Plurilingual Pedagogy in Switzerland: Practices and Challenges

Critical Literature Review

Lexa Frail, Concordia University

Lisa Gonzales, Concordia University


This literature review aims to evaluate current implementations of plurilingual practices in the context of Swiss education and determine how such practices are perceived by instructors and students, both in terms of effectiveness and engagement. The works of literature chosen for the review consist of studies that measure Swiss teacher and student attitudes towards plurilingualism and its use in the classroom as well as how plurilingualism teaching methods appear in practice. Analysis shows that there is a disconnect between plurilingual instruction in theory and in practice, with multilingualism viewed largely as a collection of multiple monolingual systems.  Such compartmentalization of multilingualism impacted both how successful Swiss instructors were at meaningfully enacting plurilingual measures and students’ perceptions of their linguistic resources. While several instructors and students held beliefs affirming the value of multilingualism, instructors expressed difficulty in allowing students to draw on their full plurilingual repertoire, and many students reported that they did not feel encouraged to do so. It is clear that more resources and research are needed for the individual role-players of the Swiss education system to fully implement a true plurilingual shift in education. This article attempts to address these issues through a meta-analysis of qualitative findings to understand why plurilingual practices have not yet universally taken hold in response to the current plurilingualism discourse in SLA studies.


Cette revue de littérature vise à évaluer la mise en place actuelle des pratiques plurilingues dans le contexte de l’éducation suisse afin de déterminer comment ces pratiques sont perçues par les enseignants et les apprenants, et ce, en termes d’efficacité et d’engagement. Les travaux sélectionnés pour cette revue de littérature sont des études qui mesurent l’attitude des enseignants et des apprenants suisses quant au plurilinguisme et à son utilisation en salle de classe ainsi que la façon dont les méthodes d’enseignement du plurilinguisme transparaissent dans les pratiques enseignantes. Les analyses montrent un décalage entre l’enseignement plurilingue théorique et pratique, avec le multilinguisme généralement considéré comme des ensembles de plusieurs systèmes monolingues. Ce cloisonnement influence la façon dont les enseignants suisses adoptent de manière significative des mesures plurilingues, aussi bien que les perceptions qu’ont les apprenants de leurs ressources linguistiques. Alors que plusieurs enseignants et apprenants croient en la valeur du multilinguisme, les enseignants ont exprimé avoir des difficultés à permettre aux apprenants de s’appuyer sur leur répertoire plurilingue complet. D’ailleurs, plusieurs apprenants ont rapporté ne pas se sentir encouragés à le faire. Il est clair que davantage de ressources et de recherches sont nécessaires afin de permettre aux praticiens du système éducatif suisse d’amorcer un véritable virage plurilingue en éducation. Cet article tente de soulever ces problématiques à travers une méta-analyse de résultats qualitatifs afin de comprendre pourquoi les pratiques plurilingues ne sont pas universellement établies en réponse à l’actuel discours sur le plurilinguisme dans les recherches en acquisition des langues secondes.

Keywords: Plurilingualism, translanguaging, multilingual, Switzerland.

Mots-clés : plurilinguisme, approche translangagière, multilinguisme, Suisse.


There is a general consensus in the current plurilingualism discourse in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) studies that the field lacks research and action to support translanguaging practices in education—defined here as the positioning of students’ multilingual abilities as resources for learning (Cummins, 2014). To facilitate the pursuit, we have chosen to focus on the multilingual nation of Switzerland to investigate translanguaging practices in education. The initial idea of the current study was to examine a place where plurilingualism appeared to be convenient, if not already embraced, in order to focus more directly on evidence of plurilingual pedagogy and its effects. We learned fairly quickly, however, that the assumption that Switzerland was a context that nurtures multilingualism and naturally lends itself to heterogeneous, cross-linguistic interactions, is, in fact, false. After reviewing only a few studies, the truth of a very monolingual-based society was revealed. In reality, Switzerland’s seemingly multilingual population is divided among four official, regional languages. This fact seems to go against the encouraging information found on Swiss language policy championing multiculturalism as mandated by the government and enforced by educational institutions. The discovery forced a different path for this article: Rather than describe the successful plurilingual practices of a multilingual nation, we instead aimed to understand the disparity between official policy and practical reality. In examining areas of Switzerland where translanguaging practices were in place, our intention became to determine what the immediate players—the teachers and students—thought about them. We therefore endeavored to gather as many real-life accounts regarding translanguaging, such as case study interviews, observations, questionnaires, and surveys. We analysed those documents to reveal potential patterns among opinions and draft generalisable statements that may contribute to our understanding of plurilingual pedagogy, as these would be relevant to SLA research that aims to address the increasing pressures of globalisation and subsequent increase of multilingual migrant students. Therefore, in this article, our goals were to determine: a) how teachers and students in Switzerland view translanguaging practices within their educational system, and b) if and how Swiss teachers and students use translanguaging practices in the classroom.  Our analysis revealed that approaches and attitudes towards plurilingual practices in this seemingly-multilingual context are, at best, mixed.

Historical Origins of Swiss Multilingualism

The unique, multilingual composition of Switzerland originated with Napoleon’s 1789 forced unification of three language regions, after which French, German, and Italian became recognised as national and official languages under one common republic: Switzerland. Romansch was added as a fourth national language in 1938 (Diem et al., 2020; Csillagh, 2015; Kużelewska, 2016). In a section entitled “Languages”, the constitution calls for multiculturalism to be observed in the lawmaking process among the cantons (i.e., Swiss states). The country’s official name, Confoederatio Helvetica, implies a certain pride in equality through the use of Latin, a “neutral” language (Kużelewska, 2016). The consequences of war and territorial conquests led to political negotiations that established the multilingual Swiss identity (Giudici & Grizelj, 2017), which set the foundation for a common theme in literature of Switzerland as a successfully linguistically and culturally diverse nation (Kużelewska, 2016).

National Language Policy

As a result of this evolved multilingualism, recognition of the four different populations—German-, French-, Italian-, and Romansh-speaking—seemed to create a sort of nationalistic fervour. Learning additional languages became part of the patriotic identity of the Swiss people (Giudici & Grizelj, 2017), and promoted a feeling of social responsibility and dedication towards language teaching (Csillagh, 2015). As mentioned previously, most Swiss are used to learning a language other than the dominant language of one’s region; the multilingual setting is acknowledged by the national Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (CDIP), who seek to “promote understanding among Swiss citizens” (Csillagh, 2015, p. 438). In 2009, to fulfil this commitment and in reaction to the effects of globalisation, the tradition of studying a second language in primary and secondary education became a requirement to become comparably fluent in both an L1 and an L2 (Daryai-Hansen et al., 2015). This new pressure, according to Daryai-Hansen et al. (2015), prompted one school in a French-speaking canton to mandate a curriculum precisely for cultivating plurilingualism through integrating pluralistic approaches that endorse the complete use of a student’s linguistic repertoire—in this case, French, German, and English. The creators of this programme understood quite well the ambition behind such an approach, as well as how pertinent it was to facilitate a student’s connections between prior and current knowledge to reach plurilingual competence (Daryai-Hansen et al., 2015). The challenge of promoting multilingualism continues into post-secondary education in institutions such as the University of Lausanne (UNIL), where diversity is deeply embedded in its mission statement, one that stresses the inclusion of every student’s multilingual and multicultural background (Yanaprasart & Lüdi, 2018). Thus, it can be established that plurilingual efforts have been made on a national scale by way of educational institutions.

Institutionalised Bilingualism in Official Bilingual Towns

Some universities have the added benefit of being located within municipalities that have declared themselves officially bilingual—a declaration that reinforces the perceived necessity of plurilingualism in Switzerland. Certain towns, such as Biel/Bienne and Freiburg/Fribourg, are even bilingual by name. Some universities in these towns not only promise bilingual instruction, but proudly promote it by welcoming usage of all other L1s (Schaller-Schwaner, 2018). This level of inclusivity benefits populations like the plurilingual students enrolled at the language centre at the University of Freiburg, where the diversity of L1s among students often forces communication in the common language of English (Neuner-Anfindsen, 2013). Nevertheless, these young internationals are privileged with the choice to take exams in either French or German. That privilege reflects the “consensual cohabitation” status of French and German in these bilingual communities (Elmiger, 2015, p. 35). That is; the mutual acceptance of both languages due to their shared daily functionality is why plurilingualism can be assumed to be integral to these bilingual Swiss societies.

The Importance of Translanguaging

To emphasise the importance of focusing on an educational perspective of translanguaging, an instrument of plurilingualism, what must first be specified is the difference between a multilingual individual in society and a multilingual learner in the classroom. As Horner and Weber (2018) have stated, there is a presumption that multilingualism maintains languages as “bounded entities which are countable” (p. 4). This presumption is upheld by the linguistic boundaries perpetuated by Switzerland’s geographical demarcations. However, the linguistic separations imposed by geography cannot be applied to a multilingual student’s linguistic resources. The cognitive processes of an individual who speaks more than one language do not involve accessing each language separately, but represent a more “dynamic” model of multilingualism, where lines between languages are flexible and interact with one another (García & Woodley, 2012). Especially in a language learning situation, each language is its own resource, yet all collaboratively contribute to receiving and producing information. This essentially describes translanguaging, a process that enhances language learning and should be taken advantage of in a classroom setting (Creese & Blackledge, 2010; Cummins, 2014). The educational context of Switzerland, with both its historic co-existence of four language communities and its customs surrounding second national-language learning (Horner & Weber, 2018), should present an ideal case study for evaluating whether plurilingual teaching methods are being employed successfully. But to understand why Switzerland enforces the teaching of additional languages in schools, we must first consider the nation’s history.

Realities of a Multilingual Nation

In Switzerland, the combined efforts of history, federal and local governments, and individual school policies ultimately result in an idealised vision of a balanced multilingual nation, reflected in various facets of Swiss life and policy, from the principles that aim to unite multilingual regions, to the campaign for equally multilingual educational institutions. Multilingual planning of a country does not ensure multilingual citizens (Kużelewska, 2016). The image of a multicultural environment upheld in Switzerland’s historical timeline of events is nothing more than a federally-sanctioned ideology, which merits discussion of what is actually being administered on the cantonal level (i.e., whether canton-level multiculturalism is disparate from federal-level ideology). The education system of Switzerland is decentralised, with multilingual initiatives such as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) programmes implemented largely through local, rather than federal, initiatives (Bieri, 2018). While there is evidence of “true” plurilingual techniques being used in the business sector, implemented to avoid risk of potential economic repercussions from multilingual communication breakdowns (Csillagh, 2015), we have yet to examine if any pluralistic intentions at the societal level originate from translanguaging practices inside classrooms, where progress towards a more profound Swiss multilingualism could be measured.

At a preliminary glance, it appears that the Swiss heterogeneity observed on the surface is quite homogeneous underneath, and the country’s attempts to unify several territories seem only to result in a shared border from neighbouring countries rather than a unified Switzerland in its own right. Within that border, linguistic boundaries are upheld, which fuels a sense of monolingualism within the nation (Cotelli, 2013). Moreover, that Switzerland is the sum of a quadrilingual coexistence of communities is only somewhat true, as German and French are the two dominant languages, synchronous with how the cantons are populated, meaning in reality, the country can identify as bilingual at most (Kużelewska, 2016). Yet even this bilingualism is second to a monolingually-driven mentality—evident in students’ limited competency in their second or third languages—that results from inconsistency in policy implementation with regard to school curricula (Giudici & Grizelj, 2017). The fact is, the legislation pressuring fluency in multiple languages complicates the lives of the learner, because it creates countless linguistic choices that challenge one’s identity in academics, society, and at home. Even an L1 German student, least threatened among Swiss learners thanks to linguistic majority and educational accessibility, still must deal with the situational diglossia in all of Switzerland, where spoken Swiss-German is considered informal and “lower” than the standard German of instruction (Horner & Weber, 2018, p. 5). Curiosity leads us, consequently, to how these various circumstances are handled on a personal level and on a daily basis, especially when little research in this regard has been conducted (Elmiger, 2015). It became our interest to investigate further the attitudes of the teachers and learners meant to fulfil the authorised expectations of a multilingual nation, and to investigate their actions and opinions towards the pedagogical use of translanguaging.


Current Swiss Plurilingual Pedagogical Practices

In Switzerland, plurilingual strategies—mainly translanguaging strategies—are encountered at all levels of education. As a result of increased globalisation, the number of international students at universities has risen. Some teachers have adapted to this change by making more extensive use of English as a lingua franca in the classroom (Schaller-Schwaner, 2018). These attempts to accommodate all students have resulted in innovative plurilingual approaches. For example, students at the French-predominant University of Lausanne are encouraged to ask questions in other languages, through an anonymous question application, if they are unsure of their English (Yanaprasart & Lüdi, 2018). In another instance, a physics professor at the German-predominant Bern University of Applied Sciences used both German and French terms to refer to the process of “wave-jumping” in order to eliminate any confusion with “bending,” as it would be interpreted in German (Gajo & Berthoud, 2018, p. 860). Further, a pre-law course at the German-speaking University of Zurich encouraged three bilingual students to use their L1s—two native German-speakers and one native French-speaker—as a resource in determining the meaning of French legal terminology (Gajo & Berthoud, 2018). This last example of multilingual practice involved a degree of collaboration, which created plenty of opportunities for students to use their full plurilingual repertoires to deepen their understanding of the jargon. Still more universities have sought to expand students’ individual multilingualism. Since its founding in 2003, the Language Centre at the University of Basel has experienced increased enrollment in language courses other than German and English (Meyer et al., 2013). More notable, however, is the university’s development of curriculum encompassing German, French, and Italian in the form of a transdisciplinary, multilingual course, Kommunikationstraining im mehrsprachigen Umfeld, which allows students to draw on their core academic disciplines to present information in multiple languages (Meyer et al., 2013).

Plurilingual practices are not restricted to university settings. At the secondary school level, evidence of translanguaging practices is seen in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) programmes. Due to Switzerland’s de-centralised education system, CLIL programmes are mainly implemented through individual initiatives, rather than formal government or cantonal policy (Bieri, 2018). Such decentralization of education impacts plurilingual programmes beyond CLIL. For example, the canton of Berne has implemented a programme called passepartout, which aims to shift approaches to language teaching and learning from monolingual to plurilingual. The curriculum was developed based on third-language (L3) acquisition research and includes acknowledgement of the full capacity of students’ complex linguistic resources (Lundberg, 2019). Certain other plurilingual approaches aim to include students’ home languages in the classroom. For example, in areas of German-speaking Switzerland, foreign-language textbooks and curricula encourage the use of home languages (e.g., cross-linguistic comparison between German, home language, and foreign language) in plurilingual activities, with the intent of promoting both multiculturalism and plurilingualism (Peyer, et al., 2020). Thus, primary schools and universities alike face the issue of finding commonalities among differing linguistic repertoires. It is difficult to make generalisations about the extent of plurilingual practices’ use in Swiss education because of variability among classrooms, but there is a clear trend towards both valuing and implementing plurilingual pedagogies.

However, no current shift towards more plurilingual pedagogies is immune to the human tendency to compartmentalise language—to view a person’s known languages as independent from each other. For example, Schaller-Schwaner (2018) has explained how the canton of Fribourg’s actual bilingual practices are more in line with parallel bilingualism, or twin monolingualism of French and German, rather than multilingualism. Use of either German or French is perceived as “intended for their respective L1 speakers” (Schaller-Schwaner, 2018, p. 119). Institutional expectations prioritise the use of German and English over other languages—including Fribourg’s co-cantonal language, French (Meyer et al., 2013). Fribourg’s aforementioned passepartout curriculum aims to connect languages, yet each language is treated as a separate unit in scheduling and planning. Despite the programme’s stated ideology that language learning is a lifelong practice and that other languages are resources rather than obstacles, the schools in which passepartout has been implemented have historically aligned themselves with the idea of institutional linguistic separation, treating each language as fixed within its own space (Lundberg, 2019). It is clear that national values of harmonious plurilingualism are still falling prey to monolingual lines of thought. Meyer et al. (2013) noted positive growth in course enrollment at the University of Basel’s Language Centre and proposed project guidelines in an attempt to counter compartmentalisation. However, to date, no follow-up study has been done, and projects and programmes in line with Meyer et al.’s suggestions have been neither implemented nor studied. Even so, teacher and student opinions regarding CLIL, passepartout, and the increased use of students’ home languages in the classroom offer evidence of a struggle between plurilingual pedagogy and monolingual ideology.

Student and Teacher Attitudes to Plurilingual Pedagogy in Switzerland

Fostering multilingualism is widely perceived as beneficial by both students and teachers; it is seen as offering students more resources and opportunities. For example, when surveyed, a group of Swiss teachers overwhelmingly agreed with the statement “Multilingualism is good for all of us!” (Lundberg, 2019, p. 5). Another study found Fribourg University students felt the same; many recognised the importance of plurilingualism and cited it as necessary for success in academia as well as in their future careers (Meyer et al., 2013). A similar consensus regarding beliefs about multilingualism and pedagogy was found among primary school instructors in German-speaking Berne, including the beliefs that teachers should support the development of their students’ individual multilingualism, and that translanguaging strategies are and should be permitted in the classroom (Lundberg, 2019). Yet despite cases of teachers promoting translanguaging strategies, the predominant opinion in the Swiss education system favours plurilingual attitudes but continues to use monolingual practices. Two teachers observed to use translanguaging strategies in CLIL courses stated that they viewed their classrooms as “idealised monolingual spaces” (Bieri, 2018, p. 103) and noted that encouraging students to speak English was difficult. Both teachers’ attitudes were influenced by their confidence in immersion as beneficial to language learning: The stricter the focus on the target language, the more students will learn (Bieri, 2018). These findings suggest that instructors in Switzerland—potentially guided by institutional perspectives—have underlying monolingual ideas about how to foster individual students’ multilingualism. Swiss teachers further evidenced that they held beliefs about language based around notions of linguistic compartmentalization. Despite majority support for fostering plurilingualism in individual students, teachers largely opposed what they considered “forced trilingualism” (Lundberg, 2019, p. 6) and the use of translanguaging practices in the classroom. Furthermore, implicit beliefs that language is compartmentalized appear prevalent among both students and teachers. Almost forty-six percent of surveyed students at a Language Centre at the University of Basel expressed a desire to use their knowledge of languages other than German in their studies, but did not feel encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to do so (Meyer et al., 2013). Teachers’ beliefs that translanguaging is disruptive or forced may have led university students to assume that only one language could be used at a time, for a single purpose. Additionally, there is a tendency to assume that a multilingual student’s competency in each language is equal, as seen in a study by Peyer et al. (2020), where the common assumption made in primary schools was that migrant children had balanced, monolingual-like competency in their home languages—a belief that became problematic when implementing plurilingual methods of instruction. When examining this issue, Peyer et al. (2020) noted that students are “supposed to be competent and fluent speakers (and writers) of their home languages” (p. 10) by teachers and other students. That study found that many primary school students in the study did not know how to answer requests for words in their home languages; even if they knew the word, they often did not know how to write it. Parallel bilingualist assumptions can turn attempts at pluralistic strategies into embarrassing moments for learners.

Consistent inadequate implementation of plurilingualism, such as that described above, highlights a broader issue: Instructors lack proper training and resources in plurilingual pedagogy. In a framework proposed by Galante et al. (2019), success in implementing plurilingualism in English for Academic Purposes programmes was contingent on: 1) support from the administration, 2) the institution’s openness to all languages; that is, an acknowledgment of students’ full linguistic repertoires, 3) collaboration between policy drafters (in this case, researchers) and policy practitioners, and 4) the degree of learner-centredness of the tasks. In the current analysis, Galante et al.’s four key factors seemed consistently absent across the Swiss context. For example, in many instances of comparons nos langues tasks in Peyer et al.’s (2020) study, teachers’ reactions to students’ cross-lingual comparisons were shallow. Rather than elaborating on plurilingual students’ input, teachers often had nothing more to say than “interesting” (p. 12). Teachers’ choice of words—particularly the phrase “your language” (p. 10)—when asking a student how to say something in their L1 implied, unintentionally yet problematically, that migrant students could not claim Swiss German as theirs. Thus, while the teachers were attempting to foster an openness to all languages, they lacked the knowledge to do so effectively. For example, it was apparent that the instructors were ill-prepared to make use of input from non-Germanic or non-Romance languages in particular. One quarter of the students—whose L1s were overwhelmingly derived from linguistic families other than Germanic or Romance—reported that their home languages had never been included in class prior to the study (p. 6). The way tasks were made “learner-centred” also presented issues. When students with a home language that was not an official Swiss language were asked whether they liked their home languages being included in the classroom, over half responded that they did; however, over 6% stated that they were embarrassed by it. Reasons for feeling embarrassed included self-perceived lack of home-language proficiency, and fear that their language would “sound weird” to other children (p. 6).  Overall, Peyer et al.’s study demonstrated that, where plurilingual practices are in place, they are not meaningful without teachers’ full understanding of the purpose of the activities or how to empower, rather than single-out, multilingual students

Problems with implementing plurilingual pedagogy extend beyond multilingual primary schools. For example, at the University of Lausanne, the Director of the Center of Languages admitted that “a number of teachers do not do enough to exploit students’ linguistic resources” and instead  “stay in a monolingual perspective of teaching and communicating” (Yanaprasart & Lüdi, 2018, p. 831), despite the school’s fervent support of plurilingualism practices to promote diversity. This is another example of a lack of openness to languages—which would actively encourage students to draw on their full linguistic resources (Galante et al., 2019)—on the part of the teachers, as well as evidence of a disconnect between the policies promoted by the university’s Diversity Officer and the practicing teachers (Yanaprasart & Lüdi, 2018). Difficulty implementing plurilingual teaching practices was  particularly common amongst non-foreign (i.e., Swiss) language teachers (Lundberg, 2019). Exceptionally, one teacher observed and interviewed in Bieri’s (2018) study cleverly incorporated plurilingual practices into his non-CLIL biology course: He carried over his CLIL strategy of comparing the roots of unknown words to words students may know in English, French, and in some cases, Greek. Bieri also noted that biology was a great context for translanguaging practices because of its high number of English and Latin borrowings. However, in Bieri’s study, incorporation of plurilingual  practice was unique to the one instructor, and that instructor still believed a multilingual student’s languages existed as separate entities.

Thus, reported perspectives on plurilingual education often demonstrate an inaccurate understanding of what such practices entail. Even after undergoing training in plurilingual pedagogy, teachers may misinterpret the intentions behind plurilingual curricula. For example, in Zurich, an experimental introduction to English as a language of instruction in primary schools, known as School Project 21, treated English as a tool for communication rather than as a separate subject (Stotz & Meuter, 2003). Though teachers involved in the experimental programme underwent language and methodological training prior to and during the study, there remained a tendency to oversimplify translanguaging as “switching to English” (Stotz & Meuter, 2003, p. 90). Although School Project 21 was never fully implemented, its particular issues appear to further exemplify both a tendency to view multilinguals’ languages as compartmentalised, and a lack of understanding of plurilingualism as a practice. And while other plurilingual programmes have taken hold, many teachers involved maintain monolingual interpretations of plurilingual methodology. Lundberg (2019) states this succinctly: “Changes in teachers’ beliefs and pedagogical approaches take time and only happen if the teachers are convinced that the modifications are for the better” (p. 3).

Globalisation and the Shifting Linguistic Landscape

It is impossible to ignore the consequences that globalisation has had on language education and language use in Switzerland. In some cases, English is taught as an additional language before any national languages; for example, this typically occurs with French in German-speaking cantons. Concerns about English potentially undermining Swiss national identity persist; for example, when Zurich gave priority to English over French as a second language in its primary schools, the balance of Swiss language policy was perceived as being threatened, and “a major language-ideological debate” known as the Sprachenstreit resulted (Horner & Weber, 2018, p. 92). However, despite concerns, the value of English as a lingua franca (ELF) has been widely recognised. Universities in particular make great use of ELF. Over 80% of students at the University of Basel reported in a survey that they considered English to be “very important” for their future careers (Meyer et al., 2013, p. 415). Due to globalisation, universities are increasingly composed of international students, which leads to classrooms in which students speak a variety of L1s. In a study that observed translanguaging practices in one beginner German and one beginner French class at the bilingual University of Fribourg, both teachers used English as a resource for explaining features of grammar. When interviewed, the German teacher explained that she had tried using French for this purpose, but not enough students in the class had knowledge of French, either as an L1 or an additional language (Schaller-Schwaner, 2018). Further proof of ELF’s instrumental value is found in TESOL practitioners’ perceptions of global Englishes. Though “traditional” English classrooms are based on “native English norms”, a survey conducted by Murray (2003, as cited in Cameron & Galloway, 2019) revealed that 67.6% of the 253 surveyed English teachers working in Switzerland wanted more respect for non-native Englishes (p. 152). The survey did not investigate the origins of teachers’ attitudes, but it served to demonstrate current trends of English use as a tool for communication among speakers of varying L1 backgrounds. The increase in popularity of ELF poses challenges additional to perceived threats to nationalism. English proficiency is becoming a necessity to academic success, particularly at the university level. This causes students concerns surrounding their English competencies, and ties academic success not to knowledge, but to how well one can use their linguistic repertoire to represent what they know (Meyer et al., 2013). It appears that English is considered an important resource in Swiss universities, but is one that comes with its own set of challenges.


It is apparent that more research is needed concerning attitudes towards plurilingual classroom practices from instructors and students in Switzerland, as well as clear frameworks for implementing language policy. Current evidence shows that while there is a shift towards plurilingual pedagogy in the Swiss education context, it is not being implemented consistently, leaving many of those involved in Swiss plurilingual education unable to reap its potential benefits. This is an ongoing struggle familiar to action researchers (e.g., Bieri, 2018; Galante et al., 2019; Peyer et al., 2020) and current teachers pursuing graduate education (e.g., the authors), who are continually trying to narrow the gap between theory and practice to within a collaborative distance. Despite evidence of beneficial cross-linguistic comparisons being made in Swiss classrooms, prevailing ideas surrounding linguistic compartmentalisation interfere with efforts towards plurilingualism in Swiss education, mostly because those in the field have not been adequately informed by those in the laboratory. Swiss teachers are ill-equipped to take full advantage of students’ linguistic knowledge because they are largely unaware of how plurilingual methods of instruction benefit comprehension and processing. That is, Swiss teachers lack the understanding of the cognitive benefits of plurilingual pedagogy that researchers have, and thus may undervalue or misinterpret plurilingual curricula. However, a  training programme initiative could potentially address this situation and improve the circumstances that many teachers, like those in the CLIL and non-CLIL courses discussed earlier, are creating for their students. Maintaining critical awareness of powerful and existing attitudes that directly influence learner motivation is imperative for teachers, as these factors affect overall language acquisition and development, and any programmes designed to train teachers to use plurilingual strategies effectively must be research-informed.

Likewise, better understanding and implementation of plurilingual pedagogy will allow Swiss students to recognise opportunities to use their full linguistic repertoire. Without appropriate and explicit encouragement from informed teachers, students may become discouraged by feelings of awkwardness or fears of rejection when using languages other than the language of instruction or the dominant language of society. Furthermore, the advantages of effective cross-linguistic comparisons will benefit learners of all levels. This claim has been supported by Piccardo and Galante (2018), who stated that exercising the functional aspect of translanguaging, which draws on personal experiences for content used in communication and social interaction, not only promotes learner agency and validates a person’s prior knowledge, but also avoids “linguistic homogenisation and stimulates heterogeneity” (p. 158) in the language learning environment. Without this wisdom, ​Thus, by treating multilingualism as the sum of multiple sets of monolingualism, rather than as a plurilingual toolbox, the Swiss education system denies students the ability to maximise the full potential of their linguistic repertoire for personal, educational, and societal benefit.

Unfortunately, research to date provides little insight into the particular viewpoints of Swiss students and how receptive they are to plurilingual education, which creates difficulty for implementing plurilingual programmes. Few studies address how students in Switzerland perceive the role of their linguistic competencies in their studies. Peyer et al.’s (2020) study on primary school children addressed the growing trend towards “valorisation” of home languages and its impact on students. The study makes it apparent that, in reality, sociopolitical factors influence how Swiss plurilingual programmes function. Just as teachers may be ill-equipped to implement bi/multilingual teaching practices and curricula, students may feel under-capable of engaging in plurilingual activities. Even without the push for translanguaging pedagogy, one author of this paper has experienced a range of L2 learner beliefs within the extremes of two opposite camps of thought: Some of her L2 students have argued for the necessity of use of L1 resources in the classroom, while others have expectations of full immersion through use of the L2 alone. Without research on Swiss students’ perspectives regarding plurilingual strategies, it is difficult to see whether or not students have internalised the idea of languages as separate entities. The inconsistent learner beliefs found in the research reinforces the need to support learners and teachers by sharing the pedagogical gains seen in plurilingual studies. More research on student attitudes towards and perceptions of plurilingualism will strengthen current findings and offer further evaluation of the effectiveness of current and potential practices.

Nevertheless, there exists support for developing students’ multilingualism in the Swiss context, and pedagogical practices that reflect that support are being implemented at local and cantonal levels. Ultimately, however, the success of plurilingual pedagogy in Switzerland boils down to individual players. To date, not much has changed since Meyer et al.’s (2013) study. Projects following their proposed guidelines—that is, those that take a cross-disciplinary approach that requires cross-linguistic and cultural analysis—have not been widely reported on. It is difficult to know where progress has been made. Several studies since Meyer et al.’s have identified similar issues of policies founded on beliefs of languages as separate entities, lack of training for instructors, and a general misunderstanding of what plurilingual practices are and why they are effective. It is no surprise that Swiss teachers have not made much headway in successfully integrating these strategies in their classrooms. The clearest solution is to evaluate current training offered to teachers working in settings such as universities, CLIL classrooms, L1-diverse classrooms, and in the passepartout programme, and identify any shortcomings. New guidelines for training should include thorough definitions of multilingualism, plurilingualism, and how translanguaging works to enhance learning. The Swiss context faces the challenge of a decentralised federal government; changes to curriculum in one canton are unlikely to be implemented in another. Given that many current programmes are the result of individual initiatives—for example, by university language centres, or parents seeking CLIL courses for their children—any spread of plurilingual strategies among Swiss classrooms will likely continue to be inconsistent and variable.


Plurilingualism is not about “switching to another language” for part of a lesson. It involves cross-linguistic references that serve as bridges for students’ understanding. It allows students to draw on their resources—linguistic or otherwise—and to reevaluate content from the perspective of an additional language. It encourages students to use what they know to decipher what they do not know. For plurilingualism to be successful, participation must be active and meaningful. An analysis of the Swiss educational context reveals that language education continues to lack a truly plurilingual perspective. As long as globalisation continues to be the driving force it is today, the ongoing trend of mixed-language classrooms is in no danger of disappearing.

To combat that danger, educational programs, such as those in Switzerland, must keep a few key points in mind. First, previous attitudes towards plurilingual education and separation of languages are outdated and unrealistic. However, these attitudes remain highly prevalent, even in a nation like Switzerland, which prides itself on its harmonious multilingualism. Reeducation on how plurilingual students can use their languages as resources is needed. Misconceptions regarding immersion and exposure, translanguaging, and supposed limitations of plurilingual strategies must be thoroughly addressed and countered when implementing educational programmes that make use of plurilingual pedagogy.

Finally, the compartmentalisation of languages that persists in institutions and attitudes alike is problematic, and is far from unique to Switzerland. It is a deep-seated belief that is difficult to counter. Ideologies aligned with monolingualism and multilingualism treat languages as separate systems. However, once it is recognised that students using their L1s or other additional languages in class is an opportunity for, rather than an obstacle to, immersion and exposure, teachers have the potential to seize the moment and contribute to student success—provided the resources are in place to do so. It is imperative that, as we continue forward in our globalised, increasingly multilingual world, we adapt systems of education that no longer reflect the linguistic reality of today’s students, and embrace research-based initiatives towards plurilingual classrooms.


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Digital Autobiographical Identity Texts as Critical Plurilingual Pedagogy

CHRISTINA TJANDRA, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

JAMES CORCORAN, York University

MARIA GENNUSO, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

ALLISON ROSE YELDON, Lester B. Pearson & La Commission Scolaire des Trois Lacs School Boards


This article explores emergent tropes from conversations between a language teacher educator and three plurilingual language teacher candidates on the impact of creating a digital autobiographical identity text (D-AIT), a multimodal digital ‘text’ constructed to reflect their hybrid and evolving professional identities. In attempting to better understand the complex potential of this type of digital storytelling in the language teacher education classroom, we discuss at length several salient themes emerging from our polyvocal, or multi-voice data. These themes include the immediate and enduring impact of D-AIT production on language teacher candidates’ professional identities; the impact of this plurilingual pedagogy on both teachers’ and students’ academic literacies; and the potential of multiethnographic, polyvocal research to empower teacher-researchers. We conclude the article with, i) tips for using D-AITs in order to support culturally and linguistically diverse language teacher candidates and students; as well as ii) suggestions for how our participatory methodological approach may contribute to scholarly conversations and teacher practices.


Cette étude explore des métaphores émergentes issues des conversations entre un enseignant de langues et trois candidats multilingues en enseignement des langues secondes. Leurs discussions portent sur l’impact de la création des textes identitaires numériques autobiographique (D-AIT, Digital Autobiographical Identity Texts), à savoir des textes numériques multimodaux qui reflètent l’hybridité et le développement de l’identité professionnelle de ces candidats. Pour qu’on puisse bien comprendre la richesse et la complexité d’une telle narration numérique en classe de formation des enseignants des langues, on examine en détail plusieurs thèmes saillants qui surgissent de nos données de recherche. Ces thèmes incluent l’impact immédiat et durable de créations D-AIT sur l’identité professionnelle des enseignants des langues, soit l’impact de cette approche pédagogique plurilingue sur les littératies académiques des enseignants et de leurs étudiants ainsi que le potentiel de l’étude multiethnographique pour renforcer les capacités des enseignants-chercheurs. L’article conclut i) en proposant des idées pour utiliser le D-AIT afin de soutenir des étudiants et des candidats à l’enseignement des langues et ii) en suggérant comment notre méthodologie d’approche participative pourrait contribuer aux discussions académiques et aux pratiques d’enseignement.

Keywords: academic literacies, digital storytelling, language teacher identity, multiethnography, plurilingualism.


Identity, or “how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is structured across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future” (Norton, 2013, p. 45) has been a robust topic of research since the “social turn” in applied language studies in the mid 1990’s (Block, 2016; Darvin & Norton, 2015). Much of this research has considered the identities of those learning additional languages. To a lesser extent, it has also provided insight into language teachers’ (and those studying to be language teachers, a.k.a. language teacher candidates’) dynamic identities, beliefs, and practices (Barkhuizen, 2016b; Farrell & Kennedy, 2019; Morgan, 2004; Norton, 2013). One form of promoting reflection on identity construction and negotiation is through digital storytelling, or the “art of telling stories with a mixture of digital media” (Robin, 2016, p. 18). Storytelling can take many forms, including identity texts—creative multimodal products which may be written, spoken, visual, or constructed with any combination of these elements—which have long been discussed as progressive, identity-affirming pedagogical tools for use with language learners (e.g. Cummins et al., 2005; Cummins, Early & Stille, 2011). Cummins and Early (2011) claimed such texts can act to validate language learners’ repertoires of languages, cultures, abilities, and experiences. Initially imagined as a paper-based text, they also suggest that digital media (images, audio, and video) “acts as an amplifier to enhance the process of identity text production and dissemination” (p. 3).

In applied language studies, such digital narratives have shown to positively affect learners’ engagement (Prasad, 2018; Sadik, 2008), digital literacy skills (Niemi, Harju, Vivitsou, Viitanen, & Multisilta, 2014), academic literacies (Corcoran, 2017; Steinman, 2007; Yoon, 2014), and identity construction (Darvin & Norton, 2014; Skinner & Hagood, 2008). Adopted for teacher education classrooms, digital storytelling can be seen as an ideal tool for affording critical self-reflection and development of professional identity (Coggin et al., 2019; Ladson-Billings, 2000). Though research is limited on the impact of digital storytelling on language teacher candidates’ beliefs and practices, such pedagogies may serve to acknowledge and affirm complex, multidimensional, and fluid identity construction and negotiation (Barkhuizen, 2016a; Morgan, 2016; Norton, 2016). Adding to the recent wave of research on language teacher identity (e.g. Barkhuizen, 2016a; Masson, 2018), our polyvocal study, that is, comprised of many voices, opinions, and viewpoints, investigates the impact of a particular pedagogical tool—digital autobiographical identity texts (D-AITs)—on three language teacher candidates’ professional identities. In this article, through thematic analysis of conversations between three plurilingual language teacher candidates and one language teacher educator, we share our perspectives on D-AITs as identity affirming, transformational tools for language teacher education.


Our project emerged from instructor and student experiences in a Master’s level, online course called Critical Academic Literacies: Teaching Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Students, offered to Master of Arts, Master of Education, and Master of Teaching students in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s (OISE) Department of Curriculum, Teaching, & Learning (CTL). This course aimed to build theoretical and research-informed understandings among teacher candidates that they might apply to their emerging and/or existing teaching practice, specifically with regard to supporting culturally and linguistically diverse students in Ontario schools. Following completion of the course, the instructor—James—and the teacher candidates—Christina, Maria, and Allison—connected electronically (via Skype and email) to reflect upon the impact of creating digital autobiographical identity texts (D-AIT). The D-AIT assignment required teacher candidates to produce a multimodal digital text that captures their hybrid and evolving language practices over the course of their lives, with a focus on how languages have played a mediating role in the negotiation of their personal and professional identities. Along with the creation of an approximately 15-minute D-AIT, the assignment also required a one-page critical reflection where language teacher candidates reflected upon the choices they made when producing their digital texts.

Due to the fully online model of instruction for this course, teacher candidates were provided both asynchronous and synchronous guidance in the form of documents, short videos, and question and answer sessions. D-AITs (digital text and reflection piece) were assessed using a rubric with two main categories: content (e.g. depth of reflection; creativity of multimodal production; etc.) and language (e.g. effectiveness of narration; coherence; lexical choices; etc.). Following production and assessment of the D-AIT assignment, teacher candidates were invited to upload and share their products either with the entire class on a shared e-space or only with the instructor.


Drawing on theory from critical applied language studies, or a focus on language teaching and learning that connects classroom language use with broader social relations of power (Pennycook, 2001), this section aims to explicate and advance a particular lens for analyzing data stemming from our investigation. To better understand this conceptual approach, it is important to highlight the main theoretical underpinnings.

Critical Plurilingualism

As part of a storied history of critical pedagogy in language studies, we are acutely interested in pedagogies that challenge inequity and asymmetrical social relations of power (Cummins, 2000; Kubota & Lin, 2009; Pennycook, 2001). This critical orientation views language as “an unstable social practice. . .not a neutral and objective conduit for description of the real world” (Kincheloe, 2007, p. 23). Importantly, this orientation necessitates the consideration of how particular language beliefs and practices may cement—or challenge—asymmetrical relations of power between languages, groups, and individuals (Kubota, 2016; Lin, 2016; Phillipson, 2008). Ultimately, our critical orientation allows for robust consideration of how particular pedagogies may impact teacher beliefs and practices, both within and beyond teacher education classrooms.

Our plurilingual orientation welcomes linguistic and discursive variation, challenging normative (monolingual) epistemologies, ontologies, and ideologies that may reify particular relations of power (Cummins, 2009; Lin, 2016; Marshall & Moore, 2018; Piccardo, 2013). As Lin (2013) argued, plurilingual orientations recognize the “interactions and communicative repertoires of both learners and teachers in multilingual settings, [and its affirmation acts] as a potential resource rather than necessarily a barrier to language and content learning” (p. 522). Such an orientation necessarily attends to issues of evolving professional or personal identities, positioning, in this case, plurilingual teacher candidates not as deficient but rather as pluri-competent users of English or French as an additional language. Therefore, through such a lens, we view language proficiency as part of plurilingual teacher candidates’ dynamic repertoire of communicative resources (Englander & Corcoran, 2019; Galante, 2019; Lau & Van Viegen, in press), thus challenging “discourses of deficit, (in)competence, and open[ing] spaces for a plurality of languages” in the classroom (Marshall & Moore, 2018, p. 21). We argue that our critical plurilingual lens (see Figure 1) is ideal for considering language, identity, power, and pedagogies in the language teacher education classroom.

Figure 1: A critical plurilingual conceptual lens (adapted from Corcoran, 2019)


Multiethnographic approaches, also referred to in the extant literature as duoethnography (Norris, 2008; Norris, Sawyer, & Lund, 2012), trioethnography (Corcoran, Gagné & McIntosh, 2018), and collaborative autoethnography (Adamson et al., 2019), are a relatively novel form of research design derived from William Pinar’s (1975) autobiographical method currere, or curriculum of life, which aims to uncover and reconceptualize present and past histories (Sawyer & Norris, 2015). Multiethnography is a methodology through which “the self is not the topic of the research but the site of the research” (Breault, 2016, p. 778). Here, the ethnographers “use themselves to assist themselves and others in better understanding the phenomenon under investigation” (Norris & Sawyer, 2012, p. 13) by reflecting on what they experience, how they make meanings, and how the meanings transform over time (Breault, 2016). This dialogic exchange is intended to disrupt the “metanarrative of self at the personal level by questioning held beliefs” (Norris & Sawyer, 2012, p. 15). The process is not about retelling the past, but about finding meaning and reconceptualizing the past. Our polyvocal perspectives, opinions, and viewpoints are portraying “knowledge in transition” (Norris & Sawyer, 2012, p. 20) as participants reflectively engage in this form of self study (Pithouse-Morgan & Samaras, 2015). Importantly, readers are positioned not as spectators but rather as active participants in meaning-making rather than simple “recipient[s] of newfound wisdom” (p. 22).

Our multiethnographic study brings together the dialogic exchanges between James, a language teacher educator, and Christina, Maria, and Allison, three plurilingual language teachers (see Figure 2). Our exchanges consider D-AIT pedagogy, its implications for our teaching and learning, and how it impacted our understandings of the connections between language, identity, power, and pedagogy. In our polyvocal study, we make our voices explicit and juxtapose our stories and perspectives, ultimately leading to convergent and divergent positions. Of note, power was negotiated collectively throughout this research project, resulting in, we argue, more collaborative than coercive relations of power (Cummins, 2000) between James and his former students. We explain our processes to redistribute power in the following section.

Figure 2: Researcher Positionalities

Figure 2: Researcher Positionalities

As project leader, James (Author 2) initiated and facilitated dialogic exchanges carried out by the entire group via synchronous (1 hour and 41 minutes of Skype meetings) and asynchronous (41 email threads) means over the course of a full calendar year. In each discussion, we negotiated and reflected upon a “narrative frame” (Barkhuizen & Wette, 2008, p. 373). These frames provided direction for our conversations that might open doors to new themes and dialogues. Once we decided that each theme was exhausted or had reached a saturation point, we met to negotiate who would take on subsequent roles in data analysis and research write-up. We collectively decided that Christina, as a research-stream teacher candidate, would take over the lead in data analysis, while Maria and Allison, due to intensive classroom teaching schedules, would assume supporting roles. Christina, Maria, and Allison transcribed and merged the Skype data with our email threads into a single Google Docs file. After capturing a significant amount of data via synchronous discussions and asynchronous email exchanges, Christina, Maria, and Allison coded the data using the three main narrative frames: experiences of plurilingual teacher candidates with digital AITs; potential and limitations of digital AITs; and impact of digital AITs on teacher candidates’ language teaching practices. Next, as a group, we identified seven emergent, salient themes, with 21 sub-themes. Christina subsequently amalgamated and reduced the data into the five themes outlined in our dialogic conversations presented in the findings section. Once data was collected and analyzed, we decided as a group that Christina, as an emerging scholar who could benefit from leading the research writing process, should take on the primary role in writing up the findings, with James, as a more experienced scholar, playing a supporting research/ writing role. Though not representative of actual progression of exchanges between the researchers, we have mindfully organized and presented the data as linear conversations, aiming to achieve a high level of readability while maintaining our distinct voices and perspectives.


This section highlights the collaborative nature of the polyvocal inquiry (Corcoran, Gagné & McIntosh, 2018; Crump, Halcomb-Smith & Sarkar, 2019). The language teacher educator, James, facilitated and moderated the discussion, listed under five thematic categories; however, the main voices highlighted are those of the three plurilingual language teacher candidates.

D-AITs: Facilitating Reflections on Professional Identity

James: So, how about we start the discussion by reflecting upon the D-AIT production process. How did this assignment impact your ideas about language, identity, power, and pedagogy?

Christina: For a non-native English speaker teacher (NNEST) like myself, this activity has helped me appreciate the languages that I speak and has helped me reflect on my own practice as a researcher and educator. Creating a D-AIT (Click to view Christina’s D-AIT) has helped me to look inwards and to better understand how my learning and teaching experiences informed my beliefs on how to teach a language. Instead of doubting my credibility as a language teacher, the process of creating a D-AIT has helped me embrace my non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST) identity.

James: Yes, Christina, I certainly sensed that you embraced your plurilingual and pluricultural identity when “reading” your D-AIT. What about those of you who use / teach French as an additional language?

Maria: Right, so, I must say that, though I have experience teaching in a number of different contexts and languages (FSL; ESL; K-12; post-secondary), I had never before taken the time to reflect on my language learning experiences, tensions and privileges, and relationships with others to the extent that I did during my digital AIT production process (Click to view Maria’s D-AIT). It is the most transformative project I have experienced. Reflecting on who I am as a French language learner revealed tension-filled experiences that inform my teaching practices and relationships with students. For example, I am much more accepting, flexible and patient with my diverse learners’ language production.

Allison: First, I want to say that all teachers are language teachers. Regardless of the subject we teach, we all use language to convey meaning in the classroom. Specifically, though, my role as a French as a second language (FSL) teacher—who often works with elementary students—is to create an environment where my students feel safe, confident, and excited to explore the French language and culture. After years of struggling with my non-native speaker identity, I have come to accept that I do not need to speak perfect French; in fact, each mistake I make creates a teaching opportunity. The D-AIT assignment allowed me to reflect on my hybrid identity as both a language teacher and a language learner (Click to view Allison’s D-AIT reflection). Creating the D-AIT brought back difficult memories of feeling like an outsider while learning a new language and trying to gain access to certain communities. In the end, I think these experiences may help me empathize with my own plurilingual students who may be experiencing similar challenges, perhaps motivating me to try to get to know them better. The D-AIT allowed me to realize that we all have these really complex, hybrid identities.

Maria: Totally agree, Allison. This type of assignment can allow for the teacher to share her unique life and learning experiences, leading, in turn, to better appreciating our students’ identities. Also, from my experience using D-AITs in the classroom, I think students are more comfortable and empowered when instructors allow for plurilingual self-expression through code-switching and translanguaging.

Christina: I agree with Maria in that acknowledging learners’ linguistic and cultural heritage through the production of Digital AITs can create a space to explore and develop meaningful connections between their lives and language learning.

Maria: Right! By drawing attention to learners’ experiences, we can teach them to read the world, improving their critical language awareness. Teachers need to care about the challenges facing ELLs and demonstrate this care through reflection and consideration of tasks/goals/success criteria that serve the needs of all learners. This can be done while supporting overall academic literacies.

James: One of the main objectives of this assignment is to meaningfully reflect and engage with the role of language in our complex, diverse life trajectories and hybrid professional identity construction / negotiation. It has certainly been my experience that this type of pedagogy can be identity-affirming, particularly for those who have all too often been dismissed as less than optimal teachers due to their diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

D-AITs: Development of Academic Literacy Skills

James: What were the affordances of this type of assignment (D-AIT) for developing your academic literacy and/or digital literacy skills?

Christina: The process of digital storytelling required accessing my different academic literacy skills and practices: organization; writing; editing; oral presentation skills; creating media texts for different purposes and audiences; experimenting with different writing conventions; using various computer software; and considering how to execute the digital production successfully in light of the assessment rubric (metacognition).

Maria: Yeah, my digital literacy competencies have expanded through this assignment. I am much more confident not only using such communicative tools for future presentations, but also more comfortable with inspiring students to use them for various purposes. When I shared my D-AIT with some of my more seasoned language teacher colleagues, they were impressed and intimidated by it, commenting that technologies they never learned are now commonplace. I think digital production processes like the ones we used when producing the D-AIT should be learned by language teacher candidates so that they may be implemented with K-12 language learners, but I understand this may be challenging for some teachers.

Allison: I agree that this assignment was extremely multi-faceted, constantly requiring me to think critically and make reflective choices. It was like putting together the pieces of a puzzle that would accurately tell the story of who I am as a language learner/teacher to my audience of university peers. Because of how well the D-AIT was scaffolded, I was able to experiment with new digital tools—which I have since used with my students—and gain confidence in my digital text production. This scaffolding is now part of my process when I employ this type of assignment with my own FSL students.

Maria: Yes, from my experience with learners in varied contexts, D-AITs can strengthen communication, writing, language and presentation skills, as well as their metacognitive skills.

James: Yes, this pedagogy affords development of a broad range of literacy practices. From my perspective, not only do language teacher candidates need scaffolding in support of their more traditional literacy practices (e.g., reflective writing; oral presentation skills) but also in their use of digital technologies. Providing time and tips to engage with the varied digital production tools (e.g., screencasting; embedding videos; using PPT slides; etc.) can benefit teacher candidates both in terms of their digital AIT production as well as their subsequent language teaching practices. One of the distinct pleasures of incorporating this pedagogy into the language teacher education classroom has been the chance to engage with teacher candidates’ varied levels of digital savvy and creativity. At times I have found myself in awe of the sophistication of the digital production by language teacher candidates. On a personal note, my own digital literacy practices have benefited from engaging with my students’ work. Bonus!

D-AITs: Pedagogical Resource for (Future) Language Teachers

James: When reviewing your wonderful D-AITs as part of the CTL 5300 course, I distinctly remember each of you imagining how you might use this type of activity with your own students. What are your thoughts now that some time has passed since you took the course and you are all active language teachers?

Allison: I believe the digital AIT is a great tool for teachers to explore students’ language identities. In the past I’ve found it really hard to assess what my students’ home languages are. Recently, I used an AIT-type task—that I used when creating my own D-AIT—where students could colour/write in or around a human silhouette in order to express their language repertoires. It was great. Modeling my language identity through this AIT task really unlocked a lot of things for my students as they created their own and I was able to have a different relationship with this class.

Maria: Personally, I see D-AITs as a creative solution to otherwise standard (stagnant) institutional norms and pedagogies. The main purpose of adopting this pedagogy in my classroom is to legitimize all voices, identities, interests and trajectories so that all students feel like legitimate members of the classroom community. Going through the D-AIT production process, I have become much more of an advocate for identity-affirming pedagogies and I consistently use them with my students.

Christina: I agree with Maria that digital AITs are a type of pedagogy that supports collaborative classrooms, one that fits with my educational philosophy: all educators have a central role in co-constructing a high-quality education system that is equitable and democratic. Though I have yet to use D-AITs as an instructor, I imagine implementing such pedagogy in my own teaching and research as a tool to understand children’s experiences.

James: Your comments remind me that one of the areas of emphasis with this critical, plurilingual pedagogy is to not only affirm students’ plurilingual / pluricultural identities—either in service of stimulating greater student investment in the language learning or improving student self-efficacy—but also to break down the unnecessary, artificial “walls” between the teacher and students.

D-AIT Limitations: Access, Assessment and Vulnerability

James: It seems we are fairly aligned in our perceptions of the positive potential of D-AITs. Now, does anyone have concerns about using this type of digital activity across diverse learning contexts?

Christina: My experiences working with K-6 children have shown me that children are very tech-savvy; however, I recognize that producing multimodal texts can be challenging given the lack of technology/digital resources, software, and uneven functionality of the devices in some schools. For example, during one of my practicum experiences, I noticed that children at an inner city school did not have access to particular technology at home. This would make digital AIT production a school-based activity only. Can we really sacrifice that much classroom time for such an activity?

Maria: Right. Some schools have more access to Chromebooks and iPads than other schools, so every context will vary in this regard. However, more traditional written autobiographies can be powerful reflective pieces as well and well worth the classroom time, in my opinion.

James: Your concerns are valid, Christina and Maria. Access should be a major consideration for teachers when building and maintaining equitable learning environments. That being said, I would also argue, again drawing on Jim Cummins and Margaret Early’s work, that teachers can be excellent advocates for their students by getting buy-in from colleagues, including those higher up the chain. For example, I heard from one of my former language teacher candidates that she was able to convince the vice-principal at her school to provide additional resources for producing digital texts by showing how the assignment could meet language and content learning objectives across the high school curriculum.

On the topic of potential limitations of this pedagogy, some of the most salient pushback from language teachers is that they are not sure this type of assignment is viable in a high-stakes teaching / learning environment. What are your thoughts?

Maria: Considerations for assessing a D-AIT must involve the clearly stated purposes and goals of the task. As we have discussed, content and language can be assessed through the artifact, and a formative assessment framework should be utilized rather than it being assessed in a summative manner. I guess what I’m saying is that D-AITs shouldn’t be used in a high stakes manner. If what we ultimately desire in our teaching is to move those students on the periphery to a more central position, our pedagogical practices must reflect this desire in the interactions we have with our students, e.g. moving away from tasks that have an element of high-stakes assessment attached to them.

Christina: I agree with Maria. This type of activity should not be summatively assessed. Creating a D-AIT is actually part of a continuous language learning process, and I think teachers need to recognize the value of this process rather than simply the product. When considering D-AITs, I also like the idea of responsive assessment, that is, to observe and note what students say and do during the process of creating the identity text. I also imagine students employing self-assessment using a student-generated performance rubric that helps them to monitor their own progress as learners.

Allison: Exactly. For example, the continuous feedback we received from James during this assignment had a greater impact on my learning process than the final grade. Exploring our language identities together (instructors and students), in my opinion, should not be a “high-stakes” task, but rather a chance to open up and learn from and about each other. In my own elementary teaching practice, I prefer introducing the D-AIT at the beginning of a language course as a way of getting to know where they are coming from and to foster a more supportive language community. The digital AIT provides me with important information as an instructor about how to tap into my students’ existing languages as well as their prior knowledge. I often refer back to the Digital AIT throughout the school year or ask my students to reflect on how their feelings have changed by the end of our time together. Ultimately, the D-AIT can be an excellent tool for self-reflection, peer evaluation and formative evaluation of my students in the FSL classroom.

James: I agree with your sentiment, folks. I will consider using this pedagogy as a type of needs analysis and rolling assessment in the future. I also support the inclusion of a self-assessed component should the teacher feel this may benefit student engagement. Thanks for the tips! However, I also know from experience teaching in a variety of post-secondary contexts that having an evaluation rubric that incorporates more traditional academic literacies and language learning outcomes can be beneficial when looking for buy-in from colleagues, administrators, and students themselves. I hope to see advancement on this front as more teachers and teacher educators take up this progressive pedagogy in their language classrooms.

Allison: I would like to add another caveat. In asking our students to produce a D-AIT, we are asking our students to really “put themselves out there”. I think this openness taps into important emotions tied to language and identity that can create important bonds between the students and with the teacher. . .but it is a lot to ask and a bit risky.

James: Allison, thanks for bringing up the issue of vulnerability. When using D-AITs, I try to make clear to students and teacher candidates that they are free to share their final product with those in the classroom community (and beyond) should they wish, but that this decision is theirs alone and will not impact their assignment or course grade. Also, I try to scaffold the production of this digital text by providing extensive class time for students to brainstorm their language use, identity construction / negotiation, and how they choose to represent their life / language journey. Again, I think the benefits of such critical reflection on identity, language, and power extend far beyond the assignment itself.

Maria: On the topic of vulnerability, the D-AIT assignment presented an uncomfortable opportunity to revisit, re-examine and reconcile language and identity issues that have arisen during my educational journey. For example, at times, I internalized the message that ‘Italian-ness’ was not something to be proud of as a French language teacher/student. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t too much of a burden for some younger learners to engage with these sensitive identity issues.

Christina: From my perspective, being vulnerable is not always a bad thing. It gives us the opportunity to unpack and discuss our stories and experiences. A teacher of mine once said that it is better to be responsive than reactive. Therefore, perhaps vulnerability can be an opportunity for young learners to be responsive about these sensitive identity issues?

Maria: Good point, Christina. From my perspective, in order to mitigate vulnerability, the teacher should always produce a D-AIT exemplar. We were definitely feeling confident, comfortable and accepted for our diverse experiences and identities once we saw James’ exemplar.

James: I am a bit torn on this issue. I can appreciate the need for being responsive to student vulnerability, particularly when advocating an identity-affirming type of pedagogy. However, I also agree that through engaging with complexity and discomfort can come greater reward, especially when looking to develop students’ awareness of the inextricable links between language, identity, and power. These types of questions can serve as entry points into critical reflection on the mediating role of language in identity formation and negotiation (see Table 1).

Digital AIT Prompts
• What are some personal characteristics that define you as a person?
• What are some professional characteristics that define you as a language teacher?
• What are some of the communities you belong to?
• Describe how your language use (languages; dialects; varieties) changes when interacting with different communities (professional; family; friends).
• What is “standard” [add target language or L1] and do you use / teach it?
• How has your language use changed over the course of your professional (and life) trajectory?
• Which language(s) do you use (or exclude / limit) inside the classroom? Why?
• Do you see yourself as a legitimate member of the [add target language] community? Why or why not?
• Do others view you as a legitimate member of this community? Why or why not?

Table 1: AIT Brainstorming Prompts for Use with Language Teacher Candidates

Multiethnography, Accessibility, and Negotiating Power

James: I have been part of several multiethnographic projects and have recognized some of the potential affordances and challenges of such an approach, particularly when pairing more experienced and less experienced scholars. As teacher-researchers, I wonder how you feel about our methodological approach?

Christina: What I found most interesting is the opportunity to speak and discuss with fellow teachers about our values and professional experiences in the classroom. Through our reflections, feedback and in-depth discussions on various topics, I feel very appreciative for the opportunity to exchange knowledge, to empower and be empowered.

Maria: This research project has made me appreciate the rigorous work—especially the qualitative data coding—professional researchers undertake. It has been meaningful work that has built relationships based on trust and respect for one another. It has enabled me to believe in myself as a legitimate teacher-researcher and strengthened my critical lens through which I view current teaching practices.

Allison: Totally. Being a part of this D-AIT research has given me a chance to step outside of my everyday teacher concerns. The best part of this research, by far, was connecting with other teachers from different backgrounds. This allowed me to compare and contrast my own pedagogies and life experiences with others, providing me with a lot of food for thought moving forward in my teaching career, especially on the topic of language and identity.

James: I get excited when I have a chance to collaborate with classroom teachers, whether it be co-developing classroom activities or finding connections between research, theory, and practice. I also recognize the challenge teachers and teacher candidates have in finding time for research, not to mention the lack of clear incentive for many teachers to engage in scholarship. Thus, I appreciate the time and energy my colleagues have put into this collaborative work!

Christina: I feel that this project has allowed me to take on a leadership role that is both comfortable and uncomfortable. At first, I was uncomfortable with the suggestion of me taking on first authorship given my lack of experience with research writing. However, as we negotiated our roles, James gave me confidence that, as an emerging scholar, I could do it in a way that advances scholarship and teaching in a meaningful way.

James: As you all have clearly indicated, this collaborative, multiethnographic research project has proven to be an accessible entry point for teacher candidates without extensive research experience to advance scholarship, while critically considering their language teaching beliefs and classroom practices. Well done, team!


As reflected in our dialogic exchanges, there was widespread agreement regarding the positive impacts of digital autobiographical identity text (D-AIT) production on language teaching beliefs and practices. Christina, Maria, and Allison all emerged with an affirmed sense of personal and professional self-efficacy, viewing their plurilingual language use and teaching practices in a positive light. Drawing on our critical plurilingual framework, we argue that engaging in D-AIT production was beneficial in “creating and affirming [language teacher candidates’] plurilingual identities and subjectivities” (Lin, 2013, p. 20), while stimulating critical reflection on the inextricable links between language, identity, power, and pedagogy. This critical reflection resulted in a shared mindset where we increasingly considered ourselves pluri-competent teacher candidates, ready to challenge those who may position us as deficient teachers of our additional languages. Our findings add to the literature positioning digital storytelling as a viable form of identity affirming, critical reflective practice in language teacher education classrooms; perhaps, in the case of D-AITs, a pedagogy particularly well-suited to contexts where plurilingual language teacher candidates abound (e.g., see Rocafort, 2019).

Clearly, D-AITs provided us with an opportunity to critically reflect upon the role of language as a mediating tool in our professional identity construction and negotiation. This was evident in how we reconceptualized our plurilingual, professional academic literacies/competencies (Galante, 2019; Lau & Van Viegen, in press; Marshall & Moore, 2018). However, academic literacies outcomes were possibly less important than the role this pedagogy played in allowing the imagining of our (future) professional selves (Masson, 2018; Norton, 2013; Norton & Costa, 2018). Our critical reflections on the potential impact of employing this type of plurilingual pedagogy in our future classroom communities again suggests its potential efficacy in critical language teacher education (Barkhuizen, 2016b; Chun, Kern & Smith, 2016; Morgan, 2016). Thus, as was the case for us, the implementation of D-AITs in language teacher education classrooms may not only represent a form of effective and equitable support for culturally and linguistically diverse teacher candidates, but also, potentially, for our future students. Thus, we posit, if afforded opportunities for “understanding praxis in their future classrooms” (Coggin et al., 2019) via this type of digital storytelling, language teacher candidates may ultimately better serve increasingly diverse student populations across Canada.

Of note, our conversations did not always reflect convergent perspectives. For example, we disagreed on whether this plurilingual pedagogy is always accessible, particularly with respect to disadvantaged populations. Perhaps this divergence of opinion, largely based on our in-service teaching experiences, suggests the need for adapting D-AITs in response to local needs rather than as a “one size fits all” pedagogy for equitably supporting diverse student populations. Again, drawing on recent experience as in-service language teachers in varying contexts (EAL vs. FSL; K-12 vs. post-secondary), we diverged on how D-AITs should be assessed, and to what ends. Ultimately, our divergent perspectives suggest that formative, summative—or no assessment at all—may be appropriate, depending on the needs and objectives of the local stakeholders (Marshall & Moore, 2013; Piccardo, 2013).

Our multiethnographic research design provided an accessible entry point into scholarly conversations for in-service language teachers. As argued elsewhere, multiethnographies can often serve to challenge normative ways of doing and conceptualizing research (Adamson et al., 2019; Corcoran, Gagné, & McIntosh, 2018; Heng Hartse & Nazari, 2018). In our case, our polyvocal research design afforded a longer term perspective on the impact of D-AITs on our beliefs and practices. Further, by bringing together, and thus validating, language teacher experiences and perspectives, our project has, we hope, added to the blurring of boundaries between research, theory, and pedagogical practice, while fomenting more collaborative relations of power between more and less experienced teacher-researchers (Cummins, forthcoming; Burns, 2016). In doing so, we look to provide food for thought for language teacher educators looking to meaningfully involve current or future language teachers in research work (see Table 2). We anticipate a rise in such work in the field of applied language studies as such participatory methods gain more acceptance and legitimacy.

Clearly, perspectives expressed in our polyvocal, dialogic exchanges do not represent all plurilingual language teacher candidates who have engaged in D-AIT production, nor do digital AITs guarantee personal/professional growth. However, we argue that these findings point to the potential of D-AITs as critical, plurilingual pedagogy that may concurrently affirm plurilingual language teacher candidates’ professional identities, increase their critical language awareness, and improve their broader academic literacies. Importantly, we see this pedagogy as potentially impactful not only in language teacher education classrooms, but also in increasingly diverse classrooms where plurilingual pre-service teachers end up wielding their craft as confident, critical, in-service language teachers. Ultimately, though our findings suggest that D-AITs may indeed be impactful, identity-affirming tools for teacher educators, we look forward to further empirical work—ethnographic and otherwise—that may better answer questions surrounding the impact of this critical, plurilingual pedagogy.

Digital AIT Tips & Tricks
• Adopt D-AITs in consideration of course and program objectives
• Provide teachers with a clear evaluation rubric and assignment objectives
• Produce and share an instructor D-AIT with teachers
• If available, provide models of effective teacher D-AITs and reflective texts
• Allow class time for investigation and modeling of audio / visual production tools
• Allow class time for follow-up textual production (critical reflection) describing why particular choices were made to represent hybrid, evolving professional identities
• Provide assignment feedback at several levels: critical thinking; creativity; clarity; coherence; rhetoric / discourse; lexicogrammatical

Table 2: Tips for Using Digital AITs in Language Teacher Education Classrooms


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