Thinking with and beyond liminality: (re)claiming the ‘in-between’ (by Magali Forte and Parise Carmichael-Murphy)

This week we have two guest bloggers. Magali Forte is a doctoral research assistant in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, as well as a French immersion teacher in Vancouver, BC. In her research, she adopts a sociomaterial perspective, putting to work posthumanist, new materialist and Deleuzo-Guattarian theories, in order to examine identity in a different way in multilingual education settings. Doing so, she acknowledges and continues to learn about the rich Indigenous perspectives that are informing her work. Parise Carmichael-Murphy is a PhD student at the Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. She has worked with children and young people across the 0-25 age range in formal and informal education settings. In her research, she embraces Black feminist thought and Intersectionality to unpack how education policy and practice can perpetuate social inequities.

As doctoral students in education, we have been thinking critically about normalized language practices in education which hinder children’s and teenagers’ sense of belonging and negatively impact their process of identity construction. We ask the following questions:

  • How might the notions of liminality and threshold help us consider how children’s and teenagers’ identities find or lack space to express and transform in education with/in all of their languages?
  • How does the curriculum viewed as an imposed political box limit the ways in which we (are) educate(d)?

Language and belonging

In British Columbia (BC), according to the Ministry of Education, “an English Language Learning (ELL) student is […] a student enrolled in a BC school who needs additional English language development support in order to access the provincially prescribed curriculum and succeed in the academic environment”. In 2019, about 12.6% of BC’s student population were designated as ELL students. In England, almost one fifth (19%) of all pupils are considered to speak English as an Additional Language (EAL). According to the Department for Education (2020), English is considered to be an ‘additional language’ if the pupil is “exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English” (p. 4). These designations allow schools to receive “support” (funding, trained support workers, etc.) to “help” designated learners achieve the curriculum outcomes.

Too often though, what we see is a benevolent system designed to assist those who do not fit the established schooling norm, without challenging this norm. We argue that this system creates and focuses on a deficient view of these students’ identities by focusing on what they lack rather than recognizing the rich language resources they could bring to the classroom. When an institution like the BC government states that this kind of support “enables ELL students […] to become capable young people thriving in [a] diverse society”, it is harmful, regardless of how well-intentioned the supporting system is. Isn’t it possible for these young plurilingual people to thrive in a diverse society without being labelled, often for many years, as “others” against a norm that is rarely, if ever, questioned?

Troubling the ‘norm’

With Rosa (2021), we think that one productive way of troubling this kind of normative and exclusionary process is to rethink mainstream institutional designations of language learning and proficiency. He condemns harmful categories and labels that reproduce and legitimize racist views of language learning and language practices (for example, “English Language Learners”, “Heritage language learners”, “Long-term English learners”, etc.). Questioning and rethinking these designations could lead us to change the definition of what/who counts as ‘(in)competent’.

Flores and Rosa (2015) urge us to realize that we have become complacent and complicit in our narrow views of language proficiency, and they stress the importance of unveiling the raciolinguistic ideologies which “conflate certain racialized bodies with linguistic deficiency unrelated to any objective linguistic practices” (p. 150). Combating these ideologies requires, as they put it, dismantling “the idealized linguistic practices of whiteness” (p. 151) rather than systematically demanding that the linguistic behaviour of racialized populations be modified. As scholars, we are responsible for creating and/or perpetuating the labels mentioned above that pervade much of our curricula and harm many students. We are also in a privileged position of working to dismantle these labels and change this perspective.

Crossing thresholds and exploring liminal spaces

We think that exploring the notions of liminality and threshold have a potential to trouble these exclusionary representations of language users’ identities in relation to their different languages. Interestingly enough, the etymology of the word liminality comes from the Latin word limen, meaning ‘threshold’. Hence, liminality and threshold share a similar meaning. A threshold can be seen as a boundary, situated in between two spaces, an inside and an outside (think of a doorway that is crossed when entering or exiting a building). When someone is in a liminal position, it means that they are actually, at the same time, situated at, or on both sides of, a threshold (Oxford dictionary of English). They occupy and belong to two different spaces, two different states.

Defining oneself as belonging to unclear (gray) and shifting spaces can be uncomfortable because we are used to very clear and quickly identifiable ontological positionings (black or white). Indeed, Western and Eurocentric ways of knowing mainly function with cartesian binaries (weak/strong, beginner/expert, native/non-native, etc.). Tesar and Arndt (2020) encourage us to think about the ways in which liminality “twists” values and norms we take for granted and disrupts our conceptual spaces (p. 1102). Instead of considering a threshold as a thick boundary between two opposites, between two different states (for example native language learner vs. second language learner) that are irreconcilable (except when we call one better than the other and force the other to become like the better one), we suggest exploring the liminal space that exists in that threshold. There is value in “staying with the trouble” as Haraway (2016) puts it.

Identities as liminal

Considering adolescence using the concept of liminality, we position it as the “in-between” state in the binary of “adult vs. child”. We usually consider these (child, teenager, adult) as three distinct social identities. In this view, the social construction of the child and the teenager require that they shed who they once were. Our mainstream and current educational curricula unfortunately encourage in some ways that children leave behind their playful side when they enter middle/high school. Teenagers are also pressed to leave behind their lived experience as complex beings when they enter higher education, academia often working as a gatekeeper to segregated classed, gendered and racialized spaces.

As Wells (2017) puts it, children and teenagers live their lives quite comfortably in liminal language spaces until they are encouraged, through normalized socialization and schooling, to find their position into the heavily hierarchized and categorized adult space:

The child’s gradually increasing competence in language shadows or parallels the gradual decrease in its liminal position – a dance between culture and nature which eventually brings the child to the threshold of adulthood. If infancy marks one particularly intense moment in the liminality of the child, adolescence marks another. (p. 217)

In the spatio-temporal dimension of liminality, things that appear to be stable or set, that are referred to as standard in our normalized societies, can be unsettled and questioned. By positioning adolescence as a liminal state, perhaps we, as educators, can better attune ourselves to the realities young people live in.

When we let go of binaries and embrace the possibility that liminal identities are valid, hierarchies and categories lose their ground. Anzaldúa (1987) challenges the Western and Eurocentric white gaze that has produced the oppressive colonial structure of power which still pervades our education systems. She argues that this perspective deeply influences the way in which we (de)value certain forms of language against others, and she developed a theory of the “borderlands” to challenge it. These borderlands, these liminal spaces, can act, as Carlson et al. (2020) state it, as “sites of resistance” (p. 1056).

As educators and researchers, we have become more and more aware that children’s and teenagers’ identities often lack the space to express and transform in their languages and cultures (the ones present in their homes and in their communities) at school. Instructional policies and practices are indeed often built on prevalent monoglossic[1] ideologies. Multilingual students’ competences are therefore shut down or ignored for several reasons. Sometimes teachers feel that they themselves need to be proficient in a language in order for its use to be efficient or pertinent in the classroom. Most often, it is because these monoglossic ideologies impose the idea that setting our students up for success later on in their lives starts with them learning ‘proper’ English. This often goes with the idea that if students use languages other than English in school, it will impact their learning of ‘proper’ English in a negative way. However, much research has shown that bi-/plurilingual students thrive when the linguistic and cultural practices they engage in outside of school are acknowledged and also have a place at school (Castellotti & Moore, 2011; Dagenais, 2013; López-Gopar, 2009).

To embrace liminal spaces is to make room for the richness of languages, accents and words that comes with the multilingual practices that are an undeniable part of learners’ identities. There are ways of recognizing and integrating our students’ bi-/plurilingual competence in our education systems. For example, translanguaging practices (García & Li Wei, 2014; Lau, 2020) value the languages already present in learners’ repertoires by welcoming their presence and putting them to use in the classroom space, the goal being that learning experiences and assessment practices at school match the ways in which bi-/plurilingual students make sense of the world. With García, Ibarra Johnston and Seltzer (2017), we ask:

If students’ intrapersonal voices are bilingual, how can we tell them to “think in English” [only]? If students’ identities and ways of knowing are formed by deploying features from complex, multiple linguistic and cultural repertoires, how can we provide them with texts and experiences that [always] present the world as static and monolingual? (p. 24).

(Re)claiming the thresholds 

We want to point at and challenge the normalizing representations of fluency, accent and competence that force children’s and teenagers’ identities to remain within boundaries in language education settings. As teachers, practitioners, and researchers, we must adopt what Baker-Bell (2020) calls “a linguistic justice” lens when working with official curricula. She explains that linguistic justice affords minoritized and racialized students “the same kinds of linguistic liberties that are afforded to white students” (p. 7).

Parise engages with Black feminist thought and intersectionality to exemplify how language use and terminology can perpetuate social inequality in education. For example, as a Fundamental British Value, she questions whether the “mere tolerance” of Black British pupils in education is enough.

Magali engages with relational ontologies (posthumanism, new materialism, Deleuzo-Guattarian theory, and Indigenous perspectives) in her research. She works with the Deleuzo-Guattarian notion of identity assemblages that views people, things, times and places as entangled (Forte, forthcoming) and focuses on relationality to explore more inclusive view of the processes of identity construction.

Staying ‘in-between’

We cannot dissociate from politics of ethics, and we must make efforts to recognize how our words and epistemologies can cause harm. Indigeneity and Blackness are not to be assimilated, de-politicized, or co-opted. And whiteness needs to stop being silently presented and taken for granted as the norm. Exerting ‘epistemic agency’ and resisting the quantification of understandings, Indigenous and Black scholars are (re)claiming and theorizing from the margins. We respectfully stand and think with them.

Looking toward a pedagogy of attunement, we aspire beyond language which fixates and fixes in place, to envisage new spaces of acknowledgement. Perhaps it is the ‘in-between’ where some ‘belong.’ We must look beyond the binaries of ‘self’ vs. ‘other’, or ‘knowing’ vs. ‘not knowing’. We choose, like Haraway (2016), to “cultivate the capacity of response-ability” (p. 35), and thereby seek to make a conscious effort to stand with another, in their space (be it black, white, or shades of gray).

Liminality allows us to adopt methodological and theoretical fluidity, as a challenge to the singularity and boundaries of normative ways of thinking and being. Moving forward, as we continue to navigate the ‘in-between’, we will be asking:

  • How can we stay in liminal spaces in our pedagogical practices, together with learners who live in them, whilst appreciating their complex identities?
  • How do we account for the meaning we ascribe to, or mobilise through, the language that we bring into the academy?

[1] García, Ibarra Johnston & Seltzer (2017) define a monoglossic ideology as “a belief that languages are autonomous wholes, and thus bilingualism is just two separate languages” (p. 184)


Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza. Aunt Lute Books.

Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge.

Carlson, D. L., McGuire, K., Koro, M., & Cannella, G. (2020). Twisted liminalities. Qualitative Inquiry, 26(8-9), 1056-1059.

Carmichael-Murphy, P. (2020, October). #BlackLivesMatter in education: How can a hashtag help us understand exclusion inequalities in English schools? BERABlog.

Castellotti, V. & Moore, D. (2011). Répertoires plurilingues et pluriculturels. Leur valorisation pour une meilleure intégration scolaire. Babylonia, 1(11), 29-33.

Dagenais, D. (2013). Multilingualism in Canada: Policy and education in applied linguistics research. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33, 286-301. Doi: 10.1017/S0267190513000056

Department for Education. (2020). English proficiency of pupils with English as an additional language. Department for Education Online Publications, February, 1–27.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.

Forte, M. (forthcoming). Identités sociomatérielles et création d’histoires plurilingues et numériques. The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes.

García, O., Ibarra Johnson, S. & Seltzer, K. (2017). The translanguaging classroom. Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Caslon.

García, O. & Li Wei (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. Palgrave Macmillan Pivot.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Lau, S. M. C. (2020). Translanguaging for critical bi-literacy: English and French teachers’ collaboration in transgressive pedagogy. In S M. C. Lau & S. Van Viegen (Eds.), Plurilingual pedagogies. Critical and creative endeavors for equitable language in education (p. 115-135). Springer.

López-Gopar, M. (2009). “What makes children different is what makes them better”: Teaching Mexican children “English” to foster multilingual multiliteracies and intercultural practices. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Toronto. 

Oxford Dictionary of English (n.d.).

Rosa, J. D. (2021, March 20). Never enough language/Language is never enough: Raciolinguistic perspectives on applied linguistics theories of change [Plenary session]. American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) virtual conference, online. 

Tesar, M., & Arndt, S. (2020). Writing the human “I”: liminal spaces of mundane abjection. Qualitative inquiry, 26(8-9), 1102-1109.

Wells, K. (2017). Making young subjects: Liminality and violence. In N. Worth, C. Dwyer and T. Skelton (eds.). Identities and subjectivities (pp. 215-230). Springer. ISBN 9789812870223.

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