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The Second Tongue

Susan Goldin-Meadow

Tutorials in Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Perspectives. Annette M. B. de Groot and Judith F. Kroll, eds. 372 pp. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997. $37.50 (paper).

Tutorials in Bilingualism addresses this question primarily from a psycholinguistic perspective. To its credit, the volume also reviews the rather unwieldy literature from other perspectives such as second-language education and neurolinguistics. It presents a wealth of information, organized around three thought-provoking issues: the phenomenon of second-language acquisition, focusing on factors that play a much larger (or different) role than in first-language acquisition; how language is represented and used by speakers who have two languages at their disposal; and whether bilingualism has consequences for thought.

One of the most striking facts about language learning is that the second language is not nearly as easy to learn as the first. The question is why. In most areas, people tend to be better learners the second time around. What is it about the way we acquire, represent or process language that makes us less proficient learners the second time around?

Within this framework, the book raises many important issues. For example, perhaps second-language learning differs from the first simply because it must be learned in the context of the first. The first language may set up patterns and habits that, at least in some cases, are inconsistent with the second—that is, that "compete." Although competition between languages explains some of the differences in first- and second-language learning, if first-language interference were the only problem, then learning a first language itself should never pose difficulties. However, deaf individuals learning American Sign Language (ASL) for the first time in adolescence do not achieve native-like competence even after decades of use (indeed, they do less well than individuals, deafened in adolescence, who learned ASL as their second language). In other words, age itself may be a factor. Many changes occur with age that could affect language learning and create the wide range of individual differences that are the hallmark of learning a second language—loss of ability to segment sounds, loss of neurological plasticity, increased capacity to recall and store input, changes in motivation to learn and self-consciousness.

Another underlying question is whether a bilingual's knowledge is represented in two language-specific systems or in one language-independent system. The answer to this question is not simple and depends on many factors—for instance, whether one is referring to a word's form or to its meaning. Some striking phenomena are relevant to this issue. For example, the speed with which a French-English bilingual recognizes a written word in English is influenced not only by the number of words in English that are orthographically similar to it but also by the number of words in French that are orthographically similar—even if no French words are presented to the speaker. Tutorials is intended as a text or reference book. It is not for beginners. For those who have background in language learning and processing, the book offers an excellent resource, pulling together literature from a variety of areas in a thoughtful way.

Can the first language itself be affected by the acquisition of a second? There is some evidence that the first may be processed more slowly by a bilingual speaker than that same language would be by a monolingual speaker. On the other hand, there is also evidence that using a second language brings with it increased metalinguistic awareness and cognitive flexibility. Note that by asking what a second language does to the speaker, we are assuming a perspective in which monolingualism is the standard. However, as is underscored throughout the book, knowing two (or more) languages is the norm in the world today.

Language is obviously an important tool for human beings, perhaps the most important tool. How humans manage to learn and process two of them is one of the more interesting and significant questions facing researchers and educators today. This book takes us a step closer to fruitfully pursuing this question.—Susan Goldin-Meadow, Psychology, University of Chicago

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