Multilingual Libraries: Approaching Language as Identity and Inclusion

Multilingual learning, including mother tongue instruction, is a vital element of equitable access to education and opportunity (see UNESCO Languages in Education). The IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto encourages “linguistic diversity and respect for the mother tongue” as part of the mission of multicultural library services.

But are we truly fostering inclusive, multilingual environments through our practices?

For this year’s International Mother Language Day (21 February) on the theme: “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society”, we encourage readers to take a careful look at their library’s collections and services through the lens of language as identity and language as inclusion.

Beyond Utility: Language as Identity

Language is more than a way to share ideas, thoughts, and knowledge (although these are important aspects). It is the culmination of a shared past – an indicator of community and a means of experiencing cultural identity.

In a globalised world, this results in a balancing act between the values of a lingua franca and of preserving the nuances of localised, Indigenous, dialectal, and otherwise marginalised languages. While there is great utility in having a shared language for cultural exchange, knowledge transfer, and international relations, language is about more than just utility.

Preserving a language means preserving and passing on the cultural memory of those who speak it. Losing a language is a loss to cultural identity, and therefore preserving language is a necessary element of cultural preservation.

This theme was explored in depth through the case of Indigenous languages during 2019’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. For more, take a look back at our series on how libraries preserve and promote Indigenous languages, which examines the impact libraries can have for endangered Indigenous languages.

Accessing mother tongue languages

Beyond endangered languages, global migration caused by lack of economic opportunity, climate change, conflict, and other factors leads to groups finding they must speak a language other than their mother tongue to navigate daily life. IFLA’s Library Map of the World collects multiple cases of libraries helping migrant and refugee communities acquire necessary language skills to adapt and integrate into their new homes. See SDG stories from Germany and Canada for some examples.

However, as highlighted above, language is about more than utility. Having the ability to access one’s mother tongue can greatly impact one’s experience of identity. This requires language support to go beyond helping users acquire necessary new language skills; it should also enable people to use their own language.

In their paper presented at the World Library and Information Congress 2019, Keira Dignan, Hannah-Lily Lanyon and Rebecca Wolfe of ECHO for Refugees shared their experience providing mobile library services to refugee camps and marginalised communities in and around the Athens area. Click here to read the paper in full.

While providing support for learning English and Greek, the authors expressed the importance of also offering users access to resources in their mother tongue.  They stress that this is vital for providing “a piece of home, for community building, and for survival” and well as for ensuring children who may have missed formative school years gain language ability in the native tongue.

To treat language truly as identity, rather than as utility, consider which groups in your community of users could benefit the most from accessing mother tongue resources.

A Benefit for all Learners

Fostering an environment where all languages are valued and valid has a benefit for all learners – those that are bi- or multilingual as well as those that are not.

The pedagogical strategy known as translanguaging encourages educators to refrain from placing value on one language over others – especially in multicultural and multilingual learning environments. It refers to the way multilingual speakers blend languages and allow their mother tongue to inform the way they learn new languages and express themselves.

In practice, this means that everyone in a learning environment is empowered to express themselves in whatever language – or blend of languages – they feel comfortable. It can also mean that all participants strive to incorporate words from other languages into their daily use and are made welcome to share aspects of their native language with others.

The EAL Journal describes this process as being concerned with communication rather than with only learning the utility of the language.  To do this effectively, it requires everyone in the learning environment to become co-learners – growing multilingual respect organically.

Librarians, especially those working with multicultural communities, may be interested in exploring this approach in their practice. For more of an introduction to this concept, refer to this article from the EAL Journal: What is Translanguaging?

Language and Power

In all the previous examples, it is critical to examine the power structure behind multicultural environments that is expressed through the languages we speak. Language has social implications that intersect with systemic inequalities relating to class, national origin, race, and privilege.

In their article, the team from ECHO for Refugees stress that practicing multiculturalism leads to examining inequalities on the global and local scale, especially in terms of power and access. They report experiences working with refugees who themselves place a higher value on English language than their mother tongue, as English is perceived to have higher marketability.

This topic is explored in depth in the article Multilingualism, Neoliberalism, and Language Ideologies in Libraries from the online journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Author Ean Henninger explores the intersection of power and value dynamics with the languages of available library collections and services. The following passage is especially interesting:

In supporting specific languages and giving them power, libraries set conditions for who can engage with the library: who can access resources, who feels included, and who sees themselves in collections and services… If a library treats a given language only as an object of study, something that resides in individual books, or something that must be supplied to meet demand, not as something that is intertwined with culture, race, gender, and access to power, then the picture is incomplete. (Source)

The article advises against the commodification of library users and information services. This can be expressed in such seemingly innocuous ways as policies determining which resources are eligible for collection and a focus on customer service which avoids examining social responsibility.

It is vital to consider multicultural and multilingual library services not only through their potential benefit for users, but also as actions taken in direct response to, and under the influence of, inequalities in power and access.

Although individual action cannot solve large-scale, systemic inequalities, acknowledgement of these structures and creating inclusive space to address them is a step in the right direction.

Taking Action Towards Inclusion

How can libraries truly address the language needs of their communities? Perhaps start by examining the current multilingual resources and programmes you have available. Here is a short checklist that may be helpful to get you started:

  • Do your resources and programmes accurately reflect the language needs of your community? How do you know for sure?
  • Have you made assumptions on the language(s) your users speak? Could some communities not feel comfortable or empowered enough to make their needs known?
  • Have you approached multilingual collecting and services in a participatory manner? Could there be more avenues for user input?
  • Do users feel empowered to speak in their mother tongue (or other languages) in your spaces and during your programmes? Could you increase their comfort through practices, such as multilingual signage?
  • Have you considered the different dialects or variations used by local communities in collection development?
  • Is providing language support or translation an extra task for employees who are multilingual? Are they compensated for this additional labour?

This is only a start – we are interested to hear how you provide multilingual services that meet the needs of your community! Share feedback in the comments below.