[lg policy] book review: Introducing Multilingualism: A social approach

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 16 16:08:12 UTC 2013

Introducing Multilingualism: A social approach

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-2331.html

Author: Jean-Jacques Weber
Author: Kristine Horner
Title: Introducing Multilingualism
Subtitle: A Social Approach
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Year: 2012

Reviewer: Ilaria Fiorentini, University of Pavia


Jean-Jacques Weber and Kristine Horner’s “Introducing multilingualism: A
social approach” is a textbook expressly conceived for undergraduate and
postgraduate students as an introduction to the wide topic of multilingualism.
The book is divided in four parts, for a total of 15 chapters; at the end of
each chapter (sometimes within), the authors give the readers suggestions for
discussion, activities and projects, as well as references and suggestions for
further readings. The first and the last chapter also have a “Test yourself
quiz” (with suggested answers at the end of the book).

The first part of the book (Chapters 1-2) introduces issues about
multilingualism as well as the theoretical and methodological framework within
which the book is situated. Chapter 1 problematizes the concept of language
and presents multilingualism in terms of linguistic resources and repertoires.
The authors prefer to use the term ‘multilingualism’ instead of ‘bi-‘ or
‘trilingualism’, in order to avoid the problematic issue of how languages can
actually be identified and counted. The chapter includes a note on
terminology, a brief description of the issues concerning globalization (that
is, according to the authors, “the main reason why sociolinguistics needs to
change and adapt its core concepts”, p. 6) and a summary of how the book is

Chapter 2 discusses the construction of meaning of a text in different
contexts by different hearers or readers, introducing the distinction between
dominant vs. critical readings (with a suggested activity on the importance of
being critical, p. 13); these premises lead the authors to claim that, in
studying sites of multilingualism, “it is optimal to combine the analysis of
discourse with ethnographic investigation” (p. 14), pointing to an
ethnographically based discourse analysis, with the aim to make “as explicit
as possible the discourse models (beliefs and assumptions) that inform a
particular text” (p. 21) . Finally, they give a brief description of the
language ideologies discussed in the book (such as hierarchy of languages,
standard language ideology, one nation-one language ideology, etc.).

Part II (Chapters 3-5) deals with the difficulty in the definition of what a
language is. Chapter 3 investigates people’s beliefs about language; with a
suggested activity about what English and Standard English actually are (p.
27), the authors aim to show the “fuzzy boundaries of named languages” (p.
29); in order to further illustrate the concept, they describe a case in which
it is difficult to distinguish dialects and languages (Scots and Ulster-Scots)
as well as the question of English pidgins and creoles, discussing if they
should or should not be included in discussion of World Englishes.
Consequences for teaching and research of this more dynamic view of what a
language is are also taken into account.

Chapter 4 focuses on linguistic variation, with specific reference to two
global languages, English and French. As for English, the authors analyse
African-American English, Caribbean ‘nation language’ (i.e. West Indian
Creole) and Singlish (Singapore English), concluding with some notes on the
global spread of English. Then they take into account the global spread of
French, describing two French youth languages, Nouchi in Cote d’Ivoire and
Verlan in France, the first being an example of a post-colonial new language
and identity, the latter being an example of linguistic diversity from within
France itself.

Chapter 5 provides a general introduction to endangered languages in the
globalized world. The authors argue that language revitalization, in order to
be most successful, has to be “simultaneously promoted by a grassroots
movement and by the state, as well as being supported by international
minority rights organizations” (p. 53), and they point out the costs involved
in each situation. Some case studies (Maori in New Zealand, Sámi and Kven in
Norway, Hebrew in Israel, Breton in France, Corsican and Luxembourgish) are
given in order to exemplify some different implications and outcomes for
different situations.

Part III (Chapter 6-8) goes into the distinction between societal and
individual multilingualism. Chapter 6 deals with the first, exploring the
situations of some countries (Ukraine, Switzerland, Singapore, Hong Kong and
China, South Africa, and Nigeria) that officially recognize themselves as
multilingual states (even if, as the authors point out, the distinction
between officially monolingual and multilingual states “is not a fixed binary
opposition but a dynamic and shifting continuum”, p. 69), focusing
particularly on how “global socio-political developments can affect the
multilingual policy arrangements in a state” (p. 78).

Chapter 7 deals with the micro level of people’s multilingualism, making
reference to Gee’s (2001) four ways to view identity (Nature (N)-identities,
Institution (I)-identities, Discourse (D)-identities and Affinity
(A)-identities). The concept of identity is explored in detail, firstly taking
into account the concepts of ethnic and national identity, and then exploring
various aspects of the relation between code-switching and identity. In
particular, the authors point out how the opposition between the ‘we-code’ and
‘they-code’ distinction needs to be re-conceptualized “as a linguistic
continuum along which speakers move in highly fluid ways as they construct
fluid identities for themselves” (p. 87).

In Chapter 8, the authors describe the interplay between individual and
societal multilingualism with reference to the Canadian policy of bilingualism
and multiculturalism.

Part IV (Chapter 9-11) investigates the issues concerning multilingual
education. Chapter 9 introduces the distinction between flexible and fixed
multilingualism. The authors mention the problem of language repression,
arguing that multilingualism is not in itself the solution, but it depends on
how the multilingual language policy is applied: “whether it is applied in a
highly fixed and rigid way, without taking into account people’s home
linguistic resources, or in a more flexible way, building upon all the
linguistic resources that people bring along with them” (p. 108). After a
comparison between US and EU language-in-education policy, the authors present
two case studies, Luxembourg on the one hand and Catalonia and the Basque
Country on the other, showing how, while Luxembourg and Catalonia are moving
towards a fixed multilingualism, Basque country seem to be taking the opposite
way. In conclusion, the authors point out the need for innovative ideas “more
in line with the fluid multilingual realities of today’s world” (p. 117).

Chapter 10 introduces the concept of literacy bridges in opposition to mother
tongue education, the latter often being advocated “as the ideal system of
education for all children”, p. 123), but whose programmes frequently ignore
the dimension of intra-language variation. The concept of literacy bridges was
presented in Weber (2009) in relation to the language situation in trilingual
(Luxembourgish, French and German) Luxembourg, “where large numbers of
romanophone children are forced to go through a German-language literacy
programme (…)” (p. 130). According to the authors, the literacy bridges option
is a “flexible alternative (…) which would have a much better chance of moving
policy towards social justice and educational equity” (p. 130) and which would
look at the ‘common linguistic denominator’ of the students (in the Luxembourg
case, it should be a French-language literacy option). The three steps needed
by the school system in order to take into account this multilingual reality
therefore are to study the student’s actual linguistic repertoires, to find
out the common linguistic denominator and to establish adequate literacy
bridges “by offering a reasonable range of language options” (p. 130).

Chapter 11 examines the situation and teaching of heritage languages,
analysing the situation of Navajo in the United States and of some minority
languages taught in the UK. The aim is to demonstrate how even heritage
language education can be as rigid as mother tongue education. In conclusion,
the authors emphasize the need for both policy-makers and teachers “to break
through the standard language ideology and to valorize all the different
linguistic and cultural resources of all the children” (p. 143).

Part V deals with critical analysis of discourses. Chapter 12 examines the
topic of integration “in our late modern age of increased mobility, European
consolidation and accelerated globalization at the beginning of the
twenty-first century” (p. 151) in the sense of integration of people
categorized as ‘migrants’ or ‘foreigners’, focusing in particular on the
contribution of institutional discourses on language and migration to the
often precarious situation of speakers of immigrant heritage languages. The
authors take into account the cases of Germany and Liechtenstein, aiming to
showing how the discourse of integration “presupposes an asymmetrical
world-view in which only the ‘migrants’ or ‘foreigners’ are perceived as a
problem” (p. 152). Such a world view is constructed around metaphors, such as
the centre-periphery metaphor, “based on ‘us vs. them’ discourse” (p. 152),
the game metaphor (about winning or losing in the game of integration) and the
mathematical graph metaphor (which leaves unspecified the number of points
needed to win the game, therefore effectively rendering successful completion
of the game impossible). The authors then propose a more positive approach to
the quantification of integration, i.e. a statistical correlations view of
integration, in which integration is conceptualized “as a state that is either
achieved or not by a particular society” (p. 156); such an approach specifies
as endpoint of the integration process a society that “offers equal rights and
opportunities to all the different social groups living and working there” (p.
162). In the second part of the chapter, the authors show how the tradition of
language testing for citizenship can have disturbing links with racist

Chapter 13 deals with the negative representations of multilingualism in the
media, which contribute to marginalize and discriminate ethnic others through
negative ideological constructions. The examples taken into account are the
Luxembourg case, where foreign students were blamed for the bad results at
PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment); the UK case, reporting
a newspaper article in which the Tory Councillor presents a narrow definition
of ‘Britishness’, that views the presence of Asian languages in the public
space as eroding Britishness; and the “English Only” movement case in the US,
which “is lobbying for a constitutional amendment which would designate
English as the sole official language” (p. 172). In conclusion, a brief
historical perspective on the one nation-one language ideology is given in
order to show how the claims presented in the examples are indefensible.

Chapter 14 analyses linguistic landscape, studying “multimodal texts which
combine verbal and visual elements” (p. 179), such as advertisements or public
signs. The authors point out the limitations of some linguistic landscape
analysis, arguing that, since many of them are quantitative rather than
interpretive, limiting themselves to counting the languages used on
multilingual signs, and since “the whole notion of identifying and counting
the ‘languages’ of multilingual signs is highly problematic” (p. 179), such
studies should be integrated by more ethnographic approaches. In conclusion,
the authors describe as highly promising the approach of Scollon and Scollon
(2003), so-called ‘discourses in places’, that “links up with cultural
geography, urban planning and other interconnected fields” (p. 188), thereby
providing a theoretical framework for the analysis of both verbal and visual

Part VI (Chapter 15), the conclusion, summarizes the issues dealt with in the
book and presents new research directions in the study of multilingualism,
such as multilingualism and sign language, multilingualism and gender, etc.
The authors list three themes – understanding the ubiquity of multilingualism,
acknowledging the linguistic diversity in the world and building upon the
whole of students’ linguistic repertoires – which “point to the ultimate aim
that we all should strive for” (p. 200), i.e. to work towards the
normalization of multilingualism, both at school and in society, moving beyond
“programmes of linguistic normalization focused upon one single minority
language” (p. 201); the authors conclude that, if their book has made a little
contribution to this aim, then “it will not have been written in vain” (p.


“Introducing multilingualism: A social approach” is a clear, user-friendly and
highly practical introduction to the complex and multifaceted topic of
multilingualism. The authors chose to investigate social issues in the study
of multilingualism rather than the cognitive ones, aiming to provide an
“introduction to the key social issues in the study of multilingualism” (p. 4)
and to reverse “the traditional paradigm by normalizing multilingualism” (p.
5), in the attempt to show how multilingualism, rather than monolingualism, is
actually the normal state of affairs.

The book is very well-structured, since, as should be clear by the summary,
each chapter analyzes in depth an issue concerning multilingualism, often
questioning prejudices or assumptions about it and introducing their own, new
approaches (as the concept of literacy bridges in Chapter 10). Every concept
is enriched by examples and case studies, and in the end of the chapters
students are invited to deepen their reflections about these issues with
specific activities and projects. Sometimes, as for the concept of fuzzy
boundaries of language in Chapter 3, the activity itself is exploited in order
to better explain the concept, stimulating reasoning about the topic.

Each topic is approached by a specific point of view: for instance, the
endangered and minority languages issue is seen from the point of view of
revitalization (Chapter 5), and different situations from different states of
the world are taken into account in order to illustrate the various aspects
and implications of it. The fact that the authors do not only focus on
European situations (although of course there are many examples of European
multilingual countries, in particular Luxembourg) but take into account
situations worldwide, from Singapore to Nigeria (see for instance Chapter 5
and 6), is another valuable quality of this book.

Part IV, entirely dedicated to multilingual education, is particularly
interesting and exhaustive, especially in chapter 10, where the authors
propose and explain, as we have seen, the concept of literacy bridges, a
flexible alternative to mother tongue education, based on the “transnational
students’ full linguistic repertoires” (p. 130), as a solution for those
multilingual contexts where there is a need for children to build up complex
repertoires. It should be clear, and it is also clearly stated in the
conclusion of the book, that the authors aim not only at giving as complete as
possible an overview of multilingualism, but also at increasing in students
the awareness about some delicate aspects, such as the need for more flexible
educational systems and for the normalization of multilingualism.

In conclusion, the book is a very useful introductory textbook that could be
exploited both by students, teachers and everyone who is new to and interested
in the topic in order to stimulate reflection and discussion, also thanks to
interesting and always pertinent activities, themes for discussion and
projects proposed at the end of each chapter.


Gee, James Paul. 2001. Identity as an analytic lens for research in education.
Review of research in Education, 25. 99-125.

Scollon, Ron and Scollon, Suzie Wong. 2003. Discourse in Place: Language in
the Material World. London: Routledge.

Weber, Jean-Jacques. 2009. Multilingualism, Education and Change.
Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang.


After earning an M.A. in Linguistics at the University of Turin with a thesis
on the Italian suffix -ATA, Ilaria Fiorentini is now a PhD student at the
University of Pavia and the Free University of Bozen (Italy). Her doctoral
research deals with the language contact situation in the Ladin valleys of
Trentino-Südtirol, with particular attention to code-mixing phenomena among
Ladin, Italian and German. Her primary research interests include
sociolinguistics and pragmatics.


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