In recent years, globalization, migration and mobility, the digital revolution, the predominance of English as the lingua franca, and the prominence of writing and written communication have reshaped the linguistic landscape in many regions worldwide, including the U.S. Hence, nowadays, to be literate in more than two languages is rather a necessity and multilingualism is rather the norm for many people around the globe. Yet, despite the growing body of knowledge in second language (L2) writing research addressing increasingly diverse writing contexts, little is known about multilingual writers; even less is understood about how they construct texts and negotiate meaning as they shift among languages.
Hence, the purpose of this dissertation was to examine the nature of multilinguals’ writing with respect to language use and language-switching. The participants were second (SL) and foreign language (FL) students at a US university, who were studying a third language (L3) as an FL. They performed three writing tasks in their L2 and L3. The complexity theory approach provided the conceptual framework of the study. Data were collected using a background questionnaire, think-aloud protocols, written texts, logfiles, and interviews. Statistical and qualitative analyses indicate quantitative and qualitative differences between (a) multilinguals’ L2 and L3 writing; and (b) SL and FL third language learners’ L3 writing. These distinctions are regarding the amount of L1, L2, L3 use, and L-S frequency and direction. Furthermore, the results point to quantitative and qualitative differences between bilinguals’ and multilinguals’ L2 writing. In addition, it was found that L2 proficiency and L3 development did not seem to have influenced L-S frequency in L3 writing. Moreover, the study identified conditions that seemed to favor monolingual and mixed utterances in multilinguals’ composing. Thus, it revealed qualitative differences between multilingual as opposed to bilingual writers that are further confirmed by a finding pointing to the distinct roles of L1 and L2 in multilinguals’ L3 writing.
However, although group averages pointed to the above trends, intra-group and intra-individual analyses from a complexity theory perspective revealed salient individual patterns. The present study thus generated a model of multilingual writing which conceptualizes it as a complex, dynamic, open, non-linear, and adaptive system. This model made it possible to focus not on single variables and linear cause-effect relationships, but instead to discern relationships among all the components of the system. Consequently, the model was used to depict each writer’s dynamic configurations in order to capture his/her idiosyncratic patterns of language use and the mechanisms related to how changes in interactions of the parts generated emergence of new writing patterns.
Hence, the findings imply that multilingual writers’ languages are dynamically interconnected parts of their writing system. Thus, their L2 and L3 writing are not isolated entities and cannot be understood completely if examined separately. Therefore, L2 writing theory, research, and instruction will not be accurate and inclusive if they do not take into consideration the context of multilingual writers, their writing, and the phenomenon of switching among languages, which permeates the whole process of L2/L3 writing.