English as a lingua franca: Reverting the school system back to a monolingual ideology—Why it’s dangerous and how to move toward a plurilingual ideology

Download PDF

English is the most widely spoken language in the world. It is the most commonly taught, learned, and used L2 worldwide. English is sought out as a valuable commodity. Parents want their children to learn it because of potential job and personal gains, and people worldwide seek to learn it for these exact reasons. It reigns supreme within the seemingly invisible pyramid of languages. English is king. As a lingua franca, it is the dominant language of international business, science, and technology (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 57). Whatever the context, the rule of thumb seems to be, “When in doubt or when in a communicative bind, resort to speaking English.” Tourists who visit foreign countries can rest assured that they will be understood if they have knowledge of English. International companies increasingly use English as their corporate language. English has a great potential for promoting international understanding (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 57). It is assumed that the best way to solve the world’s communicative problems is to use English as a lingua franca. As an educator, I find this view to be very problematic. It reverts the world back to a monolingual ideology or world view. If English is presented to students as the only language worthwhile and the only one worth their communicative effort, as educators we send forth the message that their home languages do not matter and have no place in the education system. I would like to propose a pedagogical and policy-oriented shift in education from a monolingual model to one of plurilingualism, which in my opinion, will benefit students more in their educational, professional, and personal domains.

I will begin by defining the monolingual ideology, its world view, as well as the implications of this view. The following section will focus on the definition of receptive bilingualism and plurilingualism as well as the answers this view aims to propose for the world’s communication problem. In section three, I will examine today’s educational system from the educator’s lens and to show how it is still based around a monolingual world view. I will utilize examples from my practice to show how English as a lingua franca is still used in education and how this view reiterates a monolingual ideology. Following this section, I will propose an educational shift toward plurilingualism. This proposition will be aided by examples from my teaching practice that have proven to be somewhat successful in this shift. The paper will be concluded with a consideration for a needed shift in the educational system’s view of English as a lingua franca, as it is an ideology implemented out of sheer convenience and one which places sole importance on English literacy rather than literacy as a whole. I will emphasize the importance of teaching literacy as a holistic concept, through which student will be able to utilize their entire language repertoire. Finally, I will conclude with my final consolidating thoughts on this question.

Monolingual ideology
As Lüdi et al. points out, monolingual ideology represents a so-called wisdom, an original state, one which has been intended by God and legitimized by human beings (2010, p. 55). This idea has been found in the Bible, Greek philosophy, and all throughout history. This view has built the myth of nation as reflected in a common language (one nation, one language). An example of this idea is shown in Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, Plato states, “And can there be anything better for the interests of the State than that the men and women of a State should be as good as possible? There can be nothing better” (Plato, ca. 375 B.C./1993, p. 53). In this quote, Plato emphasizes the importance of the state and reiterates the idea that the needs of the state are ultimately the only ones that matter. The needs of the individual are secondary and ultimately non-essential if they interfere with those of the state. The collective thinks and acts as one being, and no one is to stray from this norm. It is precisely this type of view that is reflected within the monolingual ideology. This is what Lüdi et al. refer to as a “one language, one nation ideology” (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 57).

Individual bilingualism is perceived as dangerous, as it strays from this unified societal view in which the nation speaks one language and acts as one being. The monolingual answer to the challenge of communication in an increasingly globalized world is the use of English as a lingua franca (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 57). The rule of thumb of the tourism industry, for example, is that English is used as the default or fallback language within any exchange of communication with foreigners, in which the national language is not an option. The rule is grounded in the experience that English is the most commonly used L2 in the world (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 57). English is acquired by many individuals not only as a second language but also as a third or fourth language, and in many cases, it is one of the languages in the multilingual’s linguistic repertoire (Melo-Pfeifer, 2012, p. 124). As a result, it has a great potential for promoting international understanding. English as a lingua franca is the dominant language of international business, science, and technology (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 57). It is seen as a mediation tool and an essential resource within plurilingual interactions. The knowledge of English is the one resource that is assumed all learners have, and as a result, it acts as a gap-bridging tool in all communicative events in which understanding may be lacking. The original one nation, one language ideology still exists in modern day, and it does so through the use of English as the lingua franca. The knowledge of English seems to be the one universally unifying principle that drives forward the one language, one nation ideology into a more modern context toward a one world, one language philosophy.

Shift toward plurilingualism
The prevalent image of linguistic diversity has always been a patchwork of homogenous language communities that were in contact through trade or marriage but still fundamentally monolingual (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 55). This is the view that a lot of people still have about plurilingualism. Like a train, it is assumed that each language runs on its own track and never meets or comes into any contact with any of the other languages that an individual may speak. As a society we have worked very hard to place languages into specific categories out of which they dare not venture. “The process of constructing linguistic utopias and imagining homogenous linguistic communities […] was categorized by the search for clear categories and scientific purity” (Piccardo, 2016, p. 6). This process has involved putting up walls and entirely separating or isolating languages from one another. Languages, however, do not exist in isolation from one another, but, rather, they work in sync with each other. Plurilingualism as a philosophy sums up this idea perfectly.

Plurilingualism is a unique, overarching notion, implying a subtle but profound shift in perspective, both horizontally, toward the use of multiple languages, and vertically, toward valuing even the most partial knowledge of a language as tools for facilitating communication (Piccardo, 2016, p. 7). Everyone within a plurilingual society ideally speaks their language and is understood by the other members of society who do the same. Going back to our train track analogy, plurilingualism presents a view in which all the languages that a person speaks or comes into contact with, run on train tracks that are constantly intertwining and crossing paths. Plurilinguals mobilize the whole range of resources (all the languages that they speak); they do not stick to one language at one particular time but intertwine elements of different languages most creatively (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 62). Plurilingual speakers exploit their entire language repertoire in order to obtain the maximum gain from their choice of language. English is not used as a lingua franca in this instance to bridge the communicative gap; rather, any language within the speaker’s repertoire is used to do so. In order to measure the success of a communicative event, we do not have to assess the quality of the language spoken but answer the question whether or not the goal of the interaction has been achieved (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 64). This is done through any means; English can be but does not necessarily need to be present. The only criterion for determining the success of the communicative event is whether or not the message has been transferred clearly, through any language necessary to do so.

The view on language education in present day Ontario
My current teaching position as a Grade 6 core teacher allows me to witness educational policies surrounding language and literacy first-hand within the classroom. I will briefly explain the ministry’s expectations surrounding language that are passed down to me through administrators and policy makers.

Literacy as it is taught and tested in our schools is still conceived as linear, text-based reading and writing skills (Cummins, 2006, p. 3). At the elementary level, we test students twice a year in their reading level through the administration of the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA). The test deems whether these students are where they are supposed to be with their reading; whether they are at the level is deemed to be grade appropriate by the standards set out in the DRA. During school hours, students are to read only books that are marked to be their appropriate reading level. When we speak of literacy in the classroom, it is always English literacy to which we are referring. This view of literacy can be especially problematic for students for whom English is a second or even third language. Home languages other than English or French are viewed as largely irrelevant to children’s schooling (Cummins, 2006, p. 3). At best, they are treated with benign neglect and ignored; at worst, educators consider them an obstacle to the acquisition of English or French and discourage their use in school and at home (Cummins, 2006, p. 3). Ontario schoolboards have imposed a model of integrating English as a second language learners into regular stream classes. This instructional shift is in many ways deteriorating and useless, as it solely seems to promote English literacy, English norms and only assigns any real value to the knowledge of English. There is no value assigned to the home language:

The thinking is that the child’s bilingualism needs to move toward “ultimate attainment,” an endpoint in which the process is complete. Subtractive bilingualism, however, is often what language-minority students get. Students enter school with an L1, and while the L2 is added, the first language is subtracted. (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 387)

The ultimate goal is always the complete acquisition of English. Whether the L1 is in the picture or not by the end of this process, does not seem to be an important detail. Parents often ask me how their son or daughter is doing in English class. My first question to them is usually whether or not they speak their L1 at home. More than 90% of the time, the answer is that they speak only English at home, and they say this proudly believing it is the answer that I wish to hear. This is a problematic point of view for students and for these parents to have for a few reasons. If ELL (English language learning) students’ prior knowledge is encoded in their home languages, then these languages are relevant to their learning of English and academic content (Cummins, 2006, p. 6). What this point shows is that students need their prior language knowledge in order to be successful in the present moment of academic and language content which they are facing. The second major problem that the neglect of the home language creates in the classroom is that it causes students to frequently internalize a sense of shame in relation to their home language and culture (Cummins, 2006, p. 7). English (or French in Quebec) becomes the language of belonging and acceptance within the institution of the school (or preschool) system (Cummins, 2006, p. 7). Students’ primary goal is usually to achieve a sense of belonging. If they are to sacrifice their prior language knowledge in order to achieve this, more often than not, this is what they will do. In the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board alone, there are over 50 home languages. However, the only language which is visible and the only one to which any concrete value is assigned is English. The school board does offer international language programs on weekends, but this is the sole place and context in which these home languages are at all visible. This practice very clearly resorts back to a monolingual ideology as it places English into the position of a lingua franca, the one language that has any real value and posits it as a language that can aid in the barrier of communication. While Canada is a seemingly multicultural society, we still seem to hold onto a one language, one nation philosophy as it is still instilled within our education system.

A move toward the plurilingual classroom
Thus far we have looked at monolingual versus plurilingual teaching and learning philosophies, as well as explored the stagnant and monolingually based language system still in place within Ontario schools.

We now shift our focus toward how to make the necessary changes for teachers to bring their students’ home languages into the classroom and how they can create a plurilingual learning environment. I will briefly refer back to the traditional view on language acquisition. The prevalent image of linguistic diversity has always been a patchwork of homogenous language communities that were in contact through trade or marriage but still fundamentally monolingual (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 55). In the current education system, we still hold on to this view. As educators we treat each language as running on its own track, never actually meeting or overlapping with any other languages.

We need to put in place language practices that move the focus from language as an autonomous system that pre-exists its use, and competence as an internal capacity that accounts for language production, toward an understanding of language as a product of the embodied social practices that bring it about (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 389). Students need to have an understanding of language in a holistic sense. Language is not an autonomous entity which lives in isolation; rather, it is a living and breathing being, one which interacts with other languages. These interactions very much affect and reshape language and language use. Students’ prior language knowledge aids in their acquisition of new languages. Plurilinguals mobilize their whole range of resources (all the languages they speak) (Lüdi et al., 2010, p. 71). They do not stick to one language at one particular time but creatively intertwine elements of different languages. The resulting conclusion here is the idea that the lives of people speaking different languages in fact do not run on separate tracks never meeting, as monolingual ideology assumes. They are indeed an intertwined web. This is the type of framework that teachers should aim to put into place. Each student’s language needs to be recognized, and the pedagogy in place should be “centred on the singularity of the individual experiences that make up a plurality” (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 391). As such, this pedagogy enables students, as Freire has said, “to learn from each other as well as from teachers, at the same time that teachers learn from the students” (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 393). The work to make this possible starts in the classroom. It starts with a simple negotiation which teachers have with their students. They set their own norms of collaboration for how plurilanguaging will look in the classroom. What plurilingualism looks like in the classroom is not “emerging not from top-down policies, but from educators’ and students’ negotiation of bilingual practices ” (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 391). Changes start with the teacher and the relationship that they build with their students, it is as simple as that. In order to build a plurilingual classroom, these are some of the norms which need to be put into place:

  • collaboration among students
  • collaboration among faculty
  • learner-centered classrooms
  • language and content integration
  • plurilingualism from the students up
  • experiential learning
  • localized autonomy and responsibility (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 393)

Not all of these can be achieved instantly as the building of a plurilingual classroom takes patience and time, on the part of the teacher as well as the students. The ultimate goal is a classroom in which 1) all languages are respected and valued equally; 2) students feel that they are in a judgment-free, safe space; and 3) the objective is not perfection but effective and meaningful communication. This may sound like a linguistic utopia at this point; however, it is a utopia that will not be perfect by any means and will take time and effort. In the following section, I will discuss the first steps I have taken in slowly implementing some plurilingual practices into my classroom.

Plurilingualism in a grade 6 classroom
Throughout the past 10 years of my career, I have taught a lot of students for whom English is a second or third language. The dominant view amongst these students has always been that English is in first place, and then their language (if there even is a time and place for it at all). In a lot of cases I have witnessed a lot of shame or a level of shyness in students, surrounding their home languages and culture. These students would see English as their opportunity to fit in and make friends through its knowledge, since English is the norm. It is the gap-bridging principle that overcomes all communication barriers. I still remember a day in my career, about 2 years ago, when a teacher panel had the rare opportunity to ask a panel of English language learners how the teachers could help them in incorporating their L1 into the classroom. The unanimous response was that these students did not want their L1 brought into the classroom at all but would prefer to hear strictly English. As I reflect back on this, I realize precisely why this was their request. They did not see any value within their L1, as the education system of which they are a part puts forth the message that their language does not matter, their culture is not significant. There is no place for their language in the English classroom.

I set out to create a “plurilingual classroom in which teachers and students pursue an educational strategy of embracing and exploiting linguistic diversity present in order to maximize communication and hence both subject learning and plurilingual/pluricultural awareness” (Piccardo, 2016, p. 7). This would be no easy task, and for this reason I started out slow, with one simple activity that would show students the vast amount of linguistic and cultural diversity in their own classroom; so started my journey. I introduced my students to a task that was centered around exploring celebrations around the world, ones which are celebrated by students in our classroom. This activity familiarised children with holidays, customs, and traditions typical of foreign countries. The activity supported their imagination and narrative competences (Kharkhurin, 2012, p. 22). In our class, each day we would discuss one given celebration that was celebrated by one of the students. The student who celebrates this holiday, would bring in as many different objects, pictures, and other significant artifacts that represent this holiday for them. On the day of their given presentation, the child discussing their holiday would talk about any traditions that they follow, and they would share these pictures and artifacts with their classmates. Upon doing so, all of the other children in the class would form groups, and they would write words on a piece of paper together with some drawings representing their idea of the holiday. The multilingual child would then evaluate all the words and pictures and announce the winning group that would be given a small present related to the specific holiday.

Let’s go on my holiday activity in action
The first of the celebrations that was talked about in our class was Diwali. The student who celebrates this holiday, brought in pictures of her and her family as well as the sari that she wears on this special night. She drew the Ohm symbol on the board and wrote down words in Hindi that were significant to this celebration. The other students loved learning about Diwali. They asked meaningful questions, requested some more detailed explanations, and tried to pronounce a lot of the Hindi words that were mentioned. When it came to the group activity of writing down words, drawing pictures, and making personal connections, the ideas were endless. The students were a little hesitant at first, as they were used to answering questions solely in English and to being graded in the traditional manner of linear-based literacy. They were unsure how they could please me, as that is their ultimate goal in the pursuit of getting a good mark. The initial part of the group conversations was reserved and the words that the groups wrote on their papers were all in English. However, as our presenter came around and encouraged her classmates to use the new vocabulary, even symbols in some cases, the group connections to this holiday were quickly becoming much more intricate and meaningful. This was plurilingualism taking place from the students up. The learning was coming from them, as they were the experts who were facilitating their own learning in their learner-centred classroom.
Plurilingualism in action continued

This activity familiarized the children with historical and cultural differences as well as multilingual vocabulary, which may be significant in this celebration (Kharkhurin, 2012, p. 22). The first of the plurilingual norms that I implemented into my plurilingual classroom was student collaboration. Collaboration allows students to form friendships across cultural and linguistic lines because they have a reason to talk to one another and are not silently filling out worksheets or listening to a teacher (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 395). This made the learning experience interesting for them, as it was content driven and rooted in experiential learning. Collaboration enables all students to engage in challenging and creative projects because students of different levels work together to accomplish a final product, which they would not be able to do on their own (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 395).

The other big piece in successfully implementing plurilingualism through this activity had to do with me releasing my control over to the students. The teacher is not the only expert in the room, and considerable control is handed over to the students. Content is made accessible because students work on figuring out the content, language, and implications together (Garcia & Sylvan, 2011, p. 394). The teacher is constantly learning within a plurilingual classroom and providing opportunities for their students to teach them.

The goal is not language perfection but, rather, effective communication and collaboration through any means necessary, which in some cases will not necessarily be in English, and this is okay. This is ultimately what was achieved. Literacy was not delivered in a traditional linear model to which students are usually accustomed; rather, there was an emphasis placed on the holistic quality of language and how literacy and communication is not always intrinsically English literacy.

English holds a great power worldwide. It is one of the few languages that will be understood (even in a small amount) in most parts of the world. It is the most commonly learned L2 in the world and the most valued. The world of business, medicine, science, and many other disciplines is dominated by English as a lingua franca. In any event of communication uncertainty, the safest bet seems to be to resort to English. In a rapidly globalizing world, English seems to be the solution to the world’s communication problem. As we have explored in this paper, there is a problem with this theory. The monolingual ideology reflects the idea that a nation is connected by one common language. This is the norm. Speaking two or multiple languages is seen as straying from this norm and, thus, endangering this linguistic purity. The instilling of English as a lingua franca helps to aid this monolingual ideology, as it places primary focus and importance on this one language. The education system in Canada, unfortunately is based upon this model. Literacy is taught in a traditional and linear way, in which all languages run on separate tracks, never actually meeting. Literacy within this context implies English literacy, and there is no room in this system for any home languages of students. These languages are deemed as useless and a general distraction in the ultimate goal of English linguistic purity. This top-down model from the ministry needs a revamp as soon as possible. The answer lies in a plurilingual model that is student driven from the bottom up.

Plurilingualism offers a holistic view of language as it allows students to see that each language is not a lonely, isolated entity but is, rather, on a path which constantly intertwines with other languages it meets along the way. Within a plurilingual classroom, students are able to see that no language has any greater value than another and to acknowledge that they use their entire language repertoire in literacy, in many instances. Plurilinguals mobilize all of the linguistic resources that they have at their disposal. The goal is never linguistic purity, but rather effective communication. I have outlined the starter steps of creating a plurilingual classroom, one in which every language has as much value assigned to it as does English. This is a mission that is a bottom-up effort, one which will require a lot of time, patience, and hard work but one that is worthwhile ultimately. English while very valuable is not the only language that should be visible in Canadian classrooms.



Cummins, J. (2006). Multiliteracies and equity: How do Canadian schools measure up? Canadian Education Association, 1–6. https://www.edcan.ca/wp-content/uploads/EdCan-2006-v46-n2-Cummins.pdf

García, O., & Sylvan, C. E. (2011). Pedagogies and practices in multilingual classrooms: Singularities in pluralities. The Modern Language Journal95(3), 385–400.

Kharkhurin A. V. (2012). Multilingualism and creativity. Multilingual Matters.

Lüdi, G., Höchle, K., & Yanaprasart, P. (2010). Patterns of language use in polyglossic urban areas and multilingual regions and institutions: A Swiss case study. International Journal of the Sociology of Language2010(205), 55–78. https://doi.org/10.1515/ijsl.2010.039

Melo-Pfeifer, S. (2012). Intercomprehension between Romance languages and the role of English: A study of multilingual chat rooms. International Journal of Multilingualism11(1), 120–137. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2012.679276

Piccardo, E. (2016). Plurilingualism: Vision, conceptualization, and practices. In P. Trifonas & T. Aravossitas (Eds.), Handbook of research and practice in heritage language education. (pp. 1–19). Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-38893-9_47-1

Plato. (1993). Republic (R. Waterfield, Trans.). Oxford University Press. (Original work published ca. 375 BC)



Author Bio

Ivana is a grade 4 Teacher with 10 years of experience with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. She has worked as an ELL/ELD Special assignment teacher and as a grade 6 classroom teacher. She has also taught Serbian as a heritage language. She holds a MEd from the University of Toronto (Language and Literacies) and a BEd from York University and a BA (English and Philosophy) from McMaster University. Ivana is passionate about supporting English Language Learners (ELLs) in their journey toward a new language and a new culture. Her research interests include literacy education practices, plurilingual practices in the elementary classroom and home language policies at school board and ministry levels.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *