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Review of  A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics

Reviewer: 'Guillaume Gentil' ['Guillaume Gentil'] Guillaume Gentil
Book Title: A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics
Book Author: Philip Herdina Ulrike Jessner
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Book Announcement: 14.2780

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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

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-

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'├ęconomie des ├ęchanges
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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