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Review of  Linguistic Relativity in SLA

Reviewer: Anne Marie Devlin
Book Title: Linguistic Relativity in SLA
Book Author: ZhaoHong Han Teresa Cadierno
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 22.649

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EDITORS: Han, ZhaoHong; Cadierno, Teresa
TITLE: Linguistic Relativity in SLA
SUBTITLE: Thinking for Speaking
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
YEAR: 2010

Anne Marie Devlin, Department of French, University College Cork


The purpose of this volume is to bring together current research on linguistic
relativity and Second Language Acquisition (SLA). It is a cross-linguistic
collection with data from Spanish, Russian, Danish, German, English, Polish and
Chinese. The volume explores the key area of motion as well as the
lesser-studied concepts of definiteness and number. It aims to establish
Slobin's (1996) thinking for speaking (TfS) hypothesis as a contending
hypothesis in SLA research -- more specifically as a plausible explanation for
the hitherto problematic areas of variable acquisitional outcomes and fossilization.

The volume consists of seven very different studies held together by a shared
belief in the importance of the thinking for speaking hypothesis and a weak form
of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Chapter 1 by Teresa Cadierno deals with the acquisition of manner of motion in
Danish L2. It draws on Talmy's (1985, 1991, 2000) typological distinction of
languages into 'verb-framed languages' (V-languages) and 'satellite-framed
languages' (S-languages). Cadierno's study is concerned with the impact of
typology on the acquisition of boundary-crossing events. The researcher
concludes that inter-typological differences between L1 and L2 play a much
bigger role than intra-typological differences and posits that L1 has an
influence on thinking for speaking patterns. Cadierno concludes by raising the
issue of the dual problem faced by L1 V-language speakers acquiring an L2
S-language -- namely the need: (1) to pay more attention to manner of movement
and to discriminate among new manners and, (2) to be able to do so in an
environment where manner is not salient.

Victoria Hasko continues the theme of motion and typology into Chapter 2. Hasko
again focuses on Slobin's 'thinking for speaking' framework and Talmy's
typology. However, she develops the theme to concentrate on intra-typological
differences, i.e. the differing concepts in directionality between two
'S-languages' -- English L1 and L2 Russian. In so doing, Hasko rejects the
universal view posited by Li and Gleitman (2002) that motion events are
transferred in a straightforward manner as they are programmed into our
biological nature and concludes that 'the expression of motion is a domain
particularly resistant to change' (p. 56). Russian, as opposed to English,
encodes (non)unidirectionality in motion verbs and Hasko argues that, in light
of results which point to significant differences in patterns of use between L1
English speakers and L1 Russian speakers, that L1 English speakers require a
'more complex and elaborate system for expressing motion' (p. 56) and therefore
need to reconceptualise their 'thinking-for-speaking'. She also points to the
need for pedagogical intervention in the area of (non)unidirectional verbs and a
general change in pedagogic orientation to make 'encoding in the conceptual
domains in L1 and L2 visible to the learner' (pp. 57-58).

Gale Stam's study in Chapter 3 once more focuses on two typologically different
languages -- English L2 and Spanish L1. In contrast to the preceding chapters,
this study examines the possibility of bi-directional 'rethinking for speaking'.
In this longitudinal study, Stam considers both spontaneous gestures and speech
as indications of change in TfS in motion events. Changes in the realisation of
path were noted in both language use and gesture. Changes to manner of motion
were not recorded. From the perspective of gesture, the researcher found
evidence of bi-directional change; however, linguistic change occurred only in
the L2. This leads Stam to conclude that thinking for speaking in L2 changes
both linguistically and gesturally for path. Stam likewise points to the
possibility of an order of acquisition and states that 'learners may acquire
first path then manner' (82).

Kenny Coventry, Berenice Valdés and Pedro Guijarro-Fuentes shift the focus from
motion events to memory and spatial relations in Chapter 4. Findings are
presented from three studies exploring conceptual shifts in the understanding of
support and containment relations in learners of English and Spanish at
different proficiency levels. The studies are conducted by means of visual
discrimination tasks based on memory. English and Spanish were chosen as they
differ in how the above relations are conceptualised. English separates support
and containment linguistically; whereas, in Spanish, they are conceptualised
through a single lexical unit. The studies failed to find any 'effect of
language on immediate recognition of spatial relations' (99). This failure does
not, however, lead the researchers to discard the thinking for speaking
framework, but rather to question the methodology of the experiments.

In Chapter 5, David Stringer makes a thematic return to motion events. However,
the focus moves from the experimental to the theoretical. Stringer rejects
Talmy's notion of parameter setting in 'S' and 'V'-framed languages as a basis
for TfS and, in its place, posits a lexical approach. He argues that conceptual
difficulties arise, not due to differing typologies, but rather to the glossing
of lexical items into L2 mismatches. Through a cross-linguistic study, Stringer
argues against the notion of equivalence between lexical items by positing that
lexical items are syntactically unique. Therefore a shift in TfS must happen at
the lexical level and not necessarily at the typological level.

Thematically, the discussion is broadened by Monika Erkiert in Chapter 6.
Erkiert moves away from the more traditional aspects of temporality, space and
motion which are most studied in a TfS framework to include the concept of
definiteness. The researcher also moves from TfS to thinking for writing. By
examining the use of articles and the meanings attached to their use in L1
Polish speakers learning English, Erkiert was able to establish a slight
thinking for writing effect at the level of referent identifiability

ZhaoHong Han continues and expands the aforementioned theme into Chapter 7. Han,
as in the previous chapter, focuses on +Art/-Art languages -- in this case
English and Chinese respectively. However, she develops the theme by linking it
to the acquisition of plural marking in English in the hope of shedding light on
intra-learner variability. Results show concurrent target-like use, under- and
over-use of both articles and plural marking despite the informant having not
only extensive and intensive exposure to English, but also the necessary
meta-linguistic awareness. These findings lead Han to conclude that this pattern
has fossilized and can be explained by the fact that the 'subject's mind remains
L1-relativised' (p. 181).

The various strands of this collection are brought together by a conclusion by
Terence Odlin in which he explains key concepts and ideas. It includes examples
drawn from the previous chapters as well as from additional material and
concludes with a look at other approaches to linguistic relativity.


The volume succeeds in acquainting the reader with the theory of thinking for
speaking; however, the content is slightly compromised by organizational and
thematic issues.

The first 'section' -- chapters 1-3 -- is devoted to articles investigating
'thinking for speaking' in relation to motion events. The studies complement
each other well with each adding more depth to the field. However, the
following 'section' -- chapters 4 and 5 -- has organizational and thematic
incongruities. Chapter 4 represents the only study focused on spatial relations.
In a volume concerned with the need for 'thinking for speaking' and SLA, it is
perplexing to find that the only paper dealing with such an important issue as
reconceptualising spatial relations is one relating to an experiment that
couldn't be carried out as the researchers (as they openly admit) failed to
establish conceptual differences between the L1s. The paper is, of course,
valuable but somehow its relevance is lost in the current volume as no
counterbalance is provided.

The order of inclusion of Chapter 5 is puzzling. Chapter 5 focuses on motion
events and, as such, seems strangely out of place coming directly after a
discussion of spatial relations. The paper presents a more theoretical
discussion of motion events and challenges the importance of Talmy's typology of
S-framed and V-framed languages. It would seem that the relevance of this paper
is lost due to its positioning in the volume. It could make a bigger impact if
it immediately followed the first three. If so, the reader would be in a better
position to make assessments of both approaches to 'thinking for speaking' and
motion events.

After the incongruity of the previous two chapters, organizational and thematic
harmony is restored in the final section, where both papers deal with +/-Art

The second area of concern is the limited thematic scope of the volume. Despite
the wide variety of examples of cross-linguistic differences in 'thinking for
speaking', only two categories of differences are explored in-depth. They are
motion and definiteness. Due to this, the volume does not succeed completely in
acquainting the reader with the full scope of the field. It could have benefited
from an inclusion of papers on temporality and a more compelling insight into
spatial relations.

Finally, it is important to mention the relevance of TfS for SLA research. With
the exception of Cadierno, all the studies concentrate on how inter-language
differences act as a barrier to the successful acquisition of a language.
Cadierno, on the other hand, shows how similarities can facilitate acquisition.
This is a significant point to make as it provides compelling evidence that
fossilisation is due to an incomplete processing of rethinking for speaking and
not cognitive issues which would be universal to all learners regardless of L1.
Hasko's study, however, does not address this issue as it compares only two
languages. The reader is, therefore, left wondering if this difficulty is truly
a result of linguistic relativity or if it is a cognitive/developmental issue
common to all L2 Russian learners. A much more compelling argument could have
been provided had the acquisition of (non)unidirectionality also been compared
with a language containing this feature.

On another note, only two studies record a positive rethinking for speaking
outcome -- Stam and Erkiert. However, different causes are suggested --
increased contact with the L2 and pedagogical intervention respectively. The
possibility of a positive shift in TfS through pedagogical intervention is
suggested by Cadierno; however, Han seems to suggest that, in the case of +/-Art
in Chinese learners of English that no change is possible.

In conclusion, the volume provides valuable insight into the challenges for the
TfS model and SLA research. Rather than seeing the disparities in outcomes as a
negative, they should be seen as a call for more research in the area.


Li, P. and Gleitman, L. (2002). Turning the tables: Language and spatial
reasoning. Cognition 83 (3), 265-294

Slobin, D.I. (1996). From 'thought and language' to 'thinking for speaking'. In
J. Gumperz and S. Levinson (eds) Rethinking Language Relativity. Studies in the
Social and Cultural Foundations of Language (Vol. 17, pp. 70-96). Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press

Talmy, L. (1985). Lexicalization patterns: Semantic structure in lexical forms.
In T. Shopen (ed.) Language Typology and Syntactic Description: Grammatical
Categories and the Lexicon (Vol. 3, pp. 36-149). Cambridge: Cambridge University

Talmy, L. (1991). Path to realization: A typology of event conflation. In
Proceedings of the 17th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguists Society (pp.
480-519). Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Linguistics Society

Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a Cognitive Semantics: Concepts Structuring Systems
(Vol.1). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Anne Marie Devlin is a PhD student at the University of Cork, Ireland. Her dissertation treats the acquisition of sociopragmatic variation in highly advanced non-native speaker teachers of English. She is particularly interested in the role of time spent in the target language country and the role of identity in the acquisition or non-acquisition of the above. Other interests include sociolinguistics, second language acquisition theories, language teaching -- she has been involved in ESL for the past 16 years -- and teacher training. In addition to this, she is passionate about the Russian language and literature.

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