Monolingual Ideologies and Plurilingual Realities

Two weeks ago, I attended the Integrationists Conference at Penn State University, whose theme was “Integrationism and Philosophies of Language: Emerging Alternative Epistemologies in the Global North and the Global South”

While I had not heard of Integrationism as a linguistic theory until I saw the announcement for this conference, I was interested in learning more about both Integrationism and Southern Theories, as they seemed to align with the direction my own research is taking.  As it turns out, this was an excellent choice! I got to meet up with some of my favorite study abroad colleagues, and also learn from presenters that came from a wide range of disciplines, theoretical backgrounds and geographical locations.  In this post, I’m giving a summary of my own presentation called “Monolingual Ideologies and Plurilingual Realities: U.S. Arabic Learners in Study Abroad and Telecollaboration”.  

Image by  Steve Buissinne  from  Pixabay

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Monolingual Language Ideologies

As I mentioned in one of my earliest posts on this blog, monolingual language ideologies originate with the European nation state, where language and national boundaries were imagined as distinct and mutually reinforcing.   Rooted in the idea of one nation having one culture and one language, these language ideologies have had a strong influence on the fields of Second Language Acquisition, Applied Linguistics, and Language Education.  For example, all of the following beliefs about language learning, which I  have found to be common and frequently unquestioned in the field, have their roots in monolingual language ideologies:

  1. Monolingual native speakers represent the “ideal” linguistic behavior for learners to mimic (especially if they speak a national standard)

  2. Previous knowledge of dialects and languages can interfere with the acquisition of new ones

  3. Classrooms that operate only in the target language are the ideal learning environment

  4. Study abroad is an immersion environment, and hence the best for learning.  Telecollaboration (or virtual immersion) is a close second.  

  5. Proficiency can be standardized and measured outside of specific communicative contexts (e.g. a proficiency exam)

Alternative Language Ideologies

However, there are alternative language ideologies that emphasize the fluid and socially constructed nature of language boundaries.  Shared features of these language ideologies include:

  1. An emphasis on the unique linguistic repertoires of individuals and how these change over time based on lived experiences in ways that do not necessarily correspond to socially determined language boundaries

  2. The strategic ways individuals draw from their repertoires to communicate in specific communicative contexts (again, in ways that may not correspond to language boundaries)

  3. Competence can only be measured in specific communicative contexts

  4. Translanguaging as a common and strategic practice

In the Global North, these alternative language ideologies have many, many names, including Translanguaging Theory, Plurilingualism, the Multilingual Turn, and more! As I mentioned in my post on Translanguaging in African contexts, what has always struck me is how in many Global Southern contexts, these “alternatives” are simply a way of being (especially outside of educational settings), and as such go unnamed.  While it is important to recognize that monolingual language ideologies inform practices in the Global South as well, I do think learning about these ways of beings can help us improve language education in the Global North.  I think this is especially true in the field of “foreign” or “world” language education, which has not engaged much with language ideologies at all, and is in many ways set up to reinforce monolingual language ideologies.  For example, language boundaries are reinforced through departmental and section boundaries (e.g. Arabic, French, Italian, etc.), where there is often an emphasis on teaching “standard” varieties of these languages using only the target language.  Study abroad is often presented as the pinnacle of language study, to the point that some universities encourage students to study abroad instead of taking languages at home.  

My Study

In my study, I used a recursive process of coding and mapping to (re)examine data I’d collected from students studying abroad in Egypt, Oman, and Jordan, as well as in telecollaboration projects in the classroom and combined with study abroad.   As I’ll detail in the sections below, I found a mismatch between expectations for study abroad and telecollaboration shaped by monolingual language ideologies, and the plurilingual realities of these locations.  

Expectations Shaped by Monolingual Language Ideologies

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their dominance in U.S. language teaching, learners’ expectations for study abroad and telecollaboration reflected monolingual language ideologies.  Mapping Arabic to Arab nations and speakers, they expected that study abroad in Arabic-speaking countries and telecollaborations with Arabic speakers would lead to monolingual Arabic immersion.  At the same time, they did not expect to speak to other U.S. Study abroad students in Arabic (unless there was a language pledge).  

Plurilingual Realities

Yet examining students’ reported experiences and transcripts reveals a very different picture than that of monolingual immersion: both the participants and the spaces in which they engaged were highly plurilingual, and they used translanguaging affordances to achieve their interactional goals and expand their linguistic repertoires.  

Plurilingual Participants

First, it’s worth noting that the participants in this study were not monolingual: all 65 students and 39 partners/hosts spoke English and Arabic to varying degrees.  Furthermore, all 65 students and many of the partners/hosts had linguistic repertoires that extended beyond English and Arabic, and they used these in their interactions.  For example, one study abroad student reported using Thai in addition to English and multiple varieties of Arabic.  Another student switched to French at the end of his telecollaboration conversations.  

Plurilingual Spaces

Contrary to their expectations, learners reported that neither the telecollaboration nor study abroad experiences were “immersion”.  As reported in research in other study abroad locations as well, learners tended to report using Arabic for service encounters, and English with their friends (both locals and other study abroad students).  They also reported using English in “off-topic” moments in the telecollaboration, such as when the technology failed.  In many cases, they reported disappointment and frustration with their failure to be monolingual, and especially with what they felt was a choice between “making friends” and “practicing Arabic”.  

Translanguaging as the Norm

Yet what is striking when looking at actual interactions in these plurilingual spaces is the prevalence of translanguaging practices, despite learners monolingual framing of their interactions as being in either Arabic (good!) or English (bad!).  For example, here is an excerpt from a service encounter (in a taxi), a place learners noted as good for having Arabic conversations:

Taxi Excerpt

Taxi Excerpt

Clearly, this conversation is not completely in Arabic.  However, it is also notable for it’s translanguaging, and here we see how this goes beyond just mixing named languages.  When the driver greets Peter in Arabic, he responds with the standard Arabic response, Ahlan fiik.  When the driver repeats his greeting in English, Peter again answers in Arabic, but uses the standard English response, shokran, shokran (thank you, thank you).  Clearly he knows the Arabic response (having just used it!) but he continues to speak Arabic while also recognizing he English abilities of the taxi driver.  

Translanguaging practices were also common with both local and study abroad friends, and in telecollaboration transcripts.  For example, in this example from a pre-study abroad telecollaboration, it’s clear that Moataz and Andy are successfully drawing from their linguistic repertoires to discuss action films:

Telecollaboration Excerpt

Telecollaboration Excerpt

What is especially notable in this conversation (which was much longer than the pictured excerpt) is at the end, when Moataz compliments Andy by saying he sounds just like his friends. While it’s impossible to know exactly why he said that, Moataz did engage in translanguaging practices with his Arab friends as well, so it’s important to recognize that these practices are not just for engaging with learners.  

Similarly, although learners reported using English among themselves, they also mentioned using Arabic words and phrases, such as khalaaS, or “kunt irritated 2awi”.  It’s worth highlighting that this is also translanguaging, as while the students may say they are speaking English, these conversations would not be intelligible to English speakers whose linguistic repertoires didn’t include these Arabic phrases.  

In these ways, although learners tended to frame their interactions monolinguals, as being in either Arabic or English, it’s clear that translanguaging practices were everywhere!

Translanguaging Affordances

In addition to being the common practice, there were also specific ways in which learners translanguaged to expand their linguistic repertoires to include more Arabic.  These included practices like saying a word in English when they didn’t know it in Arabic, and then relying on the English knowledge of their partners who could then provide the word in Arabic (a common classroom practice as well!)

English was also  valuable resource for entering local social networks abroad, often by volunteering as an English teacher.  Yet entering these networks didn’t result in monolingual English use, but opportunities to use Arabic as well, a finding that has also been reported in other research.  

Finally, translanguaging practices allowed learners (and their interlocutors!) to transcend monolingual identities, as one student expressed concisely in describing his friendship with a local where they enjoyed drawing from their overlapping repertoires in Arabic, English, and Spanish:

 . . . when I speak one of the languages I feel that like there’s another person, but not the whole person, there’s something like, what is it called, missing in my life, so when they are together and I have the opportunity to . . . express myself in these three languages I feel like I’m a complete person, but in each of the three now I feel like there’s something missing like in my linguistic identity.

In short, despite learners’ expectations of monolingual immersion, the realities of both the study abroad and telecollaboration spaces were highly plurilingual, and translanguaging practices were the norm.  However, the influence of monolingual language ideologies led to the continued monolingual framing of these interactions, and this could limit students’ awareness and strategic use of their plurilingual repertoires.  

 Why does it matter if we frame plurilingual practices with monolingual language ideologies?

 A reasonable question, of course, is why is this important, or why does it matter that there is this mismatch between expectation and reality? Well, many reasons, but primarily the shame, disappointment, frustration, and anxiety that resulted from this mismatch, particularly when students felt that they were constantly failing to meet an unrealistic monolingual standard.  They also felt forced to choose between friendship and language practice, although both of these were key goals for many of them, and although they engaged in translanguaging practices, they lacked an awareness of the best ways to use these practices to expand their linguistic repertoires.  In short, the influence of monolingual language ideologies meant that students were not fully prepared to learn in the multilingual environments they encountered.  

Moving to alternative pedagogies in the language classroom

This lack of preparation and disappointment is one of the key reasons I believe we should engage with alternative language pedagogies in our language classrooms, and actively look to learn from settings (including in the Global South) that challenge these language ideologies in the classroom.   After all, just as in study abroad and telecollaboration, the classroom is a multilingual environment, and translanguaging practices are the norm if we can just go beyond our monolingual framings and see them as such.  As I’ve written before, in some ways, this is just a reframe of our existing practices that can make them more beneficial.  In other ways, we can work towards transformative practices that highlight the linguistic knowledge across dialects and languages that our students come to the classroom with, and how they can use this to expand their linguistic repertoires, take on new identities, and question inequitable social structures in our world.  

At the end of a conference presentation, there’s usually time for questions from the audience (and I’m happy to answer those) but since this is a blog post, I’ll end with questions for you: Where do you see translanguaging practices in your classroom, telecollaboration, or study abroad settings? How do you frame them? How do others frame them? Is this preparing students to learn in multilingual environments?