Language portraits: Drawing one’s identities (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

When BILD joined the CCERBAL conference, which was held in the University of Ottawa back in May of this year, we were all very excited. We (BILD members) had organized a workshop on activities that teachers can use to celebrate linguistic pluralism in the classroom and make all students feel that their linguistic repertoires are equally important and relevant. In the workshop, we prompted the audience members to try out the tools we introduced; we felt that the best way to advocate for an educational tool is none other than to offer people the time and place to use it and see for themselves whether it would be a good addition to their toolkit.

When the workshop was over, the people who attended it seemed to have appreciated the creativity of the activities and the discussions that these activities had stimulated. We were pleased too; we had ignited discussions about languages, language use and translanguaging. When the whole conference was over, we all agreed that it was a huge success; we had spent three days immersed in presentations, workshops and talks about translanguaging, a topic that we find very interesting and that has often stimulated BILDers’ interest (see Melissa’s post, Stephen’s post and Mela’s post).

In this post, I will focus on one of the activities that we proposed in that workshop; language portraits. Language portraits are the mapping of one’s linguistic and cultural identity on a body template (Prasad & Dykstra, 2011). According to Prasad (2014), this activity can help people open up and present themselves (and their linguistic repertoires) in front of others.

CCERBAL conference – Language portraits

And indeed, in my experience at CCERBAL, I found that when presenting their portraits, audience members found it easier to communicate not just information about themselves, but also their feelings about the languages that make up their linguistic and communicative repertoires, and language ideologies in general.

After seeing how this arts-informed activity resonated with the audience members in the workshop (mostly teachers), I decided to use language portraits in my ESL class. We started by discussing the concept of a linguistic repertoire, the sum of all the linguistic and communicative resources that people have at their disposal. In the words of sociolinguist Jan Blommaert, “our focus should, therefore, be on repertoires, on the complexes of resources that people actually possess and deploy. […] The resources are concrete accents, language varieties, registers, genres, modalities such as writing – ways of using language in particular communicative settings and spheres of life, including the ideas people have about such ways of using, their language ideologies (Blommaert, 2010,p. 102). Having discussed the idea that all people have a unitary system that is made up of all their linguistic resources, I invited students to create their own language portraits. When it was time for them to present their language portraits, most students saw that as an opportunity to tell their story and focus on their emotions about their multiple linguistic resources.

Although it may sound like an oxymoron, I sometimes find that talking about language can be a very challenging task. Describing one’s feelings about language can be even harder. To me, language portraits are unique in that they engage people personally and enable them to talk about their feelings about language. Watching other educators as well as students create their own language portraits, I am left with the impression that it is an empowering activity that affirms people’s multiple identities, and helps them put together elements of their repertoires that they would perhaps otherwise perceive as distinct. What do you think? Have you tried using arts-based methods in your teaching to help people communicate ideas more effectively?


Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prasad, G., & Dykstra, N. (2011). Quilting our communities: Creating personal and collective identity texts through the integration of the arts in a grade 3 class. In J. Cummins & M. Early (Eds.), Identity texts: The collaborative creation of power in multilingual schools (pp. 149-153). Sterling, Country: Trentham Books.

Prasad, G. (2014). Portraits of Plurilingualism in a French International School in Toronto: Exploring the Role of Visual Methods to Access Students’ Representations of their Linguistically Diverse Identities. The Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(1), 51-77.

One thought on “Language portraits: Drawing one’s identities (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

  1. I love using portraits because they really bring in lived experience of language Read Brigitta Busch who inspired Gail and teachers all over Europe She worked with adult plurilinguals but variations on portraits are now happening in many elementary schools
    Bravo for the workshop!

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