The “multi/plural turn”: A major trend in theorizing Second Language Acquisition

What is the “multi/plural” turn that changed our understanding of second language acquisition (SLA) around the start of the 21st century? This post explains (1) emergentism, a relatively new theory about how the language repertoire evolves across the lifespan, and (2) how emergentism suggests that we need to approach additional language acquisition from a multilingual perspective. In the end, I briefly discuss what this means for theorizing translanguaging from SLA and sociolinguistic perspectives.

Ellis, N. C. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(2), 143-188.

As a PhD student at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, my job was to teach an undergraduate course titled “SLS 302: Second Language Learning” and make the above 46-page article’s main findings accessible to undergraduates. The article is a literature review of many studies, and it proposes a new way of theorizing second language acquisition, as “bottom-up” rather than “top-down.” (The official name of the theory is Emergentism, for reasons that will soon be clear.) I would begin the lecture on the topic with a colorful PPT intro:

Generative and cognitivist SLA scholars look at language development, natural and taught. Generativists study how the first language, L1, is formed out of Universal Grammar (the inborn ability to acquire language) in the early years, how L1 impacts acquisition of other languages, and how “naivete” vs “prior exposure” (i.e., whether or not you have ever had experience with tone, masculine/feminine nouns, or agglutinating syntax) affects performance on the language you are trying to learn. Cognitivists study how additional language learning happens through general cognitive mechanisms like stored memory, working memory, executive function, etc., as these interact with input and interaction. Despite one group’s focus on the specific language learning mechanism and the other group’s focus on broader learning mechanisms, what both groups of applied linguists study is the acquisition of general patterns, rules, and principles: getting better at conditionals, falling tones, suffixation, or whatever is tricky in the target language. This is top-down language learning; once something (like past tense -ed in English) is mastered, we hope the language learner can do it pretty consistently.

Emegentism, on the other hand, deals with bottom-up language learning. I tell my students that the theory cannot be guessed from the name… but when you learn what emergentism is, the name makes sense. To understand emergentism, or how the language repertoire emerges, all you need to do is to understand what it means to tally.

Emergentists, I tell my students, don’t so much believe rules are learned and then applied. They believe that language learning proceeds as a gradual tallying of examples. Each person produces patterns of language that reflect the kinds of examples they’ve been exposed to in their life. This is bottom-up SLA.

Our tallying could be individual,” I explained to one particular class. “Is Abby more likely to say ‘pop’ than ‘soda’? Is Jenny more likely to say toMAYto than toMAHto? Does Justin tend to say “the game’s tomorrow,” “the game’s gonna be tomorrow,” “the game’ll take place tomorrow,” for a soccer game that’s happening tomorrow? Will he prefer the same construction to describe a plane leaving tomorrow?”

In fact, each of them could be influenced by the speech mannerisms of their current interlocutor (the person they’re talking to), which affects the production of the moment. That aside, the answers depend on experience: How many times has Abby heard “pop” versus “soda”? How many times has Jenny heard “toMAYto” versus “toMAHto”? How many times has Justin heard a game described in each verb form, versus a flight?

Our tallying could also be collective,” I continued.

The end of the above slide brings me to the very important point (on the next slide) that our tallying is multidimensional.

In short, emergentism is about an infinite number of degrees of commonality (also called “prototypicality”) versus exceptionality on every dimension of language and experience. The prototype is the most common instance. Exceptions sit nearer or farther from that prototype to varying degrees. The more of an exception something is, the more mental effort it takes to produce. Consider the words “ran” and “went”, for example. Are they prototypes or exceptions? The answer is, despite both being “irregular” in grammar books, they are more prototypical, because they are very commonly heard and used.

Learning is speeded up by similar forms and slowed down by “false friends”—different forms that look similar. For example, “shake” and “take” help you learn “make.” However, “shook” and “took,” don’t help you learn “made.” But “made” is the most common of the three past tense verbs anyway, so it is easy to learn through sheer frequency. Have you ever met an English learner who said “mook”?

Ellis (2002) states that “to the extent that language processing is based on frequency and probabilistic knowledge, language learning is implicit learning” (p. 145). This does not deny the importance of teaching and noticing rules, nor does it deny the importance of explicit instruction. What it does tell us is that what we are likely to say/do/think depends a great deal on “learner-contingent soundscapes and textscapes that feed into bottom-up processes of item-based learning” (Ortega, 2014, p. 43).

I give the class two anecdotes about emergentism in my life. The first comes from teaching elementary-level ESL students in Vancouver and stopping Wh-raising when giving directions. Instead of (1) “Tell the class what your group discussed,” I would say, (2) “Tell the class your group discussed what.” Generative linguists know that the “frillier” and “fancier” syntax is in the first construction, as some languages do Wh- raising (this is called markedness); other languages do not do it (this is called unmarkedness). Every language has extras/frills/”bells and whistles” that most other languages do not, which makes every language hard to learn—e.g., tones in Vietnamese, gendered pronouns in German; these forms are marked in these languages and unmarked (irrelevant) in other languages that are less fancy in this area. (For example, tone is marked in Chinese; it is unmarked in English. Wh- raising is marked in English; Chinese maintains the unmarked word order with no transformations, similar to the syntax of Universal Grammar.) So I basically reduced the markedness for my elementary L1 Chinese students. To my surprise, after some time teaching these students, I found myself not doing Wh- raising when talking with L1 English speakers. Also, it felt normal and grammatically correct!

(Flash forward: Now I teach L1 Chinese students in Hong Kong University who are academically advanced English speakers, and my mind again dislikes/disprefers “Tell the class your group discussed what,” not because it is badly formed… remember, our innate Universal Grammar will not allow human minds to generate word salad like “your discussed class what tell group the,” just unmarked and marked forms… the dispreference for “Tell the class your group discussed what” is due to lack of use.)

Another example I gave to my SLS 302 students in Hawai’i was how my friend Jay, who is an applied linguist from Cebu in the Philippines, once said, “Anna, do not call the language Tagalog. It sounds exclusive. Other Philippine languages shaped the national language that is Filipino.” To my surprise, on a later occasion, my colleague Kevin, a Swiss linguist who specializes in Philippine languages, told me: “Don’t call it Filipino. That’s imperialistic! Tagalogs like to pretend their language is the national language when it’s just that—Tagalog.”

Note that ALL THREE OF US have PhDs in (applied) linguistics!

Ellis (2002) notes that emergentism can be seen at many levels of language, from pronunciation to lexis (vocabulary) to grammar. Discourse analysts also consider the political associations of particular words, labels, or speech styles (Bucholtz & Hall, 2005). For example, Kira Hall says that we live in a world of “hypersubjectivity”; that is, because of all the global flows of media and human populations these days, we cannot take for granted that people will make the same associations with terms or language forms as we do. The wide, unpredictable range of possible social meanings is hyper (Hall, 2014).

But Ellis isn’t a sociolinguist and discourse analyst like Hall; he’s an SLA researcher, so let’s go back to SLA. Why did emergentism come into being at this point in history in the field of SLA? During most of the 20th century, language patterns were documented by SLA researchers (applied linguists who study language learning) and sociolinguists (applied linguists who study language use in communities) doing observation and recordings of groups of people; they taped people’s talk and took notes, and SLA researchers gave strong evidence of top-down, rule-based language acquisition over time. A more contemporary method, however, is corpus linguistics. Transcriptions of speech and writing samples containing 100,000 or a million or a billion texts are run through computer software to find patterns in the blink of an eye. (This is not to say that the patterns found via the older method were flawed. Each method can find different patterns.) This is a good example of how research methods influence theory: speech documentation highlights top-down patterns; corpus research highlights bottom-up patterns.

Do the emergentist findings mean we should go back to teaching target language forms to additional language learners through boring, repetitive drills? No. According to Ellis (2002), the reason the repeated patterns in emergentism “stick” in the brain is because they are repeated in authentic, real-world contexts, in communities of practice where the tallying of multidimensional forms is related to their social function and genuine meaning-making!

Let’s go back to the “New Kid on the Block” analogy. I mentioned that there was a weak kid, sidelined in the field (playground) by Cognitivism and Generativism. This kid, Socolinguistics, wants to be allies with the new kid, Emergentism, who ignores poor Sociolinguistics. Emergentism wants to challenge Cognitivism and Generativism, but at least Emergentism thinks they’re worth his attention.

There is, admittedly, a stereotype that sociolinguistics and all its sub-areas are less “scientific” than other areas of applied linguistics. It is the kind of research that is more accessible to teachers and ordinary citizens… about culture, identity, and social relations, and less likely to provide a detailed model of the learner’s mind or nitty-gritty empirical evidence of language acquisition happening (no matter how narrow the research question). However, emergentism has the potential to be an ally of sociolinguistics. It is the SLA theory that would complement sociolinguistic theory, as it shows how people learn to speak like themselves by taking part in numerous, overlapping communities (on many different scales, e.g., family, friend groups, workplaces, institutions, and ethnic/gender/etc. categories). Translangauging scholars like Otheguy, García, and Reid (2015) have often written about the language that each individual, and no other individual, speaks, which some call the “idiolect.” Additionally, García and colleagues question the existence of named languages like “Spanish,” “Swedish,” and “Swahili.” I wouldn’t go that far, but embrace the more moderate argument of SLA scholar Lourdes Ortega, who takes’ Ellis’ (2002) article (which I just summarized) a step further than Ellis did.

Grosjean’s (2015) diagram of domains of language acquisition (what Ortega calls “soundscapes and textscapes”)… notice use of La, Lb, Lc, not L1, L2, L3

Ortega, L. (2014). Ways forward for a bi/multilingual turn in SLA. In S. May (Ed.), The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL, and bilingual education. New York, NY; London, UK: Routledge.

Ellis (2002) described studies on language learning to illustrate that a great deal of it was bottom-up. That was his whole argument. We can take away different implications for language teaching. For example, we can conclude that language learners, if they want to be more “native-like,” need to re-shape the distribution of examples in their input… spending time with more native speakers, watching more films made in target language countries, and reading more books in the target language (which have undergone language standardization). On the other hand, we can use the emergentist theory to question the native speaker standard, which is what Ortega (2014) does.

Ortega begins by naming people—including translanguaging scholars Cenoz, Gorter, and García, and other scholars of multilingualism like Cummins, Higgins, Phillipson, Skutnabb-Kangas, and Valdés—who have studied the “damaging deficit approaches” (p. 32) to language teaching that devalue the language(s) that already exist in the language learner’s repertoire, apart from the target language. This is because many of the key constructs behind SLA, like “target language” and “native-likeness,” implicitly assume that the model for additional language speakers is not only the native speaker, but the native speaker who speaks no other language. Ortega points out the “serious validity and ethical problems when late bilingualism is investigated as the psycholinguistic process of developing monolingual competence a second time around later in life” (p. 33), while the monolingual native speaker “is imagined to possess a superior kind of linguistic competence, one whose purity proves itself in the absence of detectable traces of any other languages during (natural or elicited) language use” (p. 35).

As I explain to my students, the problem with seeing the monolingual as the standard for multilinguals is that Language X and Language Y are like red and blue. If you add blue to red, whether in childhood or adulthood, you will get some degree of purple. Linguistic purity in speech comes at the cost of (virtually) no oral productive skills in any other language (this is why my husband speaks “purer” English than me); the price of any substantial degree of oral bi/multilingualism is that the languages “bleed” into each other when spoken, i.e. non-purity (hence why I can come close to native-like pronunciation on both my L1, English, and heritage language, Tagalog, but can never be “perfect” in pronouncing either; hence why I speak French with a mostly English accent). There are times when I’ve wanted to shout: “You want to be a bi/multilingual but native-like in both/all languages? Bring me a cat that has a canine jaw and a dog’s psychology!”

The erasure of the term “monolingual” when we say, “I want to speak like a monolingual native speaker” has three terrible consequences (Ortega, 2014, pp. 35-36): (1) There is an implicit norm that makes no sense; (2) Learning an additional language is fundamentally different from learning a first language a second time around (which no human being to date has ever done); (3) Linguistic ownership by birth becomes an inalienable right and advantage. Any form of production in the target language, if not “pure,” is seen as less legitimate because of “the misrecognition (Irvine & Gal, 2000, following Bourdieu, 1977) of the object of study in SLA as the development of monolingual-like competence in a new language” (p. 36).

But if L2 acquisition is unlike L1 acquisition, what theory will explain both? Ortega (2014) calls on usage-based linguistics (UBL) developed by Ellis (2011), Bybee (2010), Eskildsen (2012), and Tomasello (2003), another term for emergentism. Drawing on Ellis and others, she writes:

UBL theories of language ontogeny define learning by invoking additional constructs such as input frequency, the emergence of construction inventories [i.e., the way the individual mind has learned to categorize things], schematization by analogy [i.e., webs of connections in the individual mind based on unique life experiences], and complexity and dynamic systems learning driven by variability. (pp. 39-40)

Multilinguals are not like monolingual L1 speakers, but here is what they have in common. Everyone’s language experiences change across the lifespan (from childhood to youth to different stages of adulthood), and so do our repertoires, as “linguistic development is driven by changes in lived experience” (p. 40). Our friend groups, schooling experiences, occupations, jobs, interests, and even negative life events play a role in what we learn to say, read, and talk about with varying degrees of ease/difficulty at different points in time. According to Ortega, variability is universal and does not set apart “non-native” speakers from “native speakers.” Therefore, factors other than the critical period for language learning in childhood should be given more research and pedagogical attention.

When we think someone’s production in the target language is due to “age effects,” Ortega urges us to consider other explanations (p. 41), which can be linguistic [e.g., how similar is the target language to the learner’s L1?], environmental [e.g., what communities of practice does the person belong to, to what extent, and for how long?], and extralinguistic [e.g., what is/was the person’s investment in those communities of practice? (Darvin & Norton, 2015)]. Apart from age, nor should “immersion” be seen as the primary factor in language development, because even when there is supposedly an immersive environment, learners may “have only limited access to meaningful opportunities for use” (p. 44), for reasons both within and beyond their control. Here, Ortega cites Kinginger’s (2004) and Morita’s (2004) work on study abroad students, Norton’s work on adult immigrants (Norton Peirce, 1995), and Toohey’s (2001) work on elementary school students, among others who have shown that social access is just as important as living in the target language community.

What is particularly important to remember about SLA is that “there is no start state and no end state“—the title of an article by Larsen-Freeman (2005) that Ortega mentions towards her conclusion. Rather, language teachers must shape their goals and practices to respond to learners’ needs, particularly immediate needs… and needs change over time. The target is not the fixed, unchanging, supposed end state of the monolingual native speaker (whose own language repertoire is evolving; plus it is differently evolving from the repertoires of all other monolingual native speakers).

So what should SLA researchers study, then? For almost a decade before this 2014 article, Ortega had been dissatisfied with the monolingual bias in SLA research; in 2005, she published an article titled “For What and for Whom Is Our Research? The Ethical as Transformative Lens in Instructed SLA”:

…instead of focusing on the deficiencies of adult learners and their inability to become laboratory-proven native speakers, research on the critical period could be refocused more productively, from an ethical standpoint, and more comprehensively, from a theoretical perspective, on understanding the complex relationship among five forces that have been shown to influence ultimate L2 attainment: age, exposure, motivation, instruction, and aptitude. (Ortega, 2005, p. 432)

In the 2014 article which I focus on here, she wrote:

UBL is a helpful move… away from explaining why bilinguals are not native speakers (i.e., monolinguals) and towards understanding the psycholinguistic mechanisms and consequences of becoming bi/multilingual later in life. (p. 46)

While Ortega is optimistic about UBL, she admits some of its limitations at the end of her piece, and I will discuss what I think is the most important limitation here. This limitation has been pointed out, I recall, by Prof. Zhaohong Han at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, who wrote a response to the Douglas Fir Group of famous applied linguists (including Ortega)—see the articles by Douglas Fir Group (2016) and Han (2016) in Modern Language Journal. I won’t go into those texts here… but at the end of Ortega’s 2014 article, summarized in this post, she (like Han, 2016) explains that UBL is not a good theory for explaining the agency of the learner and the agency of the learner’s interlocutors (people they interact with), when it comes to (1) shaping the soundscapes and textscapes of individual and collective experience, (2) selectively choosing vocabulary, grammar forms, discourses, etc. they find more or less useful to keep/repeat for later, and (3) deciding how and why these are the most relevant, for what purposes, attached to what social meanings, etc. Human minds are not like computer algorithms that take in all input indiscriminately. Therefore, emergentism cannot just be documented quantitatively, with corpora, but must also be studied qualitatively, with interactional data or participant interviews. One step in this direction, in an SLA rather than discourse analytic study, is Crossley, Salsbury, and McNamara’s (2010) study that combined the two methods to track the development of low-intermediate English learners’ vocabulary range and depth of understanding of common words.


So what does all this mean for translanguaging? I spent this post blogging about SLA research I encountered in graduate school, not my own field of sociolinguistics. This is because I wanted to illustrate that in SLA and language pedagogy, multi/plural research and teaching practices are very much needed; however, in sociolinguistics (where much translanguaging research is theoretically situated even if the empirical data is from classrooms), multi/plural communicative practices are taken-for-granted.

Sociolinguists like May (2019), Kubota (2016) and Kramsch (2018), the last of whom coined the term “trans-spatial utopias,” have pointed out that while sociolinguists embrace a multi/plural lens, they often universalize translanguaging experiences as positive and socially emancipatory processes. This is problematic because some people (e.g., scholars/graduate students/language teachers who speak/write standard English and are also bi/multilingual) are rewarded for translanguaging far more than others (e.g., almost everyone who is a non-TESOL or applied linguistics professional). This is the (internal) battle that people in our profession need to fight, as much as the battle for multi/plural paradigms. But that is a topic for another post. For now, I will say that we need more emergentist perspectives in SLA and language classrooms, and that the translanguaging research that exists (mostly in sociolinguistics) needs to remain self-reflexive.

And with that note, I wish you all a happy AAAL 2021!

Find useful these readings on translanguagingcode-switchingcode-meshing, and other topics related to the multi/plural turn? Subscribe here for weekly posts sent to your inbox each Wednesday!


Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistics approach. Discourse Studies, 7(4-5), 585-614.

Bybee, J. L. (2010). Language, usage and cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Crossley, S., Salsbury, T., & McNamara, D. (2010). The development of polysemy and frequency use in English second language speakers. Language Learning60(3), 573-605.

Darvin, R., & Norton, B. (2015). Identity and a model of investment in applied linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics35, 36-56.

Douglas Fir Group. (2016). A transdisciplinary framework for SLA in a multilingual world. The Modern Language Journal100(S1), 19-47.

Ellis, N. C. (2011). Frequency-based accounts of SLA. In S. M. Gass & A. Mackey (Eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 193–210). London, UK: Routledge.

Eskildsen, S. (2012). L2 negation constructions at work. Language Learning62(2), 335–372.

Grosjean, F. (2015). The complementarity principle and its impact on processing, acquisition, and dominance. In C. Silva-Corvalán & J. Treffers-Daller (Eds.), Language dominance in bilinguals: Issues of measurement and operationalization (pp. 66-84). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, K. (2014). Hypersubjectivity: Language, anxiety, and indexical dissonance in globalization. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication24(2), 261-273.

Han, Z. (2016). A” reimagined SLA” or an expanded SLA? A rejoinder to The Douglas Fir Group (2016). The Modern Language Journal100(4), 736-740.

Irvine, J.T., & Gal, S. (2000). Language ideology and linguistic differentiation. In P. Kroskrity (Ed.), Regimes of language: Ideologies, polities, and identities (pp. 35–84). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Kinginger, C. (2004). Alice doesn’t live here anymore: Foreign language learning and identity reconstruction. In A. Pavlenko & A. Blackledge (Eds.), Negotiation of identities in multilingual contexts (pp. 219–242). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Kramsch, C. (2018). Trans-spatial utopias. Applied Linguistics39(1), 108-115.

Kubota, R. (2016). The multi/plural turn, postcolonial theory, and neoliberal multiculturalism: Complicities and implications for applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics37(4), 474-494.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2005). Second language acquisition and fossilization: There is no end, and there is no state. In Z.-H. Han & T. Odlin (Eds.), Studies of fossilization in second language acquisition (pp. 189–200). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

May, S. (2019). Negotiating the multilingual turn in SLA. Modern Language Journal103(S1), 122–129.

Morita, N. (2004). Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities. TESOL Quarterly38(4), 573–603.

Norton Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 9–31.

Otheguy, R., García, O., & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review6(3), 281-307.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press.

Toohey, K. (2001). Disputes in child L2 learning. TESOL Quarterly35(2), 257–278.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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