, and fossilization,
with later attempts by Cummins and others to explain contradictory
evidence of the positive and negative effects of bilingualism on
cognitive and linguistic development by means of various constructs
(threshold hypothesis, common underlying proficiency, BICS/CALP).

The notion of transfer is further taken up in chapter 3. Starting from
the premise that a multilingual system is not reducible to multiple
multilingualism, the authors question the traditional distinction
between transfer in SLA research and codeswitching in bilingualism
research as the unfortunate consequence of a disciplinary division of
labour. In its stead, they propose to view transfer, interference,
codeswitching, and borrowing as different forms of the
''crosslinguistic interactions'' or ''CLIN'' that have been
empirically documented and which a dynamic-systemic model of
multilingual development must explain.

Chapter 4 focuses on UG theories of language competence and language
acquisition. Herdina and Jessner point out the difficulties of the
parameter-resetting hypothesis and other UG models in explaining a
series of empirically observed phenomena such as the partial
achievement of second language learners, the individual variability of
language competence over time, and crosslinguistic interactions within
multilingual systems. Questioning UG assumptions about the modularity
of the mind and the linearity of language development, they argue for
a wholistic view of multilingualism as proposed by Cook and Grosjean.

In chapter 5, the authors lay the grounds for a new theorization of
multilingual proficiency by highlighting current, unresolved issues in
multilingualism and third language acquisition research. The chapter
begins with an attempt to clarify the concepts of language competence,
language proficiency, and multilingual proficiency. Competence is
defined as an individual's internalized and mostly tacit knowledge of
a specific language system, whereas proficiency refers to the
individual's ability to consistently apply this knowledge in
particular contexts of interlocution. Consistent with their holistic
and system- theoretic approach to multilingualism, the authors do not
equate multilingual proficiency with the sum of monolingual
proficiencies. Rather, they defend the view that multilingual
proficiency should be considered as a speaker's ability to use two or
more dynamically interdependent language sub-systems whose constant
interactions create new structures and emergent properties that are
not found in monolingual systems.

Chapters 6 and 7 represent the core of the book, in which a dynamic
model of multilingualism is developed. Chapter 6 begins with an
introduction to dynamic systems theory and its application to language
development. Specifically, properties of dynamic systems such as non-
linearity, reversibility, stability, and change of quality are
considered in relation to language development. For instance, it is
argued that sine curves, rather than straight lines, offer a better,
though idealized representation of the non-linear development of
biological systems, including language systems, with a lag phase
followed by a period of exponential growth, then linear growth, and
finally levelling off. Different phases of development are attributed
to expected qualitative changes in the organization of biological
systems as new structures are predicted to suddenly arise from
iterative feedback loops, autocatalysis, and constant interactions
among systems, sub-systems, and the environment. Discontinuous changes
in the system from one steady state to another could in turn provide
an explanation for threshold phenomena in language and cognitive
development, thereby providing support for Cummins's threshold

Central to Herdina and Jessner's argument is the view that biological
systems are adaptive structures that can grow and decay in response to
the conditions of the environment. In the case of language systems,
the environment pressure is conceived of as a speaker's effective and
perceived communicative needs in a particular society. That is,
''effort'' or ''energy'' is constantly required to maintain a language
system, and speakers adjust their ''general language effort'' (GLE) to
their communicative needs. If their language effort is lower than the
effort required for the maintenance of a system (''language
maintenance effort'' or LME), then the system decays. If it is higher,
then there is growth. Arguably, maintaining two or more language
systems require more effort than just maintaining one, especially if,
as Herdina and Jessner hypothetize, LME exhibits second order growth
in the case of multilingual systems. This line of reasoning leads the
authors to explain transitional bilingualism as the expected
adjustment of a speaker's language effort in the transition from one
monolingual society to another. Positing the ''principle of economy of
effort or least effort,'' Herdina and Jessner further argue that
balanced bilingualism is ''most unlikely to remain a steady state in
the speaker's system'' (p. 102). Rather, monolingualism is assumed to
be ''the natural state of a speaker'' (p. 103). However, the authors
concede that certain kinds of individual multilingualism may confer an
adaptive advantage in multilingual societies. For instance, stable
dominant bilingualism and passive bilingualism may represent optimal
steady states in that only needed language competences are maintained.
Similarly, fossilization might be viewed as an equilibrium state
resulting from the adjustment of the language effort to the
proficiency level necessary for specific communicative functions. That
is, the authors argue, the disadvantages of a reduced language
competence may be outweighed by the ''disproportionally larger drop in
required language maintenance'' (p. 114).

Another trait of dynamic systems that Jessner and Herdina bring to
bear on multilingual development is that emergent properties are
predicted to result from synergetic, antagonistic, and autocatalytic
effects. The authors suggest two kinds of emergent properties in
multilingual systems with possibly antagonistic effects on
multilingual development: the M-factor and CLIN. The M-factor or
Multilingualism factor is related to research evidence of the
cognitive and linguistic advantages of multilingualism especially in
terms of multilinguals' increased ''metalanguage abilities'' (''MLA'')
and ''enhanced (multi)language monitor'' (''EMM''). Such enhanced
language management abilities could be construed as emergent
properties of multilingual systems that might in turn explain the
facilitative impact of second language acquisition on subsequent
language acquisition. However, interactions between language
sub-systems within a multilingual system can also be predicted to
result in a series of interferences (''CLIN'') that may negatively
affect each language sub-system and multilinguals' language
performances. Thus, the CLIN variable and the M-factor could shed
light on both the positive and negative consequences of
multilingualism on cognitive and language development.

Along this line of reasoning, the authors re-interpret multilingual
proficiency as a function of an individual speaker's competences in
particular languages (Cn), CLIN, and MLA. Specifically, they propose
that whereas a multilingual speaker's competence in a particular
language may be lower than that of a monolingual speaker, multilingual
speakers' actual performances in the language may be superior than if
predicted solely on the basis of their language competences provided
that their MLA can effectively compensate for a lower Cn and the
disturbance effect of CLIN. Thus, the authors argue, Chomsky's
distinction between performance and competence is insufficient since
it overlooks the systematic source of variability in multilingual
performances that can be attributed to multilingual speakers' language
management abilities (MLA) and crosslinguistic interactions (CLIN) in
addition to attainment in a particular language (Cn). To overcome the
performance/competence dichotomy, Jessner and Herdina further propose
to view language competence (knowledge of language resources) and
language proficiency (ability to use these resources) as a subset of a
speaker's overall ''communicative efficiency.'' Communicative
efficiency is defined as how well a speaker can communicate in a
particular environment and is therefore a function of the speaker's
adaptability to the environment. Thus, in a monolingual society, a
bilingual's language proficiency will be measured up to a monolingual
speaker's proficiency. In a multilingual society, however,
communicative efficiency is measured in terms of well a speaker can
communicate in either one or several languages. ''Using a bilingual
measure,'' Jessner and Herdina point out, ''monolingual speaker must
be considered merely half as efficient as the bilingual speaker''
(p. 128).

In the conclusion of chapter 7, Jessner and Herdina mention other
factors that should be considered to complete a dynamic model of
multilingualism, factors such as motivation, anxiety, self-esteem, and
perceived language competence. The complex interactions of these
factors with the M-factor, the general language effort, and
communicative needs add to the complexity of dynamic multilingual

In chapter 8, the authors further develop their argument against the
modular view of language competence assumed by UG theorists in favour
of a holistic view. However, they also distinguish their ''holistic''
approach from Cook's ''wholistic'' model of multicompetence in that,
unlike the latter, they view a multilingual language system as a
supra- system involving the interaction of separate language systems
rather than as a unitary system without differentiation of language
sub- systems.

The last chapter concludes with a review of other, related approaches
to language acquisition, including emergentism and connectionism,
points to a few questions left unanswered by the proposed model, and
suggests implications for language education and language planning.

As a whole, Herdina and Jessner's dynamic model of multilingualism
offers an innovative, persuasive, and coherent framework that sheds
new light on various and at times apparently contradictory phenomena
associated with multilingualism. Of particular interest is the
authors' attempt to explain individual changes in language competences
over time, especially gradual language loss, an aspect of language
development which, as the authors rightly point out, has been
overlooked by bilingualism and language acquisition research. At the
same time, while offering new insights on hitherto poorly explained
phenomena, the book also leaves many questions unanswered and will
undoubtedly provoke further debates. In particular, although
convincing, the book's pointed critique of UG and modular perspectives
on bilingualism should call for a response. Thus, while they view the
development of bilingual systems as resulting from the interactions of
two language systems with the linguistic environment, the authors
appear to overlook important differences in the development of morpho-
syntactic, lexical, and academic knowledge among
bilinguals. Similarly, their review of Cummins's framework emphasizes
the significance of the common underlying proficiency but downplays
the bicompetence model of BICS and CALP. Yet, research evidence by
Francis (2000, 2002) of differences in bilinguals' development of
conversational and academic abilities, syntactic and lexical
knowledge, provides strong support for a modular model of cognitive
and language development. To account for these differences, Herdina
and Jessner's model might be revised to conceive of bilingual
development as resulting from the interactions of multiple
sub-systems, including graphophonemic, syntactic, lexical, semantic,
and 'textual' or 'genre' systems, each sub-system in one language
system interacting variously with other sub-systems within the same
language system (LS1) and the other language system (LS2). Within such
a model, the degree of interdependence or modularity of the sub-
systems remains an open question.

Adopting an essentially psycholinguistic perspective on
multilingualism, Herdina and Jessner may also be taken to task for
their limited attempt at integrating the societal and sociopolitical
contexts of multilingualism into their model. Arguably, in the opening
and closing pages of their book, they make due mention of the
importance of relating multilingualism to issues of identity,
politics, and multiculturalism, yet they deliberately choose to
disregard these issues and contexts as not part of their discussion of
a psycholinguistic model. This is surprising given that one central
tenet of their systemic approach to multilingualism is that individual
language development is an adaptive response to the environment.
Perhaps, a better understanding of the interdependence of the socio-
political and psycholinguistic dimensions of multilingualism would
require a re-conceptualization of this adaptive response. That is,
Herdina and Jessner's suggestion that language systems develop as a
function of the speaker's communicative needs in a given societal
context seems to miss the point that language may serve many other
social functions than just communication. In particular, languages can
be used for social distinction, negotiation of power and identity, as
well as a means of access to unevenly distributed material and
symbolic resources. Fundamentally, languages mediate humans'
relationship to the world in such a way that, unlike other biological
systems, humans not only adapt to the world but also interpret it
(Taylor, 1985). Admittedly, Herdina and Jessner argue that speakers
adjust their language effort to their perceived, rather than
effective, communicative needs, in such a way that perceived needs can
be shaped by ''contrary social or psychological pressures leading to
the adoption of a more cumbersome multilingual communicative system''
(p. 103). However, the conceptualisation of these ''pressures'' and
of the relationship between perceived and effective needs remains
undertheorized. In this respect, Bourdieu's (1982) concepts of habitus
and field, or Vygostky's (1934/1962) theory of mediated development,
may prove useful. Thus, Herdina and Jessner may have provided a
framework of multilingualism that better integrates the
psycholinguistic and social dimensions of language development, if,
instead of turning exclusively to psycholinguistic and biological
models, they had also considered social and sociocultural theories of
human behaviour.

Such a ''social turn,'' however, would require a complete overhaul of
the concept of language competence, especially the assumption that
language competence can be abstracted from the social conditions of
its production and thus ''evaluated against an idealised endpoint, the
well- educated native speaker'' (p. 57). I find particularly
problematic the authors' statement that language erosion is ''more
likely to affect less well-educated and/or less communicatively
oriented speakers'' (p. 104). Perhaps would it be more appropriate to
state that ''less well-educated speakers'' are less likely to attain
and maintain the sort of language competences that are valued among
''academically educated'' circles, but not necessarily less likely to
sustain the ''vernacular'' and yet possibly as complex competences and
repertoires that matter to them in their social worlds. Interestingly,
Herdina and Jessner explicitly reject ''mentalist'' models of human
behaviour in favour of a more ''systemic and holistic view of both
humans and their societies'' (p. 154), and yet, they seem to make
some of these very mentalistic assumptions when they view language
systems as located in individual minds. Another, related tension I see
in Herdina and Jessner's book centres on whether or not they espouse
interpretative or explanatory research paradigms. That is to say,
advocating a ''Post-Popperian methodology'' the authors present their
model as a useful ''metaphor'' which should enable researchers to make
better sense of seemingly contradictory phenomena (p. 153). At the
same time, they also aim for an explicatory model that, rather than
being ''a useful analogy'' (p. 158), allows predictions to be made
and tested about the development of the language systems; yet wouldn't
the making and testing of predictions presuppose falsifiable
hypotheses and, therefore, a Popperian epistemology?

Concerning the readability of the book, the numerous graphs, equations
and other figures greatly help to follow the authors' arguments.
Despite these illustrations, however, the book remains dense and may
therefore not be readily accessible to a variety of audiences
including administrators, policy makers, and language educators. The
text might have benefited from being revised for improved reader
friendliness. Some sentences appear needlessly long or heavily
nominalized. Despite the current tendency to use commas sparingly in
English, setting off long sentence-initial adverbials from the subject
with a comma still helps processing the sentence without having to
read it twice. Furthermore, the acronyms are numerous and sometimes
confusing (Is the M-factor the same as MLA? Shouldn't BLS be a
function of a CLIN variable since a bilingual system is assumed to be
different from the simple sum of two monolingual
systems?). Particularly confusing to me was the discussion of the
distinction between language competence and language proficiency in
chapter 5; the distinction becomes somewhat clearer in chapter 7, with
the help of the equations, even though the relationships between BLS
and BC, LSn and Cn, could have been made more explicit. Last, although
the authors can be credited for offering a comprehensive and critical
survey of the literature in the first half of the book, I wonder
whether introducing systems theory first and then discussing its
implications for current bilingualism research might have provided a
clearer and shorter exposition of the model. This is the organization
that Larsen-Freeman (1997) has adopted in her discussion of the
relevance of chaos/complexity theory to second language acquisition,
and I would recommend her article as a preliminary reading to Herdina
and Jessner's book.

These few caveats notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Herdina and
Jessner's Dynamic Model of Multilingualism provides a significant and
welcome contribution to theoretical development in language
acquisition and multilingualism. This volume deserves a close reading
and should become a reference in discussions of multilingualism.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Professors Alister Cumming and
Norman Labrie, OISE/University of Toronto, for their comments on this
review. Any shortcomings are my responsibility alone.


Bourdieu, P. (1982). Ce que parler veut dire: L'�conomie des
�changes linguistiques. Paris: Fayard.

Francis, N. (2000). The shared conceptual system and language
processing in bilingual children: Findings from literacy assessment in
Spanish and Nahuatl. Applied Linguistics, 21, 170-205.

Francis, N. (2002). Modular perspectives on
bilingualism. International Journal of Bilingual Education and
Bilingualism, 5(3), 141-160.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997). Chaos/complexity science and second
language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18, 141-165.

Taylor, C. (1985). Human agency and language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1962/1934). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.


Guillaume Gentil is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Modern
Language Centre, Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University
of Toronto. He conducts research on bilingual writers' development of
academic biliteracy in school and university contexts.
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