University of Cambridge > > Second Language Education Group > Paradoxes of multilingualism in public policy in conjunction with the launching of Cambridge Masterclass Series on Multilingualism, Education and Language Policy

Paradoxes of multilingualism in public policy in conjunction with the launching of Cambridge Masterclass Series on Multilingualism, Education and Language Policy

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It is no secret that humans are fully equipped to learn and function in more than one language and that multilingualism is as pervasive in the world today as it has always been. Historically, however, the project of the nation state arising from the French and American revolutions in the late 18th century made it important to unite each nation behind one single language (or two or a few official languages). The legacy of the nation state project has carried over into a monoglossic ideology that has mired research into multilingualism, with deleterious consequences for the policies that attempt to manage multilingualism in public life. In this talk I examine three paradoxes. One is the privileging of an early timing for language instruction in educational settings, which flies in the face of new accumulated findings that clearly show the best predictor of learning outcomes is experience with each language. Another paradox involves the commodification versus demonization of language learning depending on who is undertaking it: majority-language speakers, whose multilingualism is accepted and praised and supported, or members of minoritized communities, whose multilingualism is either feared as a problem or made invisible. The third paradox I examine is the simultaneous construction of bilingualism as a cognitive advantage and a zero-sum game in which one language wins and one loses, which has supported collective discourses and research metaphors that romanticize bilinguals as smarter, all while imagining that ‘true’ bilingualism is never possible. I suggest ways in which the transformations in knowledge production about multilingualism might eventually lead to improved public policy.

Lourdes Ortega is a Professor at Georgetown University. She investigates how adults learn new languages, particularly in higher education settings. Lourdes was born, raised, and college-educated in southern Spain, spent a year abroad at the University of Munich in the early 1980s, worked as a teacher of Spanish for almost a decade in Greece, and obtained her doctorate in the United States, the country where she has lived for over 25 years now. These choices have afforded her a different dominant language at different periods in her life (so far): Spanish, German, Modern Greek, and English. This trajectory has shaped her professional identities as an educator and a researcher. She is committed to investigating what it means to become bilingual or multilingual later in life and across elite and marginalized contexts for language learning. In her work she seeks to encourage connections between research and teaching and to support harmonious bilingualism and the well-being of all multilinguals.

This talk is part of the Second Language Education Group series.

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