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Reviewed by:
  • Cross-linguistic Similarity in Foreign Language Learning
  • Christine Shea
Ringbom, Hakan . (2007). Cross-linguistic Similarity in Foreign Language Learning. Toronto, ON: Multilingual Matters. Pp. 144, £19.95 (paper), £54.95 (cloth).

The main objective of Ringbom's book Cross-linguistic Similarity in Foreign Language Learning is to explore the multiple aspects of cross-linguistic similarities and how learners use them in the comprehension and production of a foreign language. The context for the study is Finland, where the Swedish minority learns Finnish as an L2 and English as an L3, while the Finnish-speaking majority learn English as an L2 only. Ringbom's data show consistently better performance by the Swedish-speaking students on English exams, an outcome that he attributes to greater cross-linguistic similarity between Swedish and English than between Finnish and English, allowing the Swedish minority students to benefit from positive transfer effects from their L1 to their L3.

In chapter 2, the author lays out three possible cross-linguistic relations: a similarity relation, a contrast relation, or a zero relation. A similarity relation means that the learner perceives a pattern or item in the target language as formally and/or 'functionally similar to a form or pattern in the L1' (p. 5). In a contrast relation, the learner perceives a target language item or pattern as differing from the L1, but with an "underlying similarity" (p. 6). In a zero relation, the learner perceives little or no similarity between the L1 and the target language and little or no transfer can occur. In chapters 3 and 4, Ringbom distinguishes between what he calls 'on-line comprehension' and 'receptive learning,' which he uses to refer to what is commonly known in the SLA literature as processing for meaning and processing for competence change (Sharwood-Smith, 1986). He then outlines his approach to L2 comprehension and production. The ability to produce language presupposes underlying knowledge of the systems of that language, while comprehension can be much more 'approximate' – total understanding is not required to comprehend a message in the TL (p. 23). Learners first perceive similarities between languages and then assume these similarities exist, even where their perceptions may not confirm them. In cases where the L1 and TL are very different, these assumptions may lead to difficulties in communication. Finally, the issue of transfer is directly addressed. The author states that transfer results where the learner perceives and assumes similarities between the L1 and the TL. Where cross-linguistic similarities are perceived, transfer is positive. Where they are merely assumed, errors can arise. Chapter 5 presents a brief discussion of the history and [End Page 700] relevance of transfer studies, a brief exegesis on the history and politics of Finland, and finally a very brief characterization of Finnish morphosyntax. Chapter 6 provides empirical evidence demonstrating the superior performance of Swedish minority students over their Finnish-speaking counterparts. In chapter 7, the author turns to the more technical details of how transfer occurs at the level of the item and the system, while chapter 8 breaks down the item level into the lexicon, pragmatics, grammar, and the use of cognates in production. Chapter 9 addresses how cross-linguistic similarities can facilitate the automatization of items and procedures in TL acquisition, or impede this process. In chapter 10, Ringbom presents three axioms of foreign language learning, based upon the ideas presented in previous chapters: (a) all learning of new knowledge and skills relates to previous knowledge and skills; (b) item learning precedes system learning; (c) comprehension precedes production. Cross-linguistic similarity affects all three axioms. Ringbom closes with chapters 11 and 12 in which he comments upon cultural and pragmatic factors that also interact with the acquisition of English in Finland by native Finnish speakers, factors that lie beyond the traditional notion of language transfer.

In general, Ringbom makes a valiant effort to turn what is essentially a case study into a theoretically-grounded discussion of cross-linguistic similarities and differences. Nonetheless, I feel that the book suffers from a desire to address too much in too little space. For example, the information contained in chapter 9, which addresses Skill Theory and Automaticity, could be incorporated into...