Monolingualism or multilingualism?

                                                                                                                            By Wei Yang

Recently I read a few articles about different foreign language teaching pedagogy, there are two main streams, monolingualism and multilingualism. Monolingualism was really popular in the past 100 years, while received plenty of criticism recently.There are three inter-related assumptions regarding best practice in second/foreign language teaching. These assumptions are that: (a)the target language (TL) should be used exclusively for instructional purposes without recourse to students’ first language(L1); (b) translation between L1 and TL has no place in the language classroom; and (c) within immersion and bilingual programs, the two languages should be kept rigidly separate (Cummins, 2007).

These three assumptions reflect what Howatt (1984), in his history of English language teaching, referred to as the “monolingual principle”. This principle emphasizes the instructional use of the target language(TL) to the exclusion of students’ L1, with the goal of enabling learners to think in the TL with minimal interference from L1.This principle exerts a strong influence on various language teaching approaches since that time (Cummins, 2007).

But with the progress of globalization, the classrooms now days are different from the ones a hundred years ago. The classrooms today are more diversified with students coming from a variety of backgrounds, speaking different L1s, with different learning requirements. So the multilingualism emerged as the new attempt to solve the problem in order to meet student’s different needs. One of the attempts that attracts my attention is the multilingualism curriculum designed by an Austrian school. The Multilingualism Curriculum seeks to realize an inclusive approach to language education. Its aim is to help students navigate their way through a world of linguistic diversity, to enable them to become autonomous and goal-focused learners who can acquire new language qualifications and develop the skills necessary to cope with multilingual situations and settings (Krumm & Reich, 2014). The teacher will design some activities to let students fully aware of the language diversity. For example, comparing two languages through the same story, encouraging students to conclude the similarities and differences between the two languages. I think this is an excellent curriculum for students with a young age to understand and analyze languages from different perspectives. Reversely, this will facilitate students’ understanding and comprehension of the languages.

I think learning a foreign language is important, but not with sacrificing one’s identity in the process. I cannot say which pedagogy is better, or I don’t know. But I really want to quote what our professor Alison said in class. “Now we are rethinking about monolingualism, and advocating multilingualism, but this does not mean you are here to learn 18 languages in one class, the goal is to let each student be proud of who they are and learn a language together.” From my perspective, if a classroom is composed of students all coming from different language backgrounds, acquiring a language is not the ultimate goal, learning about the different cultures along with all the languages is more important. Teachers should pay special attention to students coming from less representative language groups. Because these students are usually more sensitive to their language and culture. If this kind of sensitivity is not taken good care of, it can be detrimental to the students’ academic performance and psychological health.


Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée, 10(2), 221-240.

Howatt, A. 1984. A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krumm, H. J., & Reich, H., H.  (2014) Multilingualism Curriculum: perceiving and managing linguistic diversity in education, Austrian Federal Ministry of Education and Women’s Affairs.

One thought on “Monolingualism or multilingualism?”

  1. Hi Wei,
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post and also your response to the Multilingualism Curriculum. I really like it, too, as it has many practical examples of how to take a multilingually-informed perspective on language teaching, rather than the more traditional (yet still, unfortunately, pervasive) monolingual approach. Perhaps the goal is not to try to determine which one is better for all learning situations, but rather, to keep adding more tools (strategies, ways of thinking about teaching and learning, etc.) to our teaching tool kits. This way, we can bring this to our teaching and respond in an informed way to our learners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.