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Review of  The Multilingual Instructor

Reviewer: Jennifer Burton
Book Title: The Multilingual Instructor
Book Author: Claire Kramsch Lihua Zhang
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.1181

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In the book titled, The Multilingual Instructor, scholars Claire Kramsch and Lihua Zhang lead us into the lives and hearts of foreign language (FL) instructors negotiating their multifaceted and often contradictory professional, sociopolitical, and personal identities. From the preface, the authors invite us into their intersecting life trajectories as FL instructors at UC Berkeley: Claire a French citizen who studied German language and literature in Paris and becomes the German language program coordinator at the UC Berkeley and Lihua a Chinese citizen who studied German in Shanghai and becomes the Chinese language program coordinator at the same UC Berkeley. The authors’ positioning lays the foundation for the rich narratives that underpin their research, which, broadly speaking, inquires about the characterization of the multilingual and multicultural experiences of FL instructors.

In Chapter One, the authors delve right into one of the most contentious issues in language teaching; that is, the dichotomy between native/non-native (N/NN) speakers in the teaching of languages other than English. Despite the N/NN distinction being alive and well, Kramsch and Zhang want to address what they see as a more critical distinction in the field: the distinction between monolingual and multilingual instructors. This shift in distinction allows for more emphasis to be placed on a “translingual mindset” (p. 5) and on how multilingual instructors manage their linguistic repertoire in differing cultural contexts. To capture the paradoxes and discontinuities of FL instructors across time, the authors adopt an ecological framework and simultaneously draw on the dimensions in Larsen-Freeman’s (2011) complexity theory, providing what the authors call an “ecological architecture” (p. 20) for their inquiry. Briefly, their ecological framework, as applied to FL education, considers alternative trajectories for complex dynamic systems that need to be viewed as ever changing due to the imbalance of symbolic power.

Chapter Two reports on the quantitative results of two electronic surveys of 48 N and 35 NN multilingual instructors in campuses across California; of the total 78 instructors surveyed, 58 are female and 19 are male. The survey was designed to gather information on the participants’ general and professional background, cultural experiences and misunderstandings in the classroom, and the dynamics of change and adaptation. The descriptive statistics presented in various tables and discussed in further detail are supplemented with snippets of participant stories, including deeply emotional and painful accounts of misconceptions and prejudices. The findings from the survey indicate that instructors are highly educated multilingual professionals who have kept in contact with their native/ target country. In regard to N and NN participants’ cultures, the survey shows that participants from both groups share more views about American culture than the cultures of the language they teach, which the authors posit might be due to the global status of English.

Chapters Three through Six mainly report on the qualitative data from the one-hour semi-structured interviews with 18 N and 12 NN FL instructors, specifically their challenges pertaining to their legitimate status, social and historical identity, and educational role. Broadly, Chapter Three addresses instructors’ struggles for legitimacy in relation to institutions across linguistic, academic, cultural, professional, experiential, legal, social, racial and political borders. Next, the authors discuss the bridging of differing historicities and subjectivities via narrative to address the dynamic and open nature of the ecological model in Chapters Four and Five. Specifically, the conversation in Chapter Four, addresses the responses to one main interview question about whether FL instructors tell their students about their experiences with FL and culture in their country and in the US. While the plot, text, and narration differ across the four stories shared in this chapter, what they have in common is that they bridge the gap between the foreign world of the target culture with the students’ familiar world. Chapter Five considers stories that instructors’ feel that they cannot and may not tell in their classrooms. Interestingly, the authors observe that the younger instructors, under the age of forty, more freely share their feelings and engage in more sensitive topics with their students. Instructors in their forties are more forceful and have an educational mission, while more senior instructors or instructors with painful experiences are more vigilant in what they expect from their students in these sensitive topics. Taken together, the personal accounts in both chapters demonstrate that FL teaching is fraught with much tension.

Chapter Six considers possibilities for change and transformation in FL education. It discusses the educational and ethical roles and responsibilities of multilingual instructors. Here, researchers ask the FL instructors to complete the following statement: ‘teaching this language in the US is (like)…’ Comparing the similes and metaphors across N and NN instructors yielded interesting results on instructor subject positioning. For example, N instructors were seen as a guide on students’ journeys of exploration, acting as a linguistic and cultural ambassador. With the exception of one participant, the NN speakers were seen as border crossers, modeling the process of discovering foreign countries for their students. Interestingly, both groups do not mention teaching as simply a profession, which as the researchers report, means that the instructors have an idealistic view of their job. Additionally, while the instructors rejected the idea that their role was to change their students’ worldview, they did view themselves as catalysts for their students’ personal transformations. Another topic this chapter addresses is how the ecological theory, as different from other language education theories, assists in explaining instructors’ ethical commitments in their profession. The authors conclude that the ecological theory enacts an ethics of responsibility. Finally, the transformative element is one of “growth and complexity” rather than “revolution and regime change” (p. 155).

In Chapters Seven and Eight Claire and Lihua elaborate on the ecological perspective by providing first-hand accounts of teaching experiences in their own classrooms. In Chapter Seven, Claire talks about bridging the historical gap in the German teacher training workshop and upper-intermediate German class. One example of students negotiating meaning across languages in a poem written in German and translated to English particularly stands out:

One student noted that by meshing the German with the English, without putting the German in italics, as if the two were one and the same language, the translator seemed to make the English complicit in the crimes committed in German, and the student wondered whether it was not a politically and historically ‘unfair’ translation. Some students felt such a translation was morally wrong; others felt it captured the ambivalent role of the United States towards the Jews in World War II (p. 177).

The take away from this chapter is that FL instructors need to exercise a great deal of reflexivity in designing pedagogy that mediates several languages across differing histories and memories—neither an easy nor innocent endeavor.

Similarly, in Chapter Eight, Lihua aims to bridge the educational gap in the Chinese classroom by giving examples of various pedagogical activities designed to teach Chinese as a relational and transformative practice. Some examples include, having students critically reflect on a textbook, analyzing the construction of a father-son relationship in a poem, comparing translations to provide students the chance to examine subject positions as they apply to language use, asking students to respond to pictures to elicit feelings, imaginations and memories, and comparing titles of texts. Taken together, these activities provided a platform for students to become aware of the complexity imbued in meaning-making. This chapter ends with an eloquent depiction of Lihua’s process of transformation and realization that “multilinguals live in the world much differently than do monolinguals” (p. 209). Now, Lihua is able to view China through Chinese and Western eyes. Finally, by positioning herself as a multilingual instructor, she is able to enhance her professional legitimacy and break free from previous feelings and attitudes that were quite confining.

The last chapter in this book, Chapter Nine, ends by addressing three questions: one about the theoretical and empirical insights of the ecological framework; another question pertaining to the benefits of instructors viewing themselves as multilingual over monolingual; and the final question about how the ecological framework helps instructors understand the ethical dimensions of being multilingual instructors. In sum, the ethical commitment FL instructors have is one of self-reflection and multidimensionality. As they negotiate their contradictory identities and ethical responsibilities across several different languages, one thing is certain: the rich personal knowledge of the instructors in this study provides readers with a glimpse into the compelling lives of multilingual FL instructors.


This book has several strengths. The rich narratives address a breadth of topics related to FL education, some extending beyond the walls of the classroom. It is evident there was a great deal of trust between the researchers and the participants, which could be due to the researchers’ social positioning and personal investment as FL instructors themselves. The authors’ achieve their goal of “reveal[ing] the nested levels of personal, professional, and historical time on which language instructors operate” (p. 21) by means of the innovative ecological architecture that frames their inquiry. The pronounced strength of this study is the researchers use of their theoretical framework in guiding the questions they ask in their surveys and interviews. The main contribution this study makes is theoretical, particularly the application of the ecological framework for future studies and the consideration of the ethical role of multilingual instructors.

While reading, I felt compelled to view the issues raised by this book through the lens of my work as a native-speaking English language instructor, researcher, and teacher-educator. What I found interesting was the researchers’ analytical decision to view the multilingual instructor through the lens of the N/NN speaker dichotomy, a choice they consciously made. I was curious as to how their data collection methods and findings would have differed if they had not made this decision from the onset of this study. Perhaps, a clearer delineation of their analytical process as guided by their ecological framework would have resulted in a better understanding of their rationale. That said, I appreciate the in-depth analysis that included examples of different languages and pedagogical genres. This book is an intriguing read for experienced practitioners and researchers interested in better understanding the complex lives of FL instructors.


Larsen-Freeman, D. (2011). A complexity theory approach to second language development/acquisition. In D. Atkinson (Ed.), Alternative approaches to second language acquisition (pp. 60-84). New York, N.Y: Routledge
Jennifer Burton is a PhD student at the University of Toronto (OISE), Canada with over 12 years of English language teaching experience: 5 years in South Korea and 7 years in Canada. Her research interests include heritage language education, plurilingual language instruction, and English language assessment and policy in higher education.