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"Second Language Writing Systems" (review)

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  • Don Osborn
    This title, though part of a series on Second Language Acquisition, would seem also to be of interest for consideration of multilingual literacy in cases where
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 16, 2005
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      This title, though part of a series on Second Language Acquisition,
      would seem also to be of interest for consideration of multilingual
      literacy in cases where more than one script is involved. (Fwd from
      Linguist list)... DZO

      Date: 13-Sep-2005
      From: Gunna Funder Hansen <g.funder@...>
      Subject: Second Language Writing Systems

      EDITORS: Cook, Vivian J; Bassetti, Benedetta
      TITLE: Second Language Writing Systems
      SERIES: Second Language Acquisition
      PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
      YEAR: 2005
      Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-1644.html

      Gunna Funder Hansen, Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies,
      University of Southern Denmark


      For those of us interested in foreign/second language (L2) acquisition
      across writing systems, a new book carrying this title is indeed good
      news: Established theories about reading in both native and foreign
      languages have been developed within a narrow European context and
      have traditionally been considered universal. However, recent research
      has revealed that reading processes take quite different courses
      according to the writing system applied. So far, research targeting
      this issue has been scattered and scarce. Likewise, the specific
      difficulties of learning to write a new script have received very
      limited attention, especially in terms of actual research based on
      empirical studies. Thus, a volume that brings these scattered efforts
      together is most welcome.


      The book starts out with a general introduction to researching second
      language writing systems followed by 16 research papers divided into
      four parts each dealing with their dimension of the subject: writing,
      reading, language awareness and teaching. These include contributions
      by some of the most highly esteemed researchers within the field of
      biliteracy across writing systems, e.g. Keiko Koda and Nobuhiko Akamatsu.

      In the introductory chapter, the editors lay out the background and
      aim of the book and provide an overall view of a range of concepts
      relevant to the subject - for instance the central terms "writing
      system", "script" and "orthography", the different types of mapping
      principles (morphemic, syllabic, and phonemic), the concept of
      phonological regularity (orthographic depth), writing direction, and
      orthographic constraints. Next, the editors address
      cross-writing-system differences in reading, writing and
      metalinguistic awareness. Before introducing the following 16 chapters
      of the book, Cook and Bassetti also present a list of relevant
      questions for future research.

      In part one, the first chapter is by Nobuko Chikamatsu, who presents a
      study comparing Japanese kanji memory and retrieval in first language
      (L1) and L2 subjects using an innovatory "tip-of-the-pen" research
      technique inspired by the "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomenon used in
      psycholinguistics as an indicator of an intermediate state of lexical
      access. Next, Ans Van Berkel investigates Dutch learners' spelling in
      English, thus examining transfer of L1 spelling rules from a
      shallow/regular orthography to spelling in an L2 deep/irregular
      orthography. Based on a contrastive analysis of phonological spelling
      rules in Dutch and English, Van Berkel looks at the specific kinds of
      errors that occur in learners' writing in English the first years of
      secondary education, and with a comparison between first and second
      year students, she reveals some developmental issues. In the following
      chapter, Mick Randall looks at essentially the same phenomenon, but
      compares spelling in L2 English by learners with different L1
      backgrounds, being Chinese or Malay - the latter being a language
      similar to Chinese regarding phonological and syntactic structures,
      but (in most cases) written in a highly shallow orthography using the
      Roman script. Interestingly, the logographic L1 group showed an
      advantage over the alphabetic L1 group regarding spelling accuracy in
      English. Harold Somers then treats a very different aspect of the
      matter: the question of handwriting. Based on a small corpus of
      handwritten L2 English by learners with Arabic L1 backgrounds, he
      discusses implications of using corpora for writing system research.
      Afterwards, Takeshi Okada presents a corpus-based study of spelling
      errors by Japanese learners of English. Okada argues that substitution
      errors in word-initial position and insertion errors in word-final
      position are due to transfer from the Japanese Romanisation system,
      romaji. In the last chapter of part one, Stephan Schmid presents a
      study of Italian-Swiss German bilingual children's spelling and
      pronunciation in Italian, demonstrating a link between spelling errors
      and specific difficulties with the differences between voiced vs.
      unvoiced obstruents and single vs. geminate consonants in the
      subjects' phonological system. An interesting aspect of this study is
      that the important parameter of standard vs. dialectal phonology is
      also considered.

      In part two, Phil Scholfield and Gloria Shu-Mei Chwo seek to explore
      the effect of the L1 writing system and the method used for reading
      instruction. This is done through a comparison of subjects from Taiwan
      - where English L2 reading instruction is conducted according to the
      phonics principle - and Hong Kong - where the whole word approach is
      predominant. Scholfield and Chwo find that reading instruction methods
      do result in different L2 word recognition processes. In the following
      chapter, Nobuhiko Akamatsu investigates Japanese learners' reading in
      L2 English at different proficiency levels. Akamatsu finds that the
      effect of the learners' L1 writing system on their L2 reading is
      persistent, as increased proficiency does not change the fact that
      Japanese learners tend to rely on direct lexical access in word
      recognition. A quite different kind of contribution to the subject
      comes from Walter Van Heuven who discusses the characteristics of
      visual word recognition in bilinguals within a theoretical framework.
      The discussion focuses on computational modelling and the ability of
      such simulation models to replicate bilingual readers' performance in
      the real world. In the last chapter of part two, Miho Sasaki attacks
      the question of transfer from L1 writing systems with different levels
      of orthographic depth, using subjects whose L1 is either Italian or
      Japanese, and who are reading in English. The study supports the view
      that the readers' L1 writing system affects reading processes in L2.

      In part three, Keiko Koda, like Van Heuven, contributes with a
      theoretical discussion. She presents a model which seeks to explain
      how metalinguistic awareness developed for the L1 is transferred into
      L2 reading. Then, Bernadetta Bassetti presents a study comparing
      L2-learners' and native speakers' word awareness in Chinese. The study
      indicates, that L2-learners, who are from English L1-backgrounds, have
      a quite different concept of Chinese words than the native speakers,
      and Bassetti argues that the difference stems from the L2-learners'
      knowledge of more than one writing system. In the last chapter of part
      three, Lily Lau and Susan Rickard Liow examine children with different
      L1-backgrounds (English, Chinese and Malay) spelling in English.
      Focusing on the subjects' skills in spelling words pronounced with a
      flapped voiced /d/ but spelled with a , they find that the unilingual
      English-speaking children are the best spellers, and while the
      Malay-English bilinguals tend to over-rely on phonology when spelling
      in English, the Chinese-English bilinguals show a general limited
      phonological awareness.

      In part four, Therese Dufresne and Diana Masny again bring us back to
      the theoretical level. They rightly make a general critique of the
      lack of ontological considerations when different kinds of methodology
      is applied in second language research and put forward a
      post-structuralist perspective on second writing system acquisition.
      In this view, learning a new writing system destabilises the learners'
      system of how writing systems work, and this creates a process, where
      the learner tries to regain stability by continuously testing and
      modifying constructions according to the new experiences drawn.
      Following the general discussion, Dufresne and Masny use two case
      studies to illustrate, how the post-structuralist perspective puts
      process before product. Next, Tina Hickey presents a study on
      encouraging extensive reading in Irish (L2) among children who
      acquired their first literacy in English - a group of learners who
      generally show poor decoding skills, interference from English
      orthography and reluctance to read. By using Taped Book Flooding - a
      procedure involving easy access to a lot of suitable reading material
      with tape recordings of the relevant material being read aloud and
      class hours devoted to reading - the learners improved both fluency,
      accuracy in reading aloud and attitude towards the Irish language. In
      the last chapter, Vivian Cook looks at some general aspects of
      learning a second writing system and examines how a specimen of
      coursebooks for English, Italian and French target this issue. Cook
      argues that the role of written language is not given close to enough
      attention in language teaching, and that written language is often
      used merely as a tool for teaching spoken language or as a kind of
      meta-language used as a device for giving explanations, thus rarely
      recognisable as authentic text types.


      The book covers a wide range of interesting aspects of second language
      writing systems. The general introduction in Chapter 1 is of great
      importance, since the book covers research from a research field that
      is just emerging. Especially the attempt to state a set of definitions
      of the term "writing system" and related concepts is essential and
      valuable because - as the authors very rightly state: "Writing system
      researchers rarely agree on how these terms should be used". Although
      this reviewer almost entirely agrees with the final definitions
      stated, one could have hoped for more attention given to the very
      common confusions about the term "orthography" as discussed by e.g.
      Scheerer (1986). Many researchers tend to view orthography as the
      visual organisation of the writing system (e.g. Foorman 1994, p. 334)
      or as a broad concept covering all language specific aspects of the
      writing system (e.g. Seidenberg 1992, p. 85). And, as stated by
      Willows and Geva (1995, p. 356): "it is fairly common in the growing
      literature on orthographic processing for researchers to refer to
      orthographic processing as "visual/orthographic" as though these two
      terms were essentially synonymous".

      In the presentation of the different types of writing systems, the
      reservation of the term "alphabet" for scripts representing all the
      phonemes in speech, thus excluding consonantal scripts, may be
      controversial among users of the Semitic (consonantal) scripts. Both
      Arabic and Hebrew speakers describe their sets of letters as
      alphabets, and it is in fact the first letters (Aleph-Bet) of a
      consonantal, Semitic script, that gave name to the alphabet.

      The discussion of cross-writing-system differences in reading, writing
      and metalinguistic awareness is equally crucial as it puts down a
      frame within which the book's research papers are positioned in
      different ways. However, this could have been done in a more clear-cut
      way: A variety of research results is mentioned, and this gives a fine
      overview of the key issues at stake, but the motivation behind the
      selection of studies is not obvious. Furthermore, the theoretical
      framework laid out as a basis for explaining the presented results is
      quite narrow in focusing almost exclusively on the dual-route model.
      Connectionism is briefly mentioned as an alternative model for
      spelling only. Considering the status of connectionism and parallel
      distributed processing-models in today's research in both reading,
      spelling and language awareness, one could have hoped for an inclusion
      and discussion of this new theoretical approach related to the subject
      of the book - not the least because some of the chapters in this
      specific book (e.g. Van Heuven's) are actually presenting
      connectionist models.

      The following 16 chapters are practically all relevant contributions
      to the research field and some of them provide very useful
      introductions to a specific writing system, a specific methodology, or
      specific theoretical aspects. The inclusion of the teaching
      perspective in the last part of the book is an appreciated initiative
      and a good point - much too often, the link between research and
      teaching in L2's is completely forgotten.

      The setup of the book separating chapters about writing, reading,
      language awareness and teaching is at first sight logical, but as one
      reads through the book it becomes less obvious why the editors chose
      this formula. Obviously, the four fields are intertwined, and some of
      the chapters touch very explicitly upon more than one of them.
      Especially the fact that the theoretical chapters are scattered around
      the book results in a somewhat confusing structure. On the other hand,
      a collection of research papers is rarely read from the beginning to
      the end, so this issue might not be of great importance.

      In general, this book is an important contribution to the emerging
      field of research in second language writing systems. All chapters
      might not be of interest to the same group of people: Researchers
      within general L2 literacy will find some of the chapters important,
      while researchers dealing with literacy across different scripts will
      benefit from other chapters. Teachers could benefit from the last part
      of the book and chapters that might involve the language they teach.
      For future work, it would be nice to see more focus on target
      languages other than English - especially languages using other
      scripts than the Roman alphabet. Japanese and Chinese are included in
      this book, but there are so many other languages taught and so many
      language teachers out there who need research based advice on how to
      teach L2 literacy.


      Foorman, B. R. (1994). Phonological and orthographic processing:
      Separate but equal?, Kluwer.

      Scheerer, E. (1986). Orthography and lexical access, Mouton de Gruyter.

      Seidenberg, M. S. (1992). Beyond orthographic depth in reading:
      Equitable division of labour, Elsevier.

      Willows, D. and E. Geva (1995). What is visual in orthographic
      processing?, Kluwer.


      Gunna Funder Hansen is Assistant Professor at the Centre for
      Contemporary Middle East Studies, University of Southern Denmark. She
      holds a Ph.D. in foreign language acquisition and teaches Arabic as a
      foreign language. Her research interests are reading processes in
      different writing systems, especially writing systems using the
      Semitic scripts, and reading in Arabic as a foreign language.
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