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Review of  Advanced Proficiency and Exceptional Ability in Second Languages

Reviewer: Anders Agebjörn
Book Title: Advanced Proficiency and Exceptional Ability in Second Languages
Book Author: Kenneth Hyltenstam
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 30.254

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Kenneth Hyltenstam: Introduction: Perspectives on advanced second language proficiency

Hyltenstam introduces the anthology by discussing the notion of proficiency, his main point being that labelled stages of language development, like the six stages in CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference; Council of Europe 2001) does not “mirror any pre-existing reality. It is nothing but a methodological procedure for making a complex situation more tangible.” This contrasts with Pienemann’s Processability Theory (1998), where the stages of grammatical development are claimed to be psycho-linguistically valid. Moreover, Hyltenstam underscores that scales used for assessing language proficiency do not illustrate a way towards native-like proficiency: L2 users at the topmost level of scales like CEFR are not necessarily “native-like.” This also holds the other way around: all native speakers need not be at the topmost level of such scales. The introduction reviews some research into advanced L2 proficiency, focusing on the role of maturation and aptitude, not least the studies by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2009).

Lars Fant: Chapter 1. Pragmatic markers in high-level second language use

In the volume’s first chapter, Fant reviews research of non-native use of pragmatic markers and presents a small study on the use of such markers by highly proficient speakers of Spanish (L1: Swedish). According to Fant, pragmatics is under-investigated within L2 research, despite the fact that it is a central component of language proficiency.

Fant introduces central notions relating to discourse/pragmatic markers/particles. He himself defines them as “devices for implementing different forms of ‘modalization’ in discourse” (p. 20). Based on a “communicative-need perspective” (p. 21), he makes a main distinction between (i) one-communication management (OM) markers, which the speaker uses to assign “degrees of formulation accuracy” (p. 20) to an utterance; (ii) interaction management (IM) markers, that is, “tools for assessing degrees of intersubjectivity” (p. 20); and (iii) argumentation management (AM) markers, which assign “degrees of credibility to an utterance” (p. 20). The efficiency and accuracy with which L2 speakers make use of such markers affects the fluency and idiomaticity of the performance. Research suggests that these markers are difficult to acquire, and there may be several reasons for this: one explanation is the markers’ multi-functionality, that is, their complex form–function mapping. Moreover, they are often neglected in language instruction. An interesting suggestion is that the use of pragmatic markers, contrary to grammar and pronunciation, is also affected by cultural beliefs and self-image: “an identity construal built on primary socialization may become an obstacle to targetlike behaviour” (p. 27).

The study focuses on discourse markers used by two native speakers and two highly proficient L2 speakers of Spanish (L1: Swedish), who participated in a simulated negotiation. The author observes that, even though measures like lexical diversity and mean length of utterance indicate no difference between the native and non-native speakers, their use of discourse markers reveals subtle differences. To some extent, these may be explained in terms of cultural differences between Northern and Southern Europe. However, it could also be claimed that accurate usage of certain markers, compared to others, requires more cognitive resources. In particular, “[t]he AM subcategories could in fact be conceived of as a hierarchy of cognitive complexity”, some operating within phrases or clauses, other between clauses, and the cognitively most complex type on “the encompassing text level” (p. 33). The author concludes that these different types of pragmatic markers could be a good testing-ground for a cognitive complexity hypothesis, according to which difficulty is an effect of complexity.

The article presents an interesting and understudied research area in a comprehensible and accessible way.

Inge Bartning: Chapter 2. Morphosyntax and discourse in high-level second language use

The point of departure for the second chapter is the observation that L2 learners continue to develop both discourse features and “fine-grained purely grammatical phenomena” (p. 43) even at near-native-like proficiency levels. The six developmental stages of the scale for French L2 morphosyntax, developed by the author and colleagues (Bartning & Schlyter 2004), are presented. The distinction between so-called A-forms and B-forms of the interlanguage is discussed: A-forms are simplified target-language forms under development while B-forms are non-target-like forms that emerge and eventually disappear in the interlanguage system. So-called state-of-the-art research on L2 development is reviewed; discussed domaines are (i) tense, mood and aspect, (ii) subject-verb agreement, (iii) noun phrase morphology, (iv) discourse, (v) syntactic complexity, and (vi) information structure.

Preliminary results from a research project focusing on “features pertaining to levels of high proficiency” are presented. Oral production and grammatical judgement data were collected from ten highly proficient non-native speakers of French (L1: Swedish) who had all lived in Paris for 15–30 years. The preliminary analysis indicates that gender is a problematic feature in these near-native users. Regarding discourse, it is discussed whether the number of constituents in the theme part of the utterance can be used as a measure for discourse complexity. Several notions that could explain difficulties in advanced L2 learners (“potentially explanatory factors”, p. 40) are discussed, for example “reflexes of bilingualism”, markedness, complexity, interfaces, frequency effects, and the explicit–implicit learning distinction.

The reviewers found the text difficult to follow in parts. They felt it could need a bit more polishing and restructuring to improve the flow of ideas.

Camilla Bardel: The lexicon of advanced L2 learners

This chapter is an overview of studies on the mental lexicon and vocabulary in language learners in general and in vocabulary assessment in particular. The author defines different levels of highly proficient L2 speakers, namely advanced, near-native and native-like. The chapter then continues with how vocabulary, along its different dimensions, can be assessed and deals with some limitations in assessing vocabulary knowledge. It also discusses the notion of a word and what it means to know a word. The author notes a difference between L1 and L2 vocabulary in terms of the organization in the mental lexicon. She also talks about cross-linguistic influence and transfer, both positive and negative. For assessment, she mentions the importance of depth and breadth of word knowledge. In the beginning, she says that native-like L2 speakers have never been observed, but in the conclusion she says that, theoretically, there are no limitations as to how well you can learn an L2 and that the more proficient one becomes, the more similar the L2 mental lexicon will be to the the L1 mental lexicon, for example in terms of semantic relations.

The chapter is well written and informative. It is a good introduction to L2 lexicon acquisition, but possibly too basic for the audience.

Britt Erman, Fanny Forsberg Lundell & Margareta Lewis: Formulaic language in advanced second language acquisition and use

The authors present how formulaic sequences can be extracted from corpora using statistical methods, how formulaic sequences are acquired according to psycho-cognitive approaches, and how formulaic sequences are explained in linguistic theories. They then go on to formulaic sequences in second language acquisition. The remainder of the chapter is an overview of different studies dealing with spoken and written formulaic expressions in advanced language learners. They point out the paucity of studies focusing on very advanced learners, which is possibly due to the difficulty of defining very advanced learners.

The chapter is clearly organised and well-written.

Alan McMillion & Philip Shaw: Reading proficiency in advanced L2 users

In this chapter, the authors concentrate on reading proficiency in advanced adult L2 users. The authors investigate which compensation strategies might be used by less proficient yet advanced L2 readers in comparison to L1 readers.

First, they define the notions of reading, proficiency, and advanced, and they clarify, among the multiple meanings and views of these terms, the ones that they will be looking at. They also raise some issues that stem from these definitions. In the next section, the authors describe a model of L1 reading processes, focusing both on low level processes such as converting visual input to linguistic representations and high level processes such as inference and linking of propositions. They also underscore the importance of background and genre knowledge on the reading process.

The authors then give a view of L2 reading processes, and compare it to the L1 model. One reason for slower processing in L2 readers might be cultural differences and background knowledge of different cultures. Another important factor is L1 transfer. Indeed, between closely related languages, transfer is generally positive, but even for more distant languages, different kinds of transfer can facilitate reading, suggesting that “high level processes are independent of language pair” (p. 163). Another point of difference is vocabulary size, which for L1 populations correlates with literacy skills and automaticity while for L2 populations it correlates with L2 proficiency and only very indirectly relates to literacy skills.

Finally, the authors conclude by presenting some findings, namely that depending on how equivalence of L1 and L2 groups is defined, the number of “native-like” readers is different and the conclusions that can be drawn are different. In general, it can be said that advanced L2 readers can reach native-like proficiency and that these readers often outperform L1 users on communicative tasks.

The contribution of the chapter to the anthology is important. However, for the reviewers, it was sometimes difficult to follow.

Kingsley Bolton: Linguistic outsourcing and native-like performance in international call centres: An overview

Bolton shows that the international call center industry, in for example the Philippines, is highly relevant to the academic discussion about notions such as language ideology and policy, the native speaker, and “World Englishes.” An aim of the chapter is to problematize the notions “language proficiency” and “native speaker.” Bolton makes a clear distinction between acquisitional and sociological approaches to World Englishes, like the variety spoken (as a second language) in the Philippines. He discusses whether one can speak of a native speaker of Philippine English. A central notion for the paper is “passing” – the ability to be perceived as a native speaker.

Bolton presents a research project on the international call centre industry in for instance the Philippines, where the number of employees increased from a thousand to a million between 2000 and 2015. Using observational data, interviews, and recorded conversations between call center staff and customers from the US, collected during fieldwork, he aims at answering the following research questions: To what extent is native-like behaviour expected from and achieved by call center staff? What do the demands from the employer look like and what is the profile of a successful call situation? What strategies does the staff use to pass as native speakers?

Analysing the interviews, Bolton finds that most Philippine call center staff in this study were at an intermediate or high proficiency level of English; however, they spoke a “distinctive Philippine accent” (p. 200). Even though this accent is acknowledged by linguists, the call center industry tries to neutralise it. The staff is monitored by team leaders and those who speak with an American English accent and with high proficiency are promoted quickly. Analysing a representative conversation between a US caller and a call center employee, Bolton observes that the US costumer indeed uses more non-standard forms than the second language speaker. It is also observed that the employee uses advanced skills to guide the caller “through a complex explanation” (p. 205). Thus, with an action-based proficiency scale, like CEFR, the non-native could very well be assessed as more proficient than the native caller.

Bolton ends the article by discussing interviews with three gay persons working at the call center. There is a “performativity in their workplace linguistic behaviour” (p. 207), Bolton summarises: a male staff, who calls himself Sunshine when talking to customers, does not only pass as native speaker of English – he also passes as a female American. To conclude, Bolton points to the “multi-layered possibilities in researching language use in the call centre context” (p. 208).

The reviewers find the paper well written, interesting, and surprising.

Kenneth Hyltenstam: The polyglot – an initial characterization on the on the basis of multiple anecdotal accounts

In Chapter 7, Hyltenstam presents a research project where he has gathered anecdotal information about 94 polyglots. He defines a polyglot as someone having acquired at least six languages after puberty to a high level of proficiency. By comparing their histories, Hyltenstam aims at revealing “particular recurring patterns that are suggestive for a more formal characterisation of polyglots” (p. 217). One conclusion is that “the phenomenon of polyglotism is extremely rare” (p. 219). Two of the 94 people in the list are described in more detail: Harald Williams (1876–1928), a “born linguist” who was proficient in 20 languages at the age of 23, but who did not have any particular mathematical skills, and Alexander Schwartz (born 1926), who was a skilled language learner and mathematician. For Williams, languages were encyclopedic knowledge, whereas for Schwartz, languages were systems.

The following observations are based on Hyltenstam’s list: polyglots generally treat languages as objects, and they are motivated learners. Many of them are also keen to inform others about the languages they know and about how to learn languages. Most of them work professionally with languages in one way or another (they are writers, translators, diplomats, linguists etc.), but only three of 94 were teachers. They are often self-taught; for the majority of them, learning a language is not a social activity “but rather an individual pleasure“ (p. 226). Only two of the 94 were non-academics: a Finnish gardener, who spoke 15 languages fluently, could read bout 100 languages, and knew the vocabulary of 50 languages more; and a blacksmith who taught himself 50 languages. Some of them also created their own languages. Of the 94 names in the list, only 3 are females, which, according to the author, is “surprising given the well-established female advantage in language-related tasks in general” (p. 228). Some of them also had other special interests and abilities, like math and music.

The text is interesting and well written. The subject is fascinating, and it is not hard to see how this research can inform theory construction of linguistics and language learning, as well as general cognition.

Kenneth Hyltenstam: The exceptional ability of polyglots to achieve high-level proficiency in numerous languages

Chapter 8 is a direct continuation of the previous chapter. Here, Hyltenstam aims at providing “a comprehensive account of current knowledge about polyglots” (p. 241). Based on this account, he also points out a direction for further research on the subject. After having presented some case studies – two on “[n]ormally functioning polyglots” (p. 242) and two about so-called savants – the author reviews theoretical explanations for such cases. The main focus is the relation between environment and genetically influenced preferences. Further research on polyglots should, Hyltenstam concludes, focus on the role of motivation, learner autonomy (polyglots are often self-taught), aptitude, and metalinguistic awareness. Moreover, one of the most salient features of polyglots as a group is their treating languages as systems. Thus, the relation between linguistic knowledge and other types of knowledge in polyglots is an interesting area of research. Finally, an important question is whether there are any cerebral correlates of polyglotism: “The main issue is still to what extent polyglot brains are different because the language learning experience has changed them and to what extent they are differently predisposed for handling linguistic material from the start, i.e. how does the nurture-nature entanglement or complex interact to create cerebral differences?” (p. 268).

The article is very well written and clearly demonstrates that research on extraordinarily proficient second language learners may contribute to the theoretical understanding of linguistics in general and second language acquisition in particular.


Hyltenstam introduced the book Advanced Proficiency and Exceptional Ability in Second Languages by stating that research into these exceptional second language learners “has the potential to contribute with new theoretical insight into what the acquisition and use of second language is all about” (p. v). In the reviewers’ opinion, the book is successful in demonstrating that this is the case. Despite varying quality of the contributions, the overall impression is that the book presents new and interesting perspectives on the broad field of second language acquisition. The first five chapters of the book introduce different domains of second language research – pragmatics, lexicon, morphosyntax, formulaic language, and reading – focusing on the “Advanced Proficiency” part of the book’s title. Some of these introductions are suitable for students interested in language acquisition as well as researchers. The last three chapters are rather devoted to the “Exceptional Ability” part of the title. These chapter provide interesting – even though mostly anecdotal – stories of successful and extraordinary language learners. The reviewers believe that these are highly interesting for anyone interested in second language acquisition.


Bartning, I., & Schlyter, S. 2004. Itinéraires acquisitionnels et stades de développement en français L2. Journal of French language studies, 14(3), 281-299.

Council of Europe 2001. Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. 2009. Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny. Language learning, 59(2), 249-306.

Pienemann, M. 1998. Language Processing and Second Language Development: Processability Theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Anders Agebjörn is a PhD candidate in Swedish as a second language, focusing on second language acquisition of morphosyntax and semantics. David Alfter is a Phd candidate in computational linguistics, working on automatic vocabulary complexity assessment for second language Learners of swedish. Both work at University of Gothenburg, Department for Swedish.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781614517184
Pages: 274
Prices: U.S. $ 140.00