L3 Acquisition: A Focus on Cognitive Approaches

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Maria Del Pilar Garcia Mayo, introducing a new special issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

Most available evidence suggests that, when acquiring a new language, our brains make the automatic and unconscious assumption that, at some or all levels, it ‘works’ like one of the languages we already know. Since this is not necessarily the case for all properties, when our mental processor ‘transfers’ the previously acquired language this may have positive or negative (and sometimes downright comical) results with respect to target-like performance. How does the brain determine this source of transfer? Which language should it choose? In second language acquisition this question need not be asked, but what if the learner already speaks more than one language? A majority of the contributions to this special issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition deal with these questions, which are inevitably related to cognitive economy: transfer, more often than not, saves our brain a lot of time and effort. Exactly how, and under which criteria, the transfer source selection task is performed is what our colleagues are trying to determine. Inside this issue you will find state-of-the-art research on transfer at the initial stages of third language acquisition and beyond, inspecting a variety of linguistic domains that range from morpho-syntax to the lexicon.

Development, a concept just as important as the initial state, takes a complex yet fascinating turn in third language acquisition. A number of papers in this monograph focus on the diverse paths that the course of language acquisition may take within the sphere of multilingualism: from a look at heritage speakers who embark on relearning their native language to a formidable four-year longitudinal study that tracked the progress of almost one hundred bilingual children as they learnt a third language.

Of course, there is room for doubt in this special issue. One of the contributions poses the sensible question of whether studying how third language learners process language will teach us anything we cannot find out by looking at second language speakers. Is there really a qualitative difference between second and third language processing, or is it just more balls to juggle? The answer is as multifaceted as the question itself, but it has great implications for the way in which our brain deals with language.

Ever wondered what we already know about the adventure of learning a third or further language? Come and find out by reading the special issue of Bilingualism here.

Does the socio-cultural context influence the way Chinese people write business English?

ENG blog - Mar 15Blog post written by Marisa Carrió and Rut Muñiz based on an article in the latest issue of English Today

As China has emerged as an economic giant and has established business relationships worldwide, the use of English has become essential in every day communication. New digital written genres such as emails are used every day in a globalized business context. We think that this current setting encourages participants to experiment with communication, changing and adapting language to their own comfort, using a more direct style, and prioritizing instant communication over grammatical and style correctness.

We believe that it is necessary to take into account the cultural background of the speaker when interpreting meaning in a business context in order to understand the message in cross-cultural communication.

In this sense, since English is spoken by more non-native speakers than by native speakers nowadays, it could be said that it becomes like a “sponge”, absorbing the characteristics and features of different cultures and languages. Chinese speakers of English are not an exception, differences or variations can be observed in their language use.

In this paper, we contrast business e-mails written by agents who work in an exporting company in Hong Kong and China and communicate via email with their counterparts all around the world. Two research questions arise from this study:

a. What are the most common types of variation produced by Chinese writers of English?

b. Does lexical variation change when English is used as a second language or as a foreign language?

Our main aim is to determine the causes of variation and their influence on digital discourse.

The results of the analysis of the corpus compiled showed that there are variations indeed. We observed that Chinese writers used more non-Standard English than do Hong Kong writers, as for the latter English is an official language and is used as a second language. Furthermore, business English tends to be more informal when used by Chinese writers, transmitting the linguistic and cultural identity of the author as, for example, they use a commanding style or invent a given name.

Read the full article ‘Identification and causes of lexical variation in Chinese Business English’ here


Authenticity as a Continuum

Pinner-Authenticity-EnglishBlog post written by Richard Pinner based on an article in English Today

Authenticity is a familiar and well used term in language teaching.  It is also a loaded term, with connotations that go deeper than the origin of a particular material, but all the way to philosophical conceptualizations of self. For this reason, the ‘classic’ and inevitably culturalist definition of authenticity, as something from a target language culture whose original purpose was not for learning, can actually work negatively against people who are not intimately associated with the target culture. Simply put, there is still an embedded and implied connection to ‘native speaker’ countries when authenticity is discussed in terms of language teaching. This native speakerist conceptualization of authenticity rears its ugly head when selecting ideal models to present to learners, whenever a so-called non-standard grammar usage is called into question, and basically whenever a textbook is written.  In my paper I tried to highlight the fact that English is still taught as an Inner-Circle language in many EFL contexts, such as Japan (Matsuda, 2003) and other parts of Asia. As a result of culturally-embedded and Anglo-American oriented views of English, the concept of authenticity in such contexts still lies in the hands of the ‘native speaker’.  In an attempt to address this issue, I adopt the view that authenticity is partly a socially constructed shared experience and partly a sense of validity which comes from the individual self about the teaching/learning situation. In the article I start by outlining some of the difficulties surrounding the notion of authenticity, then go on to argue that authenticity might be better represented as a continuum, which makes greater allowance for the perspective of English as an international language.

As Mishan (2005)and Gilmore (2007) both explain in some detail, the issues around the concept of authenticity are varied, abstract, overlapping and often contradictory. For me, it was a rich place to immerse myself for a PhD, but for most people it simply isn’t practical to read decades of abstract arguments in the literature just to answer the question “what is authenticity”? Further complicating the issue, several scholars (such as van Lier, 1996 for example) seem to be drawing their definitions from existential philosophy. Aside from being an attempt at redefining authenticity to be more inclusive of and empowering for international varieties of English, creating the continuum was also an attempt at simplifying a very complicated argument into an easy to understand diagram which invites people to look at authenticity as essentially a fluid, dynamic, contextually and individually unique component of their class. The more I examine authenticity the more I realise that it is actually something which is negotiated between students and teachers in language learning contexts, and something which is very influential in the success of the classroom. I am still continuing to examine authenticity, specifically how it relates to motivation, but I hope this article with stimulate more discussion on the topic and to encourage people to examine authenticity as it relates to them as social and contextually situated individuals.

Read the full article ‘The authenticity continuum: Towards a definition incorporating international voices’ here


Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 40(02), 97-118. doi: doi:10.1017/S0261444807004144

Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials. Bristol: Intellect Books.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.


SSLA Announces the Albert Valdman Award Winner

Cambridge University Press and Studies in Second Language Acquisition announce the Albert Valdman Award.

This new annual award, in honor of Founding Editor Professor Albert Valdman, is for an outstanding paper in the previous year’s volume.

The 2015 award is given to Dr. Sible Andringa, University of Amsterdam, The Use of Native Speaker Norms in Critical Period Hypothesis Research, Volume 36, Issue 3.

Post written by Dr. Sible Andringa, Amsterdam, February 2015

When I heard my paper ‘The use of native speaker norms in critical period hypothesis research’ won the Albert Valdman award for outstanding publication in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, I was truly surprised. I didn’t know the award existed.  It turns out the award is new and that my paper is the first ever to receive it. Still, even if I had known about the Albert Valdman award, I would have been equally surprised. Studies in Second Language Acquisition is a high-quality and high-impact journal, and every issue invariably contains excellent work. That my paper was chosen from such an excellent array of publications– I just couldn’t believe it. What makes it even more amazing that it won, is that the paper itself was never planned:  a true case of serendipity. The paper is based on data collected within the so-called ‘Studies in Listening’ (or Stilis) project, on which I worked together with my colleagues Catherine van Beuningen, Jan Hulstijn, Nomi Olsthoorn and Rob Schoonen. The project ran from 2007 to 2011 and we planned several papers, but never one on the use of native speaker samples in second language acquisition research. I got the idea for this paper somewhere halfway through the project upon observing that our native speakers varied considerably, but I do not know how I came to relate this observation to the use of native speaker samples in CPH research. Perhaps my SLA course, in which we also discuss age effects in SLA, got me thinking. I did not start writing immediately – the planned papers obviously took priority, but I kept notes when I stumbled upon interesting publications, I started to attend relevant presentations at conferences, and I informally discussed my ideas at lunch meetings with my colleagues of the ‘Cognitive Approaches to Second Language Acquisition’ (CASLA) research group here in Amsterdam. In Stockholm in 2011, I presented a crude version of the paper at EUROSLA 21. It drew a crowd, as well as critical questions! I chewed on it for another year, occasionally spending a few minutes to update my notes. When I finally started writing the paper, about three years after I conceived the idea, it wrote itself, took no effort. And now it won the Albert Valdman award! Perhaps, then, this is the recipe for writing award-winning papers: postpone writing as long as you can, present the ideas and discuss it with colleagues until the paper is fully crystalized in your head. I want to take the opportunity to thank all my Stilis and CASLA colleagues here in Amsterdam and all others who provided feedback and helped me sharpen my thoughts, Studies in Second Language Acquisition’s reviewers and editorial team included. It is an excellent idea that Cambridge University Press and the new SSLA Editorial team decided to honor Founding Editor Albert Valdman with an award that carries his name and I am deeply honored and flattered that my article won this award.

Language perception in the East Midlands in England

Investigating East Midlands adolescents’ perception of language variation in the UK

Post written by Natalie Braber based on an article in English Today

ENG Blog post - Mar 15The concept of identity in the East Midlands can be relatively problematic as it is not immediately clear what is included in the region and where it fits in the North-South divide in the UK. It is an interesting area linguistically, because of its shared features with northern varieties, as well as southern varieties of English. It has also been argued that the Midlands form a transition zone between North and South and that a clear North/South divide cannot be made. There has been relatively little survey of the local dialects but despite this lack of empirical evidence, anecdotally it appears that language in the East Midlands remains distinctive (both within the region and compared to other regions) and locals insist there is considerable difference, for instance, between speech in the major urban centres of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.

This paper aims to extend this topic by investigating views of young people living in the East Midlands using a folk linguistic approach which looks at non-linguists’ beliefs and perceptions about the similarities of their own speech to, and differences from, the speech of others. This involves examining where participants believe dialect areas to be and what the characteristics of local speech are. This paper examines dialect identification and investigates the abilities of a sample group of adolescents to place correctly local and regional varieties of English. The main goal of this study was to start the discussion of perceptual dialectology in the region and to learn about what adolescents think and know about language variation in the East Midlands and the UK more widely. It examines in detail the accents and dialects this group believes to exist in the UK and to see how well they can recognise these.  It shows that these adolescents were not accurate at recognising local accents and were unlikely to name local towns and regions as having a distinctive accent.

Read the full article ‘Language perception in the East Midlands in England’

Cognitive Discourse Analysis: What language use can reveal about mental representations and concepts

LCO 2015 coverPost written by Thora Tenbrink based on an article in Language and Cognition

 What do we actually ‘see’ when we observe a picture or a scene, or watch an event unfold? How do we solve complex problems, and what are the steps of thought that we go through? How can we learn about such thoughts, as we cannot access people’s minds directly? Questions such as these have a lot to do with our everyday life, and they are quite relevant to many fields in cognitive science as well as applied research, for example design cognition or pedagogy.  Cognitive Discourse Analysis (CODA) is a methodology that helps identifying people’s thoughts in a systematic way. People are asked to speak out lout what they’re thinking; their language is transcribed, and analysed in depth. Besides the (often quite revealing) content of what people are saying, the features of their language (how they say it) point to underlying concepts and aspects that the speakers themselves are not necessarily aware of: their focus of attention, things taken for granted or perceived as new, levels of granularity, conceptual perspective, and so on.

 CODA uses linguistic insights to analyse verbal data collected in relation to cognitively challenging tasks. When formulating their thoughts, speakers draw in systematic ways from their general repertory of language to express their current concepts. Their choices in relation to a cognitively demanding situation or scenario can reveal crucial aspects of their underlying conceptualisations, shedding light on how people solve complex problem solving tasks, as well as how they describe complex problems or situations.

As a simple example consider a route description. The utterance ‘Turn right at the shopping mall’ shows that the speaker has a concept of a unique shopping mall that distinguishes it from other buildings in the environment, and can therefore be referred to by a definite article and used as a landmark to anchor a direction change. The formulation ‘turn right’ also reveals the underlying perspective (egocentric as perceived by the traveller, rather than compass based). In these and other ways, linguistic choices can reflect crucial aspects about the speakers’ conceptualisations. This provides a useful pathway to access cognition, drawing on knowledge about relevant features of language supported by grammatical theory, cognitive linguistic semantics, and other linguistic findings. In situations of communication (for example to complete a joint task or discuss a rationale for action), the different perspectives and conceptualisations of the speakers are flexibly negotiated in dialogue.

Read the full article ‘Cognitive Discourse Analysis: accessing cognitive representations and processes through language data’ here

An update from the incoming Editors of the Nordic Journal of Linguistics

NJL 2015 CoverBlog post written by the incoming Editors of the Nordic Journal of Linguistics: Gunnar Ólafur Hansson, Marit Julien & Matti Miestamo

The last few years have been a transition period in the editorship of the Nordic Journal of Linguistics (NJL). Sten Vikner and Catherine Ringen, who have served as editors since 2001, are stepping down and a new editorial team is taking over. A few years ago it was agreed that in order to avoid an abrupt change in the editorship, Gunnar Ólafur Hansson, Matti Miestamo and Marit Westergaard would join the editorial team first as associate editors, and accordingly, in 2012-2014, the team had five members. Now the time has come for the new editors to take over completely, and from 2015 on, the editors of the journal are Hansson, Miestamo and Marit Julien, who now replaces Westergaard on the editorial team. Fredrik Heinat remains review editor as before. We wish to express our warm thanks to Sten and Cathie for their invaluable service to the Journal and to the Nordic linguistic community over the past decade and a half, as well as for their help and advice during our first years as NJL editors. We would also like to thank Marit Westergaard for the smooth cooperation we have had during the last three years.

We would like to point out to our readers and potential contributors that there are now four ways to contribute to NJL. In addition to the three traditional submission categories of (longer) articles, short communications, and book reviews, we have added a fourth category, review articles. We would very much like to encourage contributions to NJL within all four categories, including short communications, which are like articles in being peer-reviewed, but different from articles in that in such a communication, it is possible to make or illustrate an empirical point without necessarily giving a fully fledged and theoretically integrated analysis. Also, short communications are appropriate for comments on earlier publications in the Journal. Review articles are like book reviews in discussing a recent book of major importance or relevance to the NJL readership (or two or more books on the same topic), but the greater length allows for more detailed and substantial evaluation and critique. Like book reviews, review articles will typically be invited by the Editors, but unsolicited submissions in this category are also welcome.Information concerning submissions and instructions for contributors can be found at http://journals.cambridge.org/NJL. Note that NJL has a new email address for submissions and general queries: njleditors@cambridge.org

We are furthermore happy to announce that issue 39.2 (2016) of NJL will be a special issue devoted to Discourse, Grammar and Intersubjectivity, edited by Marja Etelämäki, Ilona Herlin, Tapani Möttönen and Laura Visapää. For full details, see the call for papers here.

Why does English have words like “pièce de résistance” and “coup de grace”?

ENG Blog post - Mar 15Blog post written by Drew Nevitt based on an article in the latest issue of English Today 

Why does English have words like “pièce de résistance” and “coup de grace”? They are clearly not of English origin. They are borrowings from French, as many know. It might seem a perfectly reasonable question to ask why we continue to use these foreign terms rather than simply using their English translations. After all, these terms can be confusing and difficult to pronounce to those who are not familiar with them. However, we must then ask the question of what words do count as truly English. “Garage” was borrowed into English from French in the twentieth century, and “zeitgeist” from German not long before that. In fact, going further back in time we find an ever-increasing number of borrowings appearing in English, taken from a wide variety of languages. There are obvious imposters such as “saga”, borrowed from Old Norse, but there are also much more subtle ‘foreign’ lexical items like “knife” (Old Norse), “beef” (French), “sky” (Old Norse) abundant in English. And it doesn’t stop there. Even the personal pronoun “they” has an origin outside the famous Anglo-Saxon linguistic stock (“they” is Old Norse as well!). The lesson to be learned here is that languages influencing each other is a natural, common process and is responsible for a great deal of the linguistic innovation that today’s languages exhibit. And this innovation is of course what makes them so much fun!

My essay “Language Contact in Shetland Scots and Southern Irish English” (English Today, Cambridge University Press, vol. 31) gives a brief description of two instances in which contact with other languages has had a lasting impact on English. I look at two different dialects of English, the dialect of Scots spoken in Shetland and the variety of Irish English spoken in Southern Ireland. Shetland Scots has been noticeably influenced by contact with Norn, a now-extinct Norse language that was the predominant (if not sole) language of Shetland when the first Scots arrived by boat. Southern Irish English went through a long period of contact with Irish Gaelic, holding the status of a minority language in comparison with Gaelic for much of that time. The primary marks that Norn has left on Shetland Scots are in its vocabulary, which still today contains unusual lexical items found in no other variety of English. Most of these loanwords have to do with the sea and with nautical matters, attesting to the main contact between Scots and Norn having taken place aboard boats or during trade. Southern Irish English, on the other hand, is rich in syntactic constructions unique in the world’s Englishes. These fascinating grammatical shibboleths, which include sentences like “I’m after me/my dinner” (meaning “I’ve just had my dinner”), have direct counterparts in Irish Gaelic. Ultimately, I attempt to show that language contact is a fluid process, the effects of which on the languages in question are unpredictable and can vary widely. I also emphasize that linguistic change in general is not something to be feared or prevented, but rather cherished and preserved as a record of the interactions of our ancestors.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Language Contact in Shetland Scots and Southern Irish English’ here.

Can Audio Storybooks Improve Children’s Second-Language Accent?

JCL Blog Mar 15Blog post written by Terry Kit-Fong Au based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Child Language 

With globalization, speaking more than one language is useful.  No wonder many children are learning a second or even a third language.  The younger children are when they start geting input from native speakers, the better their accent will be.  Yet because of resource constraints, interaction with native speakers is not always possible – especially for children learning a foreign language that is not the societal language (e.g., children learning English in much of Asia and Latin America).  Audios are commonly used as an affordable substitute.  But do they work?

Research recently published in the Journal of Child Language has revealed the usefulness of audio storybooks.  First-and second-grade children in Hong Kong – whose native language was Cantonese Chinese – listened to audio storybooks either in English or Mandarin Chinese.  To give children more diverse input, each audio storybook contained six recordings of the same very short story read by different native speakers.

These Cantonese Chinese children listened to a few dozens of such audio storybooks at home in only one of their non-native languages: either English or Mandarin Chinese.  Those who had listened to Mandarin stories improved significantly more in their Mandarin accent than those who had listened to English stories.  Those who had listened to English stories improved in their English accent somewhat more than those who had listened to Mandarin stories.

Audio storybooks may well prove to be a cost-effective strategy to enrich the language environment of young second-language learners.

We invite you to read the full article  ‘Can non-interactive language input benefit young second-language learners?‘ TERRY KIT-FONG AU, WINNIE WAILAN CHAN, LIAO CHENG, LINDA S. SIEGEL and RICKY VAN YIP TSO (2015)



Research into Practice: Cultural and intercultural awareness

LTA classroom - Feb 15Blog post written by Will Baker based on an article in the latest issue of Language Teaching

It is commonly claimed that the main goal of learning and teaching a second language is for communication.  While this would seem both appropriate and beneficial, the goal and associated processes for learning are most accurately described as intercultural communication rather than just communication.   One of the consequences of this lack of interest in the intercultural in L2 teaching (or L3, L4 etc…), is that too often teaching and learning has focused on a fixed code or set of linguistic structures with little consideration of the wider intercultural communicative practices they are part of. This has been addressed in recent decades, in part, by the increasing interest in the cultural dimensions of language teaching and learning and in particular the notion of intercultural communicative competence.   The key to intercultural communicative competence is cultural or intercultural awareness.

In this article I examine the role of cultural awareness (CA) and intercultural awareness (ICA) in classroom theory and practice. CA and ICA can be roughly characterised as an awareness of the role of culture in communication with CA focused on national cultures and ICA on more dynamic and flexible relationships between languages and cultures. I consider the findings from CA and ICA research that have not been well applied those that have been well applied and those that have been over-applied to classrooms. In particular, I argue that CA and ICA are more prevalent in pedagogic theory, and to a lesser extent policy, than they are in practice. While the cultural dimension to language learning is now fairly mainstream, where elements of CA and ICA are applied or translated into the classroom they typically take the form of comparisons between national cultures, often in essentialist forms. There is still little evidence of classroom practice that relates to the fluid ways cultures and languages are related in intercultural communication, especially for English as a lingua franca or other languages used on a global scale.

Such an evaluation will necessarily be subjective, and I draw on my own experiences of teaching masters level courses in the UK to language teachers from around the world, as well as my experiences of and continued interest in English language teaching (ELT) in Thailand. At the same time though, I relate these experiences to what we currently understand through research about the role of cultural and intercultural awareness in L2 use and learning. Given my experiences of ELT, the discussion mainly focuses on English language teaching and English as a lingua franca; however, many of the issues are relevant to teaching other languages.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Research into Practice: Cultural and intercultural awareness’ here