Multilingual Practices: Tackling Challenges and Creating Opportunities

Multilingual Practices


I have recently taken a four-week course on multilingualism from the University of Groningen. The course is called Multilingual Practices: Tackling Challenges and Creating Opportunities and it is available on FutureLearn. I love learning and, being a translator, this seemed like the perfect topic to add to my CPD plan.

Here’s a summary of what I learned:


Week 1


The course started out with a discussion on what multilingualism might be both at societal and individual levels. Students were encouraged to reflect on and voice their opinions over the questions “Do you need to speak several languages at a high level to be a multilingual? Or is multilingualism the coexistence of different languages in one geographical space?”.

On an individual level, my understanding is that one is multilingual only if able to communicate orally and in writing in more than two languages, even if not living in a multilingual environment. A multilingual person is someone who went through formal and/or informal (daily communication with parents, family, friends, co-workers) learning. It has to do with one’s personal skills, while multilingualism on a societal level is, as François Grosjean (1982) defined it, “the co-existence of two or more languages in one society”.


The video below, from the course, shows different views on what multilingualism is to people from different cultures and nationalities.



How does multilingualism come to exist?


What causes it? Well, there are several factors which can contribute to multilingualism, among them: immigration, imperialist and colonial expansions, exchanges between border areas, or even a political union among different groups. In a multilingual society, languages have different positions and relevance within that society. There is a so-called ‘language hierarchy’ based on the status of each language, on whether they are national languages, foreign languages, immigrant minority languages, autochthonous minority languages, and on whether those languages are taught in school, for example.


At the top of a language pyramid we normally see the national language(s) of the given society. If this is not English, it is normally followed by English, which is then most probably widely taught in the education system in question.


After English, we tend to find other foreign languages commonly taught in many countries worldwide. In Portugal, I believe those would be Spanish, French, and German. The bottom positions are divided between regional minority languages and migrant languages in the given society.

It’s relevant to have a clear view of each language present in our society, as they may play a role at an educational level, a political level, and a policy level.


Week 2


The second week focused on multilingual families and how they manage multiple languages in the household.

Before starting school at age 5 or 6, the child is exposed only to the home language, or languages, in case of bilingual parents. The majority of parents don’t plan family language policy in the home, so whatever they speak is what the child learns. But for other parents, adding a second or third language to a child’s linguistic repertoire is seen as giving children an advantage. We are all aware of references to findings of linguistic research claiming some sort of cognitive advantage in bilingual and multilingual children.

In practice, parents can implement the One-parent-one-language strategy, where each parent speaks to the child in only one language, the parents’ mother tongue. The results tend to be a child who understands both languages, but speaks only one, the predominant language in their community.


Every 14 days a language goes extinct, so language maintenance in multilingual families is an important issue if we wish to keep multilingualism alive.

There are nonetheless other external factors which are of great influence for the child such as peer groups and language dynamics with other family members. As for formal education, parents have different school options (depending on where they live) but monolingual schools tend to be the most easily available and financially accessible.


Though not available for everyone, a bilingual schooling option offering instruction in both of the family’s languages is probably the most effective for raising bilingual children.


Week 3


In the third week, I found the video of a trilingual school in Friesland, The Netherlands of particular interest. This school uses Dutch, English, and Frisian as instruction languages. On top of that, they not only allow but encourage the home languages of their immigrant pupils (Polish, Arabic, and Swedish) into the classroom.


However, languages don’t all carry the same weight on the international stage. The English language has long become a world language with currently 85% of online communication being in English, according to the University of Groningen. Linguists like Robert Philipson, who wrote the book Linguistic Imperialism in 1992, describe the influence of the English language over third world countries as a modern form of colonialism and conquest.

Some questions arise:


Does the global spread of the English language threaten local languages, cultures and identities? Is English a form of linguistic imperialism threatening multilingualism?


I personally don’t believe in something as radical as English being a threat to other languages or cultures, but this topic of the course surely gave us some food for thought.


Third language acquisition


There is a lot of talk and reading available on acquisition and maintenance of a second language. What I find most interesting however is third language acquisition. Are there differences between learning a second or a third language? Research on third language acquisition has reported differences between acquiring a second or a third language (Safont & Portoles, 2015).


Bilingual learners have often developed learning strategies they can use when learning a new language. That gives them an advantage over monolinguals.


If we compare the experience of learning a second language to the experience of learning to drive a car, then learning a third language could be like learning to drive a bus. The experience of driving a car which involves different skills and strategies, can be extremely useful when driving another type of vehicle.


Learning a third language does not necessarily mean higher achievement when compared to learning a second language, as socio-economic and socio-educational variables can also play a role in language acquisition. Motivation is a very important factor as well.


Week 4


The fourth and last week of the course was mostly about minority languages. There are different types (subgroups) of minority languages. One example are the so-called dispersed minorities, like the Jews, which are spread around the world. There are also the localised minorities. In Europe, we find around 60 of these, all protected under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Well-known examples of localised minorities (also called national minorities) are the Welsh, the Basques, and the Catalans.


Here you’ll find the website of language diversity where we can research more about any country’s minority languages.


With a total number of 196 countries recognized internationally and an estimated number of roughly 7,000 languages worldwide, it follows that a large amount of languages are minority languages in every country in which they are spoken.


Contact and borrowing


We call it borrowing when words, sounds, or grammatical elements from one language are incorporated in another language. This happens traditionally through social interaction between people from neighbouring territories. More frequently though, we witness borrowing upon the spread of languages with prestige via conquest and colonisation. Often speakers aren’t even aware a specific word is borrowed, especially when it is assimilated into the pronunciation system of their own language. The prestige of English is evident by the number of languages borrowing terms from it.

In Portuguese, we use a significant number of terms borrowed from English but also from French. Some examples of vocabulary we use daily: croissant; dossier; déjà vu; rendez-vous; chantilly; couvert; crepe (from crêpe); lingerie; réveillon.


Fun Facts


  • It is a well-known fact that Europe combines a significant number of official languages. The EU alone has 24 official languages. What’s interesting is that “Europe as a region features less languages than many equivalent sized regions in Asia or Africa.”
  • Studies conducted on the topic of the economics of language found that “[i]n the long run, losing your family language results in penalties for your annual earnings (up to $5,000).”
  • Is English a form of linguistic imperialism? Well, English is undoubtedly predominant in global language education. A curious fact: “300 million Chinese are learning English.”
  • What about the so-called dead languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit? The term is not common in sociolinguistics. That is because these languages “gradually evolved by continuous transmission from one generation to the next and spread into regional dialects which gave rise to standardised speech forms. Latin, for example, still ‘lives’ in modern French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian.”


Much more could be said about multilingualism and the Multilingual Practices course, but this post isn’t meant to be comprehensive. If you would like to learn more on this topic, the University of Groningen has a bachelor and a master programme you can check out. If you’re interested in attending this MOOC, you can register here.

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