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Review of  Becoming Multilingual

Reviewer: Nicola Carty
Book Title: Becoming Multilingual
Book Author: Cecilia Varcasia
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.469

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EDITOR: Cecilia Varcasia
TITLE: Becoming Multilingual
SUBTITLE: Language Learning and Language Policy between Attitudes and Identities
SERIES TITLE: Linguistic Insights: Studies in Language and Communication
YEAR: 2011

Nicola Carty, Celtic and Gaelic, University of Glasgow

At an intuitive level, many readers will have an impression of what it means to
be multilingual and what multilingual communication comprises. Multilingual
communication, however, is about much more than the use of several languages to
communicate; rather, it draws on a variety of different systems of perception,
thought patterns, knowledge, and society to produce a unique system. This,
according to Cecilia Varcasia is what “Becoming Multilingual” attempts to
illuminate. This edited volume brings together a selection of papers from the
Sixth International Conference on third Language Acquisition and
Multilingualism, Bolzano, September 2009. By examining multilingualism from a
sociolinguistic perspective, the collection aims to show the dynamic processes
which build multilingualism. Ultimately, the collection is intended to improve
understanding of multilingualism as a dynamic process rather than a static system.

In her introductory chapter, Varcasia notes the growing importance of
multilingualism in a globalised world, and the ever-increasing academic interest
in the field. While traditional perspectives on bilingualism have been concerned
with the acquisition of two languages to a point of high proficiency, Varcasia
argues for a holistic approach to multilingualism, whereby the multilingual
repertoire is considered a system in its own right, and each language serves its
own particular functions.

Eight chapters constitute the body of the collection, and these fall into three
main categories: the first focuses on the significance of multilingualism for
the individual and the language community (Kärchner-Ober, Kazzazi, and Mady &
Carr), the second deals with approaches to multilingual research (Caruana &
Lasagabaster, Cortinovis, and Melo-Pfeifer), and the third addresses the
relationship between formal education and multilingualism (Hilmarsson-Dunn &
Mitchell and Braun).

‘Category 1: The significance of multilingualism for the individual and the
language community’

Renate Kärchner-Ober, “Effects of national language policies and linguistic
reorganization -- Long-term issues in a society, cultures and languages”,
pp.17-37. This paper describes language policy in Malaysia, and the effects this
has on education and Malaysia’s broader multi-ethnic society. Languages in
Malaysia find themselves in a “5-C-situation” (21), in which they are in a state
of contact, competition, cooperation, conflict, and coexistence. While Bahasa
Malay is the sole official and national language, English is recognised as a
second language. But “[p]romoting linguistic duality (Bahasa Malaysia/English)
in Malaysia is often treated as a linguistic duel” (p. 24); the Malaysian
government is keen to promote Bahasa Malay as the language of national unity and
identity, but the value of English as a global lingua franca is undeniable.
Furthermore, the growing presence of English leaves Malaysia’s other languages,
of which there are over 100, in a vulnerable position. Multilingual tensions in
Malaysia then, develop from state support of two languages which are not
necessarily native to large minorities in that country, which are themselves in
a constant state of conflict.

Kerstin Kazzazi, “Three languages, two people, one conversation”, pp. 165-187.
This chapter reports on an empirical, longitudinal study focusing on
trilingualism (German, English, and Farsi) in dialogue. The study aims to shed
light on the functions of a third language, both in the discourse context, and
in the context of an individual’s identity building. Kazazzi introduces the
concept of “language mention”, whereby the trilingual speaker refers to their
third language in a conversation taking place through the medium of their other
two languages. Language mention often occurred when the speaker was attempting
to express certain aspects of her identity. By examining language mention in the
context of trilingual discourse, the author argues that we gain some insight
into the value the speaker attaches to each of her languages, and thus into her
linguistic identity.

Callie Mady & Wendy Carr, “Immigrant perspectives on French language learning in
English-dominant Canadian communities”, pp. 189-209. This final chapter takes as
its theoretical basis imagined communities (Anderson 1991) and the concept of
language as capital (Bourdieu 1977). These theoretical positions are explored
using data from two earlier studies by the authors, gathered from immigrants to
British Columbia and Ontario, who spoke neither English nor French as L1. The
authors sought to explain why immigrant parents and students were interested in
enrolling on school French programmes. As in other chapters in this volume, the
parents expressed that learning French (a relative minority, but nonetheless,
official language) could improve employability prospects, academic success, and
incorporation into the wider Canadian community. They further found that
students not only viewed French in these terms, but also saw it as a means of
expanding their own multilingual identities.

‘Category 2: Approaches to multilingual research’

Sandro Caruana & David Lasagabaster, “Using a holistic approach to explore
language attitudes in two multilingual contexts: the Basque Country and Malta”,
pp. 39-64. In this empirically-based study of multilingualism in two regions,
the authors advocate a holistic approach to the study of multilingualism,
whereby the languages in question are treated as a single unit. The results
presented are taken from a questionnaire-based survey of university students in
two officially bilingual regions: the Basque Country, and Malta. In both
regions, students are taught the local official languages and a third language
at school. Results show that a holistic approach, in which students are asked
for their attitudes towards all three languages and the way they interact,
provides different results to more traditional questionnaires focusing on
languages in isolation. The authors conclude that encouraging holistic
approaches to multilingualism will change perspectives on multilingualism, as
speakers and residents come to see that sociolinguistic space can be shared by
many languages, which do not necessarily threaten or demean one another. This
could have implications, not only for language policy, but also for education,
as teachers promote positive attitudes towards multilingualism and multilingual

Enrica Cortinovis, “Eliciting multilingualism: Investigating linguistic
diversity in schools”, pp. 87-111. This chapter reports on research conducted as
part of the LINEE project, and deals with migrant multilingualism and minority
languages. In addition, this paper suggests new ways of eliciting data from
multilingual speakers, which the author argues should include questionnaire data
to elicit the language used by multilingual speakers in a variety of specific
settings and sociolinguistic environments. The study took place in secondary
schools in South Tyrol, a bilingual region of Northern Italy where the German
and Italian speech communities have equal rights. Furthermore, there is a high
incidence of immigration to this region, particularly from Albania, Morocco and
Pakistan. Although Cortinovis observed very little multilingualism in action, as
monolingualism in many contexts seemed to be more typical, she argues that if
this method is combined with other, more traditional, methods of data
collection, students’ responses could be expanded upon (e.g., their reasons for
choosing to use different languages in different contexts), and the examination
of individual multilingualism could be enhanced.

Silvia Melo-Pfeifer, “Researchers’ multilingual awareness in an international
research team”, pp. 135-163. In a departure from the norms of linguistic
research, this chapter turns the focus on researchers themselves. Melo-Pfeifer
describes the analysis of a corpus of multilingual communication gathered from
the interactions of the members of an international research team. The study
comes in the context of recent research showing the effects of teachers’
language attitudes on their students, and argues that the language awareness and
attitudes of researchers will in turn affect the attitudes of those involved in
language education or language policy. The paper sets out to establish how to
define multilingual awareness in multilingual interaction, and the implications
of this for multilingual research in international research teams. The
theoretical perspective is largely rooted in socio-constructivism. Data showed
that although French was a common language to all researchers, it was used
mostly for the resolution of methodological or research issues, while humour,
banter, courtesy, and discussion of the multilingual linguistic contract tended
to be addressed multilingually in the native languages of individual
researchers, even within one discourse context. By being aware of
multilingualism, the researchers in this study could predict and resolve
potential linguistic problems, could help promote linguistic self-confidence
among members of the team, and enhance their own understanding of the issue.
Positive attitudes towards multilingualism, and positive awareness of
multilingualism among researchers, could also contribute to an increase in
multilingual research.

‘Category 3: The relationship between formal education and multilingualism’

Andreas Braun, “The role of education in the language practices of trilingual
families”, pp. 113-134. This study specifically examines how educational
practices affect trilingual families’ language use in England and Germany. Braun
argues that, as a multilingual child’s dominant language is likely to change
once he starts formal education, the challenge to maintain the home language
becomes ever more difficult. The parents of school-aged children were
interviewed in order to establish their own and their children’s communicative
methods in different social contexts. Results show the important effects
community language education can have on multilingualism in the home, and
suggest that restricting use of the community language to the wider community
can impact positively on home language maintenance.

Amanda Hilmarsson-Dunn & Rosamond Mitchell, “Multilingual migrants in England:
Factors affecting their language use”, pp. 65-86. This study of multilingualism
in English secondary schools is also part of the LINEE project (cf. Cortinovis
above). This particular project applies social network theory to the
multilingualism of migrants in England. The authors note that despite official
EU cultural policy (which encourages individual multilingualism and language
learning), the dominant ideology in most EU states is monolingualism. In the UK
in particular, official education policy does not support multilingualism or
community languages, which typically fall on the periphery of de Swaan’s
hierarchy of global languages (2001). Attitudes towards multilingualism were
established through classroom observation, interviews, and questionnaires, which
were distributed to monolingual and multilingual students, and their teachers.
Results indicate that students were keen to integrate into English-speaking
networks in order to improve economic and career opportunities and to form
friendship groups. Nonetheless, students were very proud of their multilingual
abilities and identities as multilingual speakers.

The most positive aspect of this volume is its emphasis on multilingualism and
multilingual identity as unique systems, rather than the combination of a number
of “monolingualisms”. This stance is an important step in encouraging positive
views towards multilingualism and language learning. Five of the volume’s eight
chapters deal explicitly with this issue (Caruana & Lasagabaster,
Hilmarsson-Dunn & Mitchell, Melo-Pfeifer, Kazzazi, and Mady & Carr), and it is
clear how this fits into the overall theme of the volume (as indicated in its
title) of becoming multilingual.

A further strongpoint is the inclusion of papers which use or suggest innovative
approaches to the investigation of multilingualism. As this is a relatively new
and rapidly growing field of interest, it is important to develop new approaches
to its investigation, rather than simply rely on previous methods designed to
investigate mono- and bi-lingualism. Furthermore, those chapters which suggest
new approaches to previously identified phenomena -- e.g., Caruana &
Lasagabaster and Cortinovis -- ensure the study of multilingualism as a 21st
century phenomenon is kept up to date and in line with modern best practice.
Melo-Pfeifer’s chapter is of particular interest, as it is one of the very few
studies which conducts a meta-analysis of researchers’ attitudes and the
implications of these. The innovative nature of the volume is further enhanced
by the inclusion of a selection of papers which are almost entirely based on
recent empirical research, and in the investigation of the multilingualism of
migrant communities. Large sweeps of migration have been a continuing trend for
a number of decades, and it is important therefore to ensure that linguistic
research keeps up with these societal phenomena.

A number of theoretical approaches are drawn upon in this volume. These include
social network theory, imagined communities, language hierarchies, and
socio-constructivism. While the broad theme of sociolinguistics ensures a
theoretical and topical consistency, the inclusion of a range of theoretical
standpoints leads to a volume which will surely appeal to a wide readership, and
which maintains the reader’s interest throughout. This variety also highlights
the range of approaches that can be taken to the study of multilingualism, even
within one subfield of linguistics.

The papers in this collection explore multilingualism from the perspective of
both minority and majority language communities. Addressing the multilingualism
of migrants in positive terms affords under-represented languages some prestige
and highlights the day-to-day reality of multilingualism even in societies
traditionally considered monolingual. At the same time, the inclusion of
majority language multilingualism (or at least part-majority language, e.g.,
Kazzazi’s speaker of English and German) shows that multilingualism is the
unmarked language state of many speakers in all communities.

The volume is not without its weaknesses. As global economics becomes more
dependent on Asia, and India and China in particular, a discussion of
multilingualism in these countries, or in relation to them, would have been
welcome. Of course, Kärchner-Ober’s chapter on multilingualism in Malaysia deals
directly with Asia and Asian languages. However, this chapter constitutes only
1/8 of the volume, and its inclusion seems to be almost a token gesture: while
the remaining seven studies are focused on empirical data, this is more a report
on the state of affairs in Malaysia, and does not gel quite so well with the
style of the remaining chapters. Although the final chapter focuses on Canada,
it is important to note that again this study deals not only with the West, but
also with European languages. More focus on multilingualism as a phenomenon
outwith Europe and its languages would have been welcome. Whether the absence of
such discussion is a deliberate decision of the editor, or reflects the
Eurocentric nature of the conference from which these papers were selected, is

A focus on multilingualism in the education system is very important,
particularly as this area has many implications for language policy. However,
some more focus on adult multilingualism would have been appreciated. As more
adults are encouraged to become multilingual for the purposes of work or travel,
the number of new multilingual speakers increases. The issues these multilingual
speakers face would likely be quite different to those faced by migrants, or
those living in multilingual regions, and indeed the motivations behind and
ultimate goals of these speakers may be quite different to those of school-age
children. We should not forget that language learning is for people of all ages,
and the volume may have benefitted from slightly more emphasis on the adult

There are also several minor editorial issues: these include the fact that two
chapters are somewhat difficult to follow, and are quite repetitive. Although it
is not the duty of the editor to rewrite submissions, the readability of these
papers might have been enhanced by a more rigorous editorial process.

These weaknesses, however, do not detract from the overall quality of the
volume. The book remains an exciting read for those with an interest in language
education, multilingual societies, and sociolinguistic communities. It is a
necessary and strong addition to the “Linguistic Insights” series, providing new
insight into an emerging field, and innovative approaches to linguistic
research. For the most part, papers appear well chosen and reflect a range of
unique contributions. The sociolinguistic theme also lends a cohesiveness, for
which Varcasia should be applauded. Most chapters engage well with the aims of
the collection, highlighting that multilingualism is dynamically constructed,
and occurs in a variety of social contexts. Varcasia’s academic background,
which includes multilingualism and cross-cultural pragmatics, has positioned her
very well to edit a volume such as this, and she does so commendably. This
volume is highly recommended to postgraduate and senior researchers alike, and
will bring the reader up to date with the most recent developments in this
exciting field.

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and
spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice, Translated by R Nice.
New York: Cambridge University Press.

Commission of the European Communities. 2007. Final report: High level group on
multilingualism. Education and Culture DG.

Swaan, Abram de. 2001. Words of the world: The global language system.
Cambridge: Polity Press.

Nicola Carty is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, conducting research as part of the Soillse initiative. Her research interests include second language acquisition, language planning and policy, language contact, and Construction Grammar.

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