LINGUIST List 28.5293

Wed Dec 13 2017

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: Tsang (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 14-Aug-2017
From: Carmen Ortiz Granero <>
Subject: Crosslinguistic Influence in Multilinguals
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Wai lan Tsang
TITLE: Crosslinguistic Influence in Multilinguals
SUBTITLE: An Examination of Chinese-English-French Speakers
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Carmen Maria Ortiz Granero, Trinity College Dublin

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Crosslinguistic Influence in Multilinguals: An Examination of Chinese-English-French Speakers” by Wai Lan Tsang is based on a research project funded by the Research Grants Council of the Government of Hong Kong that examines the possible effects of L3 French in L2 English acquisition of L1 Cantonese speakers in the setting of multilingual Hong Kong.
Its structure resembles that of a dissertation, in which the first chapter provides an introduction to the research project; the second chapter corresponds to the study design and its methodological implications; Chapter 3 is devoted to the review of the literature; Chapters 4, 5 and 6 present the results of the study; and Chapter 7 offers a conclusion and future directions.

In Chapter 1 “Overview”, Tsang begins by providing an introduction to the concept of multilingualism, and presenting Hong Kong as the perfect multilingual setting to study Second Language Acquisition (L2A), and more concretely to carry out research in the flourishing field of Third Language Acquisition (L3A), justified by the fact that more than a third of the population speak at least three languages. The chapter continues by presenting an insight into the three key theoretical concepts germane to the present research project: L3A, reverse transfer, and the Interface Hypothesis (IH); as well as a review of the literature of L2A from the generative perspective, which constitutes the grounds for the study.

Chapter 2 “Design of the L3 French-L2 English Project”, as its name suggests, aims at presenting the design of the research project and its methodological dimension, involving research questions and hypotheses, setting, research instruments, and methodological limitations. Within the foundational research question of the possible influence of L3 French on L2 English, the study focuses on two main concerns: 1) the effect of L3 French on CEF (Cantonese-English-French) participants based on the comparison with CE (Cantonese-English) participants, which is grounded on the reverse transfer theory; and 2) the influence of L1 Cantonese on CEF and CE participants by comparing them to the L1 English native group, built on the Interface Hypothesis. The study looks at three language features (i.e. nominal plural marking, past tense marking, and adverb placement) hinging on an analysis conducted as part of the study, that compares the three languages involved and identifies similarities and differences that might result in any kind of language transfer. The author employed three timed offline experimental tasks, making use of the triangulation method, two focusing on the receptive aspect of language structures (i.e. a grammaticality judgement-correction task, and a multiple-choice cloze task), and one on the productive aspect (i.e. a free writing task).

In Chapter 3 “Target Structures of the L3 French-L2 English Project”, the three structures targeted in this study are examined. This brief chapter explores the similarities and differences among the three languages (French, English and Chinese), serving as an introduction and providing the basics of the structural background before the results of the project are presented in the three consecutive chapters. Thus, according to this comparison, L3 reverse transfer might have a positive effect on English nominal plural marking and English past tense marking, but a negative impact on English adverb placement.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are presented following the same structure. Each chapter begins by presenting the set of hypotheses specifically devised to investigate each of the three structures and answer the overall research question and main hypotheses proposed in Chapter 2. This is followed by a more in-depth comparison among the three languages in each of the features, and a review of the theories connected to those; finally the chapter presents the results drawn from the research project and their implications for further research.

Chapter 4, entitled “Nominal Plural Marking”, focuses on English number agreement. Tsang relies on Lardiere’s Feature Reassembly Hypothesis, in which the learners’ failure to reassemble L1 syntactic features in their acquisition of L2 syntactic features would result in ungrammatical forms; and the connection between English plural marking and Sorace’s Interface Hypothesis, according to which English plural marking would present a vulnerable area for L1 Chinese speakers, in order to illustrate the difficulty of nominal plural marking for L1 Chinese speakers. The results obtained do not reveal any trace of L3-L2 transfer among the participants in the two receptive tasks; however, the number of missing ‘-s’ plural forms and redundant ‘-s’ forms in the production task may lead to speculations of the possible role of L3 proficiency.

Chapter 5 “Past Tense Marking” corresponds to the second phase of the L3 French-L2 English project. Past tense marking is explored taking into account the way in which its two structural features, tense and aspect, have been studied from functional and generative perspectives. Tsang pays special attention to the challenges that L1 Chinese face in the acquisition of the English tense-aspect morphology; as well as the link between English past tense marking and the IH, by addressing both, the syntax-morphology interface and the syntax-semantic interface. As in the previous chapter, no evidence of L3-L2 transfer was found at the receptive level, but the productive task revealed some statistical differences. Tsang found that not only the CEF group produced significantly fewer ungrammatical regular verb forms than the CE group, but also those CEF participants with higher L3 proficiency produced a lower proportion of ungrammatical instances when compared to the other CEF participants.

Chapter 6 “Adverb Placement” continues the investigation of the possibility of L3-L2 reverse transfer by examining another structure of the syntax-semantics interface, namely placement of frequency adverbs. The two main schools of thought on adverb placement across languages, semantic and syntactic perspectives are reviewed. Even though the author addresses both perspectives, special attention is placed on the syntax-semantic interface due to the role of IH in the main concern of the project. In this section, the results on English adverb placement did not show indication of reverse transfer among the participants, which the author attributes to the high English proficiency of CEF and CE groups, and the similarities between the L2 English and L1 Chinese adverbial structures.

Chapter 7 “Conclusions: The Way Forward” aims to offer an overall discussion of the findings in the previous chapters in terms of the core research question and hypotheses stated in Chapter 2. The chapter begins with a summary of the major findings in terms of the key research questions and concerns, in which the author attempts to validate the two hypotheses: possible L3-L2 reverse transfer, and possible vulnerability of the internal interfaces. The receptive tasks did not reveal any significant differences, suggesting the absence of both reverse transfer and possible vulnerability of the two internal interfaces; however, the free writing task revealed several differences in two of the structures. The author does not consider those differences sufficient to support reverse transfer from the generative perspective, and instead, suggests a sequence of factors or potential forces that might be involved in the interaction between L3-L2 and, therefore, might be considered triggers of such interaction: 1) L3 proficiency, grounded in the notion that advanced L3 speakers might be able to compare L3 with L2 and L1 and work out the similarities and differences, which leads to conjecture that L3 will be activated in the learning and use of L2 and enhance interaction among the two languages; 2) the linguistic feature, since should L3 and L2 share identical or similar properties for a particular structure, transfer would be more likely to take place; and 3) the differences between productive and receptive results, which might imply that L3 status is differently perceived or is activated differently at the two levels. At the end of the last chapter the author devotes a section to the suggestion for further research based on the implications stated at the end of chapters 4, 5 and 6. Tsang proposes the use of more language patterns and more rigorous tests especially at the receptive level, and provides specific examples of possible research, highlighting the role of further research on the interaction between L3 and other languages in benefiting learners and educators.


The study addressed in this book not only can be considered as innovative and one of the most sophisticated of the studies examining the phenomenon of reverse transfer to date, but it also constitutes the first project analysing crosslinguistic influence in the L1 Chinese-L2 English-L3 French context. It provides an exceptional contribution to the study of the acquisition of grammatical structures from the typological perspective, as its author relies on the contributions of Cenoz (2001) and de Angelis (2007) on second and third language acquisition as the cornerstone for the study.

It is unfortunate, however, that the amount of null results (i.e. no trace of transfer at the receptive level and adverbial structure) and the wording chosen when reporting the findings (e.g. ‘likely’, ‘may’, ‘possible’), together with the ever-present suggestions for further research, make the study appear inconclusive and in need of further exploration, especially Chapter 6 in which no statistical differences are found and which does not corroborate the results obtained in the two previous chapters. As the author considers in the last chapter, these limitations are possibly linked to methodological issues, principally due to the nature of the tasks (i.e. more controlled vs. less controlled, or receptive vs. productive). These issues could have been avoided at the time of the research, by either conducting an exploratory pilot study prior to the data collection, as suggested by Galloway (2017), or questioning and adjusting the research tools, as proposed by Briggs (2017).

Although the book is most appropriate for professionals or researchers in the field of crosslinguistic influence (CLI) and multilingualism, due to its technicality, it could also be regarded as a valuable source of insight for undergraduate and postgraduate students of linguistics, since it provides an extensive introduction to the concepts of multilingualism and L3A and illustrates and synthesises the latest trends and relevant literature on the topic.
Part of project had been previously reported in two articles (see Tsang, 2015; and Tsang, 2016). In 2015, Tsang delved into the relationship between language learning and perceived language differences based on a placement questionnaire and a questionnaire in linguistic perception, in which she observed that higher proficiency in the L3 might result in an enhanced crosslinguistic experience, as it has been lately reported in the book. In the later article (Tsang, 2016) explores the role of L3-French on the acquisition of English nominal plural marking, by comparing the CEF and CE groups performance in the grammaticality judgment-correction task and the free writing task. As highlighted in Chapter 4, results from the free writing task show possible traces of L3- French influence on L2-English. Overall, these two articles offer a more detailed account of the methodological dimension, including participants, research tools and the data collection process, which could be useful for researchers.

The author endeavours to contribute to the field of second and third language acquisition in three aspects: theoretical, exploring the notion of reverse transfer in the CEF context for the first time; methodological, through the exemplification of which tools could be used for the study of reverse transfer; and pedagogical, by offering suggestions for educators that deal with multilingual learners. The theoretical and methodological goals are undoubtedly well covered, yet the pedagogical contribution seems to be very limited, as Tsang only dedicates a paragraph at the end of the last chapter in which she mentions the importance of the role of awareness among students and educators, but fails to provide specific information or concrete examples.


Briggs, J. G. (2017) Grappling with originality and grounding in qualitative data analysis. In J. McKinley and H. Rose (eds) Doing Research in Applied Linguistics: Realities, dilemmas and solutions. Routledge: London.

Cenoz, J. (2001) The effect of linguistic distance, L2 status and age on cross-linguistic influence in third language acquisition. In J. Cenoz, B. Hufeisen and U. Jessner (eds) Crosslinguistic Influence in Third Language Acquisition: Psycholinguistic Perspectives (pp.8-20). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

De Angelis, G. (2007) Third or Additional Language Acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Galloway, N. (2017) Researching your own students: Negotiating the dual practitioner-research role. In J. McKinley and H. Rose (eds) Doing Research in Applied Linguistics: Realities, dilemmas and solutions. Routledge: London.

Tsang, W. L. (2015). Learning More, Perceiving More? A Comparison of L1 Cantonese–L2 English–L3 French Speakers and L1 Cantonese–L2 English Speakers in Hong Kong. International Journal Of Multilingualism, 12(3), 312-337.

Tsang, W. L. (2016). Acquisition of English number agreement: L1 Cantonese–L2 English–L3 French speakers versus L1 Cantonese–L2 English speakers. International Journal Of Bilingualism, 20(5), 611.


Carmen Ortiz is a PhD candidate based in the Center for English Language Learning and Teaching at Trinity College Dublin researching the factors responsible for the language-related challenges experienced by international students in Irish institutions. She holds a BA in English Studies from Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha and a MSc in TESOL from Queen’s University Belfast. Her previous research has focused on Second Language Acquisition, and more specifically on English-Spanish Bilingual Education in Spain. Overall, her research interests lie in the field of multilingualism, teaching methodologies, and language teaching and learning.

Page Updated: 13-Dec-2017