Visiting playgrounds: blurring the boundary between private and public language practices (by Dr Catherine Levasseur)

For a year now, my main weekend outing has been visiting playgrounds – in my Montreal neighborhood, mostly, but also in Toronto, England and Wales. What I find most interesting in playgrounds, aside from the smile it puts on my daughter’s face, are the complex family language choices and practices at play.

In language learning, sociolinguistic and language socialisation theories (Duff, 2010; Lamarre, Lamarre, Lefranc et Levasseur, 2015), language practices are often categorised along a division between private (home, family, friends, hobbies) and public (work, school, shopping, community…) domains. Speakers are known to make different language choices based on the context, the spaces and the presence of other speakers. The nature of such contexts, being public or private, often determines the language(s) individuals will chose to use. For example, an individual may choose to speak Spanish at home with family members or at church with community members, but choose to speak French at work, and English when going out with friends. Of course, such a division between private and public domains is neither foolproof nor completely impervious. Speakers find themselves in spaces and contexts that can be considered both private (speaking with friends) and public (at the mall). Playgrounds are one good example of this kind of space, where the boundary between private and public is blurred.

Indeed, all playgrounds I have visited so far have things in common: they have slides, swings… and plurilingual families.

You may not hear it at first, because the main local public language remains the most heard by the inattentive ear. In my hood, it’s French. In Toronto, London and Cardiff, it’s English. But then suddenly, you can hear a child asking for help or a toy in a very different language, a language you may not even be able to identify, something I sometimes forget to expect when I am in a public context, being a majority language speaker myself. In Montreal, in addition to French, I have heard English, of course, but also Spanish, Portuguese, German, and a couple other languages that I cannot identity for sure. In Toronto, gosh… many more I couldn’t identify with certainty, which may sound, to some, quite exotic. In Cardiff, Wales, on the one hand, I was the ‘other’ one. Another mom approached to ask me (in English) what language(s) I was speaking with my child – we were the exotic family in the playground. She though I was speaking French, but she wasn’t sure. My Quebec accent made her doubt. She also heard me speak something else, she thought… Yes, yes. Spanish también. In London, on the other hand, no one was fazed by my French. At best, it was noticed. I was among other plurilingual families, and my variety of French didn’t seem to be so “out there.”

In all the cases I found myself in, as we played around or interacted with children and parents, I could see how parents would mostly use the family language(s) with their children, extending the private domain practices at the park, while interacting with other parents in French or English, the local accepted public language. If they noticed that someone (like me, I know—what a nosy mother a sociolinguist in disguise can be!) was paying attention, many switched from the home language to the public language. I also noticed that when I tried to speak Spanish or use a few words of other languages I know with other parents or children, I would mostly get weird looks and an answer in the public language—French or English. Obviously, I wasn’t welcome in their private domain. Very possibly I wasn’t considered a legitimate enough speaker for “language crossing” (Rampton & Charalambous, 2015) either. Also, in my enthusiasm to use their “private” languages, I perhaps made them feel uncomfortable. Even if it wasn’t my intention, they may have had the sense that I saw them as exotic families, a strange or curious thing to discover. They may also have thought that my language intrusion, which was meant simply to be friendly, was a way to judge them for using another language than French or English in a public domain, as if ‘home’ languages should remain at home. Dang. Se mettre le pied dans la bouche.

So, now, I keep listening to families’ language practices at playgrounds (nosy one day, nosy everyday), because I love to hear the language diversity wherever I am, because I am curious about languages and because, as a sociolinguist, it tells me a lot about language use in my society. I try, however, to refrain from disturbing the speakers and their natural interactions. I now play by the rules and speak French or English to other parents and children, unless I am spoken to differently. Anyway, whatever languages are spoken at playgrounds, the main goal remains the same: having a good time and putting a smile on my daughter’s face.


Duff, P. A. (2010). Language socialization. In N. H. Hornberger & S. L. McKay (dir.), Sociolinguistics and language education (p. 427-452). Bristol, UK:  Multilingual Matters.

Lamarre, P., Lamarre, S., Lefranc, M. & Levasseur, C. (2015). La socialisation langagière comme processus dynamique : Suivi d’une cohorte de jeunes plurilingues intégrant le marché du travail. Québec, QC: Conseil supérieur de la langue française.

Rampton, B. & Charalambous, C. (2015). Crossing. In M. Martin-Jones, A. Blackledge & A. Creese (Eds..), The Routledge handbook of multilingualism (p. 482-498). London: Routledge.

2 thoughts on “Visiting playgrounds: blurring the boundary between private and public language practices (by Dr Catherine Levasseur)

  1. Very interesting article! And sensitive to private/ public language use…
    thanks again to BILD- LIDA for your excellent writings!

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