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Week 2 - Language Portraits and linguistic repertoire

This week we are going to look at a small report which was produced for a Danish research project which looked at the idea of the linguistic repertoire. Instead of talking about ‘X student speaks English, Y student speaks Welsh, Z student speaks Polish’ as an approach, they applied the notion of the language portrait to children beginning to learn modern foreign languages.

The link for this week’s paper is here

and the reference is

Wolf. Gabriele (trans John Irons) 2014. Discovering pupils’ linguistic repertoires. On the way towards a heteroglossic foreign language teaching? In: Sprogforum 59, 87-94.

In the report, Dr Wolf discusses some key concepts like the linguistic repertoire. She quotes Jan Blommaert, a Belgian linguist who argues that

Our focus should […] be on repertoires, on the complexes of resources that people actually possess and deploy. [...] The resources are concrete accents, language varieties, registers, genres, modalities such as writing – ways of using language in particular communicative settings and spheres of life, including the ideas people have about such ways of using, their language ideologies (Blommaert 2010: 102).


  1. Make sure you know what a ‘register’ is in linguistics - can you use any other registers? I can speak formal English or informal English, I can text on a smartphone, and I can read a knitting pattern. These text types with a particular purpose are all registers.
  2. What ideologies about language do you naturally have? Do you think bilingualism is useful, do you like to write ‘correctly’ or are you happy to use textspeak? Do you have a favourite regional accent or one you don’t like? These attitudes to language variation can be quite widespread -I’d argue that in the UK for example the UK Government likes people to be English speakers (it currently requires people who migrate here to take a language proficiency test in English – you cannot take this test in Welsh, even if you move to a Welsh speaking area). These ideas which become powerful – that dialects are somehow ‘worse’ than the standard, that women talk a lot, that men interrupt a lot, are ideologies- sets of beliefs.

Now read on a bit more.....

You can see the portrait completed by Signe, a student, on p4. She discusses mixing her English and Danish sometimes for fun, has taught herself to count in Japanese, and can read Swedish and Norwegian without too much trouble.

Wolf also found that children in the school like to use English (most Danish children learn English from age 7 as their first foreign language) but also that many like to watch films, play online and watch sport in German (the second foreign language for many and also Denmark’s closest neighbouring country to the south) – the researchers were a bit surprised by this since they expected that the students might be more enthusiastic about learning English. She discusses this on p5.


  1. Finally Wolf talked to teachers at the school and discussed the students impressions of their own language use. Go through this section and have a think about how the teachers saw their students and whether the way the teachers saw them was different from the students’s views of themselves?


Our back up piece of reading is from Dr Sadie Ryan who is now at Manchester Metropolitan University. It’s based on her research with Polish children in Glasgow and will give you a feel for how the children learned not only standard English when they came to Scotland but quickly realised that the language of the playground and outside the classroom was Scots.

It’s a nice example of how they broadened their linguistic repertoires and realised that they would need to do that to ‘fit in’ - Ryan discusses what they are doing as style shifting, but the approach of repertoires would say that Scots and English are two different repertoires - codes of speech.


Now think through all the repertoires you have. Let’s have an example to help you.

If I complete the UK census I mark myself as an English speaker, and the census doesn’t ask me anything more about what I can do. I can understand, speak, read and write fluent German because my family is German. I can understand and read Black Country dialect because some of my family speak it. I understand Scots well because I lived in Scotland. In addition I can speak some French, I read Dutch because I learned it at University, and I have a GCSE in Irish because I learned it as a hobby. I can also count to ten in Urdu because my friends taught me, and I understand some Danish because I watch a lot of crime drama in Danish with subtitles! I can use textspeak and emojis, though I give away myself as someone over 40 because I don’t use Insta or TikTok and I don’t know lots of the abbreviations users use on those sites.

Try the silhouette, which you can find here.

It is a blank outline of a person, with their left arm in the air and their right arm by their side. They are facing you, feet slightly apart.

blank language silhouette for printing

add to the silhouette not only your first language and any others you speak, but also languages you disliked learning, dialects you speak, languages you can read but not speak, languages you hear in songs (like Korean in KPop), and even different registers. You might even know some constructed languages like Dothraki and Elvish, and can add these.

  1. Has anything changed? For those of you who had English in your silhouette, do you change the kind of English you use when talking to someone from outside your area -that is, are your accent, lexis and grammar different?


  1. Do you write the same kind of English all the time? Those of you who game may use gamer terms – do you play online with people whose first language is not English, and if so how does your repertoire change?


  1. Do you read one kind of English? At school you may read textbooks – are you comfortable with textbook language? What do you like to read? If you read sports news it is not reported in the same way as headline news- what technical terms are associated with the sports and hobbies you have? Do you read audiobooks?


  1. For those of you in a house where your caregivers speak regional dialect, are you happiest speaking this or is it something you don’t really think about?


  1. For those of you who are in Wales, Ireland and Scotland and speak another language which is not English – are there many programmes on TV for people your age in your language? How does that make you feel?


  1. And for those of you whose first language is not English – when do you speak that language? At school, or not? At home? With other relatives?


  1. Now think about learning languages. You may feel as an English speaker that language learning is pointless, or that the languages you were offered at school were not ones you wanted to learn. In your ideal world, what languages would you like to learn, and what would you like to say in them?