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Review of  Third Language Acquisition and Linguistic Transfer

Reviewer: Ellie Passmore
Book Title: Third Language Acquisition and Linguistic Transfer
Book Author: Jason Rothman Jorge González Alonso Eloi Puig-Mayenco
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 34.1635

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“Third Language Acquisition and Linguistic Transfer,” by Jason Rothman, Jorge González, and Eloi Puig-Mayenco, is a monograph that explores how third language acquisition differs from that of second language acquisition (SLA). The book is primarily aimed at people with a background in SLA and multilingualism, though definitions and explanations are provided for specific terminology and methodologies mentioned throughout the text.

The book is divided into six chapters, starting with an introduction to the fields of adult SLA, third language (L3) acquisition, and language transfer. Chapter 2 goes over theoretical approaches to sequential multilingualism, dividing them into the general categories of cognitive, sociolinguistic, and educational approaches. Chapter 3 focuses on multilingual acquisition, processing, and phonology. Chapter 4 examines language transfer in multilingual morphosyntax, largely focusing on current transfer models and the Typological Primacy Model (TPM). Chapters 5 and 6 close out the book, with Chapter 5 providing an overview of the literature and Chapter 6 discussing where the research can go from here.

In Chapter 1, the authors give a brief introduction to the book before providing an overview of current research and research questions in adult SLA and multilingualism. Section 1.1 is used to push the idea that the acquisition processes for second language (L2) and L3 and beyond (the authors refer to this as L3/n) are different enough to warrant a distinction. Section 1.2 further explores adult SLA, with the section split between a discussion of first language (L1) crosslinguistic influence in a second or third language and a discussion of the validity of critical periods for language acquisition. The authors then explore the difficulties in defining ‘multilingualism,’ and how the definition may change depending on the theoretical framework and research methodology being used. In Section 1.4 the authors provide a working definition for ‘language transfer’ as an initial (underlying) hypothesis of linguistic representation copied from a previously acquired linguistic representation (p. 24). They further clarify this definition by distinguishing ‘transfer’ as crosslinguistic influence at the representational level and cross-language effects (CLE) as crosslinguistic influence at other levels (p. 24). Section 1.5 addresses the difference between metalinguistic knowledge and language experience, as well as some potential effects of the two. Sections 1.6 and 1.7 both address aspects of building a SLA theory, and Section 1.8 provides a conclusion to the chapter and a brief overview of the rest of the book.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to theoretical approaches to sequential multilingualism, or multilingualism that occurs after learning one’s native language(s). The authors first address cognitive approaches and provide an overview to generative approaches, usage-based approaches, multi-competence, and Dynamic Systems Theory (DST). They then explore sociolinguistic approaches to multilingualism, providing a brief introduction to the concept of poly- and diglossia. They close out the chapter with a discussion on educational approaches to multilingualism, providing real-world examples from Canada and Spain.

Chapter 3 focuses entirely on multilingual acquisition and processing and explores both hypotheses and published studies on the topic. The first part of the chapter touches on how multiple languages are stored and codified in the brain, walking readers through early concepts of each language being stored separately to more contemporary ones that propose similar storage/codification but different activation levels. Section 3.2 addresses lexical processing and access and is the focal point of the chapter. The first part of 3.2 explores how one language is selected, or not, and describes several studies that seek to answer this question using the lexical decision task (LDT) or picture-word interference (PWI) task. Subsection 3.2.2 then turns to multilingual lexical representation. In this section the authors mix theoretical explanations with experimental studies, paying particular attention to the models used to describe lexical representation and, in particular, the interaction of L1 and L2 representations with that of L3/n. Section 3.2 closes out the chapter with an overview of verbal fluency and processing speed, with particular attention to how processing speed differs between mono- and multilinguals. The authors then discuss the role of ‘lexical interventions’ in L3/n acquisition and language transfer. Chapter 3 concludes with a description of the rapidly growing subfield of phonology in language acquisition.

Chapter 4 is the focal point of the book and as such covers the most material. The aim of the chapter is to describe the theoretical issues and models that have been prominent in generative L3/n acquisition studies. Section 4.1 first tackles the overall concept of transfer in L2 acquisition and ends with a list of four a priori hypotheses: no transfer, transfer exclusively from L1, transfer exclusively from L2, and transfer can occur from either language or both at the same time (p. 120). The remainder of the chapter is split fairly evenly between Sections 4.2 and 4.3.

Section 4.2 provides an overview and an exemplar study for five current L3/n transfer models. Each of the five models is addressed in its own subsection, at the end of which the authors provide an exemplar study for that subsection’s model. Section 4.2.1 looks at a model that proposes that transfer in L3/n comes solely from L1. The model is explained using several examples and backed up with a study from 2010. The next subsection addresses the L2 Status Factor (L2SF) hypothesis, which suggests that the L2 is preferred as the source of transfer in L3/n. Section 4.2.3 examines the Cumulative Enhancement Model (CEM), which the authors suggest has had a marked impact on L3 acquisition studies. The CEM proposes that language learning has a cumulative effect and that this effect — and the knowledge gained from learning a previous language — is what distinguishes L2 and L3/n acquisition. The next model, the Linguistic Proximity Model (LPM), suggests that language transfer is not restricted to the L1 or L2 but rather occurs domain-by-domain as needed (p. 141) and both languages may show influence simultaneously. The Scalpel Model is the final model addressed in Section 4.2 and hypothesizes that several factors impact L3/n transfer in a domain-by-domain manner but that it is done in a precise manner in order to facilitate language acquisition, with errors the result of confounding factors related to the specific feature being transferred.

Section 4.3 focuses wholly on the Typological Primacy Model (TPM), which is a model the authors themselves have worked on. The TPM proposes that transfer can occur from either the L1 or L2, though not both simultaneously, but that one language is initially selected as the transfer source for all domains before allowing transfer from the other language as needed to fill gaps. It also suggests that transfer is at the level of grammatical representations. The remainder of the section is dedicated to explaining the theoretical and empirical rationale, the role of consciousness in the TPM, and how the speaker determines typological proximity. The authors close out the section by providing empirical support and an exemplar study, though unlike the other models, more than one exemplar is provided for this section.

Chapter 5 provides an in-depth look into the authors’ literature review and methods for coding the studies they mention throughout the book. The first two sections provide an introduction and explanation for their study method and Sections 5.2–5.4 provide information on inclusion criteria, demographics, and coding procedures. The bulk of the chapter is spent reporting and interpreting the data, followed by a brief section on the implications of the authors’ findings.

In the final chapter of the book the authors focus on future directions in L3/n acquisition research. They first address research on whether transfer in L3 is the same for all bilingual types and provide a recent study they suggest may signal a shift in the field. They then consider research looking into whether the L3 affects the learner’s L1 and L2 in the same manner before moving into a discussion on research into whether L1 or L2 transfer is easier to overcome in L3 development. The final two sections of the chapter look at evidence that converges in a cross-modular fashion and complementary evidence from neurolinguistic methods..


The aim of this book is to explore, review, and challenge current research and models in adult L3/n acquisition and the role of transfer in L2 acquisition and beyond. To accomplish this, the authors focus mainly on discussing theoretical approaches in the field and the studies and models that either support those approaches or that have come out of them.

This volume provides an in-depth view of L3/n acquisition research to date and the impacts of the major acquisition models in the field. Each section within the book includes a multitude of studies the authors use to illustrate their points, thus providing not just explanations but real-world examples for readers to learn from. This is particularly helpful for professionals and higher-level students in the field, as the book can serve as an accessible literature review for L3/n acquisition and language transfer.

Chapter 4 is the strongest section of the book, though most of the models mentioned in Section 4.2 are compared to the Typological Primacy Model (TPM), which is not explained until Section 4.3 and which the authors have a clear inclination toward. A slight reordering of the sections could have easily remedied this, had each of the sections in question not presented a somewhat circular argument, with Section 4.2 comparing models to TPM and Section 4.3 in turn comparing TPM to other models. The authors might have better explained the models of L3/n transfer had they simply separated the explanations of the models from the ‘in-context’ comparisons and included the latter as a separate section.

An additional chronological issue arises in Chapter 5, the literature review, which feels out of place when situated as the penultimate chapter. The review of the literature is more of a warm up to the contents of the rest of the book and thus belongs within the first couple of chapters, or perhaps even in the preface if the author(s) is particularly succinct.

Despite the organizational oversights, this book provides an in-depth view of L3/n acquisition and transfer that serves not only to raise recent research in the field but also poses, and answers, relevant questions. The overall text is well-researched and serves as a good base for future research.
After earning her bachelor's in 2022 with an honors thesis on commonalities and barriers in Indigenous language revitalization, Ellie Passmore is currently taking a gap year prior to starting a graduate program. Her research interests primarily center around second language acquisition, bilingualism, phonetics, and language revitalization.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781107443433
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