Multilingualism and Plurilingualism: Implications for the language classroom


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Last year, I did a series of posts on language ideologies (What is language?) arguing that while these frequently inform our expectations and actions in the language classroom, we don’t think enough about this.  Recently, I’ve been delving into the literature on plurilingual ideologies and pedagogies, and thought I would discuss the differences between these terms here.  

Based on my reading thus far, plurilingual and multilingual were not always distinct terms.   In discussing situations involving multiple languages, the term “multilingualism” was more common in English, and “plurilinguisme” more common in French, and when some French writers wrote in English they used the “pluri” rather than “multi” prefix.  However, this could refer to the same situation and/or come from the same type of language ideology.  

However, there are two ways in which more recently the terms “plurilingual” and “multilingual” have diverged.  One is in making a distinction between the use of multiple languages at the societal level (multilingualism) and the use of multiple languages at the individual level (plurilingualism).  For example, in a multilingual society, speakers of different languages may be socially separated from each other, such that the multiple languages at the societal level do not correspond to the multiple languages in individuals’ plurilingual repertoires.  Similarly, an individual’s plurilingual repertoire may include languages not represented at the larger societal level.  

The second way in which the terms are used distinctly relates to language ideologies, where the term plurilingual is used to indicate a language ideology that views language boundaries as fuzzy, and emphasizes connections between these languages in an individual’s linguistic repertoire.  This can be contrasted with a monolingual language ideology that emphasizes language boundaries and is rooted in the European nation-state.  A multilingual approach could in fact take either of these ideological lenses (emphasizing plurilingual connections or expecting multiple monolingualisms) which is why the term plurilingual has been used to distinguish the former rather than the latter.  

This is a useful distinction to make, which is why I will probably use the term plurilingual, rather than multilingual in the future, although I have used multilingual in the past (in academic works now forthcoming and on this blog) to mean the same thing! It’s also worth noting that the only reason we need to develop these special terms now is because language teaching in English dominant environments like the United States is firmly rooted in monolingual language ideologies.  After all, people in many parts of the world (such as Makalela’s students mentioned in my post on learning about translanguaging practices from African contexts) simply refer to this as “the way we talk”, no special terms needed.  

So, what are components of a plurilingual language ideology? First, there is a focus on the individual’s plurilingual repertoire and an emphasis on the connections and relationships between the languages and varieties in this repertoire.  In contrast to a multilingualism rooted in monolingual language ideologies, plurilingualism takes an unbalanced mix of the languages in an individual’s plurilingual repertoire as the norm—the so-called “balanced bilingual” is not expected.  In terms of linguistic competence, this is established in particular contexts and interactions and is always in progress—there is no “mastery” or end state as the repertoire continues to change throughout the lifetime.  This is a very different definition of competence than that expected in monolingual global proficiency tests.  Furthermore, plurilingual approaches emphasize making connections between linguistic elements in an individual’s repertoire, either to communicate in plurilingual situations or to expand the linguistic repertoire.   This is called plurilingual competence, and it extends beyond measurements of linguistic competence.  For example, an individual with high plurilingual competence may be able to successfully communicate in contexts where their linguistic competence has little overlap with that of their interlocutors.  

There are clear parallels between the ideological approaches informing plurilingualism and translanguaging theory.  As far as I can tell, the major difference is that the former is rooted in work on language policies in multilingual Europe and the latter has been more focused on the context of working with minoritized students in English dominant settings like the US and UK.  Proponents of plurilingualism consider translanguaging a plurilingual practice, and plurilingualism the overarching theory or ideology.  However, translanguaging has also been developed as a theory of language, and scholars working from this background would consider translanguaging both a theory and a practice.  

As for the pedagogical implications of a plurilingual language ideology, here again we see many overlaps with what is called translanguaging pedagogy. Plurilingual pedagogies view students’ previous linguistic knowledge (of languages and dialects) as a tool to expand their knowledge of new languages.  Since competence is contextualized, plurilingual approaches focus on specific situations, and ways in which to use both plurilingual and linguistic competencies to communicate.  There is also a focus on developing meta-linguistic awareness, or an understanding of how language works (including pragmatically, sociolinguistically, not just grammatically!) such that existing linguistic knowledge can be used in new situations.  

While researchers and practitioners taking a plurilingual perspective on language teaching in the fields of bi/multilingual education and TESOL would probably also say there is much progress that needs to be made in this area, this perspective seems to be particularly lacking in what I call the “other TESOL”, or Teaching English Speakers Other Languages.*  While this is no doubt a result of our roots in monolingual ideologies of language, and there are real challenges in implementing plurilingual and translanguaging pedagogies (as you can see from my description of our attempt) I think it is crucial that we move towards a plurilingual perspective for a number of reasons.  

I hope to elaborate more on this in a future post, but it essentially boils down to this: the contexts in which English speakers use English and in which they might use other languages are not the same.  Without a plurilingual perspective, we focus on being able to do everything we do in English in other languages, which is a) not realistic and b) obscures some really important contexts in which we need other languages.  For example, as I’ve argued before, we don’t necessarily need the other language to complete transactions (e.g. ordering a coffee or engaging in a Q&A following an academic conference presentation), though of course it’s nice to be able to do this.  However, the nature of our relationship will be fundamentally different with the person in that transaction if we share multiple languages, or even just the existence of a plurilingual repertoire.  This is true even if the person speaks “perfect English” and we complete the transaction in English—there is still the relationship part, where we might make small talk or joke as we wait for the coffee or interact in a reception at the academic conference, and need to use the other language, or even more likely, translanguage.  Yet, which of these are we more likely to focus on in the language classroom: ordering coffee, or making small talk while we wait for it? Participating in an academic presentation or talking to the same person at the reception afterwards? Will we learn to translanguage, or just the multiple monolingualism perspective of doing something completely in English or completely in the other language?  

Learning other languages through a plurilingual perspective can also make us better speakers of English, as we develop meta-linguistic awareness and the ability to listen to speech that is difficult for us to understand, and try anyway.  This is extremely valuable in the situation of English as a lingua franca, where we encounter and (hopefully) desire to communicate with English speakers whose English differs from ours.  We frequently hear about English speakers learning “English grammar” for the first time when they study other languages, but grammar is not the only type of meta-linguistic awareness—developing our sociolinguistic and pragmatic awareness in other languages can also make us more aware of these issues in English.  This awareness can impact our relationships with other English speakers, as we realize how our pragmatic expectations may differ even though we are speaking the same language.  Perhaps more importantly, this type of awareness can help us prevent ourselves from using language to reproduce racial and social inequalities through our judgements of the “appropriateness” or “correctness” of linguistic elements and language varieties.  We can also start to ask hard questions, like why aren’t we spending more time listening to speakers of varieties of English we find hard to understand?

So, what do you think about plurilingual approaches in the context of the “Other TESOL”? If you’re a teacher and/or learner in this context, have you tried them? Would you try them? Why or why not?

*Usually referred to as ”foreign” or “world” language teaching, but really I think what makes this different is not the “foreignness” of the languages but the fact that the learners speak English, the actual world language.  This includes both monolingual English speakers and plurilingual English speakers learning other non-English languages (like an English-Spanish bilingual learning Arabic!).