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Review of A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics
Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2003 09:23:00 -0400 From: Guillaume Gentil Subject: A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics
Herdina, Philip and Ulrike Jessner (2002). A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics, Multilingual Matters.
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 hypothesis.
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 systems.
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'économie des échanges 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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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.