LINGUIST List 25.5067

Fri Dec 12 2014

Review: Applied Ling; Lang Acquistion; Socioling: Durham (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 22-Jul-2014
From: Andrew Lavender <>
Subject: The Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Competence in a Lingua Franca Context
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Mercedes Durham
TITLE: The Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Competence in a Lingua Franca Context
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Andrew Jordan Lavender, State University of New York at Albany

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book intends to study the phenomenon of English as a lingua franca (ELF) in global communication, particularly the sociolinguistic implications of non-native variation in global English.

In Chapter One, Durham begins the discussion on the role of ELF in continental Europe, and particularly Switzerland, a region outside of the historical areas of both native English speakers and second language speakers of English resulting from British colonization. Together with other ELF researchers, Durham wishes to avoid the classification of “native” and “non-native” in her discussion and, instead, to focus on ELF as an “autonomous” variety of English, which necessitates the acknowledgement of the heterogeneity found in ELF. An example of this reorientation of thought can be seen in the discussion of “error” versus “variant” on page 10, where innovations in ELF, distinct from native constructions, are viewed of as evidence of inherent variability in ELF, rather than errors in need of correction. This latter point brings up the rationale for her research, which is to bridge the gap between sociolinguistics and SLA in regard to the study of ELF and, potentially, other lingua francas.

Chapter Two discusses the relation between sociolinguistics, and language variation in particular, and second language acquisition (SLA). These fields have different understandings of what exactly the study of variation entails. The former focuses on sociolinguistic competence which results in variability in the target language: however, SLA researchers focus on cross-linguistic influences in language learning. Durham classifies these as two types of variation associated with the target language: target-based variation (TBV) and learning-related variation (LRV). The lack of focus in SLA research on variation in TBV is due to the fact that it has been generally viewed as ‘free variation’, lacking observable patterns, although current research tends to discredit this notion. Durham notes that SLA research should clearly distinguish between ‘language learners’ and ‘language users’, of which the latter exhibit more variation in the target language. Language learners are not usually exposed to informal variants in their learning materials and, because of this, typically only acquire non-standard forms through extra-curricular activities such as study abroad and more importantly, in naturalistic contexts. The issue of how ELF can fit into current SLA research and language pedagogy is an issue which Durham will address throughout the book by looking at the nature of the problem in Switzerland.

Chapter Three discusses the nature of English as a lingua franca in modern Switzerland. Durham presents the unique linguistic situation found in Switzerland, where there are four national languages, each supposed to receive equal attention and use by government officials. The four official languages are: German, French, Italian, and Romansch, listed in numerical order of the number of speakers. The linguistic situation is complex in other ways given that most speakers exhibit diglossia in their use of standard varieties of these languages at work and school and their use of regional dialects in the home and community. There has been a noticeable increase in the use of English since 1990 among Swiss citizens in both work and school. Durham attributes the rise of English to four factors. First, it is regarded as a neutral language and allows equality among the Swiss, national languages. Second, in what she terms an ‘economy of expression’, it involves less effort to begin in English because a majority of the population understands it, while they do not necessarily understand other Swiss languages. Similarly, comprehension of English is generally higher than comprehension of other national languages. Finally, because of the diglossia found in Switzerland, people who have studied German will not necessarily be able to understand the Swiss dialect of German, and for this reason it is easier to provide materials in English. All of this functions as background to Durham’s principal research question: how speakers of ELF will use the language and to what degree they will emulate the variation patterns of native speakers.

Chapter Four presents the data used for the study, which was collected from e-mail communication of students from the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations -- Switzerland (IFMSA-CH). Additionally, oral interviews were conducted to compare both oral and written registers. The students represent the linguistic diversity of the country and employ ELF for the reasons enumerated above. Durham makes a comparison with a comparable native data source, taken from a medical association in the United Kingdom.

Chapter Five discusses the methodology used to study the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence in Swiss ELF, which is compared with several features where native speakers exhibit variation. Durham uses multivariate analysis, adopted from comparative sociolinguistics, in order to analyze potential cases of non-native variation in ELF. She handles the issue of acquisition by differentiating between TBV and LRV in non-standard features. The features which deviate from native-like variation but which are commonly found in all three Swiss language groups will be considered as variables in a Swiss ELF. The four features analyzed in the study are: 1) the future tense, 2) relative pronouns, 3) the complementizer ‘that’, and 4) the additive adverbials ‘also’, ‘as well’, and ‘too’. The following chapters discuss the findings in relation to these features.

Chapter Six presents the study of variation in use of the future tense. Durham focuses on two possible future constructions in English: the ‘will’ future and the ‘going to’ future. The former, according to prescriptive grammar, is to be used as a type of prediction, and other studies have shown that it is the most common way of expressing futurity in English. The latter is used as a “future fulfillment of present intention” (Quirk et al., in Durham 68). Swiss students are taught these prescriptive rules in their acquisition. In regard to the native languages, French and Italian have a morphological future, while German has a construction similar to the ‘will’ future.

The results of the study show that Swiss speakers of ELF have not fully acquired native-like variation in their use of the future tense. They show overall lower rates of ‘going to’ constructions, much lower than native speakers’ rates. Additionally, they do not exhibit a register-based distinction in regard to their use of the ‘going to’ structure, which is usually used in oral register by native English speakers. The results do follow native speaker patterns in one aspect, that is, in the use of ‘going to’ with non-first person subjects. However, the majority of the cases of variation are attributed to acquisition, rather than native-like variation patterns.

Chapter Seven presents Durham’s findings about the use of relative pronouns in ELF. The nature of relative pronouns in English presents a clear case of syntactic variation whereby multiple forms can be used in the same context without altering the meaning of the sentence. A number of factors restrict the use of the particular forms available (‘who’, ‘which’, ‘that’, and the zero form), most notably animacy and the syntactic function of the relative clause. The use of relatives in the source languages is markedly different from the English pattern and the source languages differ among themselves. In contrast to the use of the future tense, Durham found that the speakers of ELF in Switzerland follow the native patterns of variation and exhibit few instances of LRV in their communication.

Chapter Eight presents the results found on the use of complementizers in ELF. The two variants considered are ‘that’ and the zero morpheme. English is different from French and Italian in its use of the zero morpheme as a complementizer, although German does have both a complementizer form and a zero morpheme. Previous researchers have found that grammatical person, verb tense, and the presence of additional elements in the verb phrase (VP) are significant internal factors that condition variation in native English in regard to choice of complementizer. Additionally, the formality of register is a significant factor in complementizer selection as well as the association of a certain list of verbs with greater zero-morpheme usage. Durham found that overall her participants showed a lesser number of cases of the zero-morpheme, although their usage generally reflects native patterns; this result reflects the capability of ELF speakers to acquire native-like variation patterns without being formally presented with these patterns in their acquisition process.

Chapter Nine considers lexical variation in the form of adverbial placement, specifically the additive adverbials, ‘also’, ‘as well’, and ‘too’, which were selected because their complicated distribution in native English prevents studying their placement f. The distribution of the additive adverbials in native English was found to be affected by style, register, and clause structure. The source languages have less lexical variation in regard to these adverbials, all of which mainly rely on one form, with significantly lesser-used alternatives. Both native and non-native groups use ‘also’ with the most frequency. However, the non-native groups show high rates of LRV in regard to this variable with both cases of non-native placement of the adverbials and the use of variants with ungrammatical meanings.

Chapter Ten presents a discussion of the implications of this study to the broader fields of SLA and sociolinguistics. This research can speak to the question of which features non-natives acquire best. Durham’s study also shows a relative lack of transference of structures from the source languages. Her research confirms some hierarchies of acquisition of sociolinguistic competence established in previous research. For instance, the results suggest that morphosyntactic variation is acquired before lexical variation, considering the native-like acquisition of features such as the variability of relative pronouns and complementizers in comparison to the delay in acquiring lexical variation. The linguistic variables analyzed indicate that features conditioned by internal factors are acquired before features conditioned by external factors. Frequency of usage is linked to LRV in the sense that the overall frequency of an item allows it to be observed in context and subsequently acquired. In relation to LRV, there are still many questions to answer, “At this stage, it is not clear if there are high rates of LRV because the feature has not been acquired natively or if the high rates of LRV inhibit a native-like acquisition of the feature” (151). In relation to pedagogy, Durham’s study does not link overt teaching of native variation to the acquisition of it; for example, the speakers of ELF acquired most natively the use of complementizers, a feature that was not formally presented to them, yet did not completely acquire the use of future, which was presented to them. Finally, her research speaks to the overall usefulness of ELF as an opportunity for language use and the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence as well as for the continual development of specific features in European ELF.


Durham presents an interesting study of the use of English as a lingua franca in Switzerland, a country known for extensive multilingualism, as noted in detail in Chapter Four. The chapter provides a good background to the complex, multilingual situation that exists in Switzerland with German, French, Italian, and Romansch sharing co-official status, although with different levels of usage among the Swiss population. This study will provoke interesting debates on the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence and the capacity of non-native speakers to master native-like variation in the academic community

The findings of this study are directly relevant to a number of linguistic subfields, particularly second language acquisition and sociolinguistics. Durham specifically set out to integrate both the methods and concerns of second language acquisition with the methods of variationist sociolinguistics. The study will provide additional foci for research in these fields as well as for researchers interested in global English and lingua francas, additionally suggesting interesting questions for language planners in considering how to incorporate or not incorporate explicit instruction in sociolinguistic competence in the classroom.

This book can easily be adapted for use as a textbook in a variety of types of courses. Most obviously, it would be of primary interest to SLA classes, particularly discussing the role of variation in language acquisition. However, it would also be extremely useful in courses on bilingualism and language contact, which often involve the use of a lingua franca. It could also be adapted for use in a general sociolinguistics course, serving as a type of rapprochement between the two fields.

Researchers in second language acquisition will likely find Chapter Six and Chapter Eight of particular interest considering the relation of instruction to the results found. In the case of Chapter Six, the students were presented with the distinction between the different uses of the future tense in English but not presented with the ways in which it is used in variation. However, in Chapter Eight, the results of Durham’s study show that non-native speakers are capable of acquiring sociolinguistic competence without explicit instruction, which will certainly raise interesting questions about the relation of explicit instruction and acquisition of native-like features. Additionally the nature of the acquisition of sociolinguistic competence opens the door to a new way of considering variation in L2 speakers.


Jordan Lavender is a PhD student at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He conducts research on the effects of language contact in the Spanish spoken in Catalan-dominant areas. His primary research interests include sociolinguistics, morphosyntactic variation, language contact, and bilingualism.

Page Updated: 12-Dec-2014