An Exploration on the Life of a Multilingual Person

This essay uses a narrative of an informer’s multilingual experience during heуііr time spent in education and in her day to day life. It will discuss teaching strategies and theories such as language acquisition, code mixing, switching and language proficiency, by looking at a number of sociolinguistic perspectives and taking into account the socio-economic factors of bilingualism and multiculturalism. Tina is a 20 year old Romanian National, currently living in the UK. She is a functional bilingual, speaking Romanian (L1) and English (L2) at an almost balanced level.

From an early age Tina learnt French (L3) whilst she attended a French Bilingual school in Bucharest. French was taught formally as a medium of instruction, not only as subject.

Alongside classes given in Romanian, a number of classes and exams were also given in French; including maths, history and literature. Dual language programmes such as this, where two languages are taught and spoken alongside each other have been seen to increase a child’s ability to learn a new language successfully and also to have a positive effect on a student’s linguistic, cognitive or academic growth (Cummins, 2000, p.

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37). This type of language acquisition, through a bilingual framework, is seen as additive bilingualism where a person or child is able to gain a second language at no expense to the first, Lindholm-leary (2001, p.19) states that bilingualism may lead to higher levels of intellectual development.

Tina’s second language acquisition started at a young age, learning quickly in order to understand her school work.

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Tina’s parents chose this school because of its good reputation and the results its students produced. This particular school, although having a dual language programme, classes were either taught strictly in Romanian or in French, thereby keeping the languages separate. This type of education has been described as “parallel monolingualism’ Heller (1999) (cited in Creese and Blackledge, 2010, p.3).

Alongside dual language schools, a number of other types of schools and programs exist in relation to language teaching and maintenance, such as submersion and segregationist programs which aim for monolingualism in the majority language such as immersion, and mainstream bilingual which aim for bilingualism and biliteracy (Baker p.210). Due to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 (HMSO, 2000) Schools and local authorities (LAS) have a legal duty to promote race equality, endeavouring to ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve the highest possible standards. Each school must keep in line with government policies created to help children that speak a minority language; this is usually in the form of English as an additional language (EAL). In the UK few children that learn a language formally in the classroom become functional bilinguals. Some theories for this failure include; an emphasis on reading and writing rather than on authentic communication, having a low aptitude to learn a second language, a lack of motivation or opportunity to practise second language skills (Baker, p116). With large numbers of children in education having a first language other than the majority language spoken in school, it is important for government policy to assist teachers and other educational bodies in the teaching of bilingual children. In 2007, 40.7 % of primary school pupils had a first language which was not English and 49.3 %for secondary pupils in London (GLA 2008). Some guidelines for teaching, set out by the government, include approaches such as; ‘the appropriate use of pupils’ first languages in English lessons can be crucial to pupils’ attainment. Engagement and access to English can be impeded if a pupil’s first language is not appropriately supported.’ (DfES, 2002, p.7). In addition, ‘It is important to recognise that children learning EAL are as able as any other children, and the learning experiences planned for them should be no less cognitively challenging. High challenge can be maintained through the provision of contextual and linguistic support.’ (DfES, 2006) Using bilingual teaching strategies such as these and enabling use of first language will help children when settling in (Blair et al. 1998) and may help schools raise the level of attainment of bilingual children.

Whilst still attending this school, English was also introduced but only for a limited period of time and was not used outside of the allotted lesson time. Little importance was placed upon learning English; instead the focus was on improving her receptive skills in French. Tina’s parents viewed the acquisition of English differently to the school, believing that being able to speak English is a way of opening doors to international business and future success. A decision was made for Tina to spend a year studying at an American high school in Illinois where she could learn to speak English. Tina, at this point, was fluent in French but her English was very limited. Here she faced a new challenge, struggling to study in an English speaking country, using a curriculum which she did not understand. Tina received no formal language lessons; therefore her teaching of English was performed by the host family she had been placed with. School was difficult at first; Tina understood very little and came close to failing her first semester as her level of language understanding was insufficient to cope with the difficult curriculum language needed to succeed. A Study by Cummins (2008) shows that it takes 2-3 years to gain basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and 5-7 years for cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Tina was expected to be able to take exams in English even though she had only been learning English at a basic level for 3 years. To be able to understand the curriculum language and do well with assessments CALP is largely needed. At the time of taking her first exams in America, Tina only had conversational competence and it took longer to develop academic language skills. Due to very little contact with her family in Romania, and minimal opportunities to speak her first language, Tina’s language acquisition soon became subtractive and her L2 (American English) started to replace her L1  (Romanian).

During the time in which Tina studied French in Romania she was part of a multiplex network (Milroy 1987) of other French bilinguals. Within this network she could speak both Romanian and French whilst in school with her teachers and classmates and out of school when she socialised with school friends who attended the same school. Once Tina left school in Romania and moved to Illinois she was no longer a part of this social network and no links through family or the local community since French is not widely spoken. Milroy (1987, p.187) states that ‘a close-knit network structure is an important mechanism of language maintenance and without this Tina found herself unable to uphold her connections with this network and ultimately started to lose her L3, even though this network continued to function in Romania without her. The French language is not a popular one among many Americans, as the relationship between France and America has been tense since the beginning of the Iraq war, when France declined to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then there has been a general anti-French sentiment among US residents and America’s attitude towards France was worse than toward any other European country (Fisher, 2012). Recently there has been anti-French sentiment seen in the American elections with a video of Mitt Romney speaking fluent French being released by the way of attack by his rival Newt Gingrich (BBC, 2012).

After finishing her year in America, Tina decided to continue her studies abroad and enrolled at Boston College in England, an international college where she studied maths, law and economics. Here Tina lived among other international students including other Romanian nationals where she was able to converse in L1 on a regular basis meant Tina’s first language returned to its former status, whilst she was still able to continue improving her English. Here Tina was able to embrace her culture and her new friends and bring aspects of Romania back into her life. Alongside her college studies, Tina completed the IELTS course and exam in order to gain an English proficiency certificate, which would later enable her to then continue her studies in the UK at university.

After two years at Boston College, Tina moved to London to attend university where she would study law. By this time Tina’s bilingualism was well developed and she was fluent in English, both academically and conversationally, enabling her to understand the majority of the academic language needed for her studies. Here Tina has a mixture of multicultural friends, many of whom are also international students. Although she does not speak Romanian on a daily basis, Tina insures the maintenance of her L1 by engaging in telephone conversations with her family and often visiting Romanian cousins who live in London. Tina is one of many international students living in the UK, with over 369,000 foreign students entering the UK in 2002. ‘The number of non-UK domiciled students entering the UK in order to study has trebled since the early 1980s’ (Kofman et al 2005). London is a place of super-diversity and global communities; it is collection of bilingual and multilingual people from all over the world. There are an estimated 300 languages spoken in just London alone (RLN, 2008) ‘Super-Diversity is the diversification of diversity’ (Vertovec, 2007a.)

The face of diversity has recently been changing dramatically, with new forms of immigration, labour market, and a wide range of accompanying variables creating a need for new government policies and public services. In London alone there are people from some 179 countries (Vertovec, 2007b). The Labour Force Survey estimates for 2003 suggest that almost one fifth (18 %) of adult Londoners use a first language in the home other than English (GLA, 2006). Living in London, Tina states that she feels at home in such a diverse city, feeling welcome and socially accepted. She describes herself as a multicultural person and does not feel strong ties to her home country of Romania. Living away from home has changed the way she perceives herself and although she is Romanian she considers herself as a mixture of influences and cultures. Like Tina many migrants continue to have strong connections to their homelands, able to create new lives for themselves with social ties and political interests in their places of settlement (Vertovec, 2007b.)

Language mode theory helps us understand how two languages are processed; is it the way in which bilinguals process their two separate languages (Grosjean p. 2). When a bilingual is conversing with another person, with whom they share a language, they will decide on a base language for the majority of the discourse and then choose parts of the other language to intercept into the conversation, this is termed code mixing (Baker, 2011, p.106-110).

Bilinguals may switch from a bilingual mode to a monolingual mode depending on the type of conversation or activity; monolingual mode will often occur during times such as talking with her family on the phone or during discourse with another L1 speaker (Wei, p. 432). If one language is not needed, it will not be activated. Tina is in bilingual mode when communicating in English, using both her English and Romanian languages in order to speak coherently and fluently. When the opportunity to speak in L1 arises, Tina will often code switch or code mix, using English words which she believes to be more appropriate or do not translate directly, knowing that the other person will understand. Tina often uses code switching during an argument with another L1 speaker, being able to access language quickly becomes essential for expressing disagreement or irritation, with ‘one language setting the grammatical framework, with the other providing certain items to fit into the framework’ (Wei, p.15). Code switching is often a sign of bilingual competency, being able to co-ordinate two languages at the same time for different purposes.

Tina often translates between Romanian and English for her mother who frequently visits the UK to attend charity conferences to attend meetings and give presentations. Due to Tina’s mother not being able to speak English, Tina translates the presentation written by her mother into English. This involves Tina being able to translate quickly, accurately and identify when she is able to meta-phrase in order for the translation to be successful. This ability can be theorised by the Common Underlying Proficiency model; Cummins (1980, 1981) believes that when a child learns a new language they also learn a set of new skills and linguistic knowledge which they use for both languages. These two or more languages may appear separate at the surface, but the linguistic knowledge and skills used by both connects the two languages enabling them to function efficiently side by side.

Tina’s bilingualism has gone through many stages of multilingualism and bilingualism. Language use is always changing, either being added to or subtracted from as Butler and Haukta (2005) states ‘bilingualism is not static but dynamic’. We can see that there are cultural, social, and educational factors all of which play a part in the way people use a variety of languages and through the use of technology and cross-cultural contact, language will continue to become ever more complex and diverse.


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An Exploration on the Life of a Multilingual Person. (2022, Mar 26). Retrieved from

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