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Diversity, Promising Practices, Sustainability

Much More Than a Bilingual Country

A call for plurilingual education in Canada

Canada is internationally known as a bilingual country. Twelve years ago, when I moved here from Brazil to complete my graduate studies, I thought that most Canadians would speak both English and French, but I quickly realized that that was not the case. I lived in Toronto, Ont., and when I met people who had grown up there, they mainly considered themselves Anglophones, even if they spoke some French. Others who had immigrated to Canada were plurilingual: they spoke two, three, or four languages at different levels of proficiency. Despite having Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Italian in my repertoire, I have never been considered bilingual in Canada because I do not speak French perfectly yet. The popular discourse of being bilingual here places value on the two official languages only, and even if you speak both languages, you need to sound like a native speaker or you will have your bilingual identity stripped away from you. This issue causes language insecurity and anxiety and demotivates people to learn languages. It is time to rethink what bilingualism means, recognize that Canada is a multilingual country, and focus on innovating language education.

Canada: From bilingualism to multilingualism

Canada is no longer a bilingual country. It is multilingual. In fact, it has been multilingual since pre-colonial times. In addition to the two official languages, 60 Indigenous languages and more than 140 immigrant languages are woven into the Canadian landscape. Recently, in a span of only five years, Canada witnessed a 13.3 percent increase in the number of people speaking an immigrant language, and nearly 20 percent of Canadian residents speak more than one language at home (Statistics Canada, 2016). With recent announcements that the federal government plans to welcome more than 1.2 million immigrants by the end of 2023, this multilingual reality will continue to grow (Harris, 2020). In fact, multilingualism is a global phenomenon and is now in the spotlight because of recent trends in mobility, travel, internationalization of education, language revitalization efforts (UNESCO, 2019), and online work demands during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these factors contribute to people using different languages at home, online, and in their various communities.

The youth in Canada are accustomed to linguistic and cultural diversity, at least outside of the classroom: they can read a book in English, listen to K-pop, mix languages while interacting with others in online role-playing games, and listen to their grandparents speak in their heritage languages. They may not have high proficiency levels in these languages, but they are certainly exposed to them. Multilingualism is on the rise, in Canada and elsewhere, and so we must innovate how we teach languages and how teachers view their students. Indeed, preparing the youth to learn only the two official languages of Canada is not enough. Canada needs to go beyond English/French bilingualism and move toward equipping youth to have plurilingual and pluricultural competence; to encourage students not only to be tolerant of linguistic and cultural diversity, but to be active agents of social change, learn new languages, and be advocates for a world that is more linguistically and culturally inclusive. One of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals for a better future is to provide inclusive, equitable, and quality education for all and in language education, one way to accomplish this is to implement a plurilingual approach in the classroom.

What is a plurilingual approach?

First, what is the difference between multilingualism and plurilingualism? A useful distinction is offered in a 2020 publication by the Council of Europe, which states that multilingualism is the coexistence of different languages in a society, while plurilingualism is the dynamic development of an individual’s linguistic repertoire. In Canada, we have more than 200 languages in our society (multilingualism), while individuals may have several languages in their repertoire (plurilingualism). For example, one person may speak English fluently, understand different Englishes (e.g. from Newfoundland and South Africa), speak some Cree and a little bit of Spanish, and may be currently developing basic French and its different varieties (e.g. French from France, Quebec, and Haiti). In education, a plurilingual approach will encourage the development of this repertoire along with the cultures related to these languages; languages and cultures have long been suggested to be inseparable (Galante, 2020), that is, when learning a language, we also learn about related cultures, traditions, behaviours, beliefs, and how language is used across cultures and contexts.

This approach may sound complicated, but it is not. In fact, some educators may already teach, at least implicitly, through a plurilingual approach, but they may not be exploring its maximum potential. They may still view their students as simply language learners (e.g. English language learner), or bilinguals, but not as plurilingual and pluricultural citizens. So, what can educators do to start? Here are three initial ideas:

  • Linguistic portraits Teachers can ask students what languages they speak or understand, even if the proficiency levels are limited. They can also ask them about both their own cultural heritage and other cultures they appreciate. The answers to these questions can lead to a multimodal project such as a linguistic portrait: students draw their portrait and place all of their languages and cultures on it so they can embody their own plurilingualism and pluriculturalism. They can also do a short presentation about what these languages and cultures represent to them. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Linguistic Portrait

Figure 1. Linguistic Portrait, taken from Galante, 2019

  • Translingual mediation Teachers can get students to read or listen to texts in the languages they already know, take notes, and bring them to the language classroom. For example, in a French class with the topic of global warming, the teacher can ask students to do some research at home about the topic in different languages. A student who speaks Mandarin can access information in a Chinese online newspaper, bring the knowledge to the classroom, and present the information in French. By doing this, students are mediating knowledge across languages, learning French, and developing critical thinking by analyzing content produced in texts in different languages and published in different venues.
  • Translanguaging buddies If in a language class there are two or more students who share the same languages, the teacher can sometimes have these students help each other in the languages they share. For example, in a French class where there are two students who speak Spanish, the teacher can encourage them to use Spanish to clarify information, understand the content, and even teach their peers some Spanish words. Translanguaging buddies do not necessarily have to speak the same languages. One student who speaks Russian can be paired up with a student who speaks Arabic; they can both discuss the topic in a mix of French, Russian, and Arabic and make sense of the content.

These three examples may already look familiar among some teachers, but others may find them radical. But why should teachers even attempt to use a plurilingual approach? In the first part of this article, I provided a rationale based on the increase of multilingualism in Canada and in the world. Below, I will provide some arguments based on recent research.

What does research say about plurilingual education?

Many studies conducted in different language classrooms (ESL, FSL, immersion, bilingual programs, etc.) and countries suggest several benefits of a plurilingual education, including language development, empathy, self-esteem, cognition, and motivation, among other factors. In my own research (2020), I have investigated teachers’ perceptions of a plurilingual approach in the English-language classroom compared to a monolingual approach (English-only). Seven teachers participated in the study and they taught two classes using two different approaches: plurilingual with one class and English-only with another class, for a period of four months. The content was similar but the approach was different, and the teachers did not have to change their entire curriculum to apply a plurilingual approach. In fact, they introduced one plurilingual task per week, for about 30–40 minutes in one class, while the other class had similar content but used one English-only task per week. After I interviewed the teachers at the end of the program, they unanimously reported preference for a plurilingual approach compared to English-only. For these teachers, a plurilingual approach:

  • taps into students’ lived experiences, and develops English based on their personal trajectories rather than on unrealistic scenarios where they need to use the target language
  • challenges teachers’ monolingual and monocultural mindset and the idea that students are not plurilingual
  • helps students develop agency and feel free to use their linguistic repertoire whenever they want or need for the purposes of learning
  • allows students to feel pride in the languages and cultures in their repertoire
  • engages students in learning not only the target language but also about the languages and cultures of their peers
  • provides a safe space for students to discuss topics about cultural similarities and differences and demystify stereotypes.

The teachers also highlighted that they did not have to speak several languages themselves to use a plurilingual approach, and that even teachers who think of themselves as monolinguals (speaking one language only) can and should try to implement it in the classroom.

Moving forward

Given the current multilingual trends in Canada and recent calls for the provision of inclusive education to all students, innovative pedagogical approaches that prepare them to communicate across languages, cultures, and contexts are now needed. People will continue to communicate face-to-face and online, and being able to use their repertoire to understand how language use and culture may vary across contexts, be open to more language and cultural learning, and advocate for linguistic and cultural inclusiveness in schools and other spaces is paramount for an inclusive society. If we want to better prepare our students for current and future Canadian realities of multilingualism, change needs to happen soon. Canada has a unique opportunity to remain a leader in language education, but it needs to go beyond bilingualism and encourage Canadians to become plurilingual speakers. Supporting plurilingualism will not take away from the languages already existent in Canada; it will add openness to the English/French bilingual dichotomy and the popular discourse that the country is bilingual. Canada is much more than that.

For more research and resources, visit McGill University’s Plurilingual Lab.

Banner Photo : Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, March 2021

Read other articles from this issue


Council of Europe. (2020). Common European Framework of References for languages: Learning, teaching, Assessment. Companion Volume. Council of Europe Publishing.

Galante, A. (2020). Plurilingual and pluricultural competence (PPC) scale: The inseparability of language and culture. International Journal of Multilingualism.

Galante, A. (2019). “The moment I realized I am plurilingual”: Plurilingual tasks for creative representations in EAP at a Canadian university. Applied Linguistics Review, 11(4), 551–580.

Galante, A., Okubo, K., Cole, C., Abd Elkader, N., Wilkinson, C., Carozza, N., Wotton, C., & Vasic, J. (2020). “English-only is not the way to go:” Teachers’ perceptions of plurilingual instruction in an English program at a Canadian university. TESOL Quarterly Journal.

Harris, K. (2020, October 30). Federal government plans to bring in more than 1.2M immigrants in next 3 years. CBC News.

Statistics Canada. (2016). Linguistic diversity and multilingualism in Canadian homes.

UNESCO. (2019). International literacy day 2019: Revisiting literacy and multilingualism, background paper.

United World Schools. (n.d.). UN sustainable development goals: Our role.

Meet the Expert(s)

Angelica Galante

Assistant Professor in Second Language Education, McGill University

Angelica Galante is Assistant Professor in Language Education at McGill University and Director of the Plurilingual Lab.

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