Date: Tue, 08 Apr 2003 10:12:48 +0200 From: Jesús Romero Subject: Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2
Kecskes, Istvan (2002) Situation-Bound Utterances in L1 and L2, Mouton de Gruyter, Studies on Language Acquisition 19.
Jesús Romero Trillo, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
First and second languages have something in common that transcends any linguistic theory: the same speaker. This direct, but not always obvious, statement might be the cornerstone of the approach to Situation-Bound utterances (SBU's) in bi-and multilingual speakers presented in this book.
Kecskes' work represents an eclectic attempt to depict the L1 and L2 phenomena without any concessions to the traditionally accepted ancillary nature of the latter, and the presumed superiority of the former. He defends from the beginning of the book his "strong belief that monolingual approaches and theories are not the best means to explain second language use and bi-and multilingual development" (p.1). In my opinion, this is the key to the development of Kecskes' theory: "The emergence of another language directs attention to the bi- directional influence between the two languages, highlights the decisive role of the interplay of language and culture in shaping meaning, and shifts the explanatory movement from the linguistic level to the conceptual level" (p.1).
How is this possible? Can we accept that a bilingual speaker is cognitively better equipped than the mere addition of a one-plus-one language user? Yes and no -the author would answer- this depends on the level of development of the cognitive impedimenta that the individual has internalised which, as the book points out, does not always correlate with the language proficiency in the L2.
The book delves into the explanation of this dilemma starting from a step-by-step explanation of Situation-Bound utterances as the skeleton of the model. It first describes the linguistic journey of L2 learners from use to meaning and from use to concept, concluding that L2 awareness can only be shaped in use, and this use within a certain culture which, by definition, is always different from the L1.The notion of culture enters at this point with impetus since the main interest of situation-bound utterances is that they are formulae anchored to a specific context.
At this point Kecskes admits that language is multi-faceted and, as such, there cannot be only one lens to look at it. Therefore, he advocates for the reconciliation of the cognitive-pragmatic approaches in this multilingual arena; and he calls for the work in unison of the study of mind and function in the multilingual zone. For this purpose, the author proposes the notion of the "Common Underlying Conceptual Base" which would be responsible for the operation of two or more languages in the speaker's mind. According to the author, this tool would be at the source of the language process for one or more languages and would have the capacity of melting and creating meanings, taking into consideration the conceptual socialization and conscious awareness processes proper to language learning.
The book then focuses on the meanings of SBU's and their presence in real contexts, and how they contribute and reflect L2 acquisition from a cognitive-pragmatic stance. To obtain a clarifying description of this influence, the author proposes the Dynamic Model of Meaning (DMM) as an alternative to the generative view that places the lexicon at the origin of structure formation (Chomsky), and also as an alternative to the cognitive approach which considers the analysis of grammatical units only "if there is information about the cultural and sociolinguistic conventions that are necessary to interpret grammatical patterns" (p.16). The DMM proposes that "a lexical item both in context and without context... assimilates present (synchronic) and past (diachronic) information, incorporates conceptual and lexical properties, and has both permanent and temporary aspects" (p. 19), i.e., it views meaning as situated in specific social and cultural practices.
In fact, multilingual speakers know that the problem in language acquisition is manifested in the relationship between the concepts and the lexicon. In other words, a lexical item can be learned but its true conceptual representation in the L2 is not acquired until there is a deeper cultural knowledge of the language. This leads to a tri-level production system, connected to modularity approaches, namely the "grammatical, lexico-semantic and conceptual" levels.
To obtain a better theoretical background on this issue, Kecskes makes a relevant revision of the semasiological and onomasiological approaches to language and revisits some of the classical problems, like for example the definition vs. prototype approaches, in the light of L2 learning in its contextual use. The point here is how this context often adds extra meanings to words in what the author calls Word -Specific Semantic Properties (WSP) situated cognitively at the results-end of the cultural-conceptual-contextual language process. This leads to the useful dichotomy presented by Kecskes: the "coresense" (basic conceptual and stable information), vs. the "consense" (the contextual, dynamic information) of a lexical unit. This differentiation, carefully explained in the volume and then applied to other language phenomena (synchronicity and diachronicity, denotation vs. connotation etc..), opens a window from which the reader may ook at the language-learning and use process from a safe and elevated distance.
Obviously, this position demands the understanding of where the communication processes take place: the context, its definition and its limits. The book takes a bi-directional approach to the issue and describes context as the selector of lexical units, and the lexical unit as a creator of context. And, as in a painting, in the context there is always something that is salient and attracts the attention of the viewer. This salient feature is usually cognitively represented by the frequency of use, as Romero Trillo (2001) showed in his mathematical description of variation in discourse, and is the point of departure of the description of a specific context of use.
Next, the book explains the conceptual origin of SBU's, their functions and realization in different languages, their characteristics in comparison with other linguistic elements, and draws on the empirical results of varied data from several languages. This detailed description opens paths for further research, especially as a direct mention to second language learners and the relationship between language and cultural distance is made.
The book then deals with the classical quandary about creativity vs. repetition (formulaicity in Kesckes' terminology) in language, and its relationship to language acquisition, to then move to the complex issue of conceptual socialization and its relationship with SBU's. The issue is treated from the perspective of social formulae and their contribution to weave the social threads of a culture. Because of its far-reaching implications, the insight is sketched out and opens a field of research for sociolinguists and scholars interested in language variation.
The book finishes by making a summary of the description of SBU's in the author's interdisciplinary approach with an open proposal for further research and discussion of the theory presented, something which is always welcome.
One of the most important assets of this work, which I would like to rescue, is the revision of some classical philosophical and linguistic approaches to the problems discussed in the book. This enables the reader to make a direct link with the origins of linguistics, showing that current worries were also worries in the past, especially in the case of the relationship between an L1 and and an L2 in the human mind.
Romero Trillo, Jesús (2001) A mathematical model for the analysis of variation in discourse. Journal of Linguistics 37, 527-550.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER JesÃºs Romero Trillo is Associate Professor in the Department of English Philology at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He is interested in interlanguage and intercultural pragmatics, discourse modelling and corpus linguistics. Some of his recent publications have appeared in the Journal of Pragmatics, Journal of Linguistics and International Journal of Corpus Linguistics.