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Review of  Third Language Acquisition in Adulthood

Reviewer: Anna M Krulatz
Book Title: Third Language Acquisition in Adulthood
Book Author: Jennifer L. Cabrelli Amaro Suzanne Flynn Jason Rothman
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 24.2915

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“Third Language Acquisition in Adulthood” is a volume intended for researchers and graduate students of applied linguistics. The two-part collection is comprised of chapters that focus on various aspects of adult multilingualism, ranging from psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics to morphosyntax, phonology and the lexicon. The theme that unites all chapters is that the acquisition of third (L3) and consecutive languages possesses unique properties distinct from those of second language (L2) acquisition. Thus, the main goal of the volume, as the editors Jennifer Cabrelli Amaro, Suzanne Flynn, and Jason Rothman point out, is to not only present the current theoretical approaches to and research of L3 and subsequent language (Ln) acquisition, but also to lay grounds for the establishment of L3/Ln acquisition as a subfield of applied linguistics. Part one of the volume consists of six chapters that address theoretical issues in the study of L3/Ln acquisition, while the six chapters in part two present the results of empirical studies.

The volume begins with an introduction that provides the rationale behind the collection. The editors affirm the importance of drawing on evidence from multiple theoretical perspectives in the study of L3/Ln acquisition, and acknowledge that despite some important contributions in recent years, the study of L3/Ln acquisition is still in its infancy. The introductory chapter briefly outlines an agenda for the field, pointing out four major areas for empirical research: (i) subject selection criteria; (ii) the issue of comparative fallacy of native vs. non-native comparisons; (iii) creation of independent measures of proficiency for multilinguals; and (iv) the potential for contributions of L3/Ln acquisition to other fields of linguistics. The chapter concludes with an assertion of the potential that exists in the study of L3/Ln acquisition.

“L3 morphosyntax in the generative tradition. The initial stages and beyond,” the first chapter in part one, contributed by María del Pilar García Mayo and Jason Rothman, is devoted to third language morphosyntax research in Generative Theory. The chapter briefly overviews the generative tradition in the field of first (L1) and L2 acquisition, and argues that it should also be applied in the study of L3/Ln acquisition. Next, it justifies teasing apart L2 and L3/Ln acquisition studies on the grounds that an L2 learner and an L3/Ln learner differ in several significant ways. Finally, the chapter provides an overview of sample L3/Ln acquisition studies in the generative tradition, and concludes by outlining future directions for research.

The second chapter in part one, “L3 phonology: An understudied domain”, written by Jennifer Cabrelli Amaro, focuses on L3 phonology. The chapter outlines existing research, mainly in the areas of facilitation of additional language learning and phonological transfer, and moves on to discuss methodological and theoretical challenges in this subfield of L3/Ln studies. It describes three generative L3 morphosyntax models, namely the Cumulative-Enhancement Model (CEM), the Typological Primacy Model (TPM), and Optimality Theory (OT), and proposes that the study of L3/Ln phonology could make significant theoretical contributions to debates on language acquisition in general. Finally, the chapter discusses methodological issues pertaining to perception studies, the selection of properties to be studied, measurement of proficiency, subject recruitment and languages studied, and data analysis.

In the third chapter in part one, Camilla Bardel and Ylva Falk discuss the role of L2 status in the acquisition of consecutive languages, and the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge. The authors argue that the strong impact of L2 on L3, and therefore, stronger transfer from L2 than from L1, can be explained by the degree of cognitive similarity between L2 and L3 and by the role of declarative and procedural knowledge in the acquisition of different components of the linguistic system. After a brief review of the factors that contribute to L3 transfer, the chapter outlines a model for L3 learning, discusses a neurolinguistic approach to L3 learning, and finally, suggests directions for future research.

The fourth chapter in part one, contributed by Kees de Bot, entitled “Rethinking multilingual processing: From a static to a dynamic approach,” considers ways in which multilingual processing relates to the study of L3/Ln acquisition. The chapter discusses existing models of multilingual processing, briefly overviews Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), outlines the requirements for a dynamic approach to multilingual processing, and finally, proposes a way in which DST can be applied to the study of multilingualism and L3 development.

In the fifth chapter in part one, “Multilingual lexical operations. Keeping it all together…and apart,” David Singleton addresses issues concerning the lexicon of multilinguals. After a brief summary of how the notion of cross-linguistic influence has developed, the author goes on to discuss various aspects of cross-linguistic interaction and argues that mental lexicons of multilingual speakers interact with each other in complex ways, and that these interactions are affected by factors such as language proficiency and language relatedness.

The last chapter concerned with the theoretical foundations of L3 acquisition in adulthood is contributed by Roumyana Slabakova and is entitled “L3/Ln acquisition: A view from the outside.” This chapter is primarily concerned with four transfer hypotheses -- the Feature Reassembly Hypothesis, the Interface Hypothesis, the Bottleneck Hypothesis, and the Interpretability Hypothesis -- and the extent to which they are applicable to L3/Ln acquisition studies. The author reviews data available from L3 acquisition studies, and promotes the Modular Transfer Hypothesis, which states that the extent to which linguistic features are transferred depends on their intrinsic difficulty.

Part two of the volume comprises six articles that discuss empirical research in the field of L3/Ln acquisition. The first article, entitled “Further evidence in support of the Cumulative-Enhancement Model. CP structure development,” and contributed by Éva Berkes and Suzanne Flynn, presents results of a study that provide evidence for the CEM (Flynn et al. 2004). The study compares the production of three types of relative clauses by speakers of L1 German learning L2 English, and speakers of L1 Hungarian and L2 German learning L3 English. The findings support the claim that the development of a consecutive language is not affected negatively by the previously learned language, thus verifying the strength of the CEM as a model that can account for the development of language-specific knowledge.

The second chapter in part two of the book, “Acquisition of L3 German. Do some learners have it easier?” by Carol Jaensch, presents the results of a study rooted in the generative tradition that examines to what extent L1 (Spanish and Japanese) and L2 (English) have a direct effect on the acquisition of L3 German. The linguistic features the study focuses on are gender assignment, gender concord on articles and adjectives, and definiteness of articles. The study also examines the effect of level of proficiency in L2 on the acquisition of L3. The findings indicate that L2 and L3 learners may actually have full access to Universal Grammar, and that higher proficiency levels in L2 may enhance the acquisition of L3.

The third empirical study included in the volume, “Examining the role of L2 syntactic development in L3 acquisition. A look at relative clauses,” is contributed by Valeria Kulundary and Alison Gabriele. This is a comprehension study that focuses on two main research questions: (i) whether there is facilitative transfer from L2 Russian to L3 English; and (ii) whether the properties of L1 Tuvian influence the comprehension of relative clauses in L2 Russian and L3 English. The findings suggest a stronger influence from L2 than from L1 in the domain of syntax, which is predicted by the CEM. However, the differences in morphosyntactic properties between L2 and L3 are found to limit the facilitation of L3 acquisition.

The next chapter, “Variation in self-perceived proficiency in two “local” and two foreign languages among Galician students,” is written by Jean-Marc Dewaele. The study investigates self-perceived proficiency (SPP) in four skills (i.e. speaking, listening, reading, and writing) in multilingual speakers of Spanish, Galician and English and/or French. The participants ranked their proficiency on a scale of 1 (no proficiency) to 4 (fully proficient). In the discussion, the effects of the following variables on SPP are considered: monolingual vs. bilingual upbringing, monolingual vs. bilingual schooling, gender and age, knowledge of more languages, language attitudes, and contact with English and French.

In “Advanced learners’ word choices in French L3,” Christina Lindqvist presents a study of advanced L3 French learners’ vocabulary acquisition. The study compares words chosen to describe key objects, events, and people in retellings of films in native and non-native speakers (intermediate and advanced). The results suggest that the advanced non-native speakers tend to use more general terms than the native speakers, and that the intermediate learners display more cross-linguistic influence in their choice of vocabulary than the advanced learners.

The last chapter in the volume, “Foreign accentedness in third language acquisition. The case of L3 English,” by Magdalena Wrembel, is devoted to sources of cross-linguistic influence on L3 phonology. More specifically, the study examines sources of accentedness in multilingual speakers of typologically unrelated languages: L1 Polish, L2 French, and L3 English. Samples of L3 speech were rated by judges for degree of foreign accent, intelligibility, and irritability. The judges were also asked to access the level of certainty of their rating, and the speakers’ L1. Because the majority of the speakers were correctly identified to be Polish, it is inferred that in cases of typologically unrelated languages, L1 exerts a stronger influence on L3 phonology than L2.


“Third Language Acquisition in Adulthood” is a very welcome publication which provides an excellent anthology of readings in the area of L3/Ln acquisition. The volume makes an important contribution to the field of L3/Ln research for several reasons. First, and most significantly, it argues for the need to treat L3/Ln research as its own subfield of applied linguistics that is very different from that of L2 acquisition, and this argument resonates throughout the chapters. Secondly, unlike many publications to date that focus on L3 English, the articles in this collection cover unique combinations of languages such as: English, Portuguese and Spanish; Polish, French, English; and English, German and Japanese.

The volume is also a valuable contribution to the field because it provides a solid overview of several important theoretical considerations that apply to the study of L3/Ln acquisition and, at the same time, presents up-to-date empirical research in the field. The articles in the first, theoretical section of the book explore a range of linguistic subsystems, from syntax and morphology to phonology, and they assume various approaches to the study of L3/Ln (e.g. the sociolinguistic perspective, the generative approach, and the Dynamic Systems approach). The articles in part two, which is devoted to empirical studies, present findings from research areas such as L3/Ln syntax (e.g. acquisition of coordinate and relative clauses), individual learner differences, the lexicon, and foreign accentedness. What unites these studies is the interest in the extent to which the acquisition of subsequent languages is affected by the existing linguistic system.

Finally, it is crucial to point out that the volume raises a number of important questions that, as the editors Jennifer Cabrelli Amaro, Suzanne Flynn, and Jason Rothman suggest, should guide the development of the field of L3/Ln acquisition. Among these are: determining inclusion and exclusion variables for participant selection; creating independent measures of proficiency for L3/Ln learners; and exploring the ways in which the findings from studies in the field of L3/Ln acquisition could shed light on other subfields of linguistics.

Overall, the book provides an excellent overview of the field of adult L3/Ln acquisition. It is not an introduction to the newly emerging field, and therefore, is not recommended for novice students of linguistics. However, it is a remarkable volume in that it marks the onset of the field of L3/Ln acquisition as an independent subfield of linguistics, and provides a solid overview of current research on adult multilingualism.


Flynn, S., Foley, C., & Vinnitskaya, I. (2004). The cumulative-enhancement model for language acquisition: Comparing adults’ and children’s patterns of development. International Journal of Multilingualism 1(1): 3-17.
Anna Krulatz is an Associate Instructor at the Department of Linguistics, the University of Utah. She has just accepted an Associate Professor position at Sor-Trondelag University College in Norway. Her main interests include second/foreign language acquisition, interlanguage pragmatics, and second/foreign language pedagogy.