A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

From a Monolingual to a Multilingual Approach in Language Teaching

Susanna Schwab


Traditionally, foreign language teaching has been based on second language acquisition theories that mostly disregard learners’ prior (and simultaneous) language learning experiences and resources. In this article, I will introduce the readers to an approach in language teaching that is based on third language learning theories. The approach—a multilingual approach to language learning and teaching—is being implemented in Switzerland following the Council of Europe’s recommendations of introducing two additional languages besides the local language into the school curriculum. The introduction of two additional (foreign) languages as well as the new approach required the development of new course materials. An evaluation of the pilot version of the materials revealed that only a small majority of teachers seemed to have implemented some aspects of a multilingual approach. To ensure that the teachers embraced this concept, it was recommended that teacher development programmes put more emphasis on teacher beliefs and the teachers’ own language learning experiences.

Keywords: multilingual approach, third language acquisition theories, prior language learning experiences and resources.


To follow one of the major aims of the Council of Europe—the promotion of mutual understanding and thus encouraging the learning of two other languages alongside the local language—the Swiss voted for a National Language Strategy (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, 2004) that stipulated that by 2015, two foreign languages[1] had to be taught at primary schools. The resulting educational reform in language teaching with the introduction and implementation of two foreign languages in primary school also included a change in teaching methods and approaches.

Language learning has had an important role in federally structured Switzerland, not least due to its four statutory official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. To implement the language strategy, six cantons along the language border between the Swiss-German and French-speaking regions decided on a joint venture that they named Passepartout[2] (n.d.). The policy makers—the six cantonal ministers of education—agreed that French was to be the first foreign language to be taught from Year 3 onwards, followed by English two years later (Year 5). The Passepartout project was launched in 2007 and had five major aims: (1) developing a new curriculum for foreign languages (Years 3 – 9); (2) designing a methodology concept for foreign language teaching; (3) designing new course materials for French and English; (4) the requirements for language teacher profiles; and (5) starting a professional development programme (PDP) for pre-service and in-service language teachers.

In this article, I will examine the second aim of the Passepartout project—designing a methodology concept for foreign language teaching, in particular, the change from a monolingual to a multilingual approach in language teaching. Although Passepartout decided to use the term “Didactic of Plurilingualism” as a translation for the German “Didaktik der Mehrsprachigkeit”, and the Council of Europe mostly uses the term plurilingual approach, I prefer the term “multilingual approach”.
After this brief presentation of the context, I will outline the new methodology concept in more detail, including the theoretical framework it is based on, i.e. third language acquisition theories.

Passepartout Methodology Concept

The paper on didactic principles (2008, available in English on the Passepartout website) listed some requirements and emphasized the importance of the “transfer of linguistic knowledge, language and learning experience, learning techniques and strategies, linguistic activity and language comparisons and reflections” (Passepartout, 2008, p. 7). It highlighted the definition of a plurilingual approach that was introduced by the Council of Europe (2001) and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR):

The plurilingual approach emphasises the fact that as an individual person’s experience of language in its cultural contexts expands,...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)

Passepartout based the multilingual approach on models and theories of third language acquisition (TLA).

Third language acquisition theories and models

Traditionally, the study of multilingualism was subsumed in second language acquisition (SLA) and its theories. Many scholars (De Angelis & Dewaele, 2011; Gibson, Hufeisen, & Personne, 2008; Hufeisen, 2000; Jessner, 2008, 2014; Neuner, 2008) considered TLA as a discipline on its own and separated it from SLA, while other scholars regarded TLA as an aspect of SLA.  Yet others subsumed multilingualism in bilingualism (Bialystok, Craik, Green, & Gollan, 2009). Comparing SLA with TLA, Schumann (1997) stated that TLA needed to be regarded as:

…a more complex process, whose complexity derives from the more diversified patterns of acquisition: various sequences of languages learnt, different ages of acquisition, different contexts and functions/domains of language use, varied motivations and attitudes, as well as different linguistic, learning and communicative sensitivity and awareness. (Schumann, 1997, p. 26)

Jessner (2008) presented and discussed seven models of TLA research: (1) Levelt’s Bilingual and Multilingual production Models; (2) Green’s Activation/Inhibition Model; (3) Grosjean’s Language Mode Hypothesis; (4) Hufeisen’s Factor Model; (5) Herdina and Jessner’s Dynamic Systems Theory Model of Multilingualism; (6) Meissner’s Multilingual Processing Model; and (7) Aronin and O Laoire’s Model of Multilinguality. In accordance with Hutterli, Stotz, and Zappatore (2008), only Hufeisen’s factor model is outlined here because it is widely regarded as the most adequate model for language teaching in school settings. Hufeisen and Marx (2007) explained the additional resources learners have available when learning an L3:

Whereas at the beginning of the L2 learning process the learner is a complete novice in the learning process of a second language, the L3 learner already knows what it feels like to approach a new language. She has developed (consciously or unconsciously) certain techniques of learning new words. She knows that a new text is often unclear, and is able to cope with the insecurity of having knowledge gaps. (Hufeisen & Marx, 2007, p. 313)

Table 1

Factors involved in learning foreign languages in a school setting





physiological Factors

General language learning ability, age, etc.

General language learning ability, age, etc.

General language learning ability, age, etc.


Socio-cultural and socio-economic surroundings, plus type and amount of exposure/input

Socio-cultural and socio-economic surroundings, plus type and amount of exposure/input

Socio-cultural and socio-economic surroundings, plus type and amount of exposure/input



Anxiety, motivation, attitude, perceived language typology/

Anxiety, motivation, attitude, perceived language typology/



Language awareness, metalinguistic awareness, learning awareness, learning strategies, individual learning experiences

Language awareness, metalinguistic awareness, learning awareness, learning strategies, individual learning experiences

Foreign Language Specific Factors



Individual language learning experiences and language learning strategies, interlanguage L2, interlanguage L3

Linguistic Factors



L1, L2


Note. Based on Hufeisen and Gibson (2003) and Hutterli, Stotz and Zappatore (2008)

Table 1 illustrates the additional resources available to learners when learning an L2, L3 or a second foreign language. Hufeisen’s model shows that “L3 learners have language specific knowledge and competencies at their disposal that L2 learners do not” (Jessner, 2008, p. 23). However, they need to be made aware of those resources. By getting them to compare and contrast languages that are in their repertoire, teachers can help promote metalinguistic awareness in learners. In addition, by discussing and focusing on the factors listed in Hufeisen’s foreign language specific group such as language learning experiences and language learning strategies, teachers can help raise the learners’ awareness of the resources available to them from learning L1, L2, L3, etc.

Developing new teaching methods based on third language acquisition research

Jessner (2008) suggested that TLA research should lead to the development of new teaching methods for a multilingual approach and that only by “leaving traditional concepts and boundaries behind will new perspectives be able to emerge along with a holistic understanding of the phenomena in question” (p. 45). Table 2 provides a simplified overview of popular methods and approaches for second, foreign language teaching used so far.

Table 2

Overview: Popular methods and approaches in second (foreign) language teaching


Methods/Approaches; Aspects

Learning Theories




 - ?


Direct Method


Ahn, Ollendorff

Vietor, Berlitz

Written language

Spoken language

1950s - ?

Audiolingual Audiovisual
PPP (Presentation, Practice, and Production)


Pavlov, Skinner


Pattern drill

1960s - ?

Community Language Learning;
The Silent Way;
Total Physical Response


Bruner, Chomsky, Gattegno, 

Learning to learn

1970s - ?

CLT/Communicative Approach, Content-Based, Task-Based-Learning (TBL), etc.


Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Canale & Swain, Prabhu, Willis

Experiential learning; Reflective practice

21st C
 - ?

Multilingual Approach, Didactic of Plurilingualism

Third Language Acquisition

Neuner; Jessner; Grossenbacher, Sauer, & Wolff

Multilingual ≠ Monolingual;

Functional plurilingualism


Note. Based on Celce-Murcia (2001) and Howatt (1984)

In Table 2, the multilingual approach is separated from other methods and approaches in second language teaching popular throughout the twentieth century because new perspectives have emerged (Jessner, 2008). Howatt (1984) maintained that the monolingual principle was a unique contribution of the twentieth century to English language teaching and concluded that:

…the monolingual principle, the unique contribution of the twentieth century to classroom language teaching, remains the bedrock notion from which the others ultimately derive. If there is another ‘language teaching revolution’ around the corner, it will have to assemble a convincing set of arguments to support some alternative (bilingual?) principle of equal power. (Howatt, 1984, p. 289) 


Since the publication of Howatt’s book in 1984, enough convincing sets of arguments and new perspectives along with a holistic understanding of language teaching and learning have been assembled to develop and launch new methods and approaches for plurilingual practices.

In her literature review on European integrated multilingual curricula, Meier (2014) identified four proposals or prototypes that could be connected with multilingual approaches in mainstream education: (1) Candelier, 2008: Approches plurielles, didactiques du plurilinguisme: Le même et l’autre; (2) Coyle, Holmes, and King, 2009: Towards an integrated curriculum – CLIL national statements and guidelines; (3) Hufeisen, 2011: Gesamtsprachencurriculum: Weitere Überlegungen zu einem prototypischen Modell; and (4) Reich and Krumm, 2013: Sprachbildung und Mehrsprachigkeit: Ein Curriculum zur Wahrnehmung und Bewältigung sprachlicher Vielfalt im Unterricht. Meier also presented two concrete plans for the implementation of a multilingual curriculum. While one plan was for Luxembourg, the second plan was for Switzerland and the Passepartout project.

From mono- to multilingual: Four major differences

To introduce the new approaches and methods,  Passepartout emphasised four major differences between a monolingual and a multilingual approach: (1) the integration of all languages, including home languages the learners have at their disposal, became important; (2) metalinguistic awareness became one of the key factors; (3) the emphasis changed from interference to crosslinguistic influence and positive transfer; and (4) teachers and learners learn to exploit languages that belong to the same language family. Besides highlighting the four major differences and mentioning some tools such as ELBE[3], the Passepartout papers did not contain any further details. In a short article Schwab (2016), highlighted some metalinguistic and cross-linguistic activities to illustrate the four major differences and how synergies could be used between German (language of instruction), the two foreign languages French and English as well as heritage language(s).


External evaluations during the pilot phase of the new course materials

Pilot versions of the locally produced and mandated course materials for French named Mille Feuilles (Bertschy, Grossenbacher, & Sauer, 2011) and for English named New World (Arnet-Clark, Frank Schmid, Grimes, Ritter, & Rüdiger-Harper, 2013) were tested by a small group of teachers and learners two years before its official implementation. Passepartout contracted external evaluators who used focus group interviews, and questionnaires for teachers and learners to collect data. Singh and Elmiger (2013) conducted the fourth Passepartout pilot study in the school year 2012/2013 when English materials were piloted for Year 6—the second year of English language teaching. Their analysis of the topic of multilingual approach revealed that only a small majority seemed to have adopted a multilingual approach to language teaching. Five of the eleven teachers who were interviewed, either did not draw learners’ awareness to already existing resources when learning a language, or seemed to doubt the usefulness of a multilingual approach (Singh & Elmiger, 2013). Moreover, the research findings indicated that more work by textbook writers would be required to better link the teaching and learning materials for French and English. Unfortunately, no further research has been conducted for the final version of the new materials for French and English.

While Singh and Elmiger (2013) conducted research during the pilot phase of the course materials, Schwab-Berger (2015) investigated teachers’ perceptions with regard to the implementation of multilingual approach to language teaching during the first year of the implementation phase, when teaching English as a second foreign language. She collected data from interviews with eight teachers and also observed them in the classroom. Her analysis indicates that teachers needed more time to conceptualize the new course materials, collaborate with other language teachers, and for reflective practice. Without collaboration between language teachers and a better (languages) integration of the new course materials for French and for English, the multilingual approach might be condemned to failure. Teachers might continue to ignore learners’ resources as detailed in Hufeisen’s factor model, thus the tendency to teach a second foreign language as if learners had no previous language learning experiences might not be replaced with metalinguistic and crosslinguistic activities. 


To ensure the acceptance and adaptation of the multilingual approach, teacher education programmes should put more emphasis on the discussion of teacher beliefs and the teachers’ own language learning experiences. Studies on teachers’ beliefs and experiences with educational reforms revealed that teachers are only too often influenced by their own experiences (Brown, 2009; De Angelis, 2011; Edwards, 2013; Farrell & Kun, 2007). When teachers are influenced by their own learning experiences based on a monolingual approach, a great deal of work and professional development is required so that they eventually transfer the knowledge and insights gained by them into their classrooms.

Teachers not only have to understand the new philosophy but also accept it and adapt their own teaching to it (Criblez & Nägeli, 2011). Hyland and Wong (2013) underscored Criblez and Nägeli’s words with “if teachers have not fully embraced the concepts, then the innovation will die” (p. 2). Further research is also required to explore how, and to what extent teachers have accepted, adapted, and transferred the multilingual approach into their practice. Moreover, research into the final versions of the new course materials for French and English would provide better insights and understanding into how the materials are linked and interrelated as well as how these materials support teachers and learners’ integration of languages.


Arnet-Clark, I., Frank Schmid, S., Grimes, L., Ritter, G., & Rüdiger-Harper, J. (2013). New world: English as a second foreign language. Baar: Klett &Balmer.

Bertschy, I., Grossenbacher, B., & Sauer, E. (2011). Mille feuilles. Bern:

        Schulverlag. Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. (2009). Bilingual minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), 89-129.

Brown, A. V. (2009). Students’ and teachers’ perceptions of effective foreign language teaching: A comparison of ideals. The Modern Language Journal, 93(1), 46-60.

Candelier, M. (2008). Approches plurielles, didactiques du plurilinguisme: Le même et l’autre. Les Cahiers de l’Alcedle: Recherches en Didactique des Langues –  l’Alsace au Cœur du Plurilinguisme, 5(1), 65-90.

Celce-Murcia, M. (2001). Language teaching approaches: An overview. In M. Celce-Murcia, (Ed.). Teaching English as a second or foreign language (3rd ed.) (pp. 3-11). Boston, MA: Heinle, Cengage Learning.

Council of Europe. (2001). Common European framework of references for languages: Learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coyle, D., Holmes, B., & King, L. (2009). Towards an integrated curriculum: CLIL  national statements and guidelines. London: Languages Company.

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Tertiär- und Drittsprachen (pp. 23-40). Tübingen: Stauffenburg.

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Hufeisen, B., & Marx, N. (2007). How can DaFnE and EuroComGerm contribute to the concept of receptive multilingualism? In J. Thije & L. Zeevaert (Eds.), Receptive multilingualism: Linguistic analyses, language policies and didactic concepts (pp. 307-321). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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Jessner, U. (2014). On multilingual awareness or why the multilingual learner is a specific language learner. In M. Pawlak & L. Aronin (Eds.), Essential topics in applied linguistics and multilingualism (pp. 175-184). Cham: Springer.

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Reich, H. H. & Krumm, H. J. (2013). Sprachbildung und Mehrsprachigkeit: Ein Curriculum zur Wahrnehmung und Bewältigung sprachlicher Vielfalt im Unterricht. Münster: Waxmann.

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Susanna Schwab is a teacher educator at the Bern University of Teacher Education, Switzerland. Since 2006 she has been training preservice primary school teachers to teach English as a (second) foreign language.


[1]  Two foreign languages: despite French being an official language, the term foreign is used when French is discussed in the German-speaking regions of Switzerland.

[2]    Passepartout has its own website. Most documents are only available in German but there are some in English that I will refer to in this article.


[3]   Important elements of the didactic of plurilingualism are methodological approach to linguistic and cultural encounters, to sensitisation, to language and to language reflection, known as ELBE. The acronym ELBE stands for Eveil aux langues (Language Awareness) (BEgegnung mit Sprachen und Kulturen). ELBE activities can … stimulate interest in and draw attention to dialects, languages and linguistic phenomena and through language comparisons, encourage reflection on language, the finding of differences and parallels, and the detection of language mechanisms and rules. (Passepartout, 2008, p. 14)