"You have to listen carefully and then get it … and then write it down" Multilingualism, Identity, Language Learning and Communication in Swiss Language Classrooms

Marie-Nicole Bossart, Patrik Fischli

Zurich University of Teacher Education, Switzerland


"You have to listen carefully and then get it … and then write it down"

Multilingualism, Identity, Language Learning and Communication in Swiss Language Classrooms

Swiss language policy makers, politicians, educators and parents are faced with the question as to what kind of multilingualism can and should be developed through schooling. The role of language in building personal identities of children is evident in the acquisition and elaboration of the first language and early literacy. Language competence in several languages develops in an interplay with various facets of identities such as gender and ethnicity as well as family and peer-group relations (Piller, 2004).

The paper is part of a National Science Foundation project which studies the ways in which English and French are taught in a rural and an urban school community at different grades in German-speaking Switzerland. The main research focus is on the impact social representations and foreign language learning have on identity building as well as on the discourse practices of teachers and pupils in the classrooms.

Findings are based on recorded observations in language classes, pupils’ and teachers’ language biographies and narrative interviews with pupils and teachers in grade 6 and grade 8. Classroom observations, all participants’ language biographies and their personal comments in interviews are interpreted within the field of sociolinguistic ethnography (Heller, 1999; Heller & Martin-Jones, 2001).

In this paper, we focus on interconnections between learners’ representations of ‘their’ languages and pragmalinguistic aspects of interaction in the classroom. Discourse-analytic and ethnomethodological methods are used to explore the borders between foreign languages taught as subjects and the potential for synergy in the parallel teaching of two foreign languages.

It is one of our prime interests to study how pupils tap their multilingual resources in their process of defining their roles as participants within a school community of practice. We understand emerging “cross-cultural” communications as valuable, if not to say indispensable moments for negotiations over group membership and identity. It must be highlighted that we equally place a considerable research focus on what it actually entails to be “multilingual” and how pupils’ representations of such a concept manifest themselves in actual language discourse.

To conclude, it is especially the currently passionate debate on foreign language learning and the legitimation of English in particular and French in multilingual Switzerland that provides an excellent opportunity to study the broader issue of what role foreign language learning plays in identity building among children and adolescents.


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Heller, M. & Martin-Jones, M. (eds.). (2001). Voices of Authority. Education and Linguistic Difference. Westport, London: Ablex.

Piller, I. (2004). Identity and language. In Strazny, Ph. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 489-490.

Session: Paper session
Discourse 5 (Bi-/Multilingualism; Ethnicity)
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 11