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Review of  Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Multilingualism

Reviewer: Alicia Pousada
Book Title: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Multilingualism
Book Author: Simona Montanari Suzanne Quay
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Issue Number: 32.1391

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Multilingualism is often taken to be merely an extension of bilingualism, or it is used as a superordinate category that includes bilingualism within it. The basic premise of the volume under review is that multilingualism is widespread and “normal” among many human speech communities and constitutes a field worthy of research in its own right, distinct from but related to bilingualism. This stance is reminiscent of the earlier work of Stavans and Hoffman (2015), which stresses that the complexity of language behavior in multilingual speech communities far surpasses that of bilingualism and requires that theoretical and empirical attention be paid to its diversity and variability.

The hardcover volume (also available in electronic format on Kindle) is divided into four major parts which allow readers to go directly to the themes within multilingualism that most interest them. These parts progress from the broadest to the most specific of concerns. Part I addresses the historical, political, economic and educational aspects of societal multilingualism in North Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. Part II examines language use (diglossia, codeswitching, receptive multilingualism, and signing) in particular speech communities. Part III lays out what is known about individual multilingualism, ranging from acquisition to attrition in both family and school settings. Part IV scrutinizes the differences between bilingualism and multilingualism in terms of schooling, cross-linguistic interaction, linguistic awareness, and cognitive benefits. The four parts are bracketed by an introduction that sets the general parameters of the volume and a conclusion that considers future lines of research written by editors Simona Montanari and Suzanne Quay. The book closes with very useful indexes of key words, languages, and countries to aid the reader in zeroing in on specific information of concern.

The volume is the product of a stellar group of scholars. Both editors have an extensive publication history in the field of multilingualism, including numerous articles and several books. Most notably, Suzanne Quay co-edited (with Margaret Deuchar) a book titled Bilingual acquisition: Theoretical implications of a case study (2000). Simona Montanari co-edited (with Elena Nicoladis) Bilingualism across the lifespan: Factors moderating language proficiency (2016), a volume in which she and Suzanne Quay co-authored an article on early childhood bilingual acquisition. The authors of the individual chapters of the volume include well-known figures in the field like Bee Chin Ng and Loraine Obler, as well as newer voices, and provide culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives on global multilingualism.

The 16 chapters contained in the volume draw upon empirical research to reveal the complex linguistic and societal variables involved in multilingualism and make a strong case for the study of multilingualism as a discipline in its own right with significant things to say about human language capacity. The chapters also go a long way toward contesting colonialistic ideological postures toward language which give preferential treatment to monolingualism and “nativeness”. They additionally provide extensive evidence of the hegemony of majority languages (particularly English) in the rearing and schooling of multilingual children in different countries at this point in time.

In Part I (Societal multilingualism: Historical, political, economic and educational forces in different world regions), there are four chapters. Ch. 2: Multilingualism, language varieties and ideology in North Africa by Ahmed Ech-Charfi shows how colonialism in North Africa led to the development of extensive functional multilingualism among the populace, a common situation in post-colonial Africa. Ch. 3: Multilingualism in Southeast Asia: The post-colonial language stories of Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, written by Bee Chin Ng and Francesco Cavallaro, compares three cases of Southeast Asian colonialism and demonstrates how ideologies of internationalization can make a non-indigenous language like Mandarin Chinese or English the official language and lingua franca of an ethnically diverse country. Ch. 4: Multilingualism in Europe, crafted by Lennart Bartelheimer, Britta Hufeisen, and Simona Montanari, reports on the complex multilingual situation in Europe, the key roles that unification, globalization, and immigration from poorer to richer countries have played in creating the need for language policies, programs, institutions, and research, and the implications of multilingualism for national and transnational identity. Immigration is also revealed to be a key causal factor in the extensive plurilingualism of the United States and Canada, as Ch. 5: Multilingualism in North America by Wayne E. Wright and Virak Chan documents via ample graphs and tables. The 185 languages spoken in Canada and the more than 350 languages utilized in the U.S. are the result of intricate historical and demographic interactions among multiple ethnolinguistic groups (including indigenous peoples).

The four chapters of Part II (Language use in multilingual communities) examine specific manifestations of multilingualism. Ch. 6: Diglossia in multilingual communities by John Maher considers the functional distribution of languages in Ireland, Finland, India, and Japan and calls into question traditional views of diglossia. He calls for a model that takes into account “the complexity of diglossic relations which do not fit neatly into the classic H and L categories but which overlap, going back and forth, depending on the cultural context, social pressure, and even the personal selections of speakers at a particular time and place” (p. 109). The need for more flexible approaches to situations in which speakers select among their languages for specific functions also emerges in Ch. 7: Codeswitching in multilingual communities by Anat Stavans and Ronit Porat, which considers the alternation among codes in both oral and digital modalities. The authors consider that structural analysis of the alternating languages as separate entities is inherently limited and embrace instead the broader, more dynamic notion of “translanguaging”. This fluid use of multilingual practices in oral and written discourse allows speakers to negotiate complex social identities and enhance their linguistic repertories in response to their communicative needs.

Ch. 8: Receptive multilingualism by Charlotte Gooskens discusses what happens when multilinguals have only receptive skills in one or more of their languages. It focuses primarily on Europe (in particular, the Scandinavian countries) and on communities that share mutually intelligible languages, thus reducing the need for productive and reciprocal multilingualism. Gooskens also takes a look at the asymmetrical multilingual communication typical of many immigrant families, in which children speak the newly assimilated language(s) of the host society, while their parents express themselves in their ancestral language(s). Ch. 9: Multilingualism in Signing Communities, the work of Deborah Chen Pichler, Wanette Reynolds, and Jeffrey Levi Palmer, considers the often-ignored multilingual and multimodal community of hearing children of Deaf adults (also known as CODAs) who learn sign language(s) from birth along with the oral and written language varieties employed in their local environments and “code-blend” or articulate signed and spoken messages simultaneously. The authors additionally shed light on the phenomenon of “cross-signing,” which arises when Deaf individuals of different locales do not share a sign language but utilize an improvised gestural mode to bridge the communication gap. This brings to mind the creation of pidgins in language contact situations around the world.

Part III (Individual multilingualism: From development to loss) contains four chapters. Ch.10: Fostering multilingualism in childhood, penned by Suzanne Quay and Sarah Chevalier, reviews the different ways of promoting early multilingualism in home and school settings and demonstrates how languages can be rapidly learned and forgotten by children due to myriad internal and external factors. This chapter, like the following one, emphasizes the agency of children in navigating their various language learning environments and explains how children can serve simultaneously as mediators of both language maintenance and language shift. Ch. 11: Family language practices in multilingual transcultural families, produced by Elizabeth Lanza and Kristin Vold Lexander, describes how culturally mixed families establish their own language policies, create communities of practice among themselves, and promote multilingualism and “virtual intimacy” through digital media, a behavioral pattern of considerable relevance in these socially distanced pandemic times. Ch. 12: Multilingualism through schooling, authored by Xiao-lei Wang, looks at the role of formal education in fostering multilingualism. It shows how schools can increase a child’s linguistic repertoire to varying degrees, especially with regard to the language of academic advancement; however, they may also create the conditions for the loss of home languages as children become aware of the differing levels of prestige among their languages. Finally Ch. 13: Language attrition in multilinguals, produced by Ulriker Jessner and Manon Megens, applies the Dynamic Model of Multilingualism to examine how multilinguals lose facility in one or more of their languages due to changes in the interaction of said languages or in the amount of exposure to each. With the increasing tendency for languages of wider communication to undermine (and even eradicate) smaller varieties (Crystal, 2002), it is vital that we understand thoroughly the process of language attrition and how it can lead to language shift or even language death.

Part IV (Differences between bilingualism and multilingualism) is made up of four chapters. Ch. 14: Facilitated language learning in multilinguals by Simona Montanari considers the often discussed idea that “when learning a new language, multilinguals are typically better than learners who have only had experience with one language” (p. 299). The chapter provides an excellent review of recent behavioral and neurophysiological research on the phonological, morphological, syntactic, discursive, and cognitive effects of being bilingual or multilingual upon language perception and learning and points to decided advantages over being monolingual. Ch. 15: Cross-linguistic interaction and multilingual awareness by Elisabeth Allgäuer-Hackl and Ulrike Jessner explores how languages interact with one another in the multilingual brain in a dynamic process that progressively alters the cognitive system and develops new properties. The authors advocate a holistic approach to multilingualism that considers both linguistic and metacognitive processes. Ch. 16: Multilingualism and cognitive benefits in aging, contributed by Dorit Segal, Gitit Kavé, Mira Goral and Tamar H. Gollan, presents the ways in which knowing several languages deters cognitive decline in old age. This is a topic of great interest today that has been studied in depth by neurolinguist Ellen Bialystok and her team (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012). Ch. 17: Multilingual language processing and the multilingual brain produced by Iris M. Strangmann, Stanley Chen, and Loraine K. Obler utilizes data drawn from neuroimaging studies of the functioning of the multilingual brain. It reviews research on the many factors involved in how multilingualism is represented and processed in the brain, as well as studies of the neural structures and processes that allow multilinguals to control their multiple languages.


The most appropriate targets for the book are graduate students and scholars in language-related fields who seek to enhance their comprehension of the multiple facets of multilingualism and heteroglossic language ideology. The volume is probably best utilized as a supplementary source for a graduate course on multilingualism or a good review of recent literature in the field for scholars writing grants or wishing to support applied research involving multilingualism (e.g., language planning and policy-making). It makes a satisfying companion volume to Stavans & Hoffmann (2015).

The primary merits of the book stem from its multidisciplinarity, since it presents studies from far-ranging fields, including sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, applied linguistics, education, and neurolinguistics. The comprehensive nature of multilingualism demands such an approach. Another contribution of the volume is that it brings attention to certain groups that have been understudied (e.g., Deaf, CODA, and elderly multilinguals). In addition, the volume presents both models for studying multilingualism as well as case studies, combining theoretical and applied approaches to the field. Finally, it provides ample evidence of the transformative effect of multilingualism and multilingual literacy upon both individuals and social groups, something that needs to be taken into account in the planning of language resources.

The shortcomings of this book (shared by many others due to space constraints) lie mainly in the geographical zones covered. It is unfortunate that the volume does not examine speech communities in Mexico, South and Central America, the Caribbean, or Oceania (Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia) since these are regions in which there is considerable multilingualism as well as strong pressures toward language shift and death. Perhaps a second volume can address some of these ignored areas of the world. The editors recognize this limitation: “Only by expanding the geography of multilingual studies can we indeed truly break away from the Euro-centric monolingual ideology that has framed studies of multilingualism so far” (p. 399). They also acknowledge that most studies of multilingualism involve middle and upper class individuals and point to the pressing need to broaden research to include speakers of lower social classes.


Bialystok, E, Craik. F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences,16(4), 240–250.

Crystal, D. (2002). Language death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Deuchar, M., & Quay, S. (2000). Bilingual acquisition: Theoretical implications of a case study. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Nicoladis, E., & Montanari, S. (Eds.). (2016). Bilingualism across the lifespan: Factors moderating language proficiency. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Quay, S., & Montanari, S. (2016). Early bilingualism: From differentiation to the impact of family language practices. In Nicoladis & Montanari (2016), pp. 23–42.

Stavans, A., & Hoffmann, C. (2015). Multilingualism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. ALicia Pousada (PhD 1984, U. Penn.) is a linguistics professor recently retired from the English Department of the College of Humanities of the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. Her primary research and teaching interests are: language policy and planning, bilingualism, language awareness, language acquisition, language and gender, literacy, and teaching English as an additional language.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781501516504
Pages: 422
Prices: U.S. $ 114.99