Multilingual Europe and its plurilingual immigrant parents

Marina Antony-Newman discusses the value of plurilingual immigrant parents and what we can learn from their linguistic practices.

Bilingual programmes and the role of parents 

Many parents in Europe and beyond prefer to enrol their children in bilingual programmes, where their offspring can develop proficiency in several languages. These programs wouldn’t have been created without parental initiative. Bilingual programs were initially developed in Canada with the introduction of French immersion, where children studied in English and French. Parents lobbied the Canadian government for two years before an experimental French immersion kindergarten was opened in 1965 in St. Lambert, Quebec. The experiment proved effective and bilingual programs spread internationally. 

Originally, most bilingual programs served local families who wanted their children to acquire two languages, but increased international migration made the student population more linguistically diverse. Our team of Canadian educational researchers became interested in finding out more about the perspectives of immigrant parents from Europe on the value of plurilingualism, French in bilingual programs, and plurilingual literacy practices. 

The concept of plurilingualism was introduced by the Council of Europe in 1996 to embrace growing linguistic and cultural diversity across Europe. Plurilingualism is a dynamic practice of individuals using more than one language and culture in a variety of contexts, without the emphasis on proficiency in each language. On the contrary, multilingualism refers to languages co-existing in society where speakers strive for advanced mastery of languages. In Europe, the terms multilingualism and plurilingualism are often used reciprocally to describe responses to linguistic diversity

From our study, we found that the European multilingual context is fruitful for producing plurilingual speakers, including plurilingual immigrant parents who moved to Canada. These families usually have two to three languages in their linguistic repertoire. For example, a Macedonian family in Toronto would often speak Macedonian, Serbian, and English. Such families are linguistically rich and culturally diverse with untapped potential of ‘funds of knowledge’

Although plurilingual language instruction is developing globally, there is still a lack of official plurilingual classes or programmes. We turned to plurilingual parents from Europe to find out more about their perspectives on plurilingual education. This is what we found.  

The value of languages

Plurilingual parents value languages, language learning, and maintenance, challenging a common stereotype of ‘hard to reach‘ immigrant parents who are not interested in their children’s education. On the contrary, they show an awareness of their children’s linguistic repertoires and abilities, their successes, and struggles. Parents often have specific ideas about language learning, such as beliefs about learning vocabulary:

  …You can’t build a language unless you are actually exposed to and learn vocabulary. Right now, he is only exposed to [French] at school…


Parents openly value languages, and official bilingualism in Canada motivates them to learn French:

…First of all, I value languages. I am the person who studied languages, taught languages, researched languages, so to me, speaking another language [French] is extremely valuable, and it was without any question that the children would have to speak more than just English. This is another reason why we kept Romanian in the house.


For parents, learning French in Canada facilitates plurilingual development, with official Canadian bilingualism working as a reinforcement to value and maintain their home languages.

Enrolling children in bilingual and multilingual programs

Plurilingual parents enrol their children in French immersion programs in Canada because they value French. Some parents believe that French leads to more career opportunities:

It’s my view as an immigrant. When she finishes Grade 12, and she gets the bilingual paper, it’s easier after to get a job or position.


While others may have enrolled their children out of convenience, for yet another group, school choice was impacted by the beliefs and values of their cultural-linguistic community: 

…[At] first, I didn’t want it… And why would I add another language? But then we were living right across from the school, so most of our neighbours sent their kids there. They were in the same situation; they spoke a European language and they added French [alongside] the English environment.


Rich plurilingual literacy practices in the family

Plurilingual parents said that Canadian schools do not promote plurilingual literacies, “especially in one’s home language, because there is no school support for that.” (P10). In the absence of such support, parents have to shoulder the burden of developing their children’s plurilingual literacies. Parents often resort to tutoring in their home language and French, purchasing books in multiple languages, and using community learning centres offering tuition in their home language and French. They invest time and money to develop languages by visiting local libraries, finding books online, or having their home library.

Even with their own lack of proficiency in French, parents remain engaged in their children’s French literacy development, offering support during the transition between programmes, helping with homework, motivating and encouraging children to maintain their plurilingual practices: 

He asked for some words occasionally, but the most important help was to organise him and make sure he does the work.


Immigrants are an asset, not a burden

There is much to learn from these parents. Immigrant parents promote plurilingualism via plurilingual parenting, represented by the fluid and dynamic use of all languages in their familial repertoires, flexible language policies, and the culture incorporated into language use. This helps to enhance linguistic and cultural diversity in society. 

Supporting immigrant parents and having their voices heard will increase their participation in the educational system. This, in turn, has the potential to improve educational practices, fostering innovation in language education or strengthening home-school connection. 

It will also have an impact on general attitudes towards immigrants, who may no longer be perceived as lacking, but as empowered. Such mindset changes can lead to significant cultural and economic benefits, creating a more enriched and inclusive society for all.

*P implies a parent/participant in the study.

Marina Antony-Newman is a PhD candidate at the UCL Institute of Education. This piece is adapted from an article on the beliefs about the value of French, plurilingualism, and plurilingual home literacy practices of Eastern – European languages by immigrant parents in Canada. You can read the full article here.

Image by Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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