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Review of  Crosslinguistic Influence and Crosslinguistic Interaction in Multilingual Language Learning

Reviewer: Valeria Buttini-Bailey
Book Title: Crosslinguistic Influence and Crosslinguistic Interaction in Multilingual Language Learning
Book Author: Gessica De Angelis Ulrike Jessner Marijana Kresić
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Issue Number: 27.2614

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


As the editors state, ''research on crosslinguistic influence (CLI) has evolved considerably over the past twenty years due to a clear surge of interest in phenomena arising from languages other than L1'' (p. 1). The aim of the volume is therefore to offer a selection of ''contributions that reflect current research trends in the field of CLI and metalinguistic awareness'' (p. 3).

The volume consists of eleven chapters, and it includes a table of contents, notes on contributors and an index. Each chapter also offers references.


Chapter 1 serves as an introduction in which the editors provide a brief general overview about research on CLI, and go on to describe the purpose of the volume and the content of the following chapters.

Chapter 2 presents Megan Devlin, Raffaella Folli and Christina Sevdali’s longitudinal study focusing on the acquisition of the unaccusative/unergative distinction in a trilingual child. This dichotomy is encoded in Italian through auxiliary selection, while in English it is not overtly marked. Devlin, Folli and Sevdali’s aim is therefore to establish whether the acquisition of such a distinction in a speaker of English and Italian shows evidence of crosslinguistic influence. Data were collected from a child aged between five years, four months and five years, seven months. The child was exposed to Italian from her mother and Scottish Gaelic from her father. English was the language of the community and the shared language of the parents, and it was considered the child’s most dominant language. Based on the literature (Müller/Hulk 2001, Sorace 2011), the authors expected no signs of crosslinguistic influence. They also expected a robust and unproblematic acquisition of verbs classified as core verbs in Sorace’s Auxiliary Selection Hierarchy (Sorace 2000, 2004), with periphery verbs proving eventually to be slightly problematic.

The child’s awareness of the unaccusative/unergative distinction in English and Italian was tested through grammaticality judgement tasks in both languages designed in the format of a puppet game. Results showed that the child had acquired the unaccusative/unergative distinction in both languages. Nevertheless, neither language had been acquired perfectly and her Italian was less developed than her English. Surprisingly, there was a strong overlap between the lexical verbs miscategorised in both English and Italian, thus suggesting a crosslinguistic influence in the acquisition of a lexicon-syntax interface phenomenon from Italian, the child’s weaker language. Besides, the problematic verbs fell into several semantic classes (change of state, change of location, controlled motion, etc.) (Sorace 2004). \To account for these data, a semantic-driven acquisition model is believed by the authors to be insufficient, and should be substituted by a model according to which children have knowledge of the projection of arguments independently of the semantic of verbs.

Chapter 3 presents a second longitudinal study by Rebecca Dahm, which investigates the metacognitive strategies developed through pluralistic approaches based upon unknown languages (PAUL) at school level in France. Data were collected from twelve-year old students dominant in French and with an A1 level in English being confronted with Dutch, Finnish and Italian. The experiment included, for each language, three successive sessions of metasemantic, metasyntactic and metaphonological activities which took place on a monthly basis. The paper reports the results of the first session, in which students had to guess the meaning of three texts, one per language. The texts had similar structural characteristics, such as the presence of cognates. The students had to write what they could understand and explain how they proceeded to decode the texts. Data were then analysed both with qualitative and quantitative methods.

The most readily used strategies proved to be comparison and translation, while resorting to deduction and inferencing proved to be difficult. In particular, students mainly resort to comparison with languages that present the greatest linguistic proximity. This perceived proximity has therefore an inhibitory effect on the spontaneous implementation of the inferencing and deduction strategies. When there is no typological proximity, the L1 factor plays an essential role regarding lexicon. The results do not support an L2 factor hypothesis. The inferencing strategy is the least frequently used, but the results show a slight increase over the three PAUL sessions, demonstrating that it is probably the strategy that most requires training and is not easily transferred from one language to another, contrary to the strategy of deduction.

In Chapter 4, Laura Sanchez reports on another longitudinal study on syntax and language learning. The focus of the study is on syntactic transfer with special reference to the head initial features from the L1 or head final features from the L2 to verb placement in the English L3 using a combination of languages that include Germanic and Romance ones. Data were collected yearly over a four-year period using an elicitation technique and a questionnaire. Participants were born and raised in Catalonia and were Spanish-Catalan bilinguals with prior knowledge of German. They were acquiring L3 English in a formal context in a situation of ‘minimal input’ (Larson-Hall 2008).

The results confirm the occurrence of transfer of head final values from L2 German to L3 English at the initial stage of L3 acquisition. The identification of L2 German as the source language of influence supports therefore the L2 status hypothesis. At the same time, the choice of L2 German over L1s Spanish and Catalan, which are typologically closer to L3 English as regards VP headedness, does not support the typological primacy model, according to which the role of typological proximity and structural similarity is more determining in the occurrence of transfer (Rothman 2010, 2011). Over time, the transfer evolves and decreases in the L3 interlanguage. This indicates the coexistence, in the L3 interlanguage, of grammars from the L2 German and the L3 English.

Chapter 5, by Jan Vanhove and Raphael Berthele, introduces a new approach to the analysis of CLI using random forests (Breiman 2001) as the primary statistical tool. The authors investigated the impact of a selection of item-related characteristics on the probability with which multilinguals can guess the meaning of visually presented words in an unknown language with known cognates. In order to avoid spurious findings, they used two independent but similar datasets featuring different stimuli and participants, and analysed them separately but in the same way. The cognate guessing tasks were also administered in a different way. In both cases participants were native speakers of a Swiss-German dialect, with knowledge of Standard German, English and sometimes other languages not belonging to the Germanic group, and they were confronted with either Danish, Dutch, Frisian or Swedish words. The impact of four variables on cognate guessing accuracy was gauged, i.e. cognate frequency, and overall, consonantal and word-initial Levenshtein distance between each stimulus and its German, English and French counterparts.

The results indicated that the most important item-related predictor of cognate guessing accuracy is the overall degree of orthographic discrepancy between the Lx stimulus in a Germanic language and a known cognate in German or English. This supports the hypothesis that multilinguals draw not only on their L1 when guessing the meaning of cognates in a related language but also on their knowledge of a related foreign language. The corpus frequencies of the stimuli’s German and English cognates also emerged as a relevant predictor of cognate guessing accuracy, while consonantal and word-initial Levenshtein proved to only have a marginal effect when overall Levenshtein distances were also considered.

On the other hand, for both the orthographic distances and corpus frequencies, the variables computed with respect to French did not turn out to be robust predictors of cognate guessing accuracy. As the authors state, a task more conducive to French-Lx transfer is therefore needed to detect if and how German-speaking Swiss participants draw on their knowledge of French when guessing the meaning of related words in an unknown language.

Chapter 6 presents Divya Verma Gogoi, James D. Harnsberger and Caroline Wiltshire’s study on speech perception in multilingual learning. The goal of the study was to examine the effects of a multilingual benefit on the acquisition of a target language, Malayalam, by two bilingual groups, Bengali-English and Spanish-English speakers, and one monolingual group of American-English speakers. The sixty subjects were presented with novel speech contrasts, i.e. retroflex sounds lacking in the subjects’ L1/L2 sounds inventory, over a limited period of training. Bilingual groups were expected to perform better than the monolingual group in perceiving and identifying the speech contrasts from the unknown language. In order to investigate this hypothesis, different tests were employed. The performance was measured by comparing the results at the pre-test level to those at the post-test level.

The results for the identification tests showed significant group differences between bilinguals and monolinguals, while the results for the discrimination tests showed marginal differences. In the case of the generalization tests, no significant difference was revealed. Finally, the results for the perceptual assimilation tests showed a significant difference between bilinguals and monolinguals. Therefore, the outcomes of this study seem to confirm the existence of a multilingual benefit. In fact, bilinguals seem to function differently from monolinguals in abstracting and reorganizing the information gathered from speech in order to deal with the task of acquiring new non-native speech contrasts. At the same time, the authors suggest the necessity of using a larger sampling in order to further investigate the role played by individual variation.

In Chapter 7, Anat Stavans reports on a study that examines the role of early exposure to different writing systems in multilingual children’s literacy, thus focusing on multilingual children who have not yet been formally schooled. Data were collected from thirty-seven bilingual pre-schoolers living in Israel, where three or more languages are used on a daily basis. All the children were attending the same public kindergarten; seventeen were Amharic-Hebrew speakers, and twenty were monolingual Hebrew speakers. The children were first assessed informally and asked to write their name, and to show where their name appears in the room. Later, after a first session aimed to acquaint the child with the experimenter, they were individually shown different cards, both alphabetic and non-alphabetic, and were asked whether what was on the card was readable or not, to place it in the correct pile (yes or no) and to explain their answers.

The findings show no significant difference between the multilinguals and the monolinguals in their judging alphabetic sequences as readable or in their explanations. However, statistically significant differences were found between the groups’ judgements of sequences as non-readable with/out explanations. The two groups also differ significantly in their provision of explanations for non-readable judgements. The type of explanation provided seems to be propelled by different features of the input. Overall, the monolingual children explained their non-readable judgements by using predominantly qualitative and quantitative explanations as compared to the multilingual children, and they seem to attend more to features of the shape, size, and form of the notation, and length of the sequence. On the contrary, multilingual children use more language-anchored explanations, attributing the non-readability of a sequence to the fact that it is an unknown language.

As a conclusion, Stavans underlines the fact that non-reading and non-writing children do not wait for formal instruction to begin hypothesizing about written systems. The visual landscape, the attention that is directed to the written language, the literacy practises in informal settings such as families and kindergartens are critical for the emergence of literacy in both monolingual and multilingual children, and the variety of input from different writing systems may represent an advantage for multilinguals in the emergent stages of literacy development.

Chapter 8 presents Femke Swarte, Anja Schüppert and Charlotte Gooskens’s study investigating whether non-native knowledge has a positive effect on receptive multilingualism. The authors focused on the role of the non-native language German for L1 Dutch speakers in processing and understanding the unknown Danish language, and conducted two experiments using written and spoken stimuli. The participants had different levels of German, and they had to translate Danish words. One half of the Danish stimulus words had cognates only in German, while the other half had cognates only in Dutch.

Results from the experiments suggest that knowledge of German helps native speakers of Dutch to decode both written and spoken Danish stimulus words. They also support the notion of a foreign language mode. However, the effect of the foreign language mode disappears when the written or spoken stimulus is placed in a context in the form of a semantic category to which the stimulus word belongs.

In Chapter 9, Karolina Mieszkowska and Agnieszka Otwinowska report on an empirical study investigating mechanisms used by multilinguals when processing an unknown language that is similar to the languages they already know. The authors presented a group of 40 Polish advanced users of English (L2) with a relatively difficult text in Danish, a language they did not know. The participants, aged between 21 and 30, were students of English at the University of Warsaw and had different constellations of L3-Ln and varied cumulative L3-Ln learning experience. The Danish text had to be orally translated into English and commented. The participants were then shown an English version of the text and had to judge their translation. Both translations and comments were recorded in the form of verbal protocols, and then analysed.

Data give evidence that multilingual language acquisition (MLA) embraces unique and complex factors that arise from the interactions among the many languages learnt and the processes of learning them. In comparison to SLA, MLA seems to be characterized by a more complex interplay of factors connected with language typology and individual learner differences. The research confirms that the typological distance plays an important role in CLI. However, it was not the main factor in choosing the auxiliary language for comprehension of the text in the unknown Danish language. In fact, it is proficiency in L3-Ln language together with cumulative language experience that matters in enhancing the inferencing strategies. Typological proximity helps only of proficiency in L3-Ln is high enough. Therefore, the data suggest that the metalinguistic awareness needed to tackle challenging language tasks develops alongside the process of gaining proficiency in L3, and it can be considered both a product of multilingualism and a trigger that stimulates additional language acquisition.

Chapter 10 presents Christina Lindqvist’s study focusing on a possible relation between subjects’ perceptions concerning language relatedness and the source of CLI in L3 written text production. Data were collected in a Swedish lower secondary school, from pupils with L1 Swedish, L2 English and L3 French. The participants were given a sheet of paper with six pictures telling a story about two children who are off to a picnic, and then were invited to write the story in French. In order to assess their beliefs about the relationship between Swedish, English and French, the participants were also asked to fill out a questionnaire exploring psychotypology (Kellermann 1977, 1978, 1983).

The results show that the learners seem to transfer more from the language that they perceive as closer to the L3. In all the questions in the typological perception questionnaire, the learners opted for English to a larger extent than Swedish when comparing to French, and English dominates as a source of transfer, especially as far as lexical CLI is concerned. Therefore, the psychotypology factor appears to play a role. However, these results were not statistically significant and should be interpreted as tendencies.

Chapter 11, written by the editors, serves as a conclusion. It offers an outline of the most important findings and the overall theoretical and methodological contributions presented in the volume with respect to language interactions, CLI and metalinguistic awareness. The editors also underline how all the research presented in the volume ''supports the basic insight that, in contrast to second language acquisition, multiple language learning is influenced by specific and complex factors and is largely characterized by the crosslinguistic interactions and influences between the various languages being learnt'' (p. 257).


Overall, the editors have succeeded in collating a very well structured, coherent and readable volume. They have brought together contributions dealing with different language combinations, age groups, linguistic levels and methodologies, adding a new perspective on the area of focus and making this volume interesting for quite a large public.

Chapters are well organised and referenced, and follow roughly the same outline. They generally provide enough theoretical background to make them understandable even by a public who has little knowledge of CLI. Much appreciated is also the detailed explanation of how the collection of data and their analysis were conducted. This may give younger researchers the possibility of learning about a variety of data collection methods and offers ideas on how to carry out future research.

This book represents an important contribution to the understanding of CLI and MLA. It will surely be of great interest to researchers in MLA and language pedagogy and to advanced students in linguistics. Second language teachers may also benefit, although the theoretical discussion may be somewhat advanced for those lacking a solid linguistic background and consequently further reading may be necessary.


Breiman, L. 2001. ‘Random forests’. In Machine Learning, 45. 5-32.

Kellermann, E. 1977. ‘Towards a characterization of the strategy of transfer in second language learning’. In Interlanguage Studies Bulletin, 2. 58-145.

Kellermann, E. 1978. ‘Giving learners a break: Native language intuitions as a source of predictions about transferability’. In Working Papers in Bilingualism, 15. 309-15.

Kellermann, E. 1983. ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’. In S. Gass and L. Selinker (eds), Language transfer in language learning, Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 112-34.

Larson-Hall J. 2008. ‘Weighing the benefits of studying a foreign language at a younger starting age in a minimal input situation’. In Second Language Research, 24 (1). 35-63.

Müller, N. and Hulk, A. 2001. ‘Crosslinguistic influence in bilingual language acquisition: Italian and French as recipient languages’. In Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4 (1). 1-21.

Rothman, J. 2010. ‘On the typological economy of syntactic transfer: Word order and relative clause high/low attachment preference in L3 Brazilian Portuguese’. In International Review of Applied Linguistics, 48 (2/3). 245-73.

Rothman. J. 2011. ‘L3 syntactic transfer selectivity and typological determinacy: The typological primacy model’. In Second Language Research, 27 (1). 107-27.

Sorace, A. 2000. ‘Gradients in auxiliary selection with intransitive verbs’. In Language, 76 (4). 859-90.

Sorace, A. 2004. ‘Gradience at the lexicon-syntax interface: evidence from auxiliary selection and implications for unaccusativity’. In A. Alexiadou, E. Anagnostopoulou and M. Everaert (eds), The Unaccusativity Puzzle: Explorations of the Synatx-Lexicon Interface. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 243-68.

Sorace, A. 2011. ‘Pinning down the concept of “Interface” in bilingualism’. In Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 1 (1). 1-33.
Valeria Buttini-Bailey is currently lecturer and postDoc in Italian linguistics at the University of Basel. Her research interests lie in the fields of applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, second language acquisition, text linguistic, and syntax. She also teaches Italian as a second language at the University of Zurich.

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