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Review of  Developing Aspects of Second Language Discourse Competence

Reviewer: Elisa Bianchi
Book Title: Developing Aspects of Second Language Discourse Competence
Book Author: Katherine Rehner
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 16.3422

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Date: Fri, 25 Nov 2005 00:42:23 +0100
From: Elisa Bianchi
Subject: Developing Aspects of Second Language Discourse

AUTHOR: Rehner, Katherine
TITLE: Developing Aspects of Second Language Discourse
SERIES: LINCOM Studies in Language Acquisition 13
YEAR: 2004

Elisa Bianchi, Science of Language Department, University for
Foreigners, Perugia


This monograph offers an insight into discourse competence of
French immersion students from Ontario, Canada. It provides a
quantitative and qualitative analysis of French expressions with
discursive and non-discursive functions, and compares the frequency
and functions in three spoken language corpora, drawing a general
outline of differences and similarities. The main goal of this study is to
explain variation in second language speech by relating it to linguistic
and extralinguistic factors, such as extra-curricular French exposure,
social class and sex.

Chapter 1 Overview of the Research. Chapter 1 provides a brief
sketch about the goal of analysis: to investigate the influence of
independent factors in relations to the 41 French immersion students'
mastery of the discursive and non-discursive uses of comme/like,
donc/alors/(ça) fait que/so, bon and là. The analysis is carried out by
comparing three corpora: 1. questionnaires and taped interviews with
41 immersion students engaged in extended French programs in
three Greater Toronto Area high schools; 2. biographical information
on and taped interviews with same-aged school students from
Welland, Ontario; 3. biographical information on and recordings of the
in-class speech of 7 grade 3 and 6 French immersion teachers from
the greater Toronto and Ottawa areas. Discursive and non-discursive
uses of expressions such as comme/like, donc/alors/(ça) fait que/so,
bon and là were chosen as the subject of the research because they
provide a faithful insight of discursive competence in French as a
second language and they allow for the study of the influence of a
wide range of independent factors, social and linguistics, on second
language variation. Moreover, this is an as yet under-researched

Chapter 2 Contextualizing the Research. In this chapter, the author
sets out the theoretical background of data analysis, and then outlines
a review of past sociolinguistic research about factors involved in
language variation. Author identifies 5 approaches to the study if
language variation: 'Labovian tradition', 'dynamic
paradigm', 'communicative competence', 'speech accommodation
theory', 'attitudes and motivation'. Research about 41 French
immersion students fits in Labovian sociolinguistics and second
language acquisition, although there are several important
distinctions. The goal of the research is to investigate the relationship
between language variation (as for discursive and non-discursive
uses of some French expressions) and independent factors, such as
student's social makeups (i.e. sex and social class) the language(s)
spoken at home, and the linguistic context surrounding the language
being examined. This type of investigation differs from traditional
Labovian sociolinguistics in that the concept itself of language
variation has to be contextualized in second language acquisition.
There are instead two types of variation in second language
acquisition: the first type consists of an alternation between forms that
conform to target language native norms and 'errors'; the second type
consists of an alternation between forms that are each used by native
speakers of the target languages. Rehner's research is based on the
investigation of second type systematic variation in second language

The author discusses Ellis' theoretical framework of free and
systematic variation (Ellis 1989), and draws up a new framework
worked out exclusively for systematic L2 variation. The new framework
is very different from the traditional framework of language variation,
because it acknowledges the role of new factors affecting second
language variable production. Within the new framework, the nature of
the learner's L1 is recognized as a primary source of systematic L2
variable production. Secondly, as concerns the extra-linguistic
sources, the new framework recognizes the role of personal-affective
factors, namely the learner's attitude towards the target language and
culture and the learning's motivations. These factors lay behind
traditional sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic factors.

As for sociolinguistic factors, the new framework inserts both the
social and interactional contexts, and also the discourse context (i.e.
topic formality, register, etc.); further, it acknowledges factors related
to both the addressee and the speaker (e.g. sex, education, social
class etc.). Lastly, the amount and quality of the learner's L2 exposure
is introduced as a new factor.
The corpus analysis doesn't investigate the role of all factors listed in
this new framework, but it focuses on the influence of L1 and L2
linguistic factors and of the extra-linguistic factors subsumed under
speaker factors (i.e., the social factors of sex, social class, and value
of the L2 variants, the exposure factors of amount and nature of L2
exposure, and the use of the variants in class by immersion teachers
and pedagogical materials). The weight of these factors was already
demonstrated in a study concerning the alternation, in French as a
second language of 41 immersion students, between on and nous,
reviewed by Rehner et al. (2003). Findings from the study of nouns
vs. on alternation can be summarized as follows:
1. middle class and/or female speakers show a preference for formal
2. those students who have contacts with native speakers of
Canadian French have internalized patterns of language variation
based on sex and social stratification.

By analysing discursive and non-discursive functions of French
expressions (donc, alors, etc...), the author aims to find further
evidence of trends in language variation showed by previous
investigation of this 41 immersion students corpus.

Chapter 3, Methods. This chapter provides detailed description of
methods used in data collection and analysis of discursive and non-
discursive uses of comme/like, donc/alors (ça) fait que/so, bon and là
by 41 immersion students.

Data from immersion students were collected from the following
1. One-hour interviews about everyday life, aimed to engage the
students in a conversation in French.
2. Questionnaires filled out by the same 41 students.

Interviews were transcribed and analysed for frequency of comme/like,
donc/alors (ça) fait que/so, bon and là in students' speech.
Questionnaires provided information about linguistic and extra-
linguistic factors of interest.

The second corpus data were collected from 10 high school students
from Welland, Ontario, who were interviewed by a native Welland
Francophone. The interview was about everyday life, plans for the
future etc. A set of additional questions aimed to verify the dominance
of English or French in these bilingual students. This 10 Francophone
students' corpus was also investigated as for the frequency of
comme/like, donc/alors (ça) fait que/so, bon and là. The third corpus
data were collected from 19 immersion teachers, who were observed
and recorded during in-class instruction and interaction. These
corpora provide information about the frequency of use of comme/like,
donc/alors (ça) fait que/so, bon and là in the teacher's speech, as well
as the range of discursive and non-discursive functions they fulfill. All
frequencies were calculated per 1000 words, and then statistically

This chapter also describes main linguistic and non-linguistic features
of subjects from three corpora, as for instruction grade, sex, social
class and schooling language. A very interesting finding of this
sociolinguistic survey is that French immersion students' relative lack
of vernacular fluency in their L2 reflects and reinforces diglossic
communication in immersion classrooms: formal French is generally
used for academic purposes, English being used for the vernacular
mode of communication.

Chapter 4 Literature Review and Hypothesis. Chapter 4 provides an
exhaustive review of literature about discursive competence of
Canadian French learners and Francophones, and an overview of the
hypotheses guiding the study. Literature reviewed concerns the use of
comme by Welland Francophones; discursive uses of comme/like,
alors/(ça) fait que/so, bon and là in the spoken French of Montreal
Anglophones; discursive use of comme/like in Montreal Francophones
and of like in English; the use of assim (like) as a marker of
exemplification in Brazilian Portuguese; non-discursive use of
donc/alors/ça fait que/so and discursive use of bon as a marker to
close a preceding segment; discursive use of là.
Studies about other aspects of linguistic competence by French
immersion students are also reviewed: Harley's (1992) study about
the acquisition of French verbs, Duchesne's (1995) study about the
frequency of use of some structures in immersion students' spoken
French with different levels of linguistic competence (from grade 1 to
6): Spilka's (1996) study about spoken French of 20 children from an
immersion group.

This chapter provides a review of research on 41 immersion students'
sociolinguistic competence (i.e. on the same corpus investigated in the
present study). The most important study about this corpus is
Mougeon, Nadasdi and Rehner's (2002): it sets out a comparison
between 41 immersion students' corpus and teacher corpora as for
the influence of the same range of independent factors considered in
the current work. Mougeon et al. (2002) analysed the following
aspects of sociolinguistic variation: ne use/non-use, restrictive
expressions, markers of consequence, future verb forms, 1st person
plural pronouns, 3rd person plural levelling. Mougeon et al.'s (2002)
findings can be summarized as follows: first of all, immersion students'
speech shows no or few marked vernacular variants, whereas
unmarked informal variants are used relatively frequently. Moreover,
in the immersion students' corpus they found variants not belonging to
native speech: these variants are typical of immersion students'
interlanguage. Authors also provide an explanation of their findings:
the absence of vernacular variants reflects a gap in sociolinguistic
competence of immersion students; the use of informal variants
reflects the rates of use in the immersion teachers' in-class speech
and in the French language arts materials used in immersion

Factors specific to L2 learners influencing linguistic competence are
the input received from teachers, extra-curricular exposure to French
and home language. Mougeon et al.'s research reveals the influence
of extralinguistic factors too, such as social class and/or sex. These
findings make up the starting point of hypotheses about discursive
competence grounding the current research. The first hypothesis is
that, in French immersion students' corpus, there is a basic distinction
between those expressions whose equivalent in English functions
both non-discursively and discursively and those expressions either
without an English equivalent or whose equivalent has different
functions. Differences between these two types of expressions can be
detected by investigating frequency of use, correlations with
independent factors and the range of functions fulfilled in the corpus.

Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8 are structured in a similar way: they set out
detailed findings about use of Comme/Like (Ch. 5), Donc, Alors, (ça)
fait que, So (Ch. 6), Bon (Ch. 7) and Là (Ch. 8) in the three corpora
under investigation. In each chapter, the author describes the range
of discursive and non discursive uses of each expression found in the
three corpora, then analyses frequency of use, functions and
correlations with independent factors. Discussion of findings is
complete with detailed tables in which numbers and statistical values
are provided.

Chapter 9 Comparing the four variables. This chapter sums up main
findings about frequency of use of expressions under examination,
correlations, functions fulfilled, and the use of English expressions. As
for frequency, a dramatic difference came out in frequency of
use/functions of expressions with English equivalents (comme, donc,
alors, (ça) fait que) and expressions without English equivalent as for
discursive uses (bon and là): a general conclusion is the great
influence of transfer from L1, in that the existence or lack of an
English equivalent is a highly significant factor in determining the
students' discursive use of a French expression. Non-discursive
functions are more natural and unmarked as for discursive functions,
and therefore they are acquired firstly.

As concerns frequency of use of bon and là (which have no English
equivalents), it is interesting to note that it mirrors that of the teachers.
This proves the influence of teacher's input in second language
acquisition. Moreover, in immersion students' corpus there is a high
frequency of use of English like and so: this suggests that English
expressions with discursive functions are used without learner's
awareness and confirms the dramatic influence of L1 in L2 production.
As for correlations of the expressions, the general conclusion is that
students can attribute a social value to those expressions which they
are familiar via their L1.

Moreover, great exposure to extra-curricular French can improve the
mastery of different uses related to expressions under investigation.
As for functions fulfilled, it came out that students' discursive
competence is higher for those expressions with an English
equivalent, lower for those without English equivalent (e.g. non-
discursive use of bon). As concerns the use of English expressions,
the students' use of like and so in spoken French is due primarily to
fulfill discursive functions, and it has no relation with low exposure to
extra-curricular French.

Chapter 10 Discussion This chapter closes the book with a general
discussion about discourse competence of spoken French by
immersion students. First of all, L1 has a consistent influence both on
frequency of use of expressions and on range of functions (discursive
vs. non-discursive) fulfilled. It has a role in favouring inference about
social value of expressions in L2 (e.g. distinction between formal and
informal variants).

Another finding is the important role of extra-curricular French
exposure in improving discursive uses of expressions under
investigation. Chapter 10 ends up with a description of the limitations
of the study: non-homogeneity between data of immersion students
and of teachers, and the lack of information on explicit teaching of
discursive and non-discursive uses of the various expressions, and,
thirdly, the limited range of expressions examined.


The book is meant for anyone interested in second language
acquisition study, especially in production competences. The research
is praiseworthy for having tackled the thorny matter of language
variation in second language production. No doubt, it is a subject
which can be hardly investigated in a systematic way, because it's
difficult to keep scientific control on variables involved in second
language production. Nevertheless, the author tries to embue the data
analysis with a framework concerning the sources of language
variation, and to ground the discussion in previous literature about
variation in second language production. The great amount of data
extracted from corpora analysis is quoted systematically and
thoroughly. The effort to detect correlations between different
linguistic and extra-linguistic variables, such as the role of L1 and of
extra-curricular exposure to L2, and social class in influencing the
selection of forms and functions is particularly worthwhile. The
analysis of data is strengthened by performing statistical elaboration,
i.e. two-samples t-test (even if it came out occasionally that no-
significant correlation between two variables was found).

However, this study should be considered only a starting point for
future research about language variation, because it is by no means
exhaustive, as for both methods and results. The author herself is
aware of the limitations of the study, as explained in Chapter 10.

First of all, factors under investigations are too many, and it's difficult
to keep control on them in corpus investigation and to grasp the
effective role of each factor in language production. Discussion about
one of the most important topics of the research, i.e. the correlation
between sex/social class and language variation, is incomplete.
Moreover, though data analysis is very detailed, discussion is
occasionally cursory, e.g. about the role of L1. A thorough explanation
of data would require a sound theoretical framework. Finally, this type
of research requires specific methods for gathering data, e.g.
communicative tasks aimed at eliciting uniformly the same functions for
expressions under investigation: this could allow for real comparability
between corpora.


Duchesne, H. (1995). Évolution de l'interlangue chez les élèves de la
1re à la 6e année en immersion française. The Canadian Modern
Language Review 51, (3), 512-533.

Ellis, R. (1989), Sources of intra-learner variability in language use
and their relationship to second language acquisition. In S. Gass,
C.Madden, D. Preston, & Selinker, L. (eds.), Variation in second
language acquisition volume II: Psycholinguistic Issues (pp. 22-45).
Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Harley, B. (1992), Patterns of second language development in
French immersion. Journal of French language studies, 2, 159-183

Mougeon, R., Laurendeau, P. (1993) On the uses of comme in the
French of Welland, Ontario. New York/Oxford: Oxford University

Mougeon, R., Nadasdi, T., Rehner, K. (2002) Etat de la recherche sur
l'appropriation de la variation par les apprenant avancés du FL2 ou
FLE. In J.-M. Dewaele and R. Mougeon (Eds.). Acquisition et
Interaction en Langue Etrangère, Special Issue, 17, 7-50.

Rehner, K., Mougeon, R., Nadasdi, T. (2003) The learning of
sociostylistic variation by advanced FSL learners: the case of nous
versus on in immersion French. Studies in Second Language
Acquisition, 25, 127-156.

Spilka, I. (1976) Assessment of second language performance in
immersion programs, Canadian Modern Language Review, 32, (5),

Elisa Bianchi is Philosophy Doctor in Linguistics. She works with the
Sciences of Language Department of University for Foreigners of
Perugia. Her main research interests are second language acquisition
and teaching, cognitive linguistics and corpora linguistics. She
collaborates to a multilingual database on metalanguage of linguistics.
She has a passion for Japanese language and linguistics.