LINGUIST List 31.1340

Mon Apr 13 2020

Review: Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition; Psycholinguistics: Sharwood Smith, Truscott (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 27-Jan-2020
From: Marta De Pedis <>
Subject: The Multilingual Mind
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Michael Sharwood Smith
AUTHOR: John Truscott
TITLE: The Multilingual Mind
SUBTITLE: A Modular Processing Perspective
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Marta De Pedis


This book is a detailed description of the MOGUL (Modular On-line Growth and Use of Language) framework. Such framework consists of a modular architecture of the mind such that most (or all) of its mechanisms can be explained in a parsimonious way. However, the authors mostly focus on describing how language processing works, and in particular how two or more languages interact and share space in the users’ minds.

The book opens with a useful introduction on MOGUL (Chapter 1: pp. 1-26) and is then divided into two parts. Part I (“The framework”: pp. 27-180) is devoted to describing the architecture of MOGUL and language acquisition. Chapter 2 (pp. 29-63) describes the language module as proposed by the authors, and Chapter 3 (pp. 64-92) describes language processing in MOGUL. In Chapter 4 (pp. 93-136), the authors describe the mechanisms underlying language growth and the creation of new representations, focusing on the syntactic module. Chapter 5 (137-177) aims to describe the overall architecture of the mind, its processes and growth.

Part II (“Applying the framework”: pp. 181-340) focuses on the bilingual mind and the role of consciousness and attention on language acquisition and learning. Chapter 6 (pp. 181-211) is devoted to describing how different languages share mind space and interact within MOGUL. Chapter 7 (pp. 212-251) turns again to language development, mirroring Chapter 4, but this time in a multilingual mind. Chapter 8 (pp. 252-279) deals with the role of consciousness and attention as crucial components of the cognitive architecture, and Chapter 9 (pp. 280-307) looks at how these influence first and second language acquisition and learning. In Chapter 10 (pp. 308-340), a range of phenomena on second language learning is addressed and fitted in MOGUL. Chapter 11 (pp. 341-360) outlines general conclusions and is followed by the references and the alphabetical index.

Chapter 1: Introduction (pp. 1-26). The aim of this chapter is to describe what MOGUL is (whereas in Chapter 2 a more detailed description is given), as well as to clarify the theoretical framework in which it emerged. At first, some terminological clarifications are given. Then the authors proceed to step-by-step describe the basics and the core components of MOGUL, a tripartite system based on Jackendoff (2002)’s modular architecture. Each part of this modular system is in charge of creating representations specific to their own module (e.g., a syntactic representation for the syntactic system, as opposed to a phonological representation created by the phonological system). Each module is then linked to the next one by means of a specialised interface, in a chain-like fashion. In the following paragraphs, the authors pose MOGUL in the theoretical context it has risen, and elaborate their approach to language processing. While doing so, they also justify some of the theoretical choices taken. The chapter closes with a useful bullet-point summarisation.

Chapter 2: The language module: architecture and representations (pp. 29-63). This chapter aims at describing in more detail what had been introduced in the previous chapter. It opens with an explanation of what modularity is, and what the characteristics of MOGUL are. It then follows with a description of the actual language modules and processors of MOGUL and their functioning. The authors then proceed to describe the nature of linguistic representations (i.e., combinations of primitive phonological, syntactic and conceptual items into a more complex item) and their interconnection between the three linguistic modules. Finally, they tackle the topic of working memory and its implementation in MOGUL.

Chapter 3: Processing in the language module (pp. 64-92). This chapter is devoted to describing some main themes, findings and models in the language processing literature, and fitting them into MOGUL’s processing mechanism. Therefore, the authors first describe some major linguistic processing issues (e.g., competition, activation, serial versus parallel processing etc.), the evidence collected on their regard, and finally the solutions that had been proposed. Then, they proceed to describe processing in MOGUL in light of each of these findings, explicitly describing how it will approach each of the topics proposed above, and suggesting “a form of incremental processing involving competition between candidate items (tentatively interpreted in terms of a race), in which success is based directly on current activation level and indirectly on both resting level and suitability for the current processing activity. […] Also, although modular, it leaves considerable room for constrained influences across modules […].” (pp. 72). Examples for the processing of two sentences are provided.

Chapter 4: Growth of the language module: acquisition by processing (pp. 93-136). In this chapter, the authors describe how the language modules acquire new representations. The approach used is called APT “Acquisition by Processing theory”, whose essence lies in the following maxim: “Acquisition is the lingering effects of processing”. That is, within MOGUL, learning is treated as a normal means of processing a new input: the framework does not provide any special learning mechanism. When a new word is encountered, the processors build a new item and its adequate connections. The new item is then stored in the long-term memory at a very low resting level. When it is activated again, the resting level is raised and said item will be more and more available for future selections. This results in a stable set of highly active items. The chapter describes such an approach, justifies it, and gives a few examples, focusing on the syntactic level.

Chapter 5: Beyond the language module (pp. 137-177). In this chapter, the authors suggest that the whole cognitive system works in a similar way to the language system. Therefore, they describe the overall architecture of the mind as a set of specialised processing units. These units are in principle similar to the ones described earlier, although some differences are accounted for (so that each unit can adapt to its specific tasks). The authors then describe some of the hypothesised processing units (e.g., perceptual, conceptual, affective units). Finally, they look at different varieties of knowledge (i.e., non-linguistic knowledge, metalinguistic knowledge, word meaning, orthography) and their growth within the framework.

Chapter 6: The bilingual mind introduced (pp. 181-211). Section II (“Applying the framework”) opens with this chapter. The authors describe how the mind handles multiple languages within the MOGUL framework. They suggest the Conceptual Triggering Hypothesis, in which the processors for phonology and syntax do not discern whether they are processing one language or another. That is, the syntactic and phonological representations have no “language tag” attached to them. Instead, the identity of the language is determined by the conceptual module, which receives information directly from the sound (or visual) appearance of the language before it is processed. That is: we know some word or sound is in French without having to process it, just because it looks like French and it is different from any other language present in our mind. This is why, for example, we are able to recognise that a text is from a certain language, even without knowing that language. Therefore, while the language system blindly processes the input, the conceptual system activates a single representation of the language under account, causing a spread activation of all the concepts associated with it. Consequently, all the, say, French items will be much more active than the English ones. Conveniently, under this account, no language tags are needed on each processing level, and the concept of inhibition becomes unnecessary (the supposedly inhibited language is just a collection of representations which fail to reach enough activation to compete with the active language). The authors then proceed to describe code-switching and conscious bilingual processing (i.e., translation and interpreting).

Chapter 7: The growth of a second language (pp. 212-251). In this chapter, the authors present some approaches in second language research and describe how they fit into the MOGUL framework. Following, they describe second language growth within the phonological, syntactical and conceptual systems, focusing on how items in different languages compete in the same mind. The approach is, again, the APT “Acquisition by Processing Theory” (as seen in Chapter 4). Finally, they discuss metalinguistic knowledge and language attrition.

Chapter 8: Consciousness and attention (pp. 252-279). In this chapter, the authors define conscious representations (of any kind) as those representations on perceptual or affective stores that have a sufficiently high activation level. They proceed to describe this account in detail. Following, they discuss the notion of attention and provide two different accounts in order to describe its role in cognitive processes. While the limited resources account can be fit into MOGUL, still they adopt the view that attention is not an independent theoretical entity: instead, it would be a mere result of the overall cognitive mechanisms.

Chapter 9: The role of consciousness in language growth (pp. 280-307). The authors here consider the role of consciousness in the growth of the language modules for either a first or second language. First, they turn to which kind of linguistic representations could be conscious and conclude that syntactic and phonological items cannot reach awareness. Then, they describe how conscious learning plays a role in first and second language development, and define the notion of implicit learning within MOGUL. Finally, they turn to some considerations about second language teaching and the implications of this framework on it.

Chapter 10: Issues in SLA revisited (pp. 308-340). In this chapter, the authors select five recurrent topics in second language acquisition and fit them into MOGUL. Therefore, they turn to the debate on whether language learning is best seen as a continuous or a staged process, and they show how MOGUL can accommodate and reconcile both notions. Then they address the topics of crosslinguistic influence, optionality, native-like proficiency in a second language (“ultimate attainment”), and anxiety in language learning.

Chapter 11: Conclusion (pp. 341-360). The authors here summarise the main concepts described in the book. They firstly reiterate the core architecture of MOGUL. Then, they address the topic of the specificity of human language, arguing that it is plausible that animals at least partially share the basic cognitive architecture (as described in Chapter 5) with humans. Following, they turn to redefining some recurring concepts in language research and framing them into MOGUL (e.g., What is a representation in MOGUL? What is executive function?), partially reiterating and specifying what had been already explained in the previous chapters. Finally, a few comments about the still to be uncovered neural correlates of MOGUL are made, in order to trigger further research on the topic.


The book offers an extensive description of the MOGUL (Modular On-line Growth and Use of Language) framework. The proposal is interesting, parsimonious, and elegant. The book is easy to follow, clearly written, and well organised (notably, each chapter opens with a chapter outline and concludes with a useful chapter summary), and the exposition is coherent. The authors manage to build up the information about their proposal in a step-by-step fashion, sometimes reiterating previously seen concepts for the sake of clarity.

Furthermore, the book is well fit into its theoretical framework: it explicitly states and discusses its theoretical antecedents, and broadly covers the relationship of MOGUL with other theories and hypotheses about language processing. However, it has to be noted that such concurrent hypotheses are not widely described. For this reason, I do not think the book is suitable for a naïve audience, given that it requires quite some knowledge of previous perspectives and proposals. I have my doubts about whether it could be suitable for master (graduate) students that are not well-grounded into psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics.

Another interesting feature is that the authors address a broad variety of extensively discussed topics in language research (e.g., the influence of working memory in language processing, first versus second language learning etc.).

Furthermore, and as the authors state in the conclusive chapter of the book, their proposal could potentially trigger future research, mainly in terms of looking for the neural correlates of MOGUL, and of further specifying the model itself within less extensively discussed areas (such as, for example, cognitive processes unrelated to language).

To sum up, if anyone is interested in understanding MOGUL’s framework, how it works, and where it is posited in the debate about language and cognition, I strongly recommend this book.

However, I have to raise a few comments.

Firstly, in a great number of passages, the authors describe their aim as to fit MOGUL with as many as possible other approaches. By doing so, they create a highly flexible model which can accommodate almost any other approach, finally not taking any position nor clarifying a few issues. As an example, take the case of syntactic categories (p. 44). When describing what a syntactic primitive category is, the authors report that there has been some disagreement in the literature about how many of these can exist in a human mind. After presenting two different positions on the issue, they finally claim that: “We will not take a position here on this question. Again, the MOGUL framework is compatible with a variety of specific theories and, as elsewhere, this fact should be kept in mind when examining our examples.” That is to say, in some cases the authors seem more eager to produce a comprehensive account of all theoretical approaches (resulting in a somewhat blurry model), rather than seeking to describe the actual architecture of the mind as based on empirical data.

In fact, it is my opinion that the authors’ approach is not at all empirical. That is, their book does not point to significant experimental works that test their framework’s validity. This might be a common reaction, given that on page 342 they claim: “…the framework can already be said to have considerable empirical foundation and certainly enough to generate further interesting and researchable questions. We find it important to stress this since a common and not unexpected response on being introduced to MOGUL is ‘what’s your evidence?’ and ‘what are your predictions?’” Following, they claim that MOGUL is an integration of previous and diverse approaches which are already backed up by empirical evidence. However, not much of such data is offered to the reader. Instead, many theoretical possibilities are presented as equally possible, in light of conflicting evidence (as it is common in language research). Furthermore, I believe that experimental works that are not aimed at specifically testing a hypothesis are not unequivocally in favour of such a proposal. That is, if a decade-old peer-reviewed paper’s results fit into MOGUL’s framework, it does not mean that such a framework has been validated. It just means that MOGUL is a proper candidate for describing how the mind works, and that it could be as good as a model as a bunch of others (the authors seem to suggest this as well, still on page 342: “We do not claim it [MOGUL] is the only possible account, only that it is a plausible one…”). I believe that the lack of specific empirical research is a void to be filled in future updates to this work.

Moreover, and in relation to this last topic, how could this framework just be validated or falsified? Can we actually test the authors’ proposal, and how? What predictions can be made in order to shed light into the validity of MOGUL? What repercussions does this book have in empirical language research? These are some of the questions that crowd my mind, to which the authors could not give an answer. However, I believe these are indeed questions that are to be necessarily asked in order to substantiate such an elegant proposal.


Jackendoff, R. 2002. Foundations of language. Oxford University Press.


Marta De Pedis is a PhD student in psycholinguistics at the University of Basque Country. Her thesis deals with relative clause processing and relative clause attachment preferences. Her main interests are syntactic processing and early bilingualism.

Page Updated: 13-Apr-2020