This invited paper was originally presented as part of the first IRA Multilanguage Literacy Symposium, held in July 2002 in Edinburgh, Scotland, following the 19th World Congress on Reading. Find other papers from this symposium here.

Developing Multilingual Literacy in a Complex Setting: Suggested Principles for Building a Crossnational Research Agenda

Dominique Portante

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This article starts by painting a picture of the complex language setting in which children grow up in Luxembourg, a country where bi- and trilingualism is commonplace. From this background, the article then attempts to identify some useful principles for research activities in the field of multiple language literacy.

Children in Luxembourg grow up in a complex multilingual context. Luxembourgish (Lëtzebuergesch, the national and most spoken language), French, and German are the three official languages, and those traditionally learned and used in primary education. Language surveys from 1983 (Ministère de l'Education Nationale et de la Jeunesse, 1986) and 1998 (Fehlen et al., 1998) revealed that a large portion of the country’s population use all three languages, and that many in Luxembourg also use other languages — notably English, and immigrant languages including Portuguese, Italian, languages spoken in the former Yugoslavia, and Chinese. Of course, language use and practices are subject to evolution due to changes in population migration and immigration flows.

For very young children at the early developmental stage of language acquisition, the main focus is on the mother tongue or mother tongues. Currently, the most common mother tongue in Luxembourg is still Luxembourgish. However, we have to consider that at the beginning of preschool education, about 40% of children are not natives of Luxembourg and do not learn Luxembourgish at home; these “recent Luxembourgers” continue to speak their original first languages. Although there are no precise figures concerning language use among children in Luxembourg (though a research project proposed by Portante et al., 2002, was initiated in May 2003), we know that at least 17% of parents use more than one language with their children (Fehlen et al., 1998).

Besides their mother tongue, most children in Luxembourg are confronted with at least one or two other languages in their everyday lives, through television and other media. Further, day-to-day business requires most people in Luxembourg to use other languages, for shopping, social contacts, or other purposes. Here the language most frequently used, besides Luxembourgish, is French, for both native Luxembourgers and many immigrants. This is due to the rather high percentage of French-speaking cross-border commuters and immigrants working in shops and restaurants, primarily in the central and southern regions of the country. Although it is possible for immigrant families in Luxembourg to live entirely within their original language and culture, this is not the general picture. For instance, Portuguese immigrant families tend to use French fairly frequently, and this has an impact on their children’s language use.

A significant change occurs when children enter institutional care, such as daycare centers, playgroups, or preschool, where a common language is needed. The government position is that Luxembourgish should be taught in preschool and that it should play an integrative role as the common language. Preschool teachers face a complex landscape: Linguistic groups are mixed in the same classroom, but the mixture changes from school to school. In some settings, we find schools with few native speakers of Luxembourgish.

At preschool, children learn Luxembourgish through immersion in everyday tasks and play. Literacy is introduced in first grade through the German language. In second grade, children are introduced to French. Oral and written German and French are formally taught throughout grades 3 to 6. German is also used in math and science, while Luxembourgish remains a vehicle for communication and interaction primarily for nonacademic matters, with one hour a week devoted to the study of Luxembourgish language and culture.

By the end of schooling, it is expected that children will be proficient in at least the three official languages of Luxembourgish, French, and German. Not achieving proficiency is considered a disadvantage, mainly because it limits opportunities in the labor market, but also for reasons of social cohesion. There is evidence that in our system, drop-outs, school failures (Service de Coordination de la Recherche et de l'Innovation Pédagogiques et Technologiques, 2002), and low levels of competence (Ministère de l'Education Nationale, de la Formation Professionnelle et des Sports, 2001) are more prevalent among immigrant children. A primary concern emerging from recent studies is the need to achieve more equity. Since the Programme for International Student Assessment studies were conducted in 2000, there is also evidence that general performance in reading comprehension among young people at the end of their compulsory education is lagging behind the international average. One of the challenges for our schools is to stop seeing diversity as a disruptive force on learning and to find ways to use language and cultural diversity in a positive way in order to better develop children’s literacy on a multilingual and multicultural basis.

Emerging from this background are two principles I would like to propose for an international research agenda on multiple language literacy:

  1. Consider each child’s emerging literacy in all the languages that she or he brings to school
  2. Focus on in-depth investigations at the local school level, on the basis of comparative case studies to be developed with regard to common questions

In considering emerging literacy, I will refer to the definition of literacy given by Reder (1994), who considers it a set of social practices:

How individuals in their day-to-day interactions create and recreate the contexts in which written materials are used, how these interactions influence and are influenced by the use of written materials, and how participants interpret and give meaning to the texts and actions involved.

When children enter school, they already know a lot about language; they are usually competent speakers of their mother tongue or tongues. Many studies in emerging literacy draw attention to the early literacy experiences of children and show that children construct knowledge about print from newspapers, television advertisements, and other media in their environments before they enter school. Meek (1991) and Clay (1991) revealed the importance of narrative in oral and in written form, and this is confirmed by many researchers who work in the field of emergent literacy. Teale (1986) described the home background and its effect on young children’s literacy development. Kenner (2000) refers to researchers who documented four-year-olds’ experiences of story reading and storytelling activities in two different languages (Gregory et al., 1996; Minns, 1990) and documents children’s attempts at writing in a multilingual nursery context.

In Luxembourg, action research projects involving teachers (Gretsch, 1997a, 1997b, 1998, 1999) showed that “acknowledging the socio-cultural context and the [existing] competencies of young children in their own languages will boost their learning of subsequent languages and thus contribute to an attitude of learning adapted to Luxembourg’s multilingual and multicultural context and situation” (Pufahl, Rhodes, & Christian, 2000). This is confirmed by many studies from other countries, and in some way the concept of awareness of language constructed by Hawkins (1987) and developed by Candelier (1998) in the EVLANG projects are working in the same direction.

Research in early literacy and in emerging literacy in a multilingual context needs to explore home and school settings so that we can develop more knowledge and understanding of the contributions of different backgrounds children bring to school, knowing that the languages used at home do not match the languages used at school. All the languages that children bring to school have to be taken in account. In this sense, the research should investigate how learning at school can be linked with children’s experiences in their home settings. This investigation can hardly be separated from the study of language uses in the sense of social practices to be analyzed as an integral part of the contexts in which they occur.

This brings me to my second principle. Multilingual literacy is not an isolated domain. It cannot be separated from general language use in home and school settings. It has to be investigated in its sociocultural context, and it cannot be reduced to some cognitive dimensions.

I agree with Eve Gregory’s presentation and with my colleague, Charles Berg (2002), who pursues ethnographic descriptions of learning contexts and interpretative language biographies and who insists on the usefulness of linking this research to local school projects and to professional development of teachers. At the local level, it should involve all actors: children, teachers, parents, and local policymakers. It should combine direct observation via fieldwork and direct contact with relevant people with respect for ethical principles and ecological validity, thereby allowing an in-depth investigation of phenomena embedded in their natural sociocultural settings. Such a holistic approach, which focuses on the analysis of processes, relationships, and representations that lie beneath surface events, can be used as a means for developing and testing theory.

There are a number of important questions that need to be addressed here. One of them is still whether (or under what conditions) first-language literacy should be a precondition for the introduction of second-language literacy in school-based and nonformal settings, or whether school learning should merely acknowledge and increase the value of competencies young children already have in their own languages. For a country like Luxembourg, this question may be of importance, since almost all children learn to read and write in a language that is different from their mother tongue. Another question is under which conditions it is possible to develop literacy in different languages in groups of children working simultaneously in the same classroom, each group being introduced to literacy through a different language. And there is, of course, the question of biliteracy, with each child being introduced into literacy simultaneously through two different languages.

From this perspective, I would clearly give preference to small-scale in-depth studies in our research agenda. I suggest that we develop research designs that are based on ethnographic descriptions and case study approaches. They should be combined with more quantitative approaches, focusing on common questions to be identified.


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About the Author

Dominique Portante, who holds a doctorate in lingusitics, is a professor in the Faculté des Lettres, des Sciences humaines, des Arts et des Sciences de l’Education of the recently founded University of Luxembourg. His research fields are language learning in a multilingual context and development of teaching practices in primary schools. He is now directing a research project on language uses and multiliteracy development of three- to nine-year-old children. In the 1980s, he was in charge of the authoring group that produced the textbooks and related materials for learning French as a second language in primary schools in Luxembourg. During the 1990s, he was director of the research and innovation department (SCRIPT) of the Ministry of Education of Luxembourg.

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Author’s note: This presentation was partially based on a description of a recent research project in Luxembourg on multilingualism and literacy. That project received a grant from the National Research Fund, beginning in May 2003 (Portante et al., 2002).

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Citation: Portante, D. (2002, July). Developing multilingual literacy in a complex setting: Suggested principles for building a crossnational research agenda. Paper presented at the Multilanguage Literacy Symposium, Edinburgh, Scotland. Available:

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Posted January 2004
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