A DST Model of Multilingualism and

the Role of Metalinguistic Awareness
University of Innsbruck
English Department
Innrain 52/III
A-6020 Innsbruck
Email: ulrike.jessner@uibk.ac.at
This paper suggests that a dynamic systems theory (DST) provides an adequate conceptual
metaphor for discussing multilingual development. Multilingual acquisition is a nonlinear and
complex dynamic process depending on a number of interacting factors. Variability plays a
crucial role in the multilingual system as it changes over time (Herdina & Jessner, 2002). A
number of studies on multilingualismhave shown that there are qualitative differences between
second and third language learning and that these can be related to an increased level of
metalinguistic awareness. From a DST-perspective, metalinguistic knowledge and awareness of
this knowledge play a crucial role in the development of individual multilingualism.
Language development is a complex and dy-
namic process. Although this statement can be
regarded as common knowledge for many re-
searchers in the field of applied linguistics, most
studies on language acquisition are nevertheless
still placed within a theoretical framework work-
ing with static or linear presuppositions. With an
increase in the number of languages involved in
multilingual development, the dynamics, that is,
the changes andthe complexity of language learn-
ing, become even more evident. Consequently, a
number of researchers have argued that language
development only can be adequately researched
by applying a multilingual norm to linguistic re-
search; in other words, it is only by investigat-
ing multilingual development that we can eval-
uate language development (e.g., Abunawara,
1992; Cenoz, Hufeisen, & Jessner, 2003b; Cook,
1991; De Angelis & Selinker, 2001; Flynn, Foley,
& Vinnitskaya, 2004; Herdina & Jessner, 2002).
In this paper, Dynamic Systems Theory (DST)
will be presented as an adequate methodologi-
cal tool to investigate multilingual phenomena.
DST has been known in sciences such as meteo-
The Modern Language Journal, 92, ii, (2008)
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C 2008 The Modern Language Journal
rology, mathematics, neurology, and psychology
for some time, but was not applied to second lan-
guage acquisition (SLA) until the 1990s (Bleyhl,
1997; Karpf, 1990; Larsen-Freeman, 1997; Meara,
1999). Over the last decade, interest in the appli-
cation of DST to SLA has grown considerably (de
Bot, Lowie, & Verspoor, 2007; de Bot & Makoni,
2005; Dewaele, 2002; Kramsch, 2002; Larsen-
Freeman, 2002; van Lier, 2004), and is also shown
by this Special Issue of The Modern Language
Journal .
The Dynamic Model of Multilingualism
(DMM), which applies DST to multilingual ac-
quisition (Herdina & Jessner, 2002), can be re-
garded as a first step toward the exploitation of
the method in research on multilingualism. In the
DMM, metalinguistic knowledge and awareness
of that knowledge have been detected as crucial
factors contributing to the catalytic effects that
bilingualism can show on third language (L3)
learning (Herdina & Jessner, 2002). This paper
will discuss the advantages that the application
of DST to multilingualism can offer, by focusing
specifically on the changing role of metalinguistic
awareness in the use and learning of several lan-
guages. I will start withthe explorationof the char-
acteristics of multilingual development as “ideal”
prerequisites for the application of DST to lan-
guage acquisition research. How DST is applied
Ulrike Jessner 271
to multilingualism research in the DMM will be
described in the next section. The role of metalin-
guistic knowledge and awareness of this knowl-
edge in multilingual learning and processing will
be studied with a special focus on a recent study
carried out with trilingual learners. Finally, future
avenues of research on multilingualism will be
Over the last few years, research on L3 acquisi-
tion or multilingualism has been increasingly in-
tensified (see, e.g., Cenoz & Jessner, 2000; Cenoz,
Hufeisen, & Jessner, 2001a, 2001b, 2003a) with
the main goal of describing multilingual phenom-
ena in order to investigate differences and simi-
larities between second (L2) and L3 acquisition.
Most studies have been carried out in the fields of
crosslinguistic lexical transfer, the effects of bilin-
gualism on L3 learning, child trilingualism, and
tertiary education (see Jessner, 2006).
One of the most important questions in the
field is related to the status of the L2 in L3 use and
acquisition. In various studies of multilingualism,
it turned out that the speakers did not rely on
their first language (L1) as expected, but on their
L2. In several studies of learning an L3 of Indo-
European origin, it could be shown that L3 learn-
ers whose L1 is typologically unrelated to the L2
and/or L3 tend to transfer knowledge from their
L2, or inthe case of bilinguals, fromthe related L1
(e.g., Ahukanna, Lund, & Gentile, 1981; Bartelt,
1989; Cenoz, 2001; Chandrasekhar, 1978). These
results also have been supported by studies fo-
cusing only on Indo-European languages (e.g.,
De Angelis, 2005a, 2005b; De Angelis & Selinker,
2001; Dewaele, 1998). The activation of languages
other than the target language is influenced by
factors such as psychotypology (perceived linguis-
tic distance between languages), recency of use,
the level of proficiency in the target language
(Hammarberg, 2001), the foreign language effect
(i.e., the tendency in language learners to activate
an earlier L2 in L3 performance; Meisel, 1983),
and the learner’s perception of correctness of a
target word (De Angelis & Selinker, 2001) (for
a list of influential factors, see also Hall & Ecke,
Crosslinguistic influence in a multilingual sys-
tem not only takes place from the L1 to the L2
and vice versa. Further influence has been de-
tected from the L1 to the L3 and from the L2 to
the L3 and vice versa. This expansion of transfer
possibilities demonstrates that multilingual acqui-
sition is a far more complex process than SLA,
where the role of the L1 in the development
of the L2 has been researched extensively. This
discussion also makes evident that learning an-
other language (e.g., an L3) can counteract the
maintenance of an L2 or L1. In other words,
language attrition or loss appears more often in
multilingual than in bilingual contexts. In this
case, the L3 will become more dominant than
the L2 owing to the limitation of resources for
languages, as defined in Zipf’s law of least effort
(Zipf, 1968). Consequently, using an L1 as indi-
cator for “permanent” language dominance over
the lifespan will turn out to be problematic in
a multilingual context (see also Jessner, 2003a).
Language attrition processes also point to the fact
that language learning consists of nonlinear and
reversible processes (i.e., development refers to
both acquisition and attrition) (Cook, 2003; de
Bot & Clyne, 1989; de Bot, Lowie, & Verspoor,
2007; Jessner, 2003a). Even if parts of the multi-
lingual system can become fossilized (i.e., will in
very general terms stop growing), they will still
be able to exert influence on other parts of the
In contrast to SLA, in third language acquisi-
tion (TLA), the routes of learning or order of
acquisition show greater diversity, as can be seen
in the following:
SLA versus TLA
1 L1 →L2 1 L1 →L2 →L3
2 Lx/Ly 2 Lx/Ly/Lz
3 Lx/Ly →L3
4 L1 →Lx/Ly
In contrast to SLA, where we have to deal with two
possible acquisition orders, in TLA there may be
at least four acquisition orders:
1. The three languages can be learned consec-
2. The three languages can be learned simulta-
3. L1 and L2 are learned simultaneously before
learning the L3.
4. L2 and L3 are learned simultaneously after
the acquisition of the L1 (see also Cenoz, 2000).
Studies on multilingual development also have
made clear that the use of terminology in multi-
lingualism research is problematic. For instance,
L1, the term that in SLA studies is used to re-
fer to the dominant language of the bilingual
system, cannot easily be applied to a multiple
272 The Modern Language Journal 92 (2008)
learning context since dominance (breadthor fre-
quency of use) does not necessarily correspond to
chronological order of acquisition and is subject
to change. This issue becomes most relevant when
we think about processes of interruption, that is,
when learning or using a particular language is
given up for a while due to changes in needs
or motivation and/or relearning of languages
(e.g., L1→L2→L3→L2) (see, e.g., Faingold,
From the above, it becomes clear that the de-
scription of individual multilingual development
(i.e., contact with more than two languages over
the lifespan) has to take changes in multilin-
gual proficiency into account. Figure 1 (based on
Herdina &Jessner, 2002, p.123) models the devel-
opment of a multilingual system. It demonstrates
how the speaker develops language proficiency in
more than two languages over a certain period of
time. Whereas the primary language system(s) of
the speaker remain(s) dominant during this time,
the secondary or incipient system undergoes de-
velopment. The development of the third system
is dependent on the acquisition of the first two sys-
tems, which in certain cases may take place at the
same time, in the same way as simultaneous bilin-
gualism. A closer look at the figure shows that
transitional bilingualism forms an integral part
Development of Learner Multilingualism
of the development of learner multilingualism
(Herdina & Jessner, 2002, p. 125).
For modeling purposes, the authors use an
ideal learning curve, although this seems to sug-
gest that the level of proficiency of the primary
language system remains constant, whereas, in
fact, “the level at which a language system sta-
bilises is not fixed and invariable [. . .] but subject
to constant variation” (Herdina & Jessner, 2002,
p. 113), as already mentioned. The graphs used in
the DMM“simply relate language learning to time
needed and predict the modifications in expected
language growth due to the effect of certain fac-
tors assumed to affect multilinguals and ignore
the fact that the level of achievement is hetero-
geneous even in monolinguals let alone multilin-
guals” (Herdina & Jessner, 2002, pp. 88–89).
To summarize, it can be stated that the develop-
ment of a multilingual repertoire or multilingual
development: changes over time; is nonlinear; is
reversible, resulting in language attrition and/or
loss; and is complex.
Variation in multilingual development and use
is strongly linked to the dependence of the sys-
tem on social, psycholinguistic, and individual
factors (Herdina & Jessner, 2002), not to men-
tion the mode of language learning in the form
of either natural or instructional learning, but
Ulrike Jessner 273
also various combinations of both (see Cenoz &
Genesee, 1998).
A DST approach, which uses dynamic model-
ing to investigate properties of the dynamic adap-
tation to contexts in change, is able to take all
the relevant characteristics of multilingual learn-
ing and use into account. In the following sec-
tion, the application of the DMM to current mul-
tilingualism research will be presented in more
The DMM was conceptualized to:
(a) serve as a bridge between SLA and multi-
lingualism research
(b) indicate that future language acquisition
studies should go beyond studies of the contact
between two languages, turning their attention
toward trilingualism and other forms of multilin-
(c) overcome the implicit and explicit mono-
lingual bias of multilingualism research through
the development of anautonomous model of mul-
(d) provide a scientific means of predicting
multilingual development on the basis of factors
found to be involved (Herdina & Jessner, 2002,
pp. 86–87)
Consequently, multilingualism research should
avail itself of an autonomous theoretical basis, not
merely relying on the findings of L1 and/or L2
learning research since both the results and pre-
dictions of research will always be distorted by
the assumptions of individual language acquisi-
tion studies, which are often cross-sectional.
In DST, the call for studies of individual lan-
guage acquisition is more pronounced than that
for group studies. Thus far, developmental aspects
have not been a prime object of investigation in
the sense of longitudinal studies. However, if our
goal is to find out about the differences and sim-
ilarities between various forms of language devel-
opment, in particular between SLA and TLA, we
need to change our focus of attention and our
conceptual approach.
In this part of the discussion, the main charac-
teristics of the DMM will be presented in order
to distinguish it from other, more common, ap-
proaches to language acquisition research.
(a) In the DMM, the discussion focuses not on lan-
guages (L1/L2/L3/Ln) but on the development of in-
dividual language systems (LS
, etc.)
forming part of the psycholinguistic system.
According to the DMM, the multilingual sys-
tem is dynamic and adaptive. The multilingual
system is accordingly characterized by continuous
change and nonlinear growth. As an adaptive sys-
tem, it possesses the property of elasticity, the abil-
ity to adapt to temporary changes in the systems
environment, and plasticity, the ability to develop
new systems properties in response to altered con-
ditions. This corresponds with van Geert (1994),
who stated that “a system is, by definition, a dy-
namic systemandsowe define a dynamic systemas
a set of variables that mutually affect each other’s
changes over time” (p. 50; see also Briggs & Peat,
1989, p. 11).
(b) In the DMM, psycholinguistic systems are de-
fined as open systems depending on psychological and
social factors.
Linguistic aspects of individual multilingualism
are shaped by the sociolinguistic settings in which
the multilingual’s life takes place.
O Laoire and
Aronin (2004) present an ecological model of
multilinguality. They state that multilinguality is
intertwined with many, if not all, aspects of iden-
tity and that the social and cultural environment
plays a decisive role in the structure and speci-
fications of multilinguality. In other words, lan-
guage needs change according to the personal
situationor evenchanges inidentity, as sometimes
found in the lives of immigrants. Larsen-Freeman
and Cameron (2006) refer to the dynamic inter-
action between psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic,
and situational aspects as “intrinsic dynamics of
the learner,” that is, the interaction between the
social context, the physical environment, and the
cognitive context (task). They also point out that
learning and change is at once individual and so-
cial (see also de Bot, 2000).
(c) In the DMM, language choice or use depends on
the perceived communicative needs of the multilingual
In the model, perceived communicative needs,
which are psychologically and sociologically de-
termined, are identified as the driving force of
language learning and use. The speaker decides
which language to use with whom and in which
situation, and also when and why another lan-
guage shouldbe addedtothe multilingual’s reper-
toire. Baker (2001) states that “language choice—
who will speak what language, when and to whom
(Fishman, 1965)—can be the result of a large and
interacting set of factors” (p. 13).
Several factors have been said to influence
the decision to speak a particular language to
274 The Modern Language Journal 92 (2008)
a particular person at a particular moment.
Grosjean (2001) suggests including the following:
. . . the participant(s) . . . (this includes such factors
as language proficiency, language mixing habits
and attitudes, usual mode of interaction, kinship
relation, socioeconomic status, etc.), the situation
(physical location, presence of monolinguals, degree
of formality and of intimacy), the form and con-
tent of the message being uttered or listened to
(language used, topic, type of vocabulary needed,
amount of mixed language), the function of the
language act . . . and specific research factors (the
aims of the study taking place . . . , the type and
organization of the stimuli, the task used, etc.).
(p. 5)
Grosjean’s work on language mode (e.g., 2001)
discusses the notion of language choice in mul-
tilingual speech situations and the psychologi-
cal and sociological conditions of change in that
choice. According to Grosjean (2001), a trilingual
person can function in a monolingual, bilingual,
or trilingual mode with various levels of activa-
tion, in relation to her or his position on the
language mode continuum. Activation of the vari-
ous languages is strongly influenced, among other
factors, by the speaker’s usual language mixing
habits, language proficiency, socioeconomic sta-
tus, the presence of mono- and bilinguals, and
the degree of formality (see also de Bot, 2004, on
the concept of the language node).
(d) In the DMM, systems stability is related to lan-
guage maintenance.
In the DMM, it is argued that the learner’s
resources are limited; that is, the learner has a
certain amount of time and energy available to
spend on learning and maintaining a language.
Consequently, in a psycholinguistic context, the
learner will gradually lose access to knowledge if
not enough time and energy is spent on refresh-
ing the knowledge of an L2 or L3 so that positive
growth can counteract the negative growth that
eventually results in language attrition or gradual
language loss. Thus, maintenance of a language
system results in an adaptive process in which the
level of language proficiency is adjusted to the
perceived communicative needs. The stability of
a psycholinguistic system is dependent on the re-
quirements of language maintenance; that is, the
system will erode if not enough energy and time
is invested in maintaining the system. Other fac-
tors influencing systems stability are the number
of languages involved, the maturational age at
which a language is learned and relative stabil-
ity established, the level of proficiency at which
this takes place, and the time span over which the
language system is maintained (see also Jessner,
A well-known example of the stabilizing effect
of a language system is fossilization, a very com-
mon phenomenon in multilingual learning. The
reasons for fossilization are complex and interre-
lated over time; in many cases, they are related to
domain specificity in bi- or multilingual contexts
(see Larsen-Freeman, 2006, for a critical study of
research on fossilization).
(e) In the DMM, language systems are seen as in-
terdependent (rather than autonomous systems, as they
are perceived in mainstream SLA research).
The behavior of each individual language sys-
tem in a multilingual system largely depends
on the behavior of previous and subsequent sys-
tems, and it would therefore not make sense to
look at the systems in isolation (see also Bates &
Carnevale, 1992, p. 11, on nonlinear behavior).
Furthermore, the DMM establishes a bridge be-
tween SLA (process) and bilingualism (product)
because it provides a tool that can be used to view
learner systems and stable systems as variants of
multilingual systems obeying the same fundamen-
tal principles. By researching the dynamics of TLA
or multiple language acquisition, the link between
bilingualismas product and SLAas process can be
understood as TLA can result from different ap-
proaches to language learning.
(f) In the DMM, the holistic approach is a necessary
prerequisite for understanding the dynamic interaction
between complex systems in multilingualism.
The complexity and variability, as a measure
of stability (see van Geert, 2006) of the multilin-
gual system are influenced by individual cognitive
factors such as motivation, anxiety, language ap-
titude, and self-esteem as well as social factors,
which can influence linguistic aspects of the mul-
tilingual system. As Briggs and Peat (1989) de-
scribe, “every complex system is a changing part
of a greater whole, a nesting of larger and larger
wholes” (p. 148).
The DMM can be used to take a holistic view
of multilingualism; that is, a multilingual system
should be modeled according to holistic princi-
ples (Philips, 1992). Such a holistic view is a nec-
essary presupposition of a dynamic view; a dy-
namic view of multilingualism assumes that the
presence of one or more language systems influ-
ences the development not only of the L2, but
also the development of the overall multilingual
In other holistic approaches, the relationship
between the dynamics of language development
Ulrike Jessner 275
and holism has not specifically been discussed.
Since the publication of the DMM in 2002, the
term multicompetence, created by Cook (e.g., 1991;
based on Grosjean, e.g., 1985, 2001), has estab-
lished itself as the most widely used term for
bilingual and multilingual competence in applied
linguistics. Recently, Cook himself has given up
on using “bilingual” since he considers it biased.
Instead, he has introduced the L2 use as a bet-
ter concept. Although he has shown interest in
the role of the L2 in the L1 (Cook, 2003), in con-
trast to the DMM, he has not focused on aspects of
change in language development in his definition
of language competence in bilinguals.
According to Cook (2002), L2 users are charac-
terized as follows:
1. The L2 user has other uses for language than
the monolingual.
2. The L2 user’s knowledge of the second lan-
guage is typically not identical to that of a native
3. The L2 user’s knowledge of his or her lan-
guage is in some respects not the same as that of
a monolingual.
4. L2 users have different minds from those of
monolinguals. (pp. 4–8)
Cook’s ideas about the integration continuum,
which captures different relationships between
two language systems in the same mind from sep-
aration to integration, thus fits with the DMM;
that is, “it sees the language system of the L2 user
as a whole rather than as an interaction between
separate language components” (Cook, 2003, p.
11). This also implies that the relationship be-
tween the L1 and the interlanguage within one
mind is different from that between the interlan-
guage in one mind and the L2 when the L2 has
the status of an L1 in another mind (Cook, 2006).
Cook himself pointed out in his plenary lecture
given at the European Second Language Associa-
tion Conference in 2006, that in order to capture
the multilingual learner’s mind, we need a holis-
tic approach such as that taken by Herdina and
Jessner (2002) (Cook, 2006).
In the DMM, multilingual proficiency is de-
fined as the dynamic interaction among the vari-
ous psycholinguistic systems (LS
, LS
, LS
, LS
in which the individual languages (L1, L2, L3,
Ln) are embedded, crosslinguistic interaction,
and what is called the M(ultilingualism) factor.
The latter refers to all the effects in multilin-
gual systems that distinguish a multilingual froma
monolingual system, that is, all those qualities that
develop in a multilingual speaker/learner due
to the increase in language contact(s). As men-
tioned above, language contacts depend on the
perceived communicative needs of the individ-
ual. Inother words, the psycholinguistic systems of
the multilingual individual, which are in constant
change, interact with each other in a nonadditive
but cumulative way.
Crosslinguistic interaction in multilinguals,
seen as a wider concept than Kellerman and Shar-
wood Smith’s (1986) crosslinguistic influence, is
described as an umbrella term, including not only
transfer and interference, but also codeswitch-
ing and borrowing. Furthermore, it is also meant
to cover another set of phenomena, including
the cognitive effects of multilingual development.
These are nonpredictable dynamic effects that de-
termine the development of the systems them-
selves (Jessner, 2003b; Kellerman, 1995). Such a
view is also related, but not identical, to Cum-
mins’s Common Underlying Proficiency (e.g.,
1991) and Kecskes and Papp’s Common Underly-
ing Conceptual Base (2000) (see, e.g., Cook, 1991,
2002). According to the DMM, seemingly identi-
cal phenomena of transfer can lead to divergent
results in different multilingual systems, even if
they are transitionally commanded by the same
speaker, as shown in Figure 1 or 2.
The M(ultilingualism) factor is an emergent
property that can contribute to the catalytic or
accelerating effects in TLA. Emergent proper-
ties are the result of autocatalytic effects, they
are only to be found in open systems, and they
are a function of the interaction between sys-
tems. Yet, they are not systems properties per se
(Strohner, 1995). The key factor of the M effect—
as it might also be referred to since it is diffi-
cult to decide whether it constitutes a precon-
dition or a result of multilingualism—is metalin-
guistic awareness. It is made up of a set of skills
or abilities that the multilingual user develops
owing to her/his prior linguistic and metacogni-
tive knowledge. The knowledge and metalinguis-
tic awareness influence further language learning
or learning a second foreign language (see Kemp,
The multilingual system is not only in constant
change, but the multilingual learner also devel-
ops certain skills and abilities that the monolin-
gual speaker lacks. These are language-specific
and nonlanguage-specific skills used in language
learning, language management, and mainte-
nance. Language management skills refer to the
integration and separation of language resources
276 The Modern Language Journal 92 (2008)
Multilingual Proficiency
and the act of balancing communicative require-
ments with language resources. In the DMM, the
multilingual learner or user is assumed to de-
velop and make use of an enhanced multilingual
monitor, where monitoring goes beyond error de-
tection and self-repair and fulfills a separator and
cross-checker function, for instance, by drawing
oncommonresources inthe use of more thanone
language system (see also de Bot & Jessner, 2002).
Language maintenance skills are a necessary pre-
requisite for the maintenance and increase of a
certain level of language proficiency. Language
maintenance effort, which is considered a cru-
cial part of individual multilingualism, mainly de-
pends ontwo factors, that is, language use and lan-
guage awareness. Whereas language use is seen as
having a refresher or activating function that con-
tributes to the maintenance of a language, lan-
guage awareness refers to the conscious manipu-
lation of and reflection on the rules of a language
(Herdina & Jessner, 2000).
What these skills and abilities have in common
is their relationship with a heightened level of
metalinguistic awareness in multilingual learners
and users (see, e.g., Lightbown & Spada, 1990).
In particular, in the case of typologically related
languages, a catalytic effect, that is, a qualitative
change in further language learning, has been
detected in experienced language learners.
These new skills contribute to a metasystem in
multilinguals, which is the result of a bilingual
norm; in contrast, in SLA the learner refers to
a monolingual norm (Herdina & Jessner, 2002).
Additionally, the learner of a second foreign lan-
guage can profit from prior language learning
experience, as emphasized by Hufeisen in her
Factor model (e.g., 1998). Thus, multilingual sys-
tems contain components that monolingual sys-
tems lack, and even those components that the
multilingual system shares with the monolingual
system have a different significance within the
system. This stands in clear contrast to common
approaches to defining language proficiency in
second language learning theory, including most
recent attempts to define native language pro-
ficiency as the goal of second language learn-
ing, such as Hulstijn’s (2006) definition of core
proficiency as an alternative concept to native-
speaker proficiency. Such an approach neglects
the cognitive skills that nonnative speakers of a
language acquire on top of all of their linguis-
tic skills, such as an enhanced level of metalin-
guistic awareness; these skills are part of the M
factor in the DMM. Belief in the native speaker
Ulrike Jessner 277
standard is also one reason why the effects of the
L2 on the L1 have been so little studied, as em-
phasized by Cook (2003): “If the L1 of the L2
user were different from that of monolingual na-
tive speakers, SLA research that used the native
speaker as the target would be based on shifting
sand” (p. 5).
As already noted in Herdina and Jessner
(2002), metalinguistic abilities still lack the nec-
essary operationalization to be immediately ver-
ifiable. But it is important to realize that met-
alinguistic abilities, if a function of multilingual
acquisition, obviously presuppose the existence
of this phenomenon and are, therefore, difficult
to observe in primary language acquisition, be it
monolingual or multilingual. Nevertheless, they
are expected to have a catalytic effect on fur-
ther language learning processes, as explicated
below in more detail. In other words, even if it
might appear to be impossible at the moment
to determine the effect of initial conditions on
L2 development (apart from phonological aware-
ness, which is related to reading acquisition in
the native language), as pointed out by de Bot
et al. (2007), researching the role of metalinguis-
tic knowledge and awareness of this knowledge
can help to shed light on the differences between
SLA and TLA. Following meteorology (Lorenz,
1972), which uses the “butterfly effect” or sensi-
tive dependence on initial conditions to refer to
the predictability of dynamic systems, an M effect
might be assumed to exist in multilingual systems
where development is influenced by the accelerat-
ing effect that the development of metalinguistic
awareness can have on further or L3 learning in
Defining Metalinguistic Awareness
Metalinguistic awareness encompasses the lin-
guistic skills that develop at the higher level
of creativity and reorganization of information
(Hamers & Blanc, 1989). It can be defined as the
ability to focus on linguistic form and to switch fo-
cus between form and meaning. Individuals who
are metalinguistically aware are able to categorize
words into parts of speech; switch focus between
form, function, and meaning; and explain why a
word has a particular function (see also Jessner,
2007a; Kemp, 2006).
Since Peal and Lambert in their influential
study, which was published in 1962, ascribed a
crucial role to the higher level of metalinguis-
tic awareness as contributing to the success of
their bilingual subjects over their monolingual
counterparts, interest in the nature of this skill
has grown considerably. Although monolingual
speakers also develop metalinguistic awareness—
mainly those groups of professionals working
with language on a daily basis such as journal-
ists and authors—the nature of awareness can-
not be compared in both degree and quality
to awareness as developed in bi- and multilin-
gual users or nonprofessionals. Vygotsky (1986)
pointed out that contact with a foreign language
helps children sharpen their knowledge of the
Metalinguistic awareness developing in individ-
uals living with two or three languages is seen
to develop with regard to (a) divergent and cre-
ative thinking (e.g., wider variety of associations,
original ideas); (b) interactional and/or prag-
matic competence (cultural theorems of greeting,
thanking, etc.); (c) communicative sensitivity and
flexibility (language mode); and (d) translation
skills that are considered a natural trait in the ma-
jority of multilinguals (Jessner, 2006). Translation
also should be included in a comprehensive list-
ing, as it is a natural characteristic of bi- and mul-
tilingualism, which Malakoff and Hakuta (1991)
describe as a “composite of communicative and
metalinguistic skills—skills that are ‘translinguis-
tic,’ in the sense that they are not particular to any
one language” (p. 142).
Whereas cognitive style was investigated in
earlier studies on bilingualism, recent research
has shown more interest in the process of
bilingual thinking (Baker, 2006). Research into
metalinguistic awareness in studies of multi-
lingualism has so far mainly been done to
explore the effects of bilingualism on L3
learning and conditions for artificial language
Studies of Metalinguistic Awareness in TLA
Effects of Bilingualism on TLA. Based on an
extensive overview of research on bilingualism
and additional language learning, Cenoz (2003)
presents a detailed critical review of the studies on
the effects of bilingualism on cognitive develop-
ment. She concludes that most studies on general
proficiency indicate a positive effect of bilingual-
ism on TLA and that this effect can be explained
as related to learning strategies, metalinguistic
awareness, and communicative ability, in partic-
ular if the languages in contact are typologically
278 The Modern Language Journal 92 (2008)
close (see also Jessner, 1999). In a number of
studies, mainly carried out in Scandinavia and
in the Basque Country, such an additive effect
of bilingualism on L3 learning, in both cases En-
glish, was found (Ringbom, 1987; Thomas, 1992;
Cenoz & Valencia, 1994; Lasagabaster, 1997; Sa-
font, 2003).
Artificial Language Learning. Nation and
McLaughlin (1986); Nayak, Hansen, Krueger, &
McLaughlin (1990); and McLaughlin and Nayak
(1989) studied the learning of artificial miniature
linguistic systems. The first study showed a pos-
itive transfer of learning strategies only for the
domain of implicit learning. In the second, there
was no clear evidence for a general superiority
of multilinguals in language learning abilities, al-
though they were found to adapt their learning
strategies more easily to task requirements. The
third study suggested a learning advantage for ex-
pert learners over less experienced foreign lan-
guage learners. Kemp (2001) found that the per-
formance of multilingual adults on all six tests of
grammatical awareness, including one using ar-
tificial grammars, increased with the number of
languages they knew.
Exploring Metalinguistic Awareness in Multi-
linguals. An increasing number of studies of
crosslexical consultation, that is, how bi- and
multilinguals search for words in their other
languages when they meet linguistic problems
in the target language, have been carried out
in various linguistic settings over the last 20
years (e.g., Cenoz, 2003; Faerch & Kasper, 1986;
Herwig, 2001; M¨ ohle, 1989; M¨ uller-Lanc´ e, 2003;
Singleton, 1999). Anintrospective study by Jessner
(2006) will be presented here in more detail as it
is one of very few studies on multilingual adults
aimed at exploring different aspects of awareness
of metalinguistic knowledge in multilingual pro-
duction. The theoretical background of the study
was provided by the DMM.
The sample consisted of 17 bilingual stu-
dents (L1–2: Italian–German) from South Ty-
rol (Italy) studying English (B2 on the Com-
mon European Frame of Reference, describing
an intermediate proficiency level) at Innsbruck
University (Tyrol, Austria). The relatively small
number of subjects is not surprising when it is
taken into account that members for the multi-
lingual testing group not only had to study En-
glish as a subject at Innsbruck University, but also
live with families who use both Italian and Ger-
man, to ensure high proficiency levels in both
The goal of the study was to investigate whether
there was evidence for increased metalinguistic
awareness in the production of English as the
L3 of the students. In particular, there was a
focus on the relationship between crosslinguis-
tic interaction and metalinguistic awareness in
the use of compensatory strategies, as defined
by Poulisse, Bongaerts, and Kellerman (1997).
Faerch and Kasper (1983) defined strategies as
potentially conscious and, therefore, different
facets of metalinguistic awareness were chosen
for investigation: (a) how students think in a
(third) language and(b) howstudents think about
Think-aloud protocols were chosen as method-
ological tools to provide evidence of language
choice during the production of writing tasks
(based on Cumming’s Ph.D. dissertation, 1988).
The analysis concentrated on (a) how students re-
sorted to other languages during a lexical search
either before or after the L3 item and (b) the
identification of different forms and functions of
codeswitching. Based on Zimmermann’s index of
lexical insecurity (1992), lack of knowledge and
the search for alternatives were identified as the
main functions of (or causes for) compensatory
Analysis of the strategies that the students used
to overcome their linguistic deficits shows that
they resorted to both Italian and German, either
before or after the target language item. They
produced German-based, Italian-based, and com-
bined strategies. Most strikingly:
(a) Before the L3 item, they produceda larger
number of switches to German (. . . Steven Pinker
. . . added, (G) hinzugef ¨ ugt, some, (G) eigene, some
personal evidence . . .).
(b) After the L3 item, they produced a larger
number of switches to Italian (OK, this is proved,
no this is sustained, (I) sostenere, sustained by the
theory that. . .).
(c) German was clearly dominant in replace-
ments for L3 items.
The results of the study point to several issues,
which certainly need more attention in future re-
search into multilingualism. They concern (a) the
use of supporter languages in L3 production, and
(b) the use of metalanguage (ML), the most ex-
plicit expression of metalinguistic awareness.
Judging by the position of switching within a
sentence, German and Italian were assigned dif-
ferent roles inthe productionof English. Whereas
German was described as the main supporter
Ulrike Jessner 279
language functioning as a springboard in case of
lexical problems because of its dominant activa-
tion in initial position, Italian was used as a con-
firmer of the lexical choice as students usedit after
a successful search, that is, after finding the En-
glish target lexical item. This supports Hammar-
berg (2001), who also found differences between
the roles of supporter languages and suggested
that they should be integrated into future models
of multilingual production.
Furthermore, a relationship between the use of
ML and the use of compensatory strategies was
detected. Analysis of the use of ML showed that:
(a) ML can precede switches and exert
a control function in production (E→G
wie sagt man da? [how do you say this?] →I
come quelli [like those] →G Plural →E).
(b) The language of the ML can be considered
an indicator of language dominance; in this case,
German ML was used most often.
(c) The number of ML-related switches ap-
pears to be related to the number of languages
involved in a compensatory strategy; that is, most
ML-related switches were found in combined
strategies (see also Jessner, 2005, on multilingual
Relationship Between Crosslinguistic Interaction
and Metalinguistic Awareness. The relationshipbe-
tween crosslinguistic interaction, that is, the acti-
vationof languages other thanthe target language
during L3 production, and metalinguistic aware-
ness was the main focus of Jessner (2006). This
dynamic interplay between crosslinguistic inter-
action and metalinguistic awareness sheds light
on key variables that form part of the M factor.
James (1996) defines crosslinguistic awareness as
knowledge held at the explicit (declarative) level
of metacognition. In his crosslinguistic approach
to language awareness, he points out that the “lan-
guage transfer issue of classical Contrastive Analysis
becomes a new issue of metalinguistic transfer —
and its relationship to cross-linguistic awareness”
(p. 143; emphasis in original; see also Schmid,
1993; Schweers, 1996).
According to the results of Jessner (2006),
learners express their crosslinguistic awareness by
making use of supporter languages. This process
is marked by the search for similarities, which is
part of metalinguistic thinking during multilin-
gual production processes (see also Cumming,
1988, on bilingual writing). Crosslinguistic aware-
ness in multilingual production is described as
(a) tacit awareness shown by the use of cognates
in the supporter languages (mainly in the use of
combined strategies) and (b) explicit awareness
in the case of switches that are introduced by met-
alanguage. It is argued that the use of cognates
or the search for crosslinguistic similarities forms
an important part of compensatory strategy use in
multilingual productionand hints at the problem-
atic usage of the implicit/explicit dichotomy, as
shown, for instance, by B¨ orner (1997). He tested
N. Ellis’s (1994) claim that knowledge concern-
ing formal aspects of vocabulary is stored as im-
plicit knowledge while aspects of lexical mean-
ing are stored as explicit knowledge and found
only partial support for the claim. B¨ orner points
out that the formal characteristics of cognates
are learned implicitly, whereas their syntactic
and morphological features are stored as explicit
knowledge, that is, resulting from conscious anal-
ysis. More recently, N. Ellis (2005) discussed dy-
namic interactions between explicit and implicit
Although the findings of the study have to
be seen as rather limited considering the small
database, produced by a very distinct population,
it can be concluded from the results that a defi-
nition of multilingual proficiency would have to
include at least two types of awareness, which
are crosslinguistic awareness and metalinguistic
awareness. Crosslinguistic awareness in L3 pro-
duction can be defined as the awareness (tacit and
explicit) of the interaction between the languages
in a multilingual’s mind; metalinguistic awareness
adds to this by making objectification possible.
Differentiation and selectivity in multilingual pro-
duction seem to be governed by different levels of
awareness that should clearly lead us to question
a bipolar discussion of multilingual phenomena
(see also Cenoz, 2003).
Several questions concerning the force of met-
alinguistic awareness in multilinguals or multilin-
gual awareness in multilingual systems have arisen
from Jessner (2006). They concern, for instance:
1. The integration of different roles for sup-
porter languages in (dynamic) models of multi-
lingual processing.
2. The relationship between a heightened level
of attention and a heightened level of awareness
in multilingual production.
3. The implicit/explicit dichotomy in research
on language acquisition.
4. Approaches to multilingual awareness in the
5. How TLA might be modeled.
280 The Modern Language Journal 92 (2008)
For further insight into the nature of metalin-
guistic knowledge in multilinguals, and the effects
of raising awareness of that knowledge in multi-
lingual learners, future studies of multilingualism
should consider applying a DST approach to lan-
guage development to be able to explore and un-
derstand the complex interrelationships among
variables involved in multiple language learn-
ing over time (see Larsen-Freeman & Cameron,
Future tests of language proficiency for mul-
tilingual learners or users might take a DST ap-
proach to multilingual proficiency into consider-
ation by using a holistic approach. That is, apart
from testing linguistic knowledge, tests of mul-
tilingual proficiency also should include tests of
metalinguistic knowledge, which clearly goes be-
yond grammatical knowledge because it also in-
cludes knowledge of crosslinguistic interaction in
multilingual learners (Jessner, 2006; Jessner, in
press a, b). The challenging enterprise for the
future will be to model the role of metalinguistic
awareness as a force or emergent property in mul-
tilingual systems since it is itself affected by other
variables, is capable of affecting other variables,
and changes in terms of its magnitude and effect
on other variables over time.
This article presents DST as a useful concep-
tual tool for researching multilingualism. For ex-
ample, DST helps to explain that there are qual-
itative differences between L2 and L3 learning
and that a holistic approach to multilingual profi-
ciency is necessary to understand and set up goals
for multilingual teaching. It makes clear that a
multilingual norm ought to be used in linguis-
tic research, whether research into L1, L2, L3,
and so on, since research into multilingualism in-
cludes all types of acquisition research. Such an
approach implies that multilingual competence
is not an exceptional form of linguistic compe-
tence, but that monolingual language acquisition
presents an exceptional model that cannot be ap-
plied to multilingualism. In addition, it implies
that multilingualism cannot be interpreted as ad-
ditive monolingualism, but that a multilingual sys-
tem must be interpreted as a different system with
different rules.
The author would like to thank Jasone Cenoz, Paul
van Geert, Charlotte Kemp, Kees de Bot, the editor of
this Special Issue, and four anonymous reviewers for
their valuable comments and various discussions on this
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