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The languages of the multilingual: Some conceptual and terminological issues


Abstract Research on individual multilingualism and third language acquisition has expanded greatly in recent years. A theoretical correlate of this is the recognition of the fact that humans are potentially multilingual by nature, that multilingualism is the default state of language competence, and that this in turn has implications for an adequate theory of language competence, use and acquisition. Traditional second language acquisition (SLA) research usually treats all non-rst language learners as second language (L2) learners. The recent focus on third language (L3) acquisition means that one has begun taking the complexity of multilingual learners language background into account. This gives raise to reection about some of the currently used basic terminology in the eld, in particular how the concepts rst, second and third language are understood. These terms are used variably in the literature. One approach, the common practice of labelling a multilinguals languages along a linear chronological scale as L1, L2, L3, L4 etc., is shown here to be untenable, being based on an inadequate conception of multilingualism. A different and arguably more satisfactory approach is based on the conventional dichotomy of L1 (established during infancy) versus L2 (added after infancy) and relates the notion of L3 to the presence of a more complex language background. The limitation to a three-order hierarchy involving the distinction between the concepts of L1, L2 and L3 is discussed and adopted as a working hypothesis, awaiting further research on this issue. Finally, the problems with the expressions rst, second and third language have become more apparent with the emergence of research on L3 acquisition. Maybe the time is ripe to work for a change of these established terms? As possible replacements, primary, secondary and tertiary language are put forward for discussion. The paper stresses the need for reconsideration and clarication of the concepts L1, L2 and L3 from the point of view of multilingual language users and learners.

IRAL 48 (2010), 91104 DOI 10.1515/iral.2010.005

0019042X/2010/048-091 c Walter de Gruyter


Bjrn Hammarberg

1. Introduction Research on third language acquisition has demonstrated the need to take into account a dimension of human language competence, use and acquisition which does not occupy a central place in todays mainstream linguistic theories. Investigations of multilingual language learners have brought to the fore the awareness that humans are potentially multilingual by nature, and that multilingualism is the normal state of linguistic competence. This insight is certainly not new, although it has so far had a somewhat peripheral status in linguistic theory formation. People tend to develop bi- and multilingualism in the course of their lives so that multilingualism is often a characteristic feature of mature and linguistically experienced speakers.1 We all know that knowledge of three, four, ve or more languages is not at all uncommon. Several authors maintain that bi- or multilingualism is at least as frequent in the population of the world as monolingualism, probably even more frequent (see, e.g., Aronin & Singleton 2008: 2; Cook 1992: 578; de Bot 1992: 2; Grosjean 1982: vii; Hakuta 1986: 46; Tucker 1998: 4). It may seem remarkable that they claim this with such conviction, in the absence of relevant statistics. But there are good logical reasons for it. In an early contribution, Mackey (1967) provides support for the likelihood of this assumption by discussing the reasons why individual bilingualism is bound to be a very common situation in the world. (With bilingualism he includes multilingualism.) He points to the multitude of small linguistic communities, the wide currency and usefulness of the national and international languages, and peoples increasing mobility across language borders. It is also obvious that all humans possess the capacity to learn several languages. An adequate theory of language competence, use and acquisition must be able to account for this, treating multilingualism, rather than monolingualism, as the default case. In dealing with the acquisition of languages after the rst, it has become clear that the language being learned is often not the learners rst non-native language. The more general concept is one that covers situations where learners have prior knowledge of one or more other languages than the one currently being used or learned. In the terminology that has become established as conventional standard usage, second language (L2) has come to refer to any language acquired after the rst language (L1). Unfortunately, however, this extension of the term second language beyond the strict sense of second is a two-edged terminological solution, because at the same time as it widens the

1. Here I shall adhere to the practice of using monolingualism for the knowledge of one language, bilingualism for the knowledge of two languages, and multilingualism for the knowledge of three or more languages, recognizing that the degree of prociency in each language can vary.

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denition, it blurs the difference between the case of acquiring a non-native language for the rst time and a situation where learners have a more complex language background. The characteristics of the latter case have tended to be overlooked in SLA research. The acquisition and use of every non-native language has mostly been viewed as a second language matter, disregarding the differences in personal linguistic experience and the possible inuence on the acquisitional process from other non-native languages already known to the speaker (cf. the critical discussion of this practice by De Angelis [2007: 316]). The focus on third language (L3) acquisition in recent research means that one has begun to differentiate learners according to the complexity of their linguistic background. From the viewpoint of multilingualism as a natural and frequent form of linguistic competence, there is reason to take a fresh look at some of the basic terms that are used to designate the multilingual speakers languages. Terms such as rst/second/third/fourth language have come into use during the past decades, whereas systematic research on language acquisition in multilingual situations is a comparatively recent concern. How adequate are these terms today? How meaningful are the concepts they express? In particular, what does third language stand for? Is it always clear what it refers to? In the following, I will look closer at the use of these terms and point to some problems involved.

2. Current denitions of L1, L2 and L3 The terms rst/second/third language (L1/L2/L3) are used variably in the literature. This causes ambiguities which have become more apparent as a multilingual perspective has gained prominence and the differential characterization of the speakers various languages has become essential. One common practice may be called the linear model. It consists of numbering the speakers languages chronologically according to the time of rst encounter: L1, L2, L3, L4, etc. Thus, for example, L3 is language number three in order of acquisition. The term L3 is used typically for the next language acquired by a person raised with two languages, or the second foreign language at school for a monolingually raised child. This chronological scale may seem parallel to the terms monolingual, bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual, etc., which represent the result of the acquisition of a certain number of languages. However, this analogy is supercial. The problem is that it will often be neither meaningful nor even possible to order a multilinguals languages along a linear time scale. The complexity connected with multilingualism is different in nature. Here are some aspects of this which may defy linear ordering:


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Simultaneous acquisition: How can we order languages which are encountered at the same time and acquired in parallel? Scanty knowledge: By what criteria shall we count or exclude languages of which a person knows a little? At what overall level of prociency does a language become one of that persons languages? Can we determine on an a priori basis what degree of signicance such a language will have in the persons language repertoire? Type of knowledge: How should we judge languages of which a person essentially has a particular type of command, e.g., reading knowledge? Should comprehension be sufcient to count a language as known? What about the type of cultural, metalinguistic or non-communicative knowledge that may, for example, be the case with Latin? Intermittent or alternating acquisition: It is not uncommon for people to get acquainted with a language gradually in different periods of life interspersed with the acquisition of other languages. The early acquaintance with a new language may be brief and elementary, and get reinforced by later contact. It may be hard to establish an order of priority here. Bonus languages: Should we count languages which come in the bargain because they are very close to a language a person knows? A typical example is the Scandinavian case: if you know Swedish, you will fairly easily understand Norwegian and Danish and cope with occurring differences. It will be clear from these points that the languages of multilinguals are very often not easily numbered on a linear time scale. Both purely chronological problems and uncertainty whether to count or exclude a language contribute to this difculty. The problem tends to increase with the number of languages known. The linear numbering practice may be handy in specic given contexts, for example when dealing with foreign languages at school (provided possible other languages acquired outside school do not make facts more complicated). But even so, this terminology remains provisional and lacks generality. A different approach is based on the conventional use of the concepts of L1 and L2 as mentioned above. In this case L1 refers to a language established up to a certain level in infancy, and L2 to any language encountered and acquired after infancy. The cutoff point when an L1 can be said to be established will have to be set by a chosen criterion, e.g., an age criterion such as 3 years as proposed by McLaughlin (1984: 10). A person can have one or more L1s and one or more L2s. Here the distinction is based on different stages in the persons life, and not on a language-by-language chronology. It is obvious that this denition of L1 and L2 and the use of these terms according to the linear model are two terminologies which are not compatible with each other. Both L1 and L2 can have quite different reference depending on the system of denition. Of course this does not exclude that there are also cases where the different denitions yield converging results, in particular when a

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person has one L1 and one other language (L2) which has been acquired after infancy. A focus on multilinguals draws attention to the difference between acquiring an L2 for the rst time and the subsequent acquisition of further languages, and calls for distinguishing between these cases. In particular, the basis for crosslinguistic inuence (CLI) on the acquisition and use of the new language is different. Whereas the learner of a rst L2 can only receive CLI from L1, the learner of further languages can also get inuenced by one or more prior L2s, which creates more complex patterns of CLI. A good deal of the L3 research over recent years has dealt with such patterns of L1 and/or L2 inuence in multilinguals, especially demonstrating the signicant role of prior L2 inuence and exploring the various factors that condition which prior language(s) will have a dominating role in exerting CLI in the case of multilinguals; see for example contributions in Cenoz et al. (2001, 2003), Hammarberg (2009), Hooghiemstra (2002), Hufeisen & Fouser (2005), Hufeisen & Lindemann (1998), Rast & Trvisiol (2006), and further references in these works. In order to separate the cases of acquiring a rst L2 and the acquisition of further languages, one practice is to use the term L3 to cover any language from the third onwards. This terminology is basically a modication of the linear model, where L2 stands for the rst language acquired after L1, and L3 stands for a subsequently acquired language. Some authors have used a somewhat more specied term to integrate the third and further languages, such as L3 (Fouser 2001) or third or additional language (De Angelis 2007). The rationale for distinguishing just three different categories L1, L2 and L3 rests on an analysis of the diverse conditions that apply to the acquisition of languages of different order. According to Hufeisen (1998: 171172; see also Gibson et al. 2001), L1 acquisition is dependent on a combination of language universals and factors emanating from the learning environment. In L2 acquisition, the learner can also prot from the prior knowledge of L1 as well as from life and learning experience and language learning strategies. When it comes to L3 acquisition, this basis has been enriched by the knowledge of L2 and the experiences from learning a non-native language and from specic L2 learning strategies developed in that connection. There is thus not only a scale of increasing complexity, but also a distinct qualitative difference between the conditions for acquiring the rst, second and third language. However, when considering the acquisition of further languages beyond the third, these conditions are no longer radically different, according to Hufeisen. The added experience with further non-native languages may help the learner proceed in a more goal-directed way, but makes no essential qualitative difference. In sum, this amounts to positing a three-order hierarchy for the languages to be acquired: L1, L2, and languages from L3 on.


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Hufeisens argument constitutes a claim in three parts, (i) different conditions between the acquisition of L1 and (the rst) L2, (ii) a further different situation for the acquisition of L3, i.e., the second non-native language, and (iii) a richer and more fruitful basis of experience but no fundamental qualitative change of conditions for the acquisition of still further languages. The rst two parts of this claim receive empirical support in language acquisition research, in particular in studies of CLI. The existence and potential activation of a background language (L1) for the L2 learner creates a signicant difference between L1 and L2 acquisition, which is evidenced by the multitude of studies of CLI within the eld of SLA. Dealing with L3 acquisition, numerous studies in recent years have demonstrated that not only L1, but also L2 knowledge tends to become activated in the processing of L3. In particular, there seems to be a certain afnity between the processing of non-native languages which contributes to cross-linguistic inuence on the acquisition of L3 from a prior L2 rather than from L1 the L2 status factor, cf. Bardel & Falk (2007) and Williams & Hammarberg (2009 [1998]). This suggests that learners process an L3 under partly different conditions than their rst L2. However, as far as I can see, the third part of Hufeisens claim still relies on reasoning and the absence of direct counter-evidence. There seem to be no indications in empirical research on multilingual learners that genuinely novel conditions arise when a learners multilingualism increases beyond trilingualism. Rather, the added positive effect of richer prior experience of languages seems to be quantitative in nature. The notion that learners strategic learning behaviour tends to improve with each previously learned language receives support in a study by Miler (1999). She studied the correlation between prior experience of foreign language learning and the utilization of learning strategies in university students, on the basis of questionnaires and interviews. A set of different variables of prior language experience were investigated separately, including the number of previously known languages, which varied from two to seven between different learners. Miler could note a steady increase in the frequency and efciency of learner strategies with increased number of previously learned languages, suggesting an added positive effect connected with each further background language. The combination of languages, i.e., the relative degree of similarity (relatedness) between target and background languages, also played a part. But her study did not show any indication that increased numbers of prior languages beyond an L1 and an L2 would entail any fundamentally altered conditions for the learning of a new language, nor did she address this particular question. For the present, I shall assume that a three-order hierarchy is sufcient, leaving for future research to show whether this receives direct empirical support or not. This means that we distinguish (i) the acquisition of an L1, (ii) the acquisition of the rst L2 and (iii) language acquisition at a stage when the learner has experience of both L1 and prior L2 acquisition.

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This brings us to another conception of L3 in the literature, which dispenses altogether with the linear model. In several studies where more than three languages are involved, the term L3 is used for the language which the multilingual speakers are currently using or acquiring; see, e.g., Bardel (2006), Heine (2001), Lindqvist (2006), Williams & Hammarberg (2009 [1998]). This language is then not necessarily number three in order of acquisition. The point of departure for this conception of L3 is the conventional standard denition of L1 and L2, where L1 refers to any language acquired during infancy and L2 to any language acquired after infancy, as stated above. The concept of L3 becomes applicable when a multilinguals language use is considered in its multilingual context. The denition of L3 can then be formulated as follows:
In dealing with the linguistic situation of a multilingual, the term third language (L3) refers to a non-native language which is currently being used or acquired in a situation where the person already has knowledge of one or more L2s in addition to one or more L1s.

It should be noted, (i) that L3 in this denition is a special case of the wider category of L2, i.e., L3 is one of the persons L2s considered in a specic research context, and (ii) that L3 relates to a given situation of language use or acquisition by the person in question, whereas the terms L1 and L2 apply to the persons languages on a permanent basis, irrespective of situation. The current L3 need not be the learners newest language in terms of rst encounter. What is important is the learners complex language background in the situation when the current language is used. The other L2(s) known by the person at the time can be termed prior L2(s). The L1(s) and prior L2(s) can be subsumed under the term background languages. Terms like L4 will not be necessary.2 This terminology recognizes that it is often justied to speak of even multilingual learners as L2 learners, as the common practice has been so far. Obviously, many topics in the eld of SLA do not crucially deal with the complexity or complex composition of the learners language background. In these cases, there is no need to make use of the concept of L3. The term L3 is available when multilingualism is in focus. This way of dening and connecting the concepts of L1, L2 and L3 seems to be the best founded solution at the present stage, for several reasons:

2. Certainly an expression such as fourth language will have a place in everyday non-technical usage (Spanish is her fourth language), but there is no point in using it as a regular technical term if we adopt the three-order model, assuming that the particular number of languages known to a multilingual speaker is not crucial to the conditions under which a language is acquired.


Bjrn Hammarberg This denition of L3 is compatible with the conventional denition of L1 and L2 (unlike the denition of L3 according to the linear model). There is no need to specify the often problematic acquisition order between L2s. This is an advantage especially in studies where the learner has many prior L2s. The same term, L3, can be used to refer to the learners current target language both in trilingual studies (with one L1, one L2 and one L3) and in studies involving more languages. Note that a study may deal with learners with a varying number of background languages. It is no problem that multilingual language learners are sometimes viewed as L2 learners and sometimes as L3 learners, depending on the research objective.

3. Considering alternative terms One source of confusion is the problem inherent in the term second language. The fact that language learners actually vary greatly in the number of languages familiar to them, so that the language under consideration may not really be second in a strict sense, has caused the term to become used for any nonnative language, i.e., any language acquired after infancy. However, the term is not self-explanatory in this sense, but rather evokes the literal interpretation of language number two. As pointed out in the discussion above, it is also a problem that this usage disregards the difference between a rst L2 and subsequent ones. In addition, when the term is used in contrast to foreign language, there is an asymmetry between these two terms: whereas the expression second language suggests the second place in a sequence, foreign language does not have this connotation. In a world where it is natural for people to learn languages, there seems to be no strong reason to subsume languages encountered after infancy under the label second. The term second language was apparently coined in a social context where monolingualism was regarded as the normal case, one additional language was seen as something extra, and the case of possessing more languages was not even considered. In a similar way, the expression third language suggests number three in an acquisitional sequence. This will of course be the case in many actual instances, where precisely three languages are involved. But we do not always have to do with a trilingual situation, and studies of multilingual users and learners may deal with persons who know more languages. Would it be at all feasible to replace rst, second and third language by more adequate terms? Especially the term second language is indeed very rmly

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established today, but in a developing state of research the issue seems at least worth discussing. What we would need is a terminology which does not number the various languages, but rather orders them in a hierarchy according to how they are cognitively related to each other for their user. One possibility to consider could be to replace the terms rst, second and third language by primary, secondary and tertiary language, respectively. The usual abbreviations L1, L2 and L3 may well be kept with this interpretation. Likewise, the acronym SLA would stand for secondary language acquisition. These are slight changes of terms, but they express a different conceptualization. Rather than associating to a language-by-language chronology, this terminology expresses a cognitive hierarchy between the languages for the user-learner. In this respect an L2 is secondary to L1 in the sense that it has been added after the period of the childs early encounter with the world and incipient social and intellectual development, when the categories and patterns of L1 were established. With this development undergone, and with L1 competence in the background, L2 acquisition proceeds under new conditions. An L3 is then tertiary in relation to L1 and L2, the primary and secondary background languages. These alternative terms have been used by some researchers and are thus not unknown in the eld, even though they are not widespread. For primary and secondary, it is appropriate to quote one of the founders of language contact research, Uriel Weinreich, from a passage where he explains the concept of phonic interference:
The problem of phonic interference concerns the manner in which a speaker perceives and reproduces the sounds of one language, which might be designated secondary, in terms of another, to be called primary. [. . . ] Interference arises when a bilingual identies a phoneme of the secondary system with one in the primary system and, in reproducing it, subjects it to the phonetic rules of the primary language. (Weinreich 1953: 14)

Within the eld of L3 and multilingualism, the term tertiary language has been adopted on a regular basis among German researchers who deal with issues in tutored foreign language learning. A particular concern here has been German after English, i.e., the common case that German is not the rst foreign language studied. See, for example, contributions in the publication series Tertirsprachen. Drei- und Mehrsprachigkeit / Tertiary Languages and Multilingualism (from 1998 onwards), and Mehrsprachigkeit und multiples Sprachenlernen (from 2005 onwards), both edited by B. Hufeisen & B. Lindemann. The following denition of tertiary language is given (after Hufeisen) by the Goethe-Instituts web page on Multilingualism: Generally speaking, tertiary languages are those languages which are learnt after the rst foreign language. A Council of Europe project is presented in the following way: This


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project aims at developing general principles of tertiary language didactics and methodology. It presents examples based on the sequence of languages German after English (Hufeisen & Neuner 2004). If wider use of tertiary language is an option, it seems natural to use the term with reference to L3 generally, i.e., also in connection with naturalistic language acquisition, and to use primary and secondary language accordingly. How likely is it that primary/secondary/tertiary will have a chance to spread and come into general use? This is of course hard to tell for certain unless the attempt is made to give these terms a boost. A way of nding out would be to start using them actively, be persistent, and see if they will catch on. This would involve introducing the terms in various conspicuous contexts such as titles of publications and projects, names of organizations, conferences, university courses and so forth. Is it realistic to work for a change of the prevailing terms? At least the matter is worthy of serious discussion.3 Figure 1 presents the proposed hierarchical relationships between the acquisition of one and more languages, illustrating the interpretation of the concepts of Ll, L2 and L3 that I have argued for. I have chosen here to use the terms primary, secondary and tertiary language in order to display this alternative, but the chart will be equivalent if we instead use the established terms rst, second and third language with the same denitions.

3. One of the reviewers pointed out that the terms primary/secondary/tertiary could be problematic, since these terms are also used to address school levels so that tertiary language can be interpreted as language studied at college or university. This is clearly so, and I have been aware of this aspect. Related terms are primary/secondary/tertiary education. In this connection tertiary language occurs as an elliptic form for language education at tertiary level. Judging by searches on the Internet, this usage varies regionally, secondary language with reference to school level yielding many instances especially in the US, and tertiary language found particularly in Australia and in South East Asian countries; by contrast, this usage does not seem to play a signicant role in Europe. I do not, however, consider this potential ambiguity to be a genuine problem in our present context. Firstly, it is indeed very common that identical terms are used in different senses within different disciplines or areas. The user will simply have to ensure that the wider context in which the terms are used is clear. Secondly, as a matter of principle a discipline such as (applied) linguistics must be free to establish its concepts and terms on its own grounds, without being blocked by a different usage in another area.

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A language acquired/used by the individual Acquired during infancy? Yes A primary language (L1) No A secondary language (L2) Is at least one other secondary language known to the user? No The rst secondary language (the rst L2) Yes


When viewed in relation to the persons L1(s) and other L2(s): A tertiary language (L3)

Figure 1. Acquisition of languages. The ordering hierarchy.

4. Summary and conclusion Research on L3 acquisition is an expanding area of study which has added an important dimension to the traditional eld of SLA. The foregoing discussion has shown that this involves a range of conceptual problems which call for reconsideration. Viewing multilingualism as the default form of human language competence, I have here addressed three main issues. 1. Two approaches to dening the concepts of L1, L2 and L3. Whereas the conventional standard denition of L1 and L2, which is based on the infancy/post-infancy distinction, fails to account for multilingualism by treating all languages encountered post-infancy as second, the chronological numbering practice attempts to capture differences between languages acquired as second, third, fourth etc. It was shown, however, that this linear model is not tenable as a representation of multilingualism. Not only is the chronological numbering of languages problematic as it cannot be applied to all cases of multilingualism, but also, it seems to be of little value especially with constellations of more than three languages (L4, L5, etc.). Instead, a model was argued for which, rather than designating the multilinguals languages by numbering them on a chronological scale, characterizes them according to the differential cognitive roles they play for their user.


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2. A three-order hierarchy. In most studies so far that go beyond an L1/L2 constellation, the focus has in practice been on three languages, L1, L2 and L3. It has been proposed that a three-order hierarchy is sufcient, distinguishing between acquiring a language as L1 (with no prior language acquisition experience), as L2 (with knowledge and acquisitional experience of L1) and as L3 (with knowledge and acquisitional experience of L1 and L2). Adopting the three-order hierarchy but rejecting its linear chronological interpretation, I have argued for a denition of L3 which is an extension of the conventional infancy/post-infancy distinction between L1 and L2. 3. Replacing the labels rst, second and third? As a multilingual perspective on language competence gains prominence and research on multilingual learners develops, it is becoming increasingly obvious that especially the terms second language and third language are strictly speaking misnomers, suggesting a too narrow conception of the notions they stand for. This built-in source of confusion is not an ideal terminological situation. I have brought up the issue here whether it might be time to work for a change of these terms. Of course, considering how rmly established especially the term second language has been for a long time, working for a change will mean ghting ones way uphill. However, misleading terms will continue to be troublesome. The already existing, but less widespread, terms primary, secondary and tertiary language were put forward for consideration as possible replacements. How viable they are is a matter for discussion. I hope to have shown that the emergence of a multilingual perspective on language acquisition necessitates the clarication of some basic concepts, such as L1, L2 and L3. To this end, debating the issues brought up here could be useful.

Acknowledgements Preliminary versions of this paper were presented at the Conference on the Role of the Background Languages in Third Language Acquisition, Stockholm, 56 February, 2009, and the Sixth International Conference on Third Language Acquisition and Multilingualism, Bozen-Bolzano, 1012 September, 2009. Thanks are due to Camilla Bardel, Christina Lindqvist, Britta Hufeisen and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments. I am of course alone responsible for the views and standpoints brought forward in the paper. Stockholm University

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