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Review of  Advanced Proficiency and Exceptional Ability in Second Languages

Reviewer: Christopher D. Sams
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: 30.3242

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“Advanced Proficiency and Exceptional Ability in Second Languages,” edited by Kenneth Hyltenstam, is a volume in De Gruyter Mouton’s series on Studies on Language Acquisition. The book has a specific focus on research-based evidence of second language learners “…who have accomplished no less than enviably advanced proficiency level in one or more second, or additional, languages” (Preface). The book is the result of “a long term research programme at Stockholm University” (Preface) that the contributors participated in. The book contains a preface, a table of contents listing the introduction and the eight chapters’ titles and contributors, an alphabetical list of the contributors and their affiliations, the eight chapters (which are each subdivided), and a subject index.

In the three-part introductory chapter ‘Introduction: Perspectives on advanced second language proficiency,’ Kenneth Hyltenstam of Stockholm University provides an overview of the objectives of the volume. In Part One, he explains that the first five chapters provide “a detailed account of how second languages are used at this [advanced-level proficiency] level” (1). The final three chapters discuss “more spectacular examples of second language achievement” (1). In Part Two of the chapter, Hyltenstam covers terminology relevant to L2 (second language) proficiency. He outlines and provides rating systems such as those used in the “internationally recognized” Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL), the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) guidelines, and the European CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) scale. He has an excellent footnote acknowledging the debate of the definition of “native speaker” and provides references for the debate. In Part Three, he presents the limited research regarding studies of advanced L2 proficiency.

In Chapter 1 ‘Pragmatic Markers in high-level second language use,’ Lars Fant reports on a case study involving Spanish and an interaction between two native speakers and two non-native Spanish speakers whose L1 is Swedish. He devotes a good deal of attention to defining pragmatics markers and ultimately presents three categories relevant to the study: argumentation markers, own-communication markers, and interaction management markers. The controlled, quantitative study did not produce any reliable “generalizations to be drawn” (34). It was a single 35 minute encounter of the participants which produced 5,866 words. The case study was a pilot that provides questions for future research.

Inge Bartning examines ‘Morphosyntax and discourse in high-level second language use’ in Chapter 2. This study examines L2 French and lays out stages for acquisition by Bartning and Schlyter (2004). For this chapter, recordings of ten Swedish L1 speakers who met a defined set of criteria (e.g., age, proficiency level, time spent living in France) were examined in a corpus along with eight native French speakers. Both sets of participants were asked to perform a series of tasks, such as interviews, retelling of events based on media, and grammatical judgment tests. This study yielded qualitative results and generalizations.

In Chapter 3, ‘The lexicon of advanced L2 learners’, Camilla Bardel reviews the state of the field in the following sections: Second language vocabulary learning: Background, High-level L2 proficiency vis-à-vis the native speaker’s proficiency; Words and word knowledge (this is the largest section); The organization of the mental lexicon; Cross-linguistic influence; and How can word knowledge be assessed?

In Chapter 4, Britt Erman, Fanny Forsberg Lundell, and Margareta Lewis address ‘Formulaic language in advanced second language acquisition and use’. The authors briefly discuss theories that address frequency (e.g., Frame semantics, Construction grammar, Meaning-Text Theory, Phraseology) and survey the existing literature regarding both advanced spoken and written production, including psycholinguistic data.

Alan McMillion and Philip Shaw examine ‘Reading proficiency in advanced L2 adult learners’ in Chapter 5. They provide background, definitions, and compare L1 and L2 reading processes. The authors’ research focuses on English. Participants were tested on whole-skills reading tasks, vocabulary size and quality, grammatical knowledge, and processing. The study was controlled in selecting participants with similar academic backgrounds (first-year students of biology in Britain and Sweden). One interesting finding is that “[m]any L2 users scored within the L1 range not only on holistic tasks like the multiple-choice reading test, but also on sub-skill tests like word recognition speed, which presumably assess purely linguistic receptive proficiency. This is an area in which advanced second-language learners may well outdo L1 learners” (176).

Kingsley Bolton of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, examines ‘Linguistic outsourcing and native-like performance in international call centres: An overview’ in Chapter 6. The impetus for the study was the potential for world Englishes (there is a footnote addressing the use of this term) used in call center in Asian societies. The study examined call center agents in two major call centers in India and the Philippines. The study is then broken into findings at the Philippine call center (and the features of Philippine English, such as the phonological features and extensive lexical borrowing from Spanish). The chapter includes an 85-line transcript from the corpus taken from call center interactions and qualitative statements from call center agents that highlight some key issues.

Chapter 7, ‘The polyglot-- an initial characterization on the basis of multiple anecdotal accounts’ by Kenneth Hyltenstam, provides information on 94 polyglots. They are categorized by profession. Of note here is a footnote where Hyltenstam addresses professional linguists who are on the list and the issue of separating advanced grammatical knowledge from “speaking” a language. An appendix at the end of the chapter gives the names of these polyglots, along with their lifespan, numbers of languages purportedly spoken, profession, and source of the information.

In the final chapter, Kenneth Hyltenstam explores ‘The exceptional ability of polyglots to achieve high-level proficiency in numerous languages’. This chapter focuses on case studies. It includes the discussion of factors that contribute to being a polyglot such as motivation, learner autonomy, aptitude, language awareness and metalinguistic knowledge, systemizing, and cerebral correlates.


This book is, for the most part, reader friendly and would be of use to any student or researcher interested in high-level proficiency second language acquisition. The authors do an exemplary job of defining terms within individual chapters. However, in some instances, most notably in Chapter 4, descriptions of theories are extremely brief and those not familiar with the tenets of Frame Semantics or Construction Grammar would have a difficult time following the argumentation. However, this volume’s greatest strength lies in its extensive references listed at the end of each chapter. The volume is extremely well organized and coherent, and each chapter is formatted in the same manner, so a reader can easily read a chapter on its own. As for its place in academia, the book performs two major functions: it covers an area of study that is under researched and it opens the door to an amazing amount of questions for future research. What the book seems to lack is more empirical evidence. The study in Chapter 1 is a good model for future research. The study in Chapter 6 (albeit qualitative) does have quantitative data that could be extrapolated. Both studies utilized research control protocol as much as possible. In Chapter 7, the use of Wikipedia as a source seems to detract from the credibility of the chapter. The polyglots mentioned in the chapter who were tested using a formal method hold much more weight than those who self-reported (or had reported via a biography) their ability or number of languages spoken or written. As the author notes, language proficiency is a fluid concept. However, the main point the author was making in the chapter seemed to be with the professions of the subjects. His argument is that they are “highly motivated” individuals, such as professional linguists, translators, and interpreters. On the whole, this volume is an excellent point of departure for researchers in various subareas of linguistics looking to further an understudied field.
Chris Sams is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. His research and teaching interests are second language acquisition, forensic linguistics, linguistic typology and universals, language description and documentation, Romance linguistics, historical linguistics, and translation studies.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781501516979
Pages: 274
Prices: U.S. $ 24.99