Plurilingualism in Europe: promoting languae and cultural diversity

Plurilingualism in Europe: promoting language and cultural diversity[1]

Cinzia Colaiuda*

* PHD in Comparative Studies, University of Rome Tor Vergata,


The main aim of this paper is to describe the effects of language education policies on linguistic and cultural integration of migrants and foreign students thanks to the implementation of school curricula based on the paradigm of plurilingual and intercultural education. Data were collected through the results of an action-research project that was carried out in the last five school years in Italy. Its theoretical framework was constituted by studies and researches of the Language Policy Union of the Council of Europe. The analysis of its outcomes pointed out how the application of those policies engaged teachers to use plurilingual and intercultural education in multilingual classrooms and showed their positive effects on pupils’ behavior towards tolerance and acceptance of diversity. They underlined the importance of bottom-up approaches in education in order to foster sociocultural changes and the fundamental role that education systems, schools, school curricula and language policies can play for the realization of the European Project.

Keywords:             diversity, plurilingualism, intercultural education, identity, integration, action-research, bottom-up approach, autobiographical narrative, human rights, whole-community approach


“Diversity” is one of the most contradictory terms that characterizes multilingual and multicultural societies. According to its etymology, it has always had a various and multi-faceted meaning. It comes from the Latin word “diversĭtas”, a neologism that had more a negative than a positive meaning at that time. During the Middle Ages it meant “contrariety”, “disagreement”, “difference” and could also imply other shades of meaning (“oddness, “wickedness”, “perversity” also conceived as “evil”, “mischief”). More in general, it addressed the condition of “being diverse” or “varied”.

The meaning of the word “diversity” in a positive sense is a concept that comes from the rise of modern democracies in the XIX century. From the first decades of the XX century it was used with a specific focus on “cultural diversity” or “cultural pluralism” with the meaning of “toleration of diversity within a society or state”, as an opposite to monolithic countries characterized by the absence of “variation” (from Latin “variatio”) and “change” (The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971)

Over the last decades Europe has become a highly multicultural society characterized by new and old forms of migrations and linguistic diversities – historical multilingualism, dialect diversity, linguistic minorities, etc – that underline the importance of linguistic and cultural pluralism we can observe particularly in urban landscapes.

From this point of view, Pennycook and Otsuji have introduced the term “metrolingualism” for describing the complexity of urban spaces where the boundaries between languages and cultures are constantly negotiated and transformed:

“By metrolingualism, then, we refer not so much to state-centric descriptions of diversity, but rather to local accounts of multiplicity, grounded accounts of language users, where multilingualism is not merely a plurality of languages but rather a creative space of language making, where rules and boundaries are crossed and changed” (Pennycook & Otsuji, 2015, p. 16).

According to this definition,  the term diversity can’t be considered as a static “container” of social and cultural norms: it’s a dynamic entity that implies a process of negotiation of social values and principles. At the same time, language and culture can be considered as a dynamic phenomenon which reflects the main features of our society.

From this point of view, Piller encourages to think about linguistic and cultural diversity from a positive point of view and underlines that it is not the exception but rather the norm of human groups and communities. In order to stress the complexity of post-modern societies due to globalization and strong waves of migration, she introduces the term “superdiversity”:

“The term “super – diversity” was coined in 2007 by the anthropologist Steven Vertovec to underscore the fact that over the past twenty years globally more people have moved from more places to more places; wholly new and increasingly complex social formation have ensued. The result is said to be a level and kind of complexity surpassing anything previously experienced in a particular society”. According to Piller, “it is not the level and complexity of diversity per se that has increased but the perception of that diversity” which people experience daily as a form of “subjective diversity” (Piller, 2016, p. 22).

Anyway diversity, migrations, linguistic and cultural contacts can be considered as a constant feature of the European culture. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian, in his masterpiece entitled Germania described the different nature of tribes, kingdoms and populations that lived in Germany:

“Germany is separated from the Galli, the Rhæti, and Pannoni, by the rivers Rhine and Pannonii, by the rivers Rhine and Danube; mountain ranges, or the fear which each feels for the other, divide it from the Sarmatæ and Daci. Elsewhere ocean girds it, embracing broad peninsulas and islands of unexplored extent, where certain tribes and kingdoms are newly known to us, revealed by war. […]The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. For, in former times, it was not by land but on shipboard that those who sought to emigrate would arrive” (Tacitus, 98 AD, par. I – II).

According to the description of Tacitus, multiculturalism, otherness, migrations are not the exception but rather the norm in Europe. Nowadays the term diversity should be conceptualized not only as a structural part of globalization originated by new waves of migration that are deeply transforming the face of post-modern societies, but also as a fundamental component of everyday interactions between different languages and cultures.

“Diversity” and language policies in Europe    

One of the first official European documents in which the term diversity has a positive meaning is the European Cultural Convention (1954) of the Council of Europe. In this text the word diversity isn’t used in an explicit way but its meaning is evoked through the concept of “otherness” and its variations (“others”, “other”, “(one) another”). Furthermore, the Convention stresses the importance of “encouraging the study […] of the languages, history and civilization of the other Contracting Parties and grant facilities to those Parties to promote such studies in its territory” in order to guarantee “a greater understanding of one another among the peoples of Europe” (Article 2).

Tolerance and acceptance of diversity play a fundamental role in the European Cultural Convention since these concepts imply mutual understanding and democratic will of learning traditional aspects, languages and cultures of other European countries after the tragic episodes of the Second World War, in order to achieve a greater unity among member states and to protect the European cultural heritage. The Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (2005) of the Council of Europe revokes those topics and underlines that “the role of cultural heritage in the construction of a peaceful and democratic society, and in the processes of sustainable development and the promotion of cultural diversity” (Article 1d).

The positive meaning of the word diversity is more evident in the Recommendation (69) 2, in which the recognition of the communicative aim of foreign languages is seen as a fundamental step towards mutual respect of cultural and linguistic diversity. The introduction of this term and the official recognition of its positive meaning in the context of multilingual and multicultural societies, can be seen as an important step towards the experimentation and development of new teaching methods in foreign language learning and as the first step towards new paradigms in education based on plurilingualism and pluriculturality.

In the Recommendation R (82) 18, that contains an explicit message to member states for fostering a general reform of modern-language teaching and learning, is underlined the importance of mutual enrichment through exposure to a continuing linguistic and cultural diversity considered as a resource in the European social context:

“Considering that the rich heritage of diverse languages and culture in Europe is a valuable common resource to be protected and developed, and that a major educational effort is needed to convert that diversity from a barrier to communication into a source of mutual enrichment and understanding;

Considering that it is only through a better knowledge of European modern languages that it will be possible to facilitate communication and interaction among Europeans of different mother tongues in order to promote European mobility, mutual understanding and co-operation, and overcome prejudice and discrimination.” (Preamble)

As we can observe, in the Preamble of this Recommendation are visible the first traces towards the further development of plurilingual policies based on the recognition of the importance of language learning both at school level and in a lifelong perspective.

Furthermore, in relation to secondary school it’s stressed the main aim of education in Europe is “to encourage the teaching of at least one European language other than the national language […] mak[ing] provision for the diversification of language study in schools” in order “to use the language effectively for communication with other speakers of that language […] on the basis of mutual understanding of, and respect for, the cultural identity of others” (Sections B-E).

Tolerance and acceptance for linguistic and cultural diversity through intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding can be considered one of the main principles of the Council of Europe and can be reached, according to this Recommendation, also through international mobility and mutual co-operation among member states. It’s not a coincidence that from now on language policies of the Council of Europe start to move towards a communicative approach to language teaching and learning.

Moreover, in this document a specific session is devoted to the integration of migrants students whose linguistic diversity isn’t perceived as a negative factor but as a form of cultural heritage that should be fostered in all European countries with exchange programs between the country of origin and the migrant community. One of the main aims of their language policies should be to “develop their mother tongues both as educational and cultural instrument and in order to maintain and improve their links with their culture of origin” (Section D)

From the early 90s, multilingualism becomes one of the main topics in the European agenda on education in relation to the reform of education systems and school curricula. With the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) begins a new era of mutual cooperation in education at international level particularly through the teaching the official languages of the other European countries “while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organization of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity” (Article 126).

The White paper on education and training. Teaching and learning. Towards the learning society (1995) underlines the necessity of developing multilingualism in order to foster Europe’s economic competitiveness, people’s mobility and employability in a globalized world. From this point of view it’s underlined the fundamental role played by education with a particular focus on language education that is seen as a priority for the economic and cultural development of the European Union. In order to take active part in the so-called “learning society”, every European citizen have to master two other languages in addition to the mother tongue.

According to the Universal Declaration on Linguistic rights (1996), “the rights of all language communities are equal and independent of the legal or political status of their languages as official, regional or minority languages” (Article 5). The principle of equality implies that all language communities have the same linguistic rights in terms of  social cohesion and inclusion, cultural identification and preservation of their language of origin, democratic participation and civic engagement. Even if their idiom is different from the official national language spoken in a specific member state, their linguistic rights should be officially recognized by local, national and international laws. Since all languages are equal, its members should have the right “to interrelate with and receive attention from the public authorities in their own language” (Article 16).

A new step towards an effective recognition of the European linguistic and cultural diversity is the Declaration and Programme on Education for Democratic Citizenship (1999). In this document the Committee of Ministers underlines that the preservation of European linguistic diversity plays a fundamental role for the rise of a more tolerant society based on solidarity, common values and a cultural heritage enriched by its diversity.

Plurilingual skills in the exercise of democratic citizenship are seen as a way to participate actively in the political and public life in Europe, and not only that of the country of origin, thanks to the ability to interact effectively and appropriately in different social context.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, that was adopted in 2000, places an obligation on the European countries to respect linguistic, religious and cultural diversity (Article 22) and prohibits any kind of discrimination on grounds of language, sex, race, colour, religion (Article 21). From now on, multilingualism is seen as a way for promoting social cohesion and intercultural dialogue fostering openness towards ethnic diversity considered as a fundamental values of the European Union.

The publication of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (2001), one of the most important pedagogical and political documents produced by the Language Policy Unit of the Council of Europe in the last decades, can be seen as a cornerstone in language and intercultural education both in Europe and in non-European countries (Byram & Parmenter, 2012). Its adoption implies the development of education policies based on the ethical principles and values promoted by the Council of Europe. In this document, that has both a pedagogical and a political nature, socio-cultural and linguistic diversities are seen as fundamental components in the development of individual’s identity. Education systems, educators, teachers have the strategic task of harmonizing in a positive way individual’s experiences for the construction of the self, enriching the vital core of learner’s identity with the recognition of the value of diversity and otherness:

“As a social agent, each individual forms relationships with a widening cluster of overlapping social groups, which together define identity. In an intercultural approach, it is a central objective of language education to promote the favourable development of the learner’s whole personality and sense of identity in response to the enriching experience of otherness in language and culture. It must be left to teachers and the learners themselves to reintegrate the many parts into a healthily developing whole” (p.1).

Obviously national school curricula play a fundamental role for the proactive promotion of education policies based on tolerance and acceptance of otherness and mutual recognition of linguistic and cultural diversity. From this point of view, educational institutions can become powerful instruments for the rise of more resilient and harmonious societies, founding their pedagogical paradigms on the value of diversity.

Diversity and social inequalities

Nowadays the word diversity is often associated with the fundamental values and ethical principles of the European society and of the European Union. Terms such as “multilingualism”, “diversity”, “pluralism”, “mutual understanding”, “ inclusion” constitute the pillars of education policies in many member states and can be considered also as key concepts of many documents, studies and researches of the Council of Europe. On the one hand, the official recognition of linguistic and cultural diversity in Europe may provide new forms of language learning opportunities and international mobility of adults and students. On the other hand, it can paradoxically reinforce social, cultural and gender stereotypes as we can read on the webpage of a popular airline:


“London is generally a safe place to travel, however precautions are needed when entering areas mainly populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people. We advise tourists not to go out alone at night, and females always to be accompanied by another person”.

Particularly newspaper and media reports show that it’s not simple to destroy this kind of stereotypes and cultural barriers towards cultural and linguistic diversity. Due to growing waves of xenophobia and racism, new mental and physical walls are hindering the integration process of migrants, refugees and other minority groups, since “ linguistic diversity is associated with a range of social ills and seen as something that needs to be contained, possibly even something to be fearful of” (Piller, 2016, p. 2).

As a reaction to Brexit vote, a newspaper article reported a scene of modern Britain played out on a rail replacement bus service in Newport:

“A woman wearing a niqab was chatting to her son in another language. After five minutes, a man suddenly snapped: “If you are in the UK, you should speak English”. At this, another passenger turned round and explained: “We’re in Welsh. And she’s speaking Welsh”.

Unfortunately, we can’t find such forms of social and human solidarity everywhere. Segregation, marginalization, exclusion of minority groups or communities as well as social, cultural  linguistic inequalities based on ethnic principles can be observed everywhere in Europe.

Analyzing the contents of integration policies of many European countries, we can easily observe they are still characterized by forms of latent racism. The word diversity, that should summarize from a positive point of view one of the main features of the European society, has still negative semantics connotations since it means something that diverges from the standard situation.

In many European member states minority groups, linguistic communities, Roma are discriminated and isolated. They live in slums, in ghetto or in socio – cultural isolation. They speak and interact only with members of their community using exclusively their home language. Moreover, in many geographical areas their languages and cultures are not officially recognized by local or national authorities.

Furthermore, assimilation policies of foreign citizens, migrants and refugees imply not only that their languages and cultures of origin are rejected but also that children with migrant backgrounds must learn the language and culture of the host society removing fundamental parts of their social and psychological identity. In more general terms, the loss of languages is due to the ideology of linguistically dominant groups towards minority languages and cultures that are still perceived as less important in relation to the official language of member state.

Due to negative social messages received by children from migrant backgrounds in or outside the school in relation to their home language or their plurilingual competences, they often choose not to pursue the language learning. In this way they forget many words and expressions of their mother tongue and, at the same time, they aren’t integrated in the classroom since their language and communicative skills in the language of schooling are very low.

In relation to language policies in education, it’s easy to observe that English is normally the first foreign language in many school curricula of European countries. Moreover, this language has a dominant role in post – modern societies since it is spoken as the main lingua franca in international contexts. Other foreign languages – as well as minority languages or languages of minority groups – are perceived as less important and are often taught only at secondary school level. At the same time, English, that according to Abram de Swaan’s “global language pyramid” can be defined as “hyper-central language” (Piller, 2016, p. 15), has been deprived of its cultural identity and it’s used just as a mere communication tool.

Risager uses the concept of “languaculture” to “theorize deconnections and reconnections between language and culture as a result of migration and other processes of globalisation” (Risager, 2005, p. 190). Moreover, Risager underlines that linguaculture has not only a social but also a psychological connotation: the individual languaculture cannot be separeted by personal life history and identity:

“The acquisition process is in any case socially differentiated, and all human beings develop their personal linguistic and cultural repertoires with which they express themselves and interpret the world. Therefore language and culture are always different from individual to individual, characterized by a specific emotional and cognitive constitution, a specific perspective and a specific horizon of understanding. For example, the meaning of such notions as ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ may be quite different even within the same professional group or the same family” (Risager, 2005, p. 192)

Therefore, it’s necessary to reflect not only on the meaning of the word diversity – and on the implication of its interpretation in language teaching and learning – but also on the relative disconnect between the content of official European documents and the role of many languages that don’t belong to the dominant ideology of a nation – state. As we have already said, these forms of linguistic hierarchy imply social and cultural isolation of many migrants or foreign citizens whose mother tongue is different from the official national language of the host country.

The main aim of this article is to show how the implementation of appropriate language education policies through the use of action – research can foster the implementation of proactive social changes, developing new forms of inclusion based on the ethical values and principles of the Council of Europe through the recognition of the fundamental role that human and linguistic rights can play in multilingual societies.


Language and intercultural education in Italy

The Constitution of the Italian Republic recognizes the right of all citizens to “be equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions” since “all citizens have equal social dignity”. Moreover, it is seen as a duty of the Republic “to remove those obstacles of an economic and social nature which in fact limit the freedom and equality of citizens, impede the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers in the political, economic and social organization of the country” (Article 3).  According to the Italian law, all citizens that live regularly in Italy have the same rights independently from their economic or social status.

In this country immigration, social and linguistic integration of migrants and foreign citizens can be considered as a new problem emerged only in the last decades. In the context of these deep sociocultural changes, intercultural education has always had a fundamental role in the Italian school system. On the contrary, the development of specific language skills in migrants or foreign students in the language of schooling (Italian as a foreign language) has been always considered as a secondary aspect (Allemann-Ghionda, 2001).

Language education is still characterized by the use of traditional teaching methods. The compulsory adoption of CLIL (Content and Integrated Language Learning) only at the end of the second cycle of instruction and the lack of attention towards early language education has been often criticized. It’s easy to  observe that language learning is still compartmentalized and there is a lack of coherence and convergence both at vertical and at horizontal level in school curricula. They should be based on a greater systemic approach to language education unifying its aims across the whole curriculum. Moreover, the importance of all languages (language(s) of schooling, foreign languages, minority languages, languages of origin, etc) should be highlighted at institutional level and considered as its fundamental core.

Even if the Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR) of the Council of Europe has been officially adopted by national authorities, the concept of plurilingualism plays only a marginal role in official documents and in national language policies. The introduction of a new holistic approach to languages could contrast the lack of debate on plurilingualism and on its positive social value, fostering cross-curricular policies in language education.

The dominant role of the main language(s) of schooling (Italian or one of the minority languages officially recognized by Law 482/1999) and of English as a foreign language implies that other languages (home languages, languages of Roma, etc) are perceived as less important. On the contrary, implicit and explicit forms of validation of children’s home language and culture of origin could provide an important foundation for all students to take a conscious involvement and an active participation as democratic citizens in post-modern societies.

Initial teacher education is currently under reform and in the medium term positive results could be expected. According to Law 107/2015, from school year 2015 – 2016 in service teacher training is permanent and mandatory for all teachers working in Italian public schools. Unfortunately, initial and in-service teacher training takes normally place through top-down procedures that imply an almost passive role of teachers and a limited effect on their teaching methods.

In the last two decade, thanks to the introduction of the autonomy of schools (Presidential Decree 275/1999), many experimental initiatives have been developed by schools or school networks for furthering integration of children and students with migrant backgrounds. All in all, there is now the need to move from a period of experimentation to a more coherent and systemic approach to language education in order to foster social integration of all students.

Context of the action research project

Equality and equity in education can be seen as a fundamental step towards social justice and democratic citizenship, through the construction of anti-discriminative social spaces and the promotion of inclusive practices of different linguistic groups and social communities. Language education can play a fundamental role in fostering linguistic and cultural self – expression, developing harmonious relations between social groups through the valorization of diversity and otherness as a proactive social device.

The fundamental importance of these topics was underlined during the Intergovernmental Policy Forum of the Council of Europe, The rights of learners to quality and equity in education – the role of language and intercultural skills, that was organized by the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (CDIP) and the Language Policy Division of the Council of Europe. The main aim of this Forum, that took place in Geneva in November 2010, was to underline the role of intercultural and plurilingual education for furthering the right to quality and equity in education for all pupils, implementing the long term Project “Languages in Education. Languages for Education” in all member states.

This Project had been officially launched during the International Conference, Towards a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages of School Education?, that had been held at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in April 2006, for the promotion of school curricula reforms in members states through the recognition of linguistic and cultural diversity in Europe and the development of plurilingualism and intercultural education. Furthermore, this Conference had been seen as the first step towards a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages of School Education through the implementation of a new holist approach to language education embracing all languages of schooling (national language, foreign languages, minority languages, home languages of migrants, etc).

The proactive participation of Italy in this Project started after the end of the Intergovernmental Policy Forum of Geneve, through the implementation of the action-research project,  Languages of schooling. Plurilingualism and intercultural education, devoted to the construction of plurilingual and intercultural school curricula in Italian primary and lower secondary schools.

The implementation of this long term action-research project was possible thanks to the recognition of the didactic autonomy of schools that, according to Decree 275/1999, can promote innovative learning paths through the constitution of school networks in which universities and research centers can be also involved. Schools and school networks played a key role in the achievement of the main aims of the project that implied the use of a bottom-up approach to education, fostering the proactive and collaborative participation of teachers in the co-construction of plurilingual and intercultural school curricula. In contrast to traditional teacher training models, action-research had a deeper impact on their professional development and on their teaching styles.

They can now work in an appropriate way in multilingual and multicultural classrooms furthering social, linguistic and cultural integration of all children. In fact it’s important for all teachers to share a common positive attitude to various kinds of diversity including different languages and cultures, and to seek to develop in learners the same positive attitude.

In this paper a particular attention has been focused, due to the importance of its outcomes that can be considered as representative data of the whole project, on the didactic path that was developed during the first year of primary school concerning the oral co-construction of  children’s cultural and linguistic autobiography.

If official documents of the Council of Europe concerning plurilingualism and intercultural education constitute the main framework of the whole project, Jerome Bruner’s theories on constructivism can be considered as the theoretical basis of this didactic path.

Pluralingualism and intercultural education

Multilingualism and plurilingualism are often used as synonyms even if they have a different meaning in language education. According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, multilingualism implies the knowledge of a number of languages or the co-existence of different languages in the same geographical or mental space. At school level multilingualism can be attained by “simply diversifying the languages on offer in a particular school or educational system, or by encouraging pupils to learn more than one foreign language” (p. 4).

On the contrary, plurilingualism implies an interaction process among languages and cultures that aren’t considered as isolated monads anymore:

“[…] the plurilingual approach emphasis the fact that as an individual person’s experience of language in its cultural contexts expands, from the language of the home to that of society at large and then to the languages of other peoples (whether learnt at school or college, or by direct experience), he or she does not keep these languages and cultures in strictly separated mental compartments, but rather builds up a communicative competence to which all knowledge and experience of language contributes and in which languages interrelate and interact” (p. 4)

From this point of view, plurilingualism can be defined as a complex competence that implies both linguistic and cultural aspects: a plurilingual person is able to interact in an appropriate way in a specific socio – cultural context in more than one language. Moreover, he or she possesses a communicative competence based on the knowledge of a number of languages which are interconnected with implicit meta-cognitive “bridges”, that can be developed through the transfer of meta-linguistic skills from one language to another language.

According to Byram, plurilingualism and intercultural education can foster the development of a specific socio-cultural and linguistic competence – the so-called intercultural communicative competence (Byram, 1997) – that speakers use for interacting in multilingual contexts in an appropriate way, respecting and accepting the cultural and linguistic background of people whose mother tongue is different from the official national language.

At the same time, plurilingualism and pluriculturalism can be fostered by promoting and comparing cultural and linguistic diversity considered as a typical feature of post-modern societies characterized by fluid human relationship and uncertain cultural boundaries.

Autobiographical narratives

The oral construction of children’s linguistic and cultural autobiography, that is also one of the main parts of the European Language Portfolio of the Council of Europe, can be seen as a way to share and validate the main features of the language and culture of origin and, at the same time, to reflect on similarities and differences between different cultures through an implicit meta-reflexive process.

As the psychologist Jerome Bruner argues, this meta-reflexive process implies a continuing interpretation and reinterpretation of existential experiences through a set of mental procedures for life making. Moreover, if it’s true that we can consider autobiography as a particular form of narrative and narrative as an imitation of life, we can also affirm that autobiography is a particular construction of the human imagination. The sensitive nature of this creative process makes life stories highly susceptible to social, cultural and linguistic influences that can have profound effects on human mind and can produce deep changes in a person’s life narrative.

Bruner’s theories underline implicitly the importance of the impact with the culture and the official language of the host country since it can determine the level of social and linguistic integration of migrants. A negative experience can often imply a spontaneous form of linguistic isolation and social exclusion as well as the refusal of cultural values and traditions of the host country. Such negative dynamics on a person’s life narrative can have a deep influence also on children’s acquisition of the language of schooling, since language learning is based on motivation and positive attitudes towards a specific language and culture.

During the action – research project the validation of children’s cultures and languages of origin through a sharing process of self – told life narratives had a positive impact on their self – esteem, self-confidence, curiosity and motivation in learning the main language of schooling. They developed a broader knowledge of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as meta-linguistic awareness and sensitivity to sounds. Activities such as visualization of words, drawings, expressions, songs in different languages, the spontaneous participation of their parents in the project, were perceived as proactive forms of validation of their home language. Moreover, Italian children learned to appreciate the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity.

All in all, this didactic path was a useful way for developing metalinguistic and intercultural competences of all pupils through the comparison of terms or sentences in different mother tongues. It implied the use, in relation to the global language pyramid, of the so-called “peripheral languages” (languages of local communities, minority groups, minority languages, etc), that is “the languages of conversation and narratives rather than reading and writing, of memory and remembrance rather than record” (Piller, 2016, pp. 15 – 16). In this way children’s cultural and psychological identity was reinforced and particularly foreign children were more motivated in learning not only the language of schooling and the culture of the host country.

Furthermore, writing dual-language or multi-language versions of words or expressions enabled pupils with a minimal knowledge of Italian to participate fully in the project since they could use their home language(s) or prior language knowledge  as a cognitive tool for learning the language of schooling. Moreover, the implicit validation of their mother tongue within the mainstream classroom increased their motivation to continue to develop both languages.

The oral construction of autobiographies was therefore a way for promoting authentic intercultural encounters, social integration and inclusion of all pupils through mutual respect and acceptance of linguistic and cultural diversity.

According to the main outcomes of the project, home language(s) of students with migrant backgrounds have to be considered as a resource for learning the language(s) of schooling and affirming students’ identities in classroom interactions. This consideration implies that an effective linguistic integration is based on the development and expansion of migrant’s linguistic identity since “the language of origin remains the one reflecting the migrants identity, but the receiving society’s language(s) also start(s) to be part of the migrant’s identity” (Beacco, 2014, p.14). Therefore, ethnic diversity in education shouldn’t be perceived as a negative factor anymore. On the contrary, it should be seen as an added value of multilingual classrooms if they are considered as social and educational entities in which social changes can be governed and amortized.

The implicit use of a whole-community approach implied the spontaneous participation of parents in the didactic activities of the project. On the one hand, it had a positive influence on the way in which families with migrant backgrounds are now perceived by local communities; on the other hand, those families show  more openness towards the language and culture of the host country.

Therefore, integration of diversity always implies mutual acceptance of cultural differences and concerns all actors involved in this process. Surely the receiving society plays a fundamental role taking into consideration the individual linguistic and cultural repertoires without causing alienation, isolation and loss of identity.


This paper has attempted to reflect on the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity through the co-construction of autobiographical narratives in multilingual classrooms based on the use of a bottom-up approach to plurilingual and intercultural education.

The outcomes of the action-research project demonstrates that an holistic approach to language education constitutes not only a key factor for improving children’s communication skills, but also a good practice for integrating them in school life. A proper language education should always start with pupils’ linguistic and cultural background through the valorization and validation of their culture and language of origin. On this way, it’s possible to boost their self–confidence and self–esteem in second language learning.

If language education is to be effective, it must take into consideration the linguistic heritage that many children and new-comers bring to school encouraging them to use not only the language(s) of  schooling but also their mother tongue. Therefore, a better linguistic and cultural integration of migrants can be fostered on the basis of a new positive behavior towards diversity with the implementation of metalinguistic learning processes.

Furthermore, the outcomes of the project show the positive effects of action – research in teacher training programs and underline that quality in education can be considered as a fundamental indicator of pedagogical experimentation, social innovation and cultural changes. It’s fundamental for all teachers to share a common positive attitude to various kinds of diversity including different languages and cultures, and to seek to develop in learners the same positive attitude. It’s necessary, therefore, to look at classroom methods not with a view to imposing the best approach but to recognise how different methods may be appropriate.

Ethical values and principles of the Constitution of the Italian Republic and school autonomy were the fundamental premises for the development of the whole project. Its positive outcomes could constitute the pillars for the development of national language policies based on the main features of plurilingual and intercultural education, in order to guarantee equal rights for all pupils in terms of linguistic and cultural integration and democratic participation in social life.

All in all, it’s now necessary to develop, in contrast to the monolingual habitus of formal education in Italy, national school curricula that can foster a greater pedagogical coherence and convergence in the learning of different languages (language(s) of schooling, foreign languages, minority languages, languages of origin, etc). At the same time, all subjects should be involved in this process of curricula reform in order to improve linguistic competences and the academic language of all students.

Surely it’s an educational and political priority in Europe as well as in Italy to pay attention to vulnerable groups – children and adolescents from migrant or disadvantaged backgrounds, Roma, refugees, etc – for safeguarding the rights of all learners to quality and equity in education from a lifelong learning perspective. On this way, it would be possible to achieve full democratic citizenship, social cohesion, linguistic and cultural integration in all European countries in order to create the premises for facing the challenges of the XXI century.



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[1] This paper awaits publication. It was presented during the International Conference Europe in Discourse: Diversity Identity, Borders (Athens, Hellenic American University, 23 – 25 September 2016, ).