In memoriam: Vivian Cook, 1940-2021

We are sad to report the news of Vivian Cook’s passing. Vivian Cook was the EuroSLA founder, its first president, as well as its inaugural Distinguished Scholar.


Please see below an obituary by Dr Bene Bassetti. There are two websites at the end of the Obituary for those who want to reflect on Vivian’s life and scholarship, and share any reflections or memories. It’s also very heartwarming to see many personal tributes on Twitter and Facebook. We will send our thoughts and deepest sympathy to Vivian’s family on behalf of EuroSLA, and update members if a memorial service will be possible in the new year.


Obituary: Vivian Cook (1940-2021)


We have sadly lost a leading figure in applied linguistics: Vivian J. Cook, Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at Newcastle University. Vivian will be known to most scholars in the field for his work on second language acquisition, particularly the concept of multi-competence. A prolific and influential author, Vivian was a theoriser and a popular writer. Anyone who met him will remember him as a brilliant mind and an incredibly generous person.


His main contribution has been linguistic multi-competence (with a hyphen, as he insisted), an approach to second language acquisition he first presented in 1991. Over time, linguistic multi-competence developed from “the compound state of a mind with two grammars” (= two languages) in 1991 to “the overall system of a mind or a community that uses more than one language” in the 2016 Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Multi-competence, reflecting Vivian’s thinking and developments in the field. Multi-competence posits that the mind of an L2 user (or community) contains a system composed of all their languages. This affects the whole mind, including non-linguistic cognition, hence the multi-competent L2 user is qualitatively different from a monolingual. Over the decades, multi-competence has been influential in second language research, and also adopted in other fields, from signed-spoken bimodal bilingualism to Native American Languages. Vivian kept being amazed at how far multi-competence had travelled (and hoping that people would remember to spell it with a hyphen).


I remember very well the first time I saw Vivian and heard him talking about his approach. I had just arrived in the UK and I did not understand a thing. I was attending the MA Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck, when a classmate dragged me to this talk somewhere in North London. She told me that the speaker was one of the most important applied linguists in the world. I had no idea who he was, or how to come back from North London. He arrived, immediately tripped over the microphone cable and almost fell on the floor, and started stuttering. I was not impressed. Then he started talking. I’ll never forget that talk. That’s when I first learnt that I was not a failed English native speaker, but a wonderful new creature with an array of knowledge and competencies. Indeed, that even comparing such a unique multi-competent individual with a monolingual speaker made no sense, we were qualitatively different like apples and pears. Every time I think about that talk, I smile.


Vivian’s academic life started as a Lecturer of English as a Foreign Language at the then Ealing Technical College in London, and continued as Director of the Language Service at the then North East London Polytechnic. He became Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Essex in 1978, and eventually Professor at Newcastle University in 2004, where he remained (more recently as Emeritus) up to his final days.


Vivian started his prolific career as an author in 1968, with the textbook Active Intonation, followed by many English language coursebooks have been widely used all over the world. He proceeded to publish more than a hundred articles and chapters, and over twenty authored, edited or co-edited books. His wide-ranging interests included first language acquisition, second language acquisition, second language teaching, linguistics, English as a Foreign Language, writing systems and bilingual cognition. He kept writing to the very last, and his latest book will be published in January 2022. Entitled The Language of the English Street Sign, it analyses a variety of street signs from two English towns, from hand-scribbled notices to stone-engraved mottos, with his signature encyclopaedic knowledge and humour.


Vivian was always ahead of his time, thanks to his curious, inquisitive mind. He initiated new lines of research, associations, journals, always working with many others. In the absence of a Europe-wide professional association, in 1989 he founded EUROSLA (European Second Language Association), of which he was first President, receiving the Distinguished Scholar award in 2014. Having identified the need for a dedicated publication outlet for research on writing systems, in 2009 he co-founded the journal Writing Systems Research. Over the decades, he brought researchers together to work on novel topics, in workshops and edited volumes, such as the effects of the L2 on the L1, or linguistic relativity in L2 users.


Vivian was extremely open-minded. Ignoring disciplinary boundaries, he collaborated with linguists, educationalists and psychologists; ignoring national boundaries, he wanted research to be truly global and got annoyed with the difficulties of involving researchers from some part of the world. He also worked hard at bringing together second language research and language teaching practice, writing and presenting extensively about the importance of the L1 in the L2 classroom, of the non-native teacher, of written language, among other ideas.


Vivian had a knack for making linguistics accessible, both to students and beyond academia. He introduced many reluctant students like myself to the theories of Noam Chomsky with the successful “Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction” of 1988, and to linguistics with Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition (1993)His multi-competence-inspired textbook Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, first published in 1991, is now in its fifth edition. Many of his books have been translated and published in other countries in Europe and the Far East.


He also enjoyed writing popular books on linguistics, including spelling (Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary: Or, Why can’t Anybody Spell?) and vocabulary (It’s all in a Word). His many readers were delighted by his spoken-language friendliness and British humour. Although in recent times he had found it harder to travel, he was also a prolific speaker, who gave talks to academic and professional audiences around the world.


Vivian was an inspiring and caring teacher and supervisor. He involved his students in many research projects, co-presenting and co-authoring with them. The doors of his home were always open to his postgraduate students, and to various stray humans and animals, who were all welcomed and fed. Former students of his can be found in universities around the world.


Vivian will be sorely missed by his colleagues, his many former students, and anyone who was lucky enough to meet him. His dedication to applied linguistics will remain an inspiration for us, and we will forever miss his lively mind and his generosity.


Vivian’s website:


Memorial website (to go live soon):