Understanding Variability in Second Language Acquisition, Bilingualism, and Cognition

We cannot live for ourselves alone.
Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads,
and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes
and return to us as results.

(Herman Melville)


Kersten, Kristin, Winsler, Adam (eds., 2023). Understanding Variability in Second Language Acquisition, Bilingualism, and Cognition: A Multi-Layered Perspective. London: Roudledge.


This collection brings together linguistic, psychological, and sociological perspectives reflecting on the relationships and interactions of the multilayered factors impacting second language development and cognitive competence. The book advocates a system approach as a counterpoint to existing scholarship, which has tended to focus on a small set of variables.

The 13 chapters by scholars from six different countries demonstrate the ways in which cognitive and linguistic development are intrinsically linked, occurring within a nested structure of multiple levels: individual neuro-cognitive systems and processes, individual engagement with the social world, and the wider social and institutional environments and cultural contexts affecting the belief systems and linguistic conventions of social groups.

The volume begins by outlining the theoretical and methodological foundations before moving into a more focused look at the interplay of these dierent variables at the macro, meso, and micro levels. A final section features two commentary chapters from linguistics and psychology, respectively, synthesizing insights from earlier chapters and situating the collection within broader scholarship on linguistic and cognitive development, theoretical and methodological implications, and discussions of avenues for future empirical research.

This book will be of particular interest to scholars in second language acquisition, psycholinguistics, cognition, psychology, and sociology.



Theoretical and methodological considerations

1 Investigating cognitive-linguistic development in SLA: Theoretical and methodological challenges for empirical research

2 Lost in translation? On some key features of dynamical systems theorizing invoked in SLA research

3 How many moderators does it take till we know . . . that too many bilingual advantage eects have died?

The interplay of variables on macro, meso, and micro levels

4 The Proximity of Stimulation Hypothesis: Investigating the interplay of social and instructional variables with the cognitive-linguistic skills of young L2 learners

5 Becoming bilingual in Miami, USA: Predictors and outcomes of speed of English acquisition for low-income, dual-language learners

6 Immigrant achievement and language use across countries: The role of family background and education systems

7 The interplay between learner-internal variables and levels of anxiety and enjoyment among Spanish EFL learners

8 Early bilingualism increases the likelihood of taking (and mastering) foreign language courses later in secondary school

9 From dierential to dynamic: The role of working memory in second language (L2) learning

10 Can type of schooling compensate for low SES? Investigating eects of instruction and SES on cognitive skills


11 Commentary on Understanding Variability in Second Language Acquisition, Bilingualism, and Cognition: A second language acquisition perspective

12 Commentary: Toward a developmental science of language acquisition



Human cognitive and linguistic development are intrinsically intertwined and take place within a nested structure of contextual levels: the level of the individual’s engagement with the social world, the level of social and institutional environments, the society, and the broader cultural context which affects the normative belief systems and linguistic conventions of the social groups at large (Lerner, 2013, Douglas Fir Group, 2016, Truscott & Sharwood Smith, 2019). All of these factors are considered crucial in understanding the processes which shape human development in general. They have also been described as strong predictors for second language acquisition. They have, however, often been looked at in isolation, and less from an overarching systemic view that tries to shed light on their various (and dynamic) interconnections.

This interdisciplinary volume focuses on the interplay of such factors from different perspectives, both with regard to theoretical and methodological aspects, as well as empirical findings. The idea for this volume originated at an interdisciplinary symposium on External and Internal Variables Affecting (Language) Learning Processes at Hildesheim University, Germany. The symposium took place in January 2020, at the occasion of a research fellowship of Adam Winsler at Hildesheim University. Scholars from linguistic, psychological, and sociological backgrounds addressed the topic from the perspective of their respective disciplines. Lively discussions after the presentations (as well as during nightly scotch-inspired, guitar sessions) showed us that there was genuine interest in this topic and a notable research gap, both from theoretical, methodological and empirical angles. The idea developed from there.

Accordingly, Part I of the volume focuses on theoretical aspects and methodological reflections on researching an interconnected network of variables. In Chapter 1, Kristin Kersten and Werner Greve focus on methodological facets that need to be taken into consideration to disentangle and account for variables on different conceptual levels, differentiating between causal and conceptual interrelations of variables, and methodological analyses that remain “blind” to these theoretical problems. Chapter 2 by Anke Lenzing, Manfred Pienemann and Howard Nicholas takes a critical look at the role of the ‘dynamic approach’ in SLA and advocates a mathematical rather than metaphorical application to the field, scrutinizing mathematical conditions to demonstrate that deterministic dynamical systems indeed hold the potential to predict or explain learner variation in SLA. In Chapter 3, Julia Festman, Sophia Czapka, and Adam Winsler use the example of the ‘bilingual advantage debate’ to review and give an in-depth overview of numerous potentially moderating and confounding variables when researching the relationship between two complex constructs such as multilingualism and cognition.

Part II contains seven chapters which concretely investigate the interplay of numerous variables on different conceptual levels. In Chapter 4, Kristin Kersten examines the predictions of the “Proximity of Stimulation Hypothesis,” which holds that mediating proximal factors explain effects of distal container variables on SLA and cognition using structural equation modeling, with social status and L2 program as distal, and parent-child-interaction and teacher’s L2 input as proximal factors. Adam Winsler (Chapter 5) reports on a large-scale, longitudinal study focusing on the interplay of low-income, dual-language learners’ linguistic cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral skills, and the impact of L1 support in bilingual education (immersion) programs on English and academic skills. Janna Teltemann, Maximilian Brinkmann, Nora Huth, and Reinhard Schunck (Chapter 6) introduce a framework of factors for educational success of migrant populations using large-scale, cross-sectional PISA (2018) data to investigate the differential impact of family background, linguistic resources, and education systems on immigrant learners’ academic achievement. The study of Jean-Marc Dewaele (Chapter 7) focuses on the relationship between personal variables such age, gender, and foreign language variables, with foreign language classroom anxiety and foreign language enjoyment, including a discussion of attitudes toward the teacher and the directionality of these effects. In Chapter 8, My Ngyuen and Adam Winsler discuss a large-scale 14-year longitudinal study which focuses on diverse low-income children’s degree of bilingualism, cognitive skills, and academic performance as predictors of enrolment and performance in later foreign language classes, stressing the benefit of maintaining multiple language exposure, and especially, the minority language, at home. Ellen Serafini’s Chapter 9 synthesizes the heterogeneous research findings on the differential effects of working memory on L2 development, as well as numerous possible moderating factors from a complex dynamic systems perspective, with a specific discussion of learners’ individual differences and their role for SLA. In Chapter 10, Ann-Christin Bruhn, Lisa Miller, Claudia Mähler, Katharina Ponto, and Kristin Kersten investigate, in a two-study design, whether two forms of cognitive-linguistic interventions, a training program and a bilingual preschool, moderate the influence of social status on different cognitive skills such as intelligence, working memory and phonological awareness of very young learners.

In PART III, two commentaries provide a synthesis on the volume from two different disciplines. In Chapter 11, from an SLA perspective, Gabriele Pallotti makes a case for generalizable interdisciplinary research and calls for cooperative cumulative research, methodological rigor in terms of transparency in measures and data, standardization of methods and tasks, as well as increased replication studies, not least to inform practice concerning viable ways of L2 teaching. In Chapter 12, from a psychological point of view, Werner Greve points out as overarching common denominator within the book that all contributions investigate influencing factors at different conceptual levels that have to be identified, empirically tested, and substantiated. He interprets the goal of the volume as an approach in the frame of a ‘developmental science of language acquisition.’

This volume would not have come into existence without the Wippermann research fellowship. We are especially grateful to Jutta and Professor Dr. Burkhard Wippermann and to Martin Schreiner, Vice President of Foundation Development, Transfer and Cooperations at Hildesheim University, for the research grant given to Adam Winsler; to Janna Teltemann and Werner Greve for contributing to the conceptualization of the symposium; to Tanja Bartol, Ann-Christin Bruhn, Martin Koch, Katharina Ponto, and Lia Röttger for their wonderful assistance in organizing it, and to Kompetenzzentrum Frühe Kindheit Niedersachsen for their financial support; to Frederike Klose for her help with final formatting; and to Janna Teltemann and Christian May for providing the inspirational surroundings and liquids at their ‘Still Spirits’ store (https://still-spirits.de/) for companionship, music, and professional creativity. Finally, and most importantly, we would never have made the deadline for this volume without the tremendous work of Gabrielle Norvell and her impeccable and invaluable help with proofreading and layout. All remaining errors are ours.

While the contributions of this volume can only provide small pieces of a highly complex jigsaw puzzle, we hope that the general idea behind this project that inspired us all may stimulate further ideas along the dynamic paths of interdisciplinary discussion. ‘Still Spirits’ remains open to lend some wings to future visions, if need be. We hope to see you there along the way.

November 2021,

Kristin Kersten and Adam Winsler