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Review of  Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2

Reviewer: Jesús Romero Trillo
Book Title: Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2
Book Author: Istvan Kecskes
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 14.1391

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Date: Tue, 08 Apr 2003 10:12:48 +0200
From: Jesús Romero
Subject: Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2

Kecskes, Istvan (2002) Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2,
Mouton de Gruyter, Studies on Language Acquisition 19.

Jesús Romero Trillo, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

First and second languages have something in common that transcends any
linguistic theory: the same speaker. This direct, but not always obvious,
statement might be the cornerstone of the approach to Situation-Bound
utterances (SBU's) in bi-and multilingual speakers presented in this book.

Kecskes' work represents an eclectic attempt to depict the L1 and L2
phenomena without any concessions to the traditionally accepted
ancillary nature of the latter, and the presumed superiority of the
former. He defends from the beginning of the book his "strong belief
that monolingual approaches and theories are not the best means to
explain second language use and bi-and multilingual development" (p.1).
In my opinion, this is the key to the development of Kecskes' theory:
"The emergence of another language directs attention to the bi-
directional influence between the two languages, highlights the
decisive role of the interplay of language and culture in shaping
meaning, and shifts the explanatory movement from the linguistic level
to the conceptual level" (p.1).

How is this possible? Can we accept that a bilingual speaker is
cognitively better equipped than the mere addition of a one-plus-one
language user? Yes and no -the author would answer- this depends on the
level of development of the cognitive impedimenta that the individual
has internalised which, as the book points out, does not always
correlate with the language proficiency in the L2.

The book delves into the explanation of this dilemma starting from a
step-by-step explanation of Situation-Bound utterances as the skeleton
of the model. It first describes the linguistic journey of L2 learners
from use to meaning and from use to concept, concluding that L2
awareness can only be shaped in use, and this use within a certain
culture which, by definition, is always different from the L1.The
notion of culture enters at this point with impetus since the main
interest of situation-bound utterances is that they are formulae
anchored to a specific context.

At this point Kecskes admits that language is multi-faceted and, as
such, there cannot be only one lens to look at it. Therefore, he
advocates for the reconciliation of the cognitive-pragmatic approaches
in this multilingual arena; and he calls for the work in unison of the
study of mind and function in the multilingual zone. For this purpose,
the author proposes the notion of the "Common Underlying Conceptual
Base" which would be responsible for the operation of two or more
languages in the speaker's mind. According to the author, this tool
would be at the source of the language process for one or more
languages and would have the capacity of melting and creating meanings,
taking into consideration the conceptual socialization and conscious
awareness processes proper to language learning.

The book then focuses on the meanings of SBU's and their presence in
real contexts, and how they contribute and reflect L2 acquisition from
a cognitive-pragmatic stance. To obtain a clarifying description of
this influence, the author proposes the Dynamic Model of Meaning (DMM)
as an alternative to the generative view that places the lexicon at the
origin of structure formation (Chomsky), and also as an alternative to
the cognitive approach which considers the analysis of grammatical
units only "if there is information about the cultural and
sociolinguistic conventions that are necessary to interpret grammatical
patterns" (p.16). The DMM proposes that "a lexical item both in context
and without context... assimilates present (synchronic) and past
(diachronic) information, incorporates conceptual and lexical
properties, and has both permanent and temporary aspects" (p. 19),
i.e., it views meaning as situated in specific social and cultural

In fact, multilingual speakers know that the problem in language
acquisition is manifested in the relationship between the concepts and
the lexicon. In other words, a lexical item can be learned but its true
conceptual representation in the L2 is not acquired until there is a
deeper cultural knowledge of the language. This leads to a tri-level
production system, connected to modularity approaches, namely the
"grammatical, lexico-semantic and conceptual" levels.

To obtain a better theoretical background on this issue, Kecskes makes
a relevant revision of the semasiological and onomasiological
approaches to language and revisits some of the classical problems,
like for example the definition vs. prototype approaches, in the light
of L2 learning in its contextual use. The point here is how this
context often adds extra meanings to words in what the author calls
Word -Specific Semantic Properties (WSP) situated cognitively at the
results-end of the cultural-conceptual-contextual language process.
This leads to the useful dichotomy presented by Kecskes: the
"coresense" (basic conceptual and stable information), vs. the
"consense" (the contextual, dynamic information) of a lexical unit.
This differentiation, carefully explained in the volume and then
applied to other language phenomena (synchronicity and diachronicity,
denotation vs. connotation etc..), opens a window from which the reader
may ook at the language-learning and use process from a safe and
elevated distance.

Obviously, this position demands the understanding of where the
communication processes take place: the context, its definition and its
limits. The book takes a bi-directional approach to the issue and
describes context as the selector of lexical units, and the lexical
unit as a creator of context. And, as in a painting, in the context
there is always something that is salient and attracts the attention of
the viewer. This salient feature is usually cognitively represented by
the frequency of use, as Romero Trillo (2001) showed in his
mathematical description of variation in discourse, and is the point of
departure of the description of a specific context of use.

Next, the book explains the conceptual origin of SBU's, their functions
and realization in different languages, their characteristics in
comparison with other linguistic elements, and draws on the empirical
results of varied data from several languages. This detailed
description opens paths for further research, especially as a direct
mention to second language learners and the relationship between
language and cultural distance is made.

The book then deals with the classical quandary about creativity vs.
repetition (formulaicity in Kesckes' terminology) in language, and its
relationship to language acquisition, to then move to the complex issue
of conceptual socialization and its relationship with SBU's. The issue
is treated from the perspective of social formulae and their
contribution to weave the social threads of a culture. Because of its
far-reaching implications, the insight is sketched out and opens a
field of research for sociolinguists and scholars interested in
language variation.

The book finishes by making a summary of the description of SBU's in
the author's interdisciplinary approach with an open proposal for
further research and discussion of the theory presented, something
which is always welcome.

One of the most important assets of this work, which I would like to
rescue, is the revision of some classical philosophical and linguistic
approaches to the problems discussed in the book. This enables the
reader to make a direct link with the origins of linguistics, showing
that current worries were also worries in the past, especially in the
case of the relationship between an L1 and and an L2 in the human mind.


Romero Trillo, Jesús (2001) A mathematical model for the analysis of
variation in discourse. Journal of Linguistics 37, 527-550.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Jesús Romero Trillo is Associate Professor in the Department of English Philology at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He is interested in interlanguage and intercultural pragmatics, discourse modelling and corpus linguistics. Some of his recent publications have appeared in the Journal of Pragmatics, Journal of Linguistics and International Journal of Corpus Linguistics.