What’s in a Name?: Plurilingual vs. Translingual vs. Multilingual

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I wonder how many teachers of writing are beginning to think it’s time to take a linguistic time out and think through a number of terms that are coming at us from all sides. Here are just a few of them: bilingual (and in particular “dominant bilingual,” “balanced bilingual,” ”incipient bilingual,” etc.), multilingual, metrolingual, polylingual, plurilingual, translingual, languaging. . .

I could go on and on. And I’ve been reading as fast as I can, trying to keep track of all the permutations of these terms, the controversies swirling around them, and the ideological freight that each term carries. Not to mention the choices hard-working teachers have to make, often on the fly.

In Marshall and Moore’s 2018 study “Plurilingualism Amid the Panoply of Lingualisms: Addressing Critiques and Misconceptions in Education,” published in the International Journal of Multilingualism, they distinguish plurilingualism (which comes from European theorists) by saying that it moves away “from the view of languages as separate, parallel, autonomous systems based on discourses of complete competencies to a view that recognizes hybridity and varying degrees of competence between and within languages” (3)—except that such a distinction also seems to apply to translingualism, and perhaps other terms as well.

One very recent book that is helping me think about these terms is Kay M. Losey and Gail Shuck’s edited volume Plurilingual Pedagogies for Multilingual Writing Classrooms, though its title demonstrates terministic slippage at work. From what I’ve read of this book so far, the authors seem to be making a very strong case for moving swiftly away from the heretofore dominant English-only approach in writing classes (a good start) to what they present as a plurilingual approach that would recognize and value “the many proficiencies students bring with them to the classroom” and thus create “a classroom climate of mutual respect and admiration, fostering self-efficacy and self-confidence in learners” in which “students’ full identities and backgrounds. . . would become an essential, honored part of the classroom community” (2). I applaud this approach—but it seems to me characteristic of translingual and even multilingual approaches as well. I feel like I am swimming in alphabet soup.

I clearly need to stop complaining, dig deeper, and do much more reading. And then perhaps I can write something that will clarify these terms—if only for myself. Words—and definitions—matter. So if you can clarify distinctions among these terms, I am all ears and would appreciate the help!

Image Credit: "Hostelling International 19" by orijinal, used under a CC BY 2.0 license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.