The Multilingual Nature of Higher Education

21 March 2017

This month we published Academic Biliteracies edited by David M. Palfreyman and Christa van der Walt. In this post, David and Christa discuss their experience of coediting the book. 

Christa: There were some initial signs that this book was not meant to be. Firstly, David’s e-mails to me disappeared in cyberspace and it was only when Nancy Hornberger contacted me to enquire very diplomatically whether I had received the e-mails, that we found out his institutional e-mails were not delivered, for some unfathomable reason. Secondly, this was an under-researched topic and we were not sure that we would get any contributions; and thirdly, both of us dealt with serious interruptions of a personal and professional nature. And yet, here we are, three years later, with chapters that showcase the multilingual nature of higher education in all its complexity.

Our first (academic) challenge was to agree on what we understand ‘literacy’ to mean, so that we can evaluate contributions on ‘biliteracy’. Going through our Skype notes, I’m struck by the terminology issues in every conversation. Is there a difference between ‘translanguaging’ and ‘translingual’; between ‘multiliteracies’ and ‘multilingual literacies’? Is ‘translanguaging’ the overarching concept in which ‘biliteracy’ needs to find its place, or should they be seen as separate phenomena in multilingual contexts? We still do not have a definite answer; or maybe it is better to say that we have many answers!

David: Yes, the email bug almost put a subtle end to the project before it started, and I’m very glad that Nancy intervened! I was keen to work with Christa on this book because her previous publications had focused on multilingual higher education in a way that I hadn’t come across before: questioning assumptions about English as the medium of instruction in so many universities worldwide.

Christa: We both wanted a variety of chapters from all corners of the world, but of course we had to be selective within the scope of one book.  We aimed to cover both majority and minority languages in contexts where language is a medium for developing knowledge rather than necessarily a focus of the course; in the end, the chapters highlight the use at university of literacy in Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, isiXhosa and other African languages, Korean, Maori, Polish, Spanish and Welsh.

David: Some of the contributors had already published in the area of biliteracy; some had been working with biliterate students and issues of biliteracy in university courses for some years, but came to engage with the issues in new ways through their involvement in the book. As the book developed, we encouraged contributors to read and comment on each other’s chapters, which brought some mutual adjustments and helped bring out common themes. All of us became aware of new perspectives to understand the experience of students and scholars, and fresh options for working with and for biliteracy. Guillaume Gentil, whose previous work provided inspiration for the book, kindly sprang into action once the rest of the book was complete, contributing a concluding chapter which draws themes together and points out some ways forward for research in academic biliteracies.

I’m grateful to Zayed University (UAE) for their support in travelling to Australia, Jordan and the UK in the course of preparing the book. Among many learning experiences along the way, I remember especially meeting up by coincidence with Christa at the AILA Congress in Brisbane – it was good to have a face to face meeting near the beginning as most of our later work together was by email or Skype. Another unforgettable and educative experience was taking part in a research conference at Cardiff University where most communication was in Welsh or Basque: having to rely on simultaneous interpreters and finding my usual language of academic/social communication suddenly minoritized, I suddenly found myself a ‘lurker’ in academic discussions!

Christa: For me, as a lecturer who code switches and uses two languages when teaching at Stellenbosch University, the active development of biliteracy in academic contexts is an important acknowledgement of the multilingual nature of twenty-first century higher education. Many students arrive at higher education institutions with a fully developed academic language that is not English and it would be a waste to ignore the enormous potential of that resource when making meaning of academic material.

We’ll look forward to hearing from readers of the book about how the issues relate to their own experiences as learners or teachers.


David M. Palfreyman:

Christa van der Walt:


For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Multilingual Higher Education, which Christa published with us previously.


Multilingual Higher Education: Beyond English Medium Orientations

23 April 2013

This month we published Multilingual Higher Education by Christa van der Walt. Here, the author tells us how she came to write the book and the importance of research in this area.

Multilingual Higher EducationThe idea for this book was born when I first read Ofelia García’s impressive Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective (2009). My impression was that much had been published on bilingual education at primary school level, much less at secondary school level and virtually nothing at higher education level. From my own work at school level and then in higher education, I knew that multilingual teaching and learning strategies are generally regarded with suspicion. Furthermore, I also knew that the status attached to higher education would militate against marginalised languages in its classrooms.

In my own multilingual context, the use of other languages in classrooms is ubiquitous (although not necessarily acknowledged!) but I really started to research higher education classrooms after my involvement with language policy development at Stellenbosch University in 2002. A research project in 2004 on bilingual universities worldwide, initiated by Prof Chris Brink who was then the rector of Stellenbosch University, made me realise that policy-level research says nothing about what is happening in multilingual classrooms. This impression was confirmed at various international conferences and in discussions with colleagues from European bi/multilingual universities, notably Michael Langner from the University of Fribourg, Ana Virkunnen-Vollenwider (now retired) from the University of Helsinki and Gudrun Ziegler from the University of Luxemburg. A sabbatical in Germany in 2010 led to discussions with Annelie Knapp of the University of Siegen and Hartmut Haberland at Roskilde University and these conversations increased my awareness of the problems of transnationally mobile students. The pervasive assumption that the use of English would solve all these problems made me connect the role of language in South African (and African) higher education institutions to efforts in Europe to establish English as a language of learning and teaching. The recent book CLIL in Higher Education by Fortanet-Gómez (2013) on the introduction of CLIL in European higher education institutions is a further valuable source in this regard.

Although higher education institutions differ widely, they seem to share the challenge of increasing student participation and throughput locally while managing the pressure to compete globally. It is self-evident that language is central to both efforts and in my book I try to show how it is possible to include more languages in the classroom, while acknowledging the role and status of English. I am not particularly interested in how multilingual language practices can be accommodated at policy level. For me there is a bigger issue at stake and that is the training of higher education practitioners. The fact that disciplinary specialisation is often the only qualification that academics require to become lecturers is, to my mind, the main reason why teaching and learning does not result in improved student success. In-service education and training of academic staff is needed because there is a level at which the proposed strategies that I mention constitute good teaching practice, whether we connect them to multilingual education or not. Mobilising students’ resources, including the languages that they use to support and develop learning, seems self-evident as part of a higher education pedagogy.  I can only agree with García (2009:11, her emphasis) when she says that “some form of bilingual education is good for all education, and therefore good for all children, as well as good for all adult learners”. This statement must be kept in mind in view of the increased introduction of CLIL, particularly in Europe, as Fortanet-Gómez (2013) shows.

I hope that this book will inspire more classroom-based research so that we can elaborate on these first steps towards a multilingual higher education pedagogy.       

Fortanet-Gómez, I. (2013) CLIL in Higher Education: Towards a Multilingual Language Policy. Bristol: Multilingual Matters
García, O. (2009) Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Also available:

CLIL in Higher EducationCLIL in Higher Education by Inmaculada Fortanet-Gómez

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