Vol. 5. No. 1 R-18 April 2001
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Foreign Language and Mother Tongue

Istvan Kecskes and Tünde Papp (2000)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xxv + 148
ISBN 0-8058-2759-5 (cloth)
US $39.95 (special prepaid price US $19.95)

This book examines all aspects of the influence of foreign language learning (FLL) on the development of mother tongue skills from a cognitive-pragmatic perspective. Istvan Kecskes and Tünde Papp explain and analyse in depth throughout the book how FLL influences L1. They go farther than other research in this field. They discuss this effect, focusing not only on demonstrating that this influence exists but also on explaining how it occurs by reexamining and discussing issues such as conceptualization in an L2, metalinguistic awareness, linguistic relativity, the relationship of thought and word, transfer of skills, and others. The research contained in this book proves that FLL can indeed enhance L1 skills. Always speaking from a multilingual perspective, they highlight the importance of multilingualism on the development of the whole human personality. The research report is divided into a preface, seven chapters, and a conclusion.


The preface sets out the book's theoretical framework. Istvan Kecskes and Tünde Papp offer a detailed explanation of why they framed their research in a cognitive perspective rather than in terms of purely formal patterns. Based on several studies, the authors point out that the competence of multilinguals differs significantly from that of monolinguals. They state that effective FLL is another form of multilingual development, and as a result it makes sense to analyse in depth the transfer from the FL to the L1, and not just the transfer from L1 to FL, as is usually done in this area of research.

The first chapter, "Mother Tongue and Subsequent Languages," explores and clarifies the conception of mother tongue, second language, and foreign language, in order to point out the differences among them. The authors emphasize the importance of conceptual fluency and metaphorical competence, how these two aspects are decisive in learning a language, and how each has a different development in a SL or FL. This chapter concludes "that L2 development and FL development should be considered as two different entities because the underlying mechanisms responsible for the two types of development have more differences than similarities and result in two different types of language production" (p. 13).

The second chapter is "Foreign Language Influence on Written L1,"which gives a summary of some of the main findings of a research project in Hungary. The aim of the Hungarian study was to find out how FL learning (French, English, and Russian) influences written essays in the students' mother tongue (Hungarian) at a crucial age (14-16 years). The data were collected over three years in three different types of classes: immersion (learning content through French), specialized (7 or 8 classes of English or Russian as a FL per week), and control (2 or 3 hours of FL instruction a week). At the beginning of the research the authors measured the syntactic complexity of the students' essays in L1, and they did not differ significantly. However, at the end of the research the results demonstrated that the L1 texts of the immersion and specialized classes had more syntactic complexity than the texts of the control class. Therefore, they concluded that intensive and successful FL learning can significantly facilitate L1 development. [-1-]

The third chapter, "Language Processing Device of Multilinguals," is concerned with demonstrating that "mutilinguals have a unique Language Processing Device (LPD) that consists of a Common Underlying Conceptual Base (CUCB) and two or more Constantly Available Interacting Systems (CAIS), none of which is the same as the language system of a monolingual" (p. 53). In other words, Kecskes and Papp explain how language and cognition are connected in the mind, and how the FL to L1 effect results in a unique form of multicompetence, and not in two languages that form separate systems. They argue that FL learning not only involves the acquisition of specific language knowledge but also the acquisition of conceptual knowledge. Language learning and conceptualization are joined in the L1, and the conceptual base (CUCB) is the result of the multilingual conceptual development and consequently is language dependent. Therefore, "the fluent use of the FL in the multilinguals is possible only if speakers make adjustments in order that the partly language-specific knowledge can be used through the L2 channel too" (p. 54).

Chapter 4, "Thought and Word," shows how that adjustment can be attained. The authors' ideas are based on the notion that thought (conceptualization) and word (verbal formulation) are interrelated in the CUCB. They conclude that the conceptual base is language dependent, and it "is usually dominated by the stronger language of the multilingual speaker" (p. 66). In other words, the conceptual base is dominated by L1, the language in which cognitive development takes place. Multicompetence, for the authors, is connected to concept mediation. They explain the transition from word association to concept mediation, which is joined to the stage of learning of the student. They argue that lexical representations are dominant when adult FL learners are in an early phase of FLL. As their fluency in the FL increases they can integrate meaning across languages (concept mediation). So the growth of learner proficiency in the FL brings about changes in the conceptual base. That implies reconceptualization, neutralization, and modification in the structure of the conceptual base in order to accommodate new information. In this process (neutralization), L1 concepts are modified under the influence of FL concepts. The resultant concepts are neither exactly L1 concepts nor FL concepts but may be something in between. According to the authors, concepts developed in this way constitute the basis for the unique conceptual field of multilinguals.

The fifth chapter, "Transfer of Skills in the LPD," reports the findings from the Hungarian research. The authors state that high proficiency in a FL results in the development of a conceptual base which facilitates the transfer of skills obtained in the FL into L1, and vice versa, but only if this occurs at a crucial age. They claim that conceptual knowledge, cognitive skills, and metalinguistic awareness, not linguistic elements, are transferred. Thus it is necessary to have the high level of cognitive operations that usually occurs after age 10 or 11. [-2-]

In chapter 6, "Language Distance and Multicompetence," Kecskes and Papp raise the issue of whether it is better for language learners that their languages show typological and cultural closeness or distance. They think that "it is hard to say what is better for language learners" (p. 104). On the one hand, "multilingual development is usually longer and more difficult for language learners if their languages and cultures are distant because learners need to make several changes in the CUCB." (p. 104). On the other hand, the outcomes of the Hungarian research suggest that typological and cultural distance result in a high level of proficiency.

Chapter 7 shows how "Pragmatic Knowledge of Multilinguals" can be developed in an academic environment. The findings of Kecskes and Papp's Hungarian research demonstrate that this development is not impossible in immersion classes and classes where the language is studied with sufficient intensity. "In the first period of multilingual development transfer is usually characterized by structural and lexical features, and the process is very rarely affected directly by the learners' preferences. The learner plays a passive role with sensitivity to differences and similarities in structure and lexicon. When, however, the CUCB starts to develop and transfer becomes mainly pragmatic and knowledge transfer, individual learners begin to play a more decisive and conscious role in the process" (p. 118).

The last chapter, "Conclusion," offers three implications for educators. First, "the CUCB is language and culture specific, and it is always dominated by a language. . . . Children need to have a strong conceptual system to succeed in education" (p. 121). Educators have to be very careful when deciding which language to make the medium of instruction in bilingual programs. Second, multilinguals and monolinguals have different competences. Therefore testing procedures developed for monolinguals are almost useless to measure multilingual skills and knowledge. Third, "FL is not just another school subject. . . . FLs should be taught not just for themselves but for the general education enhancement and development of students" (p. 122).


Foreign Language and Mother Tongue is a well-balanced book. It provides a strong theoretical framework for a relatively new research field in FLL. The authors analyse rigorously and in depth the influence of FLL on the mother tongue in multilinguals, and the educational benefits that FLL brings. They argue that learning languages brings not just linguistic benefits but also cognitive development. The issues that this book raises are based on the authors' research and on their review of a large number of research studies in the field. The authors state the necessity of implementing FL instruction across the curriculum, and of putting into practice intensive FL programmes so learners can achieve high proficiency in a FL. In this way, by being multilingual, performance in the L1 is enhanced.

To sum up, this is an interesting book for educators and researchers. It suggests new and serious issues about FL and SL teaching and learning. The issues that book raises should be taken into account in implementing FL programmes.

Lola Grau
Centro de Formación, Innovación y Recursos Educativos (CEFIRE) de Godella, Spain

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