Academic journal article European Journal of Language Policy

Challenges to Multilingual Language Teaching: Towards a Transnational Approach

Academic journal article European Journal of Language Policy

Challenges to Multilingual Language Teaching: Towards a Transnational Approach

Article excerpt

For the past twenty years or more, the prevalence of multilingualism has been identified as a communications challenge to international institutions (European Institute 1993). During that time, the promotion of multilingualism has become a core value and strategic policy objective for Europe, occupying a political and symbolic role at the heart of European politics and culture. This has placed particular responsibilities on the world of language teaching, which is professionally equipped to promote multilingualism, but which also has its own priorities. The aspirations of political leaders, or moral philosophers, to promote multilingualism do not always sit comfortably with the purposes and practices of language teachers. This article examines the challenges in adopting an explicitly multilingual approach to the teaching of languages in higher education.

Multilingualism has attracted intensive debate in Europe over the past decade. The reasons for this were summarised concisely in a legal working paper for the European Central Bank: "the concept of multilingualism stands out as one of the most prominent symbols of European historical, political and cultural diversity and has gradually assumed, in addition to its inherently symbolic dimension, the mandatory nature of a legal imperative and the significance of a political necessity" (Athanassiou 2006: 5).

The working paper goes on to analyse the significance of multilingualism for the creation of the European currency, the euro, and demonstrates that the spelling of the euro is not a linguistic question but is essentially a legal and economic question. This is a clear demonstration of the point that language is never just linguistic communication. On the contrary, language is deeply embedded in every area of life. From a different perspective, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben confirms this. Examining the phenomenon of the oath in Western societies, he argues that it is both a "sacrament of power" and a "sacrament of language", which places oath-giving at the intersection of law, religion and politics. He suggests that the link between language and power underlies the ethical relationship between speakers and their language, because "unlike other living things, in order to speak, the human being must put himself at stake in his speech" (Agamben 2011: 71). In that sense, language is never just language: the use of language mobilises a complex network of relationships, which are personal, cultural, social, political and economic.

Developing a multilingual approach

Echoing its political importance, multilingualism has emerged to become a key focus of research in applied linguistics in Europe. In the process, it has acquired a very wide range of meanings. In descriptive terms, it has long been viewed as either the attribute of an individual who possesses "active and passive comprehensive proficiency in two or more languages" (Braun 1937: quoted by Hufeisen and Jessner 2009: 113), or as the co-existence of two or more languages in close contact (Weinreich 1953; Alladina and Edwards 1991). For more than 30 years, an extensive research culture has developed around it, expressed in a growing body of books and journals which recognise both individual and social aspects, and consequently draw on the very different disciplines of psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics (Kemp 2009). The interactions between these two dimensions have been extensively studied, to reveal complex individual practices in dynamic social environments (Blackledge and Creese 2009; Kramsch 2009; Byrd Clark and Dervin 2014).

In parallel with research aimed at understanding and analysing it, multilin-gualism has become the focus of policy debates, which revolve around the ways in which it could or should be managed in different countries and regions. This has been a particular preoccupation in Europe, where the nineteenth-century heritage takes language to be a key component of nation building. …

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