How Do L2 Users Think Differently from Monolinguals? (Vivian Cook’s Career Highlights)

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We interview second language acquisition legend, Vivian Cook about his career in second language teaching and learning. Professor Cook tells us about how L2 users think differently to monolinguals, his own experiences as a language learner, teacher and researcher and what has changed in language teaching over the course of his career.

Vivian Cooks Career in Language Learning - Transcript


Ross Thorburn:  Welcome back to the podcast. This week we've got a very, very, very special guest, the writer, linguist, and second language acquisition researcher, Professor Vivian Cook on the podcast of whom I've got to say I'm a massive fan.

Tracy Yu:  Professor Cook has worked in different areas such as bilingualism, EFL, first language acquisition, second language teaching, linguistics, and the English writing system. We are really lucky to have him on the podcast and talking about his career in language learning.

Ross:  Just to explain, we recorded this podcast in a slightly unusual way. What we did was we emailed Professor Cook our questions, he wrote down his answers and recorded his answers, then sent them to us. Then we've added our questions. Then the final part now is that in the podcast you'll hear us also discussing our responses.

Tracy:  In this episode, we ask Vivian about his career and what has changed in language learning and language teaching since he started his career in 1960s. Long time ago. [laughs]

Ross:  Yeah. We'll also have a follow‑up episode in which we do the same thing for asking him about the past, present, and future of second language acquisition.

Tracy:  Hope you enjoy this interview.

Ross:  Hi, Professor Cook. Welcome on. To start off with, can you tell us how did you start your career in second language acquisition research and in language teaching and what's motivated you to stay in this area throughout your long career?

Prof. Vivian Cook:  My first degree was in English Literature and language. Then I got a scholarship for those who wanted to teach English in underdeveloped countries where I thought English could be of valuable help.

Unfortunately, I was advised not to wear it in tropical countries for health reasons. I ended up teaching English as a foreign language innately in London, including writing EFL course books.

However, I convinced myself that any real progress in language teaching or course books could only come if we understand better how students are actually learning in the classroom, and everything spun off from that.

Over 50 years, I have drifted from course writing and language teaching to first language acquisition and Chomsky to second language acquisition and applied linguistics to second linguistics and call to written language to the language of street signs.

Hardly a straightforward path with along the way a beginners EFL course book, a book on first language acquisition, a book on Chomsky, and a manual on the English writing system, among others.

Tracy:  Which of your research discoveries, writings or textbooks or paper, etc., are you most proud of and why?

Vivian Cook:  I always liked the next book best provision they call "The Language of the Street" and I'm too conscious the faults that I now see in the old ones. Even writing new editions doesn't help much, say the five editions, of my second language learning and language teaching.

Nonetheless, I'm proud of the whips of the coverage of this book and its straightforward style. I think it has been appreciated by teachers. I'm still fairly pleased with "The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Multi‑Competence" edited by Li Wei and me in 2016.

My insight that L2 users should be respected in their own right rather than seen as failed native speakers has been developed in such interesting ways ranging from deaf sign languages to Navajo speakers to nicknames for Ernest Hemingway in Cuba.

I'm constantly amazed that the web page for my 1985 paper on universal grammar on SLA has around 600 visitors per week, some 35 years later. I must have done something right.

More recently, I hope that my little experiments jolted with my students have helped to increase in discovery that L2 users actually think differently from monolingual, an interesting offshoot of the theory of linguistic productivity.

Ross:  Let's talk about that for a minute because you mentioned something really interesting. I think that usually when we think about learning a second language and how we talk about interference between languages, we always assume that it's your first language interferes with your second language, right?

For example, French people learning to speak English will speak English with a French accent. What he mentioned there is this idea that, and I'll quote here from something he's written before in his language learning and language teaching book. He says, "Whereas the effects of the L1 on L2 interline, which are easy to see the effects of L2 so students second language on L1 the mother tongue have been little discussed.

"Yet, everyone who's been exposed to an L2 can tell anecdotes about the effect on the L1." Here's an example I think from another paper. For instance, Japanese people...In Japanese, there is this word apparently "bosu" like boss and bosu means like gang leader.

For Japanese who speak English, the word bosu is related less to crime by Japanese who know the English word for boss than by Japanese people who don't know English.

There's many, many other examples. Do you have any examples of how you've find out like English has maybe influenced your first language Chinese?

Tracy:  Yeah, definitely. I didn't realize that until a couple of colleagues actually told me after I wrote some messages in Chinese and told me like, "Wow, you probably follow the structure or the grammar rules in English."

Ross:  It's not just grammar as well, the same thing happens with pronunciation changes slightly and there's even other ideas that like it changes the way that you just think about the world as well, by speaking a second language.

We'll talk about this more later. A lot of Vivian Cook's work has been on these ideas that someone who speaks a second language is not just a monolingual plus the second language. He really is a completely different type of speaker altogether and that your second language influences your first language and even influences the way you think.

He's got an example here. This is from a paper called "Going Beyond the Native Speaker." This is about an experiment where you get people from different cultures to look at a fish tank and afterwards, you ask them what they remember. He says, "Chinese people who speak English will remember the fish more than the plants, to a greater extent than Chinese monolinguals."

Different cultures think in different ways. Our cultural attitudes may also be changed by the language we are acquiring. In this case, Chinese attention to background so the L2 ability actually helps students views of the world.

Tracy:  We need to give a little background information. What does the fish mean here? The fish in the fish tank. If the Chinese person can speak English and they tend to pay attention to...

Ross:  The fish.

Tracy:  ...the fish more than...

Ross:  Than the background of the tank whereas if you don't speak English you would maybe pay more attention to the plants and the tank. Different cultures pay different attention to either like the foreground or the background of something.

Tracy:  Do you think is it because people who can speak different languages and of course the brain, how it works it might change a little bit and it will affect our view. Seeing things?

Ross:  Maybe. I've also heard other things.

Tracy:  Like neuroscience.

Ross:  Yeah. I've also read other things about how languages that have a future tense tend to, I can't remember to save money or save more money or save less money for the future than languages that don't have a future tense.

In other words, the grammar of the language can change people's attitudes to saving money. I guess just the overall point here is again that by learning a second language, it's actually changing who you are.

Tracy:  Cool.

Ross:  Do you want to read the next question?

Tracy:  Professor Cook, which of your works like books, research, and article, etc., would you most like to go back and update for the 21st century?

Vivian Cook:  After three editions in my Chomsky book and five in my language learning one, I've recently tried not to recycle things I've written before, but to write something new. You tend to get interrupted if you're always telling yourself into your past. It's bad enough having to check your earlier writings for contradictions and self‑plagiarism.

The book I was disappointed by, was the beginner's book, "People & Places" where the publishers had the bright idea of getting me to write a skeleton that will be fleshed out by local writers in different countries to suit local teachers, examinations, and situations.

However, they found that overseas publishers wouldn't take this on without seeing a published course, and so they rushed out my skeleton as a book but of course, it wasn't. I had supplied the bare outline of repetitious activities, etc., that needed lots added to it to be complete.

The book flopped. Part from in Poland where it was massively used in secondary schools but of course brought in an income in a non‑convertibles slotties rather than the princely summit would have yield it anywhere else.

Ross:  To what extent have course graduates and teacher trainers adopted your ideas and ideas from other SLA experts?

Vivian Cook:  My EFL course books did use some of these ideas, grammatical progression of realistic English. It was raised on Chomsky's than analysis of the verb phrase. Not that even my co‑authors really recognized it.

My series "English for Life" in part used Evelyn Hatches' ideas of conversational interaction. The last real impact from my ideas about learning a language was really in the 1970s with the communicative syllabus and communicative language teaching, mostly due to David Wilkins.

Advocations of SLA and linguistic ideas have either been at a very general land level of application, teaching should be based on tasks, on input, etc., which nobody could take exception, or so specific they applied it essentially a couple of lessons in total saying the forms of the past tense.

Overall, rather little use has been made of SLA, a friend, for instance, tried to publish a course book based on crashes ideas, but what publishers wanted was another communicative task‑based course for CEFR levels A to C.

Materials association [indecipherable 9:53] started indeed as a talking show for course writers to discuss the issues they faced. Mostly the publisher's dislike for anything new.

Tracy:  It's quite interesting. Not only because of publishers but part of it is like, they would like to stick to popular or existing ideas and rather than promoting new findings and new ideas?

Ross:  I think so. I think that's what he said and my experience in doing a lot of interviews with experts on this podcast is, that's really often the feedback. That when you get into this question of why are more findings from research not applied in language teaching, people usually playing publishers basically for not wanting to do anything different.

Tracy:  If we were to look back the last hundred years and we say not a lot of changes and compare it to other areas or industries.

Ross:  If you compare it to like you say other industries if you compare technology now to in the 1970s, the gap is absolutely vast. If you compare...We just asked him, right? He said that the biggest change has happened in the '70s. That's 40 years ago. I think that really is problematic.

Last question.

Tracy:  The last question is, what has been your experience as a language learner and how is it similar or different to what you found in your SLA research?

Vivian Cook:  My only experience with other languages was rather unusual. I spent about a third of my life from 7 to 18 in Santorini in Kinder Holmes in the Swiss Alps. I could function adequately in Swiss German and French from talking to the other children.

Then I came back to England to face a standard academic French course and Latin to get into university. I stopped using anything but English. No, I'm not completely tongue‑tied in French, though I have little problems with understanding conference papers in French. I read Swiss newspapers in German online mostly because they report skiing.

I used to tell students I was effectively monolingual. Some of them were rather surprised when we went together to a restaurant as a conference in Nancy, and I automatically talked to the waiter in French.

My most recent learning experience was on reciprocal summer courses for teachers of English and of French which had the [indecipherable 12:17] device of alternating language days so that teachers and learners effectively swapped roles each day. This actually activated my latent French.

A recent using experience was on a university committee in Geneva, which employed the so‑called Swiss model in which everybody speaks their own language, but has to comprehend the other languages i.e., French and Swiss German. I had no real problems apart from language related jokes. I recommend both these types of situation, but basing teaching on either of them will be rather difficult.

Ross:  That last thing there, the Swiss model he mentioned, I think at a conference that everyone speaks their own language but everyone else has to understand what everyone else is saying. This would be like a conversation in which I speak English to you and you reply to me in Chinese.

Ross:  It's funny. I had a friend at high school whose parents were German, and I remember him telling me his parents would speak to him in German and him and his sister would reply in English.

At the time I thought that was the weirdest thing, and I was like, "How can that make sense?" It's funny now at work that happens to me every single day. I think that's probably quite normal for a lot of people. Again, I don't think it's something that you'd probably ever try doing in a language class, but I think it's really interesting idea, isn't it?

To get one person to speak one language and someone to reply in something else. Like I said, I think that's probably quite realistic and probably happens quite a lot of places in the world.

Once again everyone that was Professor Vivian Cook. If you're interested in finding out more, check out his website. It's

Tracy:  Thanks very much for listening to this episode. See you next time.

Ross:  Goodbye.