Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some excerpts from the Website "multi-competence" by Vivian Cook

It's not that I've never heard the term, but I somehow failed to notice the significance of "multi-competence." But as I was preparing for a presentation on a symposium on translation, I've come across the term and decided to have a quick Google search. Boy, what have I been missing!

"Multi-competence" is an important concept for issues in English Language Teaching in Japan, including translation, the use of L1, and the goal of ELT. Ministry of Education (MEXT) in Japan will soon implement the course of study, with which it discourages the use of L1 (Japanese) in English classes in senior high schools. It is not a total ban of the L1 use, but it is likely that English lessons may be deemed commendable by inspectors and bureaucrats if only Japanese is not heard there. (I've seen too many examples of thoughtless categorical judgment for educational matters by by inspectors and bureaucrats.)

MEXT seems to believe that the virtual ban of L1 use in English lessons will benefit Japanese students of various levels for their English proficiency and other academic capabilities. Together with many teachers in classroom, I wonder.

I wonder 1) whether their English proficiency will in fact rise, and 2) whether English proficiency (as understood as the ability separated from Japanese language ability) is the only aim of public school education in Japan.

The concept of "multi-competence" proposed by Vivian Cook helps to clarify the above issues. As I regret I haven't paid enough attention to it, I urge Japanese readers in particular to examine the concept.

Vivian Cook himself provides a wonderful Web site on the concept.

Below are some excerpts from the site that I find particularly relevant to the above issues. (Bibliographical links are added by me. For the complete bibliographical information, go to the original web page whose URL is indicated at the end of the excerpt.)

First, let's confirm the definition of "multi-competence."

Multi-competence definition

The term 'multi-competence' was originally defined as 'the compound state of a mind with two grammars' (Cook, 1991); in the context of that paper, ‘grammar’ was used in the Chomskyan sense of the total knowledge of language in the mind (the I-language) leading some people to infer wrongly that multi-competence was restricted to syntax. So multi-competence is now usually said to be ‘the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind’ (Cook, 1994). Multi-competence thus presents a view of second language acquisition (SLA) based on the second language (L2) user as a whole person rather than on the monolingual native speaker.
(Emphasis added)

To paraphrase in my own way, multi-competence refers to the ability embodied in an L2 user where her L1 and L2 are inseparably integrated in her mind and body.

Multi-competence reminds me of plurilingual and pluricultural competence in Common European Framework of References in Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR). Below is the definition provided on p. 168, at the beginning of Chapter 8 of the document:

Plurilingual and pluricultural competence refers to the ability to use languages for the purposes of communication and to take part in intercultural interaction, where a person, viewed as a social agent has proficiency, of varying degrees, in several languages and experience of several cultures. This is not seen as the superposition or juxtaposition of distinct competences, but rather as the existence of a complex or even composite competence on which the user may draw.

As I stated in my blog article ("Where is Self, and what is it?" No, it's rather "How is Self?": Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis), the above definitions of plurilingual and pluricultural competence suggests that multiple languages within a single person are blended into a new competence that is either different her old L1 or her targeted (but never attainable) native competence of L2. This is like H2O that exhibits unique features that its original elements, two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, never show when they are separated.

Multi-competence shares this notion of a new competence. It refuses to measure the competence of an L2 user against the competence of a monolingual native speaker.

Despite its acceptance of interlanguage, much SLA research has continued to measure L2 users against native speakers. Inevitably what L2 users do is seen as a mistake whenever it fails to conform to the language of monolingual native speakers and the L2 users’ level of language proficiency is seen as deficient rather than different: It’s all right if your English accent proclaims you come from Newcastle upon Tyne but not from Paris. This native speaker comparison lurks behind such typical statements as: “Unfortunately, language mastery is not often the outcome of SLA” (Larsen Freeman & Long, 1991, p. 153); or “The lack of general guaranteed success is the most striking characteristic of adult foreign language learning” (Bley-Vroman, 1989, p. 42). It is possible to measure ducks in terms of swans. But when everything has to satisfy the swan criteria, the unique qualities of ducks will always elude the observer, just as black English, working-class English and women’s language were once seen as pale shadows of a ‘true’ variety. Uniquely bilingual functions of language like codeswitching and translation will never show up in a native speaker model; unique grammatical forms of L2 users like the rules of the Basic Variety (Klein & Perdue, 1997) will appear just as mistakes.(Emphasis added)

A Japanese user of English speaks English not necessarily deficiently but rather differently from monolingual native speakers of English. We may argue that she's rather more capable in bilingual translation and code-switching than monolingual speakers.

However, SLA and ELT have been treating L2 users as somebody incomplete: someone whose knowledge of the target language is never as perfect as a native speaker's; someone who is a perpetual learner, thus L2 learners. With the different-but-not-necessarily-deficient view, the concept of multi-competence calls for the use of the term L2 users instead of L2 learners.

But what term should be used to describe people who are multicompetent? People who acquire their first language are not regarded as L1 learners for the rest of their lives. Why should people who know more than one language be treated differently? Calling people L2 learners seemed to confirm their subordinate status. Hence the more neutral term ‘L2 user’ was introduced. ‘L2 user’ refers to people who know and use a second language at any level; multi-competence is not restricted to high-level balanced bilinguals but concerns the mind of any user of a second language at any level of achievement. ‘L2 learner’ is reserved for people who have no everyday use of the second language, say children in foreign language classrooms. Of course L2 users may also be L2 learners at different times of life or indeed times of day - an L2 learner of English in London who steps out of the classroom immediately become an L2 user of English.
(Emphasis added)

When the knowledge of two languages is integrated in a person of multi-competence (or plurilingual and pluricultural competence), the two knowledge systems influence each other and both change; Just as L2 use is influenced by L1 ('transfer'), L1 use will be influenced by L2 ('reverse transfer'). On top of that, the entire cognition changes. Evidence abounds.

A vast amount of SLA research has looked at the effects of the first language on the second, labelled ‘transfer’ or ‘crosslinguistic influence’, still a favorite topic for dissertations exploring yet more first languages or novel aspects of language. By looking at the whole learner’s mind, multi-competence opened up reverse transfer from the second language to the first and other forms of transfer (Jarvis & Pavlenko, 2009). A new research question was then: Do you still speak your first language like a monolingual native speaker when you know another language?
In virtually every aspect of language studied, L2 users have turned out to be different from monolinguals.
Rather than enumerate further examples, the reader is referred to Cook (2003), which was devoted to this issue.

More than language has changed in the L2 user’s mind. Learning another language helps with learning to read the first language (Yelland et al, 1993), with metalinguistic awareness (Bialystok, 2001), and with the ability to write essays in the first language (Kecskes & Papp, 2000). Knowing another language delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease (Bialystok, Craik, Klein & Viswanathan, 2004), leads to greater density of connections in the corpus callosum area that connects left and right hemispheres of the brain (Coggins et al, 2004), and develops the areas of the brain responsible for control (Green, 2010.). All of these support the proposition that the L2 user is a distinct kind of person from a monolingual.
(Emphasis added)

This notion of multi-competence, supported by empirical evidence, has great implications for language teaching. The next is some excerpts from the section of "Multi-competence and language teaching." We now have new ideas about the goals of foreign language teaching (the native speaker is not the goal), the use of L1 (L1 is not a problem but a resource in L2 learning), and the ideal teacher (the native speaker has no learning experience of the L2).

Multi-competence and language teaching

The multi-competence idea has important implications for language teaching, which has often seen its task as making students as like native speakers as possible. Multi-competence is now starting to be utilized in books on SLA and language teaching such as Cook (2008), Ortega (2009) and Scott (2009).

- Goals of language teaching. Multi-competence takes the goal of language teaching as producing a successful L2 user, not an imitation native speaker. It thus aligns with the English as Lingua Franca (ELF) movement (Seidlhofer, 2004) rather than with the Common European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe, 2001), which seems to use the native rather than the L2 user as a touchstone.

- The language teaching classroom. The multi-competence perspective does not see any virtue in making the students use only the second language in the classroom since this denies the very existence of the first language in their minds. It advocates principled use of the second language when classroom goals can be achieved more efficiently by its use (Cook, 1999).

- Native speaker language teachers. A non-native speaker teacher (NNST) is an L2 user who has acquired another language; a native speaker teacher (NST) is not. Hence the NNST can present a role model for the students, has learnt the language by a similar route to the students and can codeswitch to the students’ own language when necessary. The NST’s only substantive advantage may be a greater facility in the target language, but as a native speaker not as an L2 user. Recent attitudes are conveyed in Llurda (2005).

On a different web page (Multi-competence: Black Hole or Wormhole?), Cook further examines the implications that multi-competence has for language teaching.

The ban of L1 use in L2 classroom started more than one century ago with the reformist idea that L2 should be learned just like a baby acquires L1. This idea was a response to centuries-old practice of the Grammar Translation Method. It successfully introduced the Direct Method, which correctly emphasized the oral aspect of language learning, but it was based upon a totally false assumption that L2 learners are (to be) like a baby acquiring L1. It disregards not only the critical period of L1 users but also the cognitive maturity of L2 learners whose knowledge of L1 is perfect and unerasable.

Consequently, conflict started between the reform-minded authorities and teachers. Teachers, who know the reality of L2 learning better than the authorities, have resisted the ban of L1 in L2 classrooms. But it is the authorities that possesses much more political power, and teachers were stigmatized (and sometimes penalized) when they used L1 so that students learn L2 better. L1 knowledge in L2 users is undeniably real. It's better to make the best use of the reality than to pretend to deny it. It's high-time to abandon the reformist idea of the L1/L2 separation, which is more than one century old.

Over time the implications of the multi-competence approach for language teaching have become clearer. One aspect was the use of the first language in the classroom. The traditional view of language teaching going back to the late 19th century had insisted that the L2 was learnt in isolation from the L1: the model was always of complete separation. Hence, despite their other differences, teaching methods from the Direct Method to the audiolingual method to task-based learning were united in ignoring the first language already present in all the learners’ minds invisibly in the classroom.

Yet, despite the official advice from the authorities to minimise L1 use, teachers continued to make use of it while teaching, while harbouring feelings of guilt, as Macaro (1997) documents. If there are many possible relationships between the two languages as well as separation, if the L2 interlanguage is indissolubly wedded to the L1 in most L2 learners’ and users’ minds, separation is a misguided commonsense view of second language acquisition rather than something to be imposed upon all learners. Cook (2001) called for a rational evaluation of the ways in which the L1 could be used in the classroom, such as providing a short-cut for giving instructions and explanations where the cost of the L2 is too great, building up the inter-linked L1 and L2 knowledge in the students’ minds, carrying out learning tasks through collaborative dialogue with fellow-students and developing L2 activities such as code-switching for later real-life use.
(Emphasis added)

Our reality is that L2 users cannot ever be L1 native speakers, and they don't have to be. L1 native speakers are not the ideal state of L2 users or the best teachers for them.

This leads into the fundamental issues of the purpose of language teaching and of the target that the learner is aiming at (Cook, t.a., a). The crucial point is basing the target on what learners are going to be, L2 users, not on what they can never be, monolingual native speakers of the L2. L2 users have distinctive uses for language such as translating and code-switching: they can do more with language than any monolingual. While some L2 users may need to speak to native speakers of the L2, they rarely need to pass as natives, even though this may still be a personal goal for many. For languages like English and French, however, the need is often to speak to fellow L2 users: English is a useful lingua franca for much of the globe. Sometimes indeed speakers of the same L1 may choose to use an L2 to each other, as happens with Arabic-speaking businessmen communicating in English e-mails between countries. Language teaching goals, teaching methods and coursebooks need to look at the achievable goal of creating L2 users. Hence, as the papers in Llurda (2005) attest, the day of the native speaker teacher may be over; the NS teacher is not a good model of an L2 user who has got there by the same route that the students will take and ceteri paribus does not have the appropriate experience or insight into the students’ situation; ‘in the new rapidly emerging climate native speakers may be identified as part of the problem rather than the source of a solution’ (Graddol, 2006, p.114). Further discussion of multi-competence in language teaching will be found in Cook (t.a. a; b).
(Emphasis added)

Inspectors and bureaucrats of MEXT, Japan, who still seems to have the old reformist idea and insist that English lessons should be conducted (almost) entirely in English need to examine this concept of multi-competence carefully to see whether their policy is realistic and effective. Those in power must be responsible for their commands.

For busy people, though, the paper below may be the best resource to examine the issue.

The summary provided by Cook is as follows:

This paper argues for the re-examination of the time-honoured view that the first language should be avoided in the classroom by teachers and students. The justifications for this rest on a doubtful analogy with first language acquisition, on a questionable compartmentalisation of the two languages in the mind and on the aim of maximising the second language exposure of the students, laudable but not incompatible with use of the first language. The L1 has already been used in alternating language methods and in methods that actively create links between L1 and L2, such as the New Concurrent Method, Community Language Learning and Dodson's Bilingual Method. Treating the L1 as a classroom resource opens up ways of employing the L1, for the teacher to convey meaning and explain grammar and to organise the class, and for the students to use as part of their collaborative learning and of their individual strategy use. The first language can be a useful element in creating authentic L2 users rather than something to be shunned at all costs.
(Emphasis added)

Of particular importance is the section of 'The argument from language compartmentalisation' (in 'Reasons for avoiding the L1 in the classroom'), where Cook counter-argues against the language compartmentalization and suggests that L1 should be regarded as a mediating resource for L2 learning.

Yet the two languages are inter-woven in the L2 user’s mind in vocabulary (Beauvillain & Grainger, 1987), in syntax (Cook, 1994), in phonology (Obler, 1982) and in prag-matics (Locastro, 1987). L2 users are more flexible in their ways of thinking and are less governed by cultural stereo-types (Cook, 1997b). The L2 meanings do not exist separately from the L1 meanings in the learner's mind, regardless of whether they are part of the same vocabulary store or parts of different stores mediated by a single conceptual system (Cook, 1997b). A L2 is not just adding rooms to your house by building on an extension at the back: it is rebuilding all the internal walls. Trying to put languages in separate compartments in the mind is doomed to failure since they are connected in many ways.


The L1 plays an integral role in L2 learning as well as L2 use. Teachers using group-work have often lamented the tendency for students to use their L1. Vygotskyan-style research has, however, documented how this forms a valuable part of learning as a social enterprise and of the 'scaffolding' support that the learners need to build up the L2: 'L1 is used as a powerful tool of semiotic mediation between learners … and within individuals…' (Anton & DiCamilla, 1998, p.415). Surveys of students' strategies show the importance of this L1 use, for example the 73% of students who 'ask classmates for meaning' (Schmitt, 1997). The theory of cultural learning sees collaborative dialogue as the essent-ial means by which human beings learn (Tomasello 1999). We learn by trying to see the world from the viewpoint of others.

As Stern (1992, p.282) puts it, ‘The L1-L2 connection is an indisputable fact of life’. Keeping the languages visibly separate in language teaching is contradicted by the invisible processes in the students’ minds. Language teaching that works with this fact of life is more likely to be successful than teaching that works against it. Many likely L2 goals for students involve mediation between two languages rather than staying entirely in the L2. Students trained in coordinate bilingualism will, for instance, find it difficult to carry out the jobs of interpreters, business negotiators or travel representatives. Nor indeed can a separate L2 achieve the internal goals of language teaching; if the aim of learning a language is to improve the students’ minds cognitively, emotionally or socially, the L2 had better not be insulated from the rest of the mind.
(Emphasis added)

As I wrote in my recent Japanese blog article, many Japanese students write a sentence like "I if become soccer player is play hard," which is apparently a direct translation of the counterpart Japanese sentence (「ボクは(I) もし(if) サッカー選手(soccer play) になったら(is) 一生懸命プレーする(play hard)」)。

Arguing that L2 learners can wipe out the infuluence of their L1 knowledge if teachers kept using English for a few hours a week is sheer nonsense. Teachers should rather take advantage of the common knowledge of L1 to learn the new L2 grammar. Too much unnecessary use of L1 is of course not advisable, but abondoing the effective use of L1 is only counter-effective. I expect that 1) with poor guidance only provided in English, many students will fail to achieve English proficiency and that 2) they will entirely miss opportunities to gain cross-linguistic and cross-cultural understanding that they need in global competition for uniqueness.

If inspectors and bureaucrats of MEXT believe that they are reforming ELT of Japan by forcing teachers to use as much English and as little Japanese as possible in classroom, they should wonder whether they're changing ELT for better or for worse. Their reformist idea, a century old one, is not factual.


"It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones."

Video by TESOLacademic.org (http://www.tesolacademic.org/)