Big L and little l Language

Image by pikisuperstar on Freepik

This week I attended Outstanding Schools Europe, a two-day conference in London. Lorna Caputo-Greenall led two dozen of us in a discussion about multilingual learners. I focus here on the concept of Language (big L) as a broader linguistic system made up of individual languages (e.g. Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Welsh … ).

Lorna (Exploring Multilingualism) starts by reminding us of some of the traits of multicultural students. She is speaking to the choir, I assume, though in our small group discussion it quickly becomes apparent that there is a range of opinions about multilingual learners and language education in our international schools. 

According to Lorna, a multilingual child is someone who has collected various languages of various different levels, for whatever reason, e.g. from native speaking parents, from nannies, from frequent moves, from formal study in school, however. She emphasized (and I comment in the parentheses) that:

  • their language system is one big system. (This is in line with the translanguaging work of many; I remember in particular how Ofelia Garcia made this point); 
  • multilingual children have language preferences (as do adults. In addition, proficiency and comfort levels are different from one language to the next, and may depend on setting, task, and a host of factors);
  • their language systems change over time, growing and fading, and international schools may contribute to their growth or their loss. (This line of thinking is quite interesting in light of efforts to decolonize international school curricula, meaning in part to address how international schools tend to push one language, most often English, sometimes at the expense of other languages.);
  • adults’  attitudes toward language transfer to children. When adults say “I had three years of French but I only remember ‘Bonjour,’” it doesn’t go unnoticed; 
  • multilingual children are over and under identified as students with special needs, as students needing learning support, and as students needing speech therapy; and
  • multilingual students need multilingual role models, meaning adults who are also multilingual (and who continue to work on their language skills).

Quite a list. In other words, the use of language – and the instruction of language in international schools – is not at all simple. In one of the programs I teach for Moreland University, graduate students currently teaching in international schools are asked to locate their school’s language policy in order to critique it. For those students/teachers who can actually put their hands on a plan – and by no means is it all of them – the considerations Lorna highlighted for us are a very good place to start.

I would like to comment on the first bullet, the notion that our language systems are one big system, what I like to call Big L Language, composed of bits and pieces of little l languages. Often our curricula lead us away from thinking about language in these terms. We teach Spanish and Japanese. Our students speak Mandarin, or Turkish, or French. When our students are multilingual we sometimes make the assumption that they speak two, three, or more languages fluently. (And it is worth noting, monolingual speakers are probably far more likely to make this assumption since they do not have direct experience operating in multiple languages.) Fluency itself is a very slippery word. The preferences of multilingual students that Lorna mentioned may well have to do with their own internal feeling of fluency. While they might sound fluent in a language, they may not feel that way, and while they might be quite happy to chat with friends in a certain language, they might not feel at all comfortable writing in that language … but all of those disparate abilities make up their overall language selves. 

Big L Language makes for quite a complicated linguistic system, really. And Big L is the reality of the students we work with every day. 

For more of Lorna’s work and materials, see

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