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Review of  Second Language Writing Systems

Reviewer: Gunna Funder Hansen
Book Title: Second Language Writing Systems
Book Author: Vivian James Cook Benedetta Bassetti
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Writing Systems
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 16.2685

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Date: Wed, 7 Sep 2005 13:55:26 +0200
From: Gunna Funder Hansen
Subject: Second Language Writing Systems

EDITORS: Cook, Vivian J; Bassetti, Benedetta
TITLE: Second Language Writing Systems
SERIES: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Gunna Funder Hansen, Centre for Contemporary Middle East
Studies, University of Southern Denmark


For those of us interested in foreign/second language (L2) acquisition
across writing systems, a new book carrying this title is indeed good
news: Established theories about reading in both native and foreign
languages have been developed within a narrow European context
and have traditionally been considered universal. However, recent
research has revealed that reading processes take quite different
courses according to the writing system applied. So far, research
targeting this issue has been scattered and scarce. Likewise, the
specific difficulties of learning to write a new script have received very
limited attention, especially in terms of actual research based on
empirical studies. Thus, a volume that brings these scattered efforts
together is most welcome.


The book starts out with a general introduction to researching second
language writing systems followed by 16 research papers divided into
four parts dealing with each their dimension of the subject: writing,
reading, language awareness and teaching. These include
contributions by some of the most highly esteemed researchers within
the field of biliteracy across writing systems, e.g. Keiko Koda and
Nobuhiko Akamatsu.

In the introductory chapter, the editors lay out the background and aim
of the book and provide an overall view of a range of concepts
relevant to the subject – for instance the central terms "writing
system", "script" and "orthography", the different types of mapping
principles (morphemic, syllabic, and phonemic), the concept of
phonological regularity (orthographic depth), writing direction, and
orthographic constraints. Next, the editors address cross-writing-
system differences in reading, writing and metalinguistic awareness.
Before introducing the following 16 chapters of the book, Cook and
Bassetti also present a list of relevant questions for future research.

In part one, the first chapter is by Nobuko Chikamatsu, who presents a
study comparing Japanese kanji memory and retrieval in first
language (L1) and L2 subjects using an innovatory "tip-of-the-pen"
research technique inspired by the "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomenon
used in psycholinguistics as an indicator of an intermediate state of
lexical access. Next, Ans Van Berkel investigates Dutch learners'
spelling in English, thus examining transfer of L1 spelling rules from a
shallow/regular orthography to spelling in an L2 deep/irregular
orthography. Based on a contrastive analysis of phonological spelling
rules in Dutch and English, Van Berkel looks at the specific kinds of
errors that occur in learners' writing in English the first years of
secondary education, and with a comparison between first and
second year students, she reveals some developmental issues. In the
following chapter, Mick Randall looks at essentially the same
phenomenon, but compares spelling in L2 English by learners with
different L1 backgrounds, being Chinese or Malay – the latter being a
language similar to Chinese regarding phonological and syntactic
structures, but (in most cases) written in a highly shallow orthography
using the Roman script. Interestingly, the logographic L1 group
showed an advantage over the alphabetic L1 group regarding spelling
accuracy in English. Harold Somers then treats a very different aspect
of the matter: the question of handwriting. Based on a small corpus of
handwritten L2 English by learners with Arabic L1 backgrounds, he
discusses implications of using corpora for writing system research.
Afterwards, Takeshi Okada presents a corpus-based study of spelling
errors by Japanese learners of English. Okada argues that
substitution errors in word-initial position and insertion errors in word-
final position are due to transfer from the Japanese Romanisation
system, romaji. In the last chapter of part one, Stephan Schmid
presents a study of Italian-Swiss German bilingual children's spelling
and pronunciation in Italian, demonstrating a link between spelling
errors and specific difficulties with the differences between voiced vs.
unvoiced obstruents and single vs. geminate consonants in the
subjects' phonological system. An interesting aspect of this study is
that the important parameter of standard vs. dialectal phonology is
also considered.

In part two, Phil Scholfield and Gloria Shu-Mei Chwo seek to explore
the effect of the L1 writing system and the method used for reading
instruction. This is done through a comparison of subjects from
Taiwan – where English L2 reading instruction is conducted according
to the phonics principle – and Hong Kong – where the whole word
approach is predominant. Scholfield and Chwo find that reading
instruction methods do result in different L2 word recognition
processes. In the following chapter, Nobuhiko Akamatsu investigates
Japanese learners' reading in L2 English at different proficiency
levels. Akamatsu finds that the effect of the learners' L1 writing system
on their L2 reading is persistent, as increased proficiency does not
change the fact that Japanese learners tend to rely on direct lexical
access in word recognition. A quite different kind of contribution to the
subject comes from Walter Van Heuven who discusses the
characteristics of visual word recognition in bilinguals within a
theoretical framework. The discussion focuses on computational
modelling and the ability of such simulation models to replicate
bilingual readers' performance in the real world. In the last chapter of
part two, Miho Sasaki attacks the question of transfer from L1 writing
systems with different levels of orthographic depth, using subjects
whose L1 is either Italian or Japanese, and who are reading in
English. The study supports the view that the readers' L1 writing
system affects reading processes in L2.

In part three, Keiko Koda, like Van Heuven, contributes with a
theoretical discussion. She presents a model which seeks to explain
how metalinguistic awareness developed for the L1 is transferred into
L2 reading. Then, Bernadetta Bassetti presents a study comparing L2-
learners' and native speakers' word awareness in Chinese. The study
indicates, that L2-learners, who are from English L1-backgrounds,
have a quite different concept of Chinese words than the native
speakers, and Bassetti argues that the difference stems from the L2-
learners' knowledge of more than one writing system. In the last
chapter of part three, Lily Lau and Susan Rickard Liow examine
children with different L1-backgrounds (English, Chinese and Malay)
spelling in English. Focusing on the subjects' skills in spelling words
pronounced with a flapped voiced /d/ but spelled with a , they find
that the unilingual English-speaking children are the best spellers, and
while the Malay-English bilinguals tend to over-rely on phonology
when spelling in English, the Chinese-English bilinguals show a
general limited phonological awareness.

In part four, Therese Dufresne and Diana Masny again bring us back
to the theoretical level. They rightly make a general critique of the lack
of ontological considerations when different kinds of methodology is
applied in second language research and put forward a post-
structuralist perspective on second writing system acquisition. In this
view, learning a new writing system destabilises the learners' system
of how writing systems work, and this creates a process, where the
learner tries to regain stability by continuously testing and modifying
constructions according to the new experiences drawn. Following the
general discussion, Dufresne and Masny use two case studies to
illustrate, how the post-structuralist perspective puts process before
product. Next, Tina Hickey presents a study on encouraging extensive
reading in Irish (L2) among children who acquired their first literacy in
English – a group of learners who generally show poor decoding skills,
interference from English orthography and reluctance to read. By
using Taped Book Flooding – a procedure involving easy access to a
lot of suitable reading material with tape recordings of the relevant
material being read aloud and class hours devoted to reading – the
learners improved both fluency, accuracy in reading aloud and
attitude towards the Irish language. In the last chapter, Vivian Cook
looks at some general aspects of learning a second writing system
and examines how a specimen of coursebooks for English, Italian and
French target this issue. Cook argues that the role of written language
is not given close to enough attention in language teaching, and that
written language is often used merely as a tool for teaching spoken
language or as a kind of meta-language used as a device for giving
explanations, thus rarely recognisable as authentic text types.


The book covers a wide range of interesting aspects of second
language writing systems. The general introduction in Chapter 1 is of
great importance, since the book covers research from a research
field that is just emerging. Especially the attempt to state a set of
definitions of the term "writing system" and related concepts is
essential and valuable because – as the authors very rightly
state: "Writing system researchers rarely agree on how these terms
should be used". Although this reviewer almost entirely agrees with
the final definitions stated, one could have hoped for more attention
given to the very common confusions about the term "orthography" as
discussed by e.g. Scheerer (1986). Many researchers tend to view
orthography as the visual organisation of the writing system (e.g.
Foorman 1994, p. 334) or as a broad concept covering all language
specific aspects of the writing system (e.g. Seidenberg 1992, p. 85).
And, as stated by Willows and Geva (1995, p. 356): "it is fairly
common in the growing literature on orthographic processing for
researchers to refer to orthographic processing
as "visual/orthographic" as though these two terms were essentially

In the presentation of the different types of writing systems, the
reservation of the term "alphabet" for scripts representing all the
phonemes in speech, thus excluding consonantal scripts, may be
controversial among users of the Semitic (consonantal) scripts. Both
Arabic and Hebrew speakers describe their sets of letters as
alphabets, and it is in fact the first letters (Aleph-Bet) of a consonantal,
Semitic script, that gave name to the alphabet.

The discussion of cross-writing-system differences in reading, writing
and metalinguistic awareness is equally crucial as it puts down a
frame within which the book's research papers are positioned in
different ways. However, this could have been done in a more clear-
cut way: A variety of research results is mentioned, and this gives a
fine overview of the key issues at stake, but the motivation behind the
selection of studies is not obvious. Furthermore, the theoretical
framework laid out as a basis for explaining the presented results is
quite narrow in focusing almost exclusively on the dual-route model.
Connectionism is briefly mentioned as an alternative model for spelling
only. Considering the status of connectionism and parallel distributed
processing-models in today's research in both reading, spelling and
language awareness, one could have hoped for an inclusion and
discussion of this new theoretical approach related to the subject of
the book – not the least because some of the chapters in this specific
book (e.g. Van Heuven's) are actually presenting connectionist

The following 16 chapters are practically all relevant contributions to
the research field and some of them provide very useful introductions
to a specific writing system, a specific methodology, or specific
theoretical aspects. The inclusion of the teaching perspective in the
last part of the book is an appreciated initiative and a good point –
much too often, the link between research and teaching in L2's is
completely forgotten.

The setup of the book separating chapters about writing, reading,
language awareness and teaching is at first sight logical, but as one
reads through the book it becomes less obvious why the editors chose
this formula. Obviously, the four fields are intertwined, and some of
the chapters touch very explicitly upon more than one of them.
Especially the fact that the theoretical chapters are scattered around
the book results in a somewhat confusing structure. On the other
hand, a collection of research papers is rarely read from the beginning
to the end, so this issue might not be of great importance.

In general, this book is an important contribution to the emerging field
of research in second language writing systems. All chapters might not
be of interest to the same group of people: Researchers within
general L2 literacy will find some of the chapters important, while
researchers dealing with literacy across different scripts will benefit
from other chapters. Teachers could benefit from the last part of the
book and chapters that might involve the language they teach. For
future work, it would be nice to see more focus on target languages
other than English – especially languages using other scripts than the
Roman alphabet. Japanese and Chinese are included in this book, but
there are so many other languages taught and so many language
teachers out there who need research based advice on how to teach
L2 literacy.


Foorman, B. R. (1994). Phonological and orthographic processing:
Separate but equal?, Kluwer.

Scheerer, E. (1986). Orthography and lexical access, Mouton de

Seidenberg, M. S. (1992). Beyond orthographic depth in reading:
Equitable division of labour, Elsevier.

Willows, D. and E. Geva (1995). What is visual in orthographic
processing?, Kluwer.


Gunna Funder Hansen is Assistant Professor at the Centre for
Contemporary Middle East Studies, University of Southern Denmark.
She holds a Ph.D. in foreign language acquisition and teaches Arabic
as a foreign language. Her research interests are reading processes
in different writing systems, especially writing systems using the
Semitic scripts, and reading in Arabic as a foreign language.

Format: Hardback
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