The Multilingual Nature of Higher Education

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.


Advances in the Study of Bilingualism

This month we are publishing Advances in the Study of Bilingualism edited by Enlli Môn Thomas and Ineke Mennen. We asked the editors a few questions to find out more…

Advances in the Study of BilingualismWhat makes your book unique?

Advances in the Study of Bilingualism attempts to integrate the latest approaches to the study of bilingualism from three different disciplines: linguistics, psychology, and education. As the field of bilingualism continues to expand alongside current advances in scientific research, a growing number of researchers are addressing the same kinds of questions, but from different perspectives. Bringing these perspectives together is important and allows us to better understand the factors that underlie various aspects of bilingualism.

The novelty of this volume, therefore, is that it takes a broad approach to addressing a narrow focus rather than a narrow approach to addressing a broad set of questions. More specifically, each chapter shares a main focus, namely an exploration of the nature of the relationship between the two languages of a bilingual, and each chapter addresses this issue from different perspectives. Our book integrates a variety of methodological approaches within three core fields of study (Linguistics, Psychology, and Education), which, together, allow us to build a more holistic understanding of the phenomena. The more we understand about various aspects of the relationship between a bilingual’s two systems from various disciplinary perspectives, using different methodological tools, the more we understand how the bilingual brain works, and the more we understand how the two languages of a bilingual co-exist and interact within a single conversation and in their daily lives, the closer we are to uncovering one of the most miraculous aspects of the human brain.

How did you first become interested in bilingualism research?

I have always been interested in typical and atypical language development in bilinguals, presumably because I grew up bilingual, and in an environment where bilingualism was not necessarily seen as the ‘norm’, and where my L1 (Welsh) was not always supported. The fact that Welsh exists alongside a more dominant language – English – means that any research I conduct on Welsh-speakers is essentially research on bilingualism. My research interests in bilingualism are thus broad, including psycholinguistic approaches to understanding bilingualism in acquisition, issues in bilingual education, and issues relating to bilingual language planning and minority language use.

What inspired you to put this volume together? How did this volume come about?

The chapters presented in this volume showcase some of the world-class research conducted as part of the programme of the ESRC Centre for Research on Bilingualism in Theory and Practice, Bangor University, Wales (UK). Since its establishment in 2007, the Centre continued to grow and flourish and quickly established itself as an internationally recognised centre of excellence for research in bilingualism. Due to its world-class status, the Centre attracted a continuous flow of excellent visiting researchers, including some of the most well regarded research leaders in the field. Their visits led to constructive and stimulating discussions, and helped set ideas for the future research agenda in the field.

Given the global interest in the Centre and its research, we felt it timely to bring together, in one single volume, a taste of the Centre’s work. The chapters presented in this volume offer a sample of the large-scale research conducted at the Centre. These chapters explore the relationship between bilinguals’ two languages from different perspectives: the relationship between the grammatical and semantic features of each language in bilingual processing; the relationship between the two languages in production (in terms of sound, words and grammar); and the concurrent use of two languages as a pedagogical tool. In doing so, this book integrates a variety of methodological approaches within three core fields of study (Linguistics, Psychology, and Education), which, together, allow us to build a more holistic understanding of the phenomena.

What other books on bilingualism have you enjoyed recently?

A critical aspect of language research has to do with its application to the real world. What can practitioners and educators learn from our research? How can our results be used to improve the lives of others? Such issues have recently been explored in terms of the appropriate assessment of bilinguals’ language abilities in a series of two impressive volumes, edited by Professor Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole, the first entitled Issues in the Assessment of Bilinguals and the second entitled Solutions to the Assessment of Bilinguals. Whilst researchers and practitioners have known for a long time that bilinguals are often disadvantaged when it comes to measurements of linguistic abilities, particularly within the context of an accurate diagnosis of language disorders, this pair of volumes is the first concerted effort to bring these issues, and possible solutions to these issues, to the fore, using examples and evidence from bilinguals speaking different language pairs from all over the world.

Which other academics in your field do you particularly admire and how have they influenced your own research?

I admire most academics who manage not only to conduct the best quality research, but who also manage to communicate the results of their studies successfully to the very populations they strive to help.

Finally, what is your next research project?

I have many!

Issues in the Assessment of BilingualsSolutions for the Assessment of BilingualsFor more information on this title, please visit the book’s page on our website here. You can also find information about Virginia C. Mueller Gathercole’s volumes on our website: Issues in the Assessment of Bilinguals and Solutions to the Assessment of Bilinguals.