Preprint of the review of Rothman et al. (2019)


This is a preprint of a review which appeared in Applied Linguistics. Published by Oxford University Press. DOI:10.1093/applin/amab040, link to the Version of Record (VOR) is the same as DOI. Please note that no major changes took place moving from the preprint to the published version. Cite as: Daniil M Ozernyi, Jason Rothman, Jorge González Alonso, and Eloi Puig-Mayenco: THIRD LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND LINGUISTIC TRANSFER. Cambridge University Press, 2019., Applied Linguistics, 2021;, amab040,

Jason Rothman, Jorge González Alonso, & Eloi Puig-Mayenco: THIRD LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND LINGUISTIC TRANSFER. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

One of the significant recent developments in the field of third language acquisition was Rothman et al.’s Third Language Acquisition and Linguistic Transfer (TLA below). A comprehensive review of the field, this volume aimed at answering the two questions the authors posed, namely “Is acquiring a third language the same as acquiring a second?” and “Are all instances of nonnative language acquisition simply one and the same?” (Rothman et al. 2019: iii). This review aims at critical rather than descriptive evaluation of TLA, highlighting only some (and by no means all) select elements of the book which I either question or laud. Incidentally, most of the comments below will actually relate to the foundational concepts overviewed at the beginning of the book as opposed to literature review in later chapters.

The overall structure of the book is as follows: at the beginning (§§ 1-2), the authors “set the context” and outline the relevant developments in generative linguistics which led to creation of third language acquisition. The authors also mention some challenges of the current field. Then, §3 reviews literature on acquisition of lexis and phonology. §4 looks at the notion of transfer and models of transfer offered in earlier literature, and much of the section is devoted to the TPM model (cf. Rothman and Cabrielli Amaro 2010). Lastly, in §5 the researchers present a systematic review of the literature in the field (based on Puig-Mayenco et al. 2020), and conclude with their plans on future work in §6. It is worth noting that the book is one of the first volumes devoted entirely to third language acquisition, and has thus an almost historical significance.

To that end, before moving to a more eclectic discussion, I will mention that overviews of research in §§2-4 are generally comprehensive and carefully written (e.g. with respect to the CEM model, cf. Fernández-Berkes and Flynn 2021).

In §1, the authors outline the background for L3 acquisition studies, i.e. L2 studies and adjacent fields. Together with the comprehensiveness of the chapter, some statements the authors make are debatable. For example, Rothman et al. point out that “the typical adult acquiring L2 is not surrounded by quantities of native input anywhere near that of a child learning her L1”, etc. (page 15). “Adult” being taken to be anyone who is not attaining bilingual but rather L2 proficiency, it is fair to say that plenty of adolescents (and a somewhat lesser portion of adults) do acquire L2 by immersion (cf. Cummins 2000) where the input is very much like that of a child learning their L1. In spite of this, the authors proceed to highlight very important can/cannot vs. do/do not dichotomies with regard to ultimate attainment, rightly pointing out that can/cannot is the one relevant for the field. In my view, this is just one example of many subtle distinctions the authors judiciously draw the reader’s attention to. Another highlight of the chapter is the successfully didactical use of the exercise on multilingualism (pp. 18-23), both accessible and useful to draw important terminological distinctions for those reading the book.

A much trickier issue is how the authors deal with the crucial notion of linguistic transfer. Rothman et al. draw an intriguing distinction between the transfer in the domain of linguistic representations (“transfer”) and transfer in the domain of language processing not connected to linguistic representations (“cross-language effects” or CLE). As to CLE, I will only comment on one of the examples of CLE the authors take, namely the interpretation of relative clauses. The authors use the sentence The sister of the lawyer who owns a Mercedes came by the office yesterday where the two distinct interpretations (causing CLE from that or that language) stem from different syntactic structures having to do with processes of relativization and possible constraints on external-headed relative clauses different languages might have, and not merely sentence processing. Because of all the problems it causes (as with the example above), the CLE/transfer dichotomy does not seem to be well-justified. However, the notion of transfer is used even more vaguely in the book. Nowhere do the authors specify the units of transfer: they do mention linguistic “property,” but that can refer to any given fragment or even the entirety of linguistic representation. This crucial issue does hinder the comprehensiveness of all of the further elaborations in the book. Moreover, I think that it is precisely the lack of clear definition of “transfer” (in the book specifically and in the field generally) that prompts the authors to distinguish it from CLE. Trivially, trying to separate concept A from concept B is impossible when concept A (in TLA’s case, “transfer”) is left undefined or ill-defined.

The authors also make several comments on falsifiability of existent linguistic theories in the field, averring that this is the main point they are trying to make in the book (31). While the arcane “weather example” used in the book does not appear to help their cause, the problems the authors are getting at are the right ones. I absolutely agree that there are models in the field which are unfalsifiable to some degree or in their entirety. However, I vehemently disagree with the idea that the field is to progress with testing hypotheses as a main means of inquiry (for the discussion of mindless hypotheses-testing see Scheel et al. 2020). Connected to their epistemological discussion, the concept of “initial stages” which the authors mention (e.g. 11, 22, 55, 154ff) seems to be adopted from the earlier unsuccessful concept of “initial state” (cf. Rothman and Cabrielli Amaro 2010). Both of these actually themselves appear to fall within those unfalsifiable: there are no persuasive or clear arguments as to what the initial state for Ln+1 acquisition is and what might trigger its emergence after Ln acquisition; similarly, there is little or no evidence for anything separating “initial stages” from development. Thus, lest dealing with unfalsifiable theorizing, we should seek unconditional and unequivocal evidence for the existence of initial state/initial stages. While the authors spend a considerable amount of time explicating the dangers of unfalsifiability, unfortunately, the book hardly addresses the important methodological and terminological problems which inevitably arise from using the concepts of “initial state” or its diluted version of “initial stages”.

TLA also seems to be, as the authors acknowledge almost overtly (116), biased towards the TPM model. While this hardly comes as a surprise given the authors of the book, it does make for an unfair position of the model with regard to the others in the field. At the end of §1, the authors express their hopes that the monograph will be used as a teaching tool, to which I object precisely because of this bias towards the TPM, thus apparent lack of balanced overview. Additionally, the alleged virtues of the mirror-image studies are extolled (167, 176, 199ff), and the alignment of TPM with this methodology is emphasized. I disagree, however, that this methodology is to be favored in some ways against more conventional psycholinguistic studies (I concur here with Westergaard 2021). For models, alternative to the TPM, mirror-image design is not always optimal, but the authors hardly mention that. One such case might be studies where L1 and L2 are typologically proximate (cf. Ozernyi 2021), as opposed to L1-L3 proximity so widely used in the TPM studies. Whether one takes the updated notion of (psycho)typological proximity or the mirror-image design, either is hardly helpful to tell whether Ukrainian or Russian will serve as a source of (“wholesale”) transfer to English. Such potential objections to the TPM model are not mentioned in the book, thus to some degree undermining its comprehensive review and potential as a pedagogical tool. The book, however, will serve well the readers who are familiar with the theories described in the book.

TLA concludes with suggestions on going forward in the field. While generally comprehensive and pointing out many notably important directions for future study, I find it surprising that neither in the last chapter nor anywhere else in the book was the sparsity of studies on acquisition of semantic properties from formal perspective mentioned. There are very few such studies in SLA (cf. Slabakova 2018) and even less in our field (some of the recent ones are Jo et al. 2021; Ozernyi 2021; Ozernyi, in preparation). Advances in syntactic theory and formal semantics do offer a much more substantial ground to cover for acquisitionists (Song 2019), and TLA would have done well to mention that.

Nonetheless, despite the issues pointed out above, TLA is a valuable contribution to the field. A particularly important aspect of the book which those intimately familiar with the field would have noticed is the demeanor of the volume with respect to other existing models of Ln acquisition which the book touches upon. In the acknowledgements section, Rothman et al. write: “our nascent field is potentially special – or at least small – enough that mutual respect and, when necessary, collegial disagreement not only abound but are also the default,” and the authors manage to maintain this spirit throughout the book despite alluring divisiveness which is warranted by a multitude of conceptually different views on language acquisition. With that in mind, I hope that the field will be able to resolve the existing divisions, bridging the gaps between different approaches. Looking forward to their future contributions, I heartily applaud Rothman, González Alonso, and Puig-Mayenco’s achievement in writing this volume.


  1. Cummins, J. (2000). Immersion education for the millennium: What we have learned from 30 years of research on second language immersion. Citeseer.
  2. Fernández-Berkes, É., & Flynn, S. (2021). ‘Vindicating the need for a principled theory of language acquisition’, Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 11/1: 30–6. John Benjamins Publishing Company Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
  3. Jo, K., Kim, K., & Kim, H. (2021). ‘Children’s interpretation of negation and quantifier scope in L3 English’, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 24/3: 427–38. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Ozernyi, D. M. (2021). ‘L1 vs. L2 vs. L3 transfer: Evidence contra wholesale transfer models and privileged languages from grammatical gender and definiteness acquisition in sequential quardilinguals’, Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America, 6/1: 9–23.
  5. ——. (in preparation). ‘Germanic-Germanic vs Germanic-Romance L3 to L4: correlations, interdependencies, and imprecisions in semantic parameter-setting’.
  6. Puig-Mayenco, E., González Alonso, J., & Rothman, J. (2020). ‘A systematic review of transfer studies in third language acquisition’, Second Language Research, 36/1: 31–64. SAGE Publications Ltd. DOI: 10.1177/0267658318809147
  7. Rothman, J., & Cabrelli Amaro, J. (2010). ‘What variables condition syntactic transfer? A look at the L3 initial state’, Second Language Research, 26/2: 189–218. SAGE Publications Sage UK: London, England.
  8. Rothman, J., González Alonso, J., & Puig-Mayenco, E. (2019). Third Language Acquisition and Linguistic Transfer. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/9781316014660
  9. Scheel, A. M., Tiokhin, L., Isager, P. M., & Lakens, D. (2020). ‘Why Hypothesis Testers Should Spend Less Time Testing Hypotheses’, Perspectives on Psychological Science. SAGE Publications Inc. DOI: 10.1177/1745691620966795
  10. Slabakova, R. (2018). ‘L2 semantics from a formal linguistic perspective’, Language Teaching, 51/2: 187. Cambridge University Press.
  11. Song, C. (2019). On the formal flexibility of syntactic categories (PhD Thesis). University of Cambridge.
  12. Westergaard, M. (2021). ‘L3 acquisition and crosslinguistic influence as co-activation: Response to commentaries on the keynote “Microvariation in multilingual situations: The importance of property-by-property acquisition”’, Second Language Research. SAGE Publications Ltd. DOI: 10.1177/02676583211007897

Reviewed by Daniil M. Ozernyi
Northwestern University,
Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences