How to portray, feel and explain language use for a multilingual


[updated 12 December 2023]

When we use more languages either on a daily or regular basis, or across our lifespan, we might not be aware that the languages who “stand in the foreground” can shift into the background at some point. 

When we grow up surrounded by language yellow, blue and green[1] in the first 3-5 years, once we start attending daycare and school, an additional language or languages can be added to our repertoire.

Language acquisition and learning is a journey that spans across our lifetime – at least for most of us. We never stop learning new words, expressions, terms, as language is like a living organism and one can never stop learning it.

Nevertheless, we tend to define milestones, determine steps we take next, to somehow assess, quantify and classify our language competences.

[1] I prefer using colors instead of L1/L2, LA/La/LB/Lb etc. to avoid any kind of categorization and hierarchy.


What about our actual, individual use of our languages?

I observe that as multilingual adults we are not necessarily aware of all the languages we are in contact or have been in contact at some point, and that we can understand to some extent. There are those who say that they “are fluent” in a language they can only understand and can utter some words or short sentences, whereas others consider themselves not “competent” in a language they speak daily and even read and write, because they are “not perfect”* and “not native” in it, i.e. didn’t acquire and learn it from a very early age. On a side-note: there is no such thing as being “perfect” in a language; there is only “being confident enough to function in certain circumstances where the language is necessary”.

The language learning process being one that is subjected to many external and internal factors, we should consider our it as a “work in progress” along a continuum that is open ended.

So, how can we become more aware of how we use our languages?

The Language Portrait

One way to portray our language use is the Language Portrait. It is a graphic visualization of the linguistic repertoire, using the outline of a body silhouette. This kind of exercise has been used in schools and other educational institutions since about 20 years, “to initiate processes of language reflection and to promote sensitivity in dealing with multilingualism” (Brigitta Busch, The language portrait in multilingualism research: Theoretical and methodological considerations, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, 2018) The “visualization of lived experience has been used in various disciplines for a considerable time as a means of stimulating processes of reflection”. In her article, Brigitta Busch points out that visualizations with the help of body silhouettes was mentioned the first time “at the beginning of the 1990s under the title “I speak many languages” (Grundschulzeitschrift) in their Ideenkiste (ideas box)”, and students were given the task of filling in the silhouettes with coloured pencils to emphasize the different languages they speak, associating also their feelings towards each language.

These Language Portraits are ever since used as an instrument for language awareness in schools, demonstrating also the important link between language-learning and emotions, sense of belonging and biographical experience. Needless to say that it is a very powerful tool in settings where the individual has had traumatic experiences due to a language or a culture related to it. Through this method language is related to the body through the use of the silhouette and the linguistic repertoire interacts with the “body image” that we have of ourselves and which is reflected to us by others. It reminds me of what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “social portraiture” (see his studies about portraits in advertisements).  

The power of this model consists in self-distancing that gives us a more objective perspective. It allows us to consider ourselves as the centre of the here-and-now and the external perspective at the same time. This shift between the two perspectives leads us to connect the personal experience with the languages and our own linguistic dispositions with the external view on languages “as objects and on linguistic-discursive patterns which one perceives as being part of one’s own linguistic practices” (Brigitta Busch).

With this portrait we can use spatial metaphors like internal/external for familiar/unfamiliar, above/below for current/more remote, large/small for important/less important.

In order to not misinterpret ones’ Language Portrait, it is advisable to ask the person to explain “what makes them put a language in their feet” for example, like in the portrait here below, as it does not necessarily mean that the language is less important only because it is placed further away from the heart or head. I would be careful to assume everyone would place the most important skills on the center of the body: our hands and feet can be considered as important as any other part of the body!

The reason for the 16 year old who designed the portrait here below, to put Italian to his feet in the picture here below, was because he plays football (calcio) like his Italian father and brother, and the reason he places Korean (Hangul) in his hands is because he is learning to write the language at the moment – he received his education in German and Dutch, so he is biliterate in both languages already, but didn’t consider it important to add this detail in his portrait at the moment. As he loves Koran food, he placed this language and culture on his stomach, and his heart is Dutch because he has a Dutch girlfriend…

The next Language Portrait (see below) is about my languages. I shared it on my Instagram account in February 2021, explaining why I place my languages in different parts:
I place German in my head together with Italian, because my way of thinking, organizing things etc. feels like a mix of German and Italian: one could define it – using stereotypes! – organized-flexible. Italian is the language of my heart, my emotions. It’s the language I use most spontaneously. Furthermore I love Italian food – but only the one “fatto in casa”!
As for Swiss-German, I placed it on my wrist because it feels like my “watch”: I learned being punctual the hard way when I moved to Switzerland at age 18 for my studies.
French is the language I feel most connected with on an emotional level, like Italian. I learned French at age 6 and never stoped. I wrote most of my scientific work incl. my PhD in French and Italian, and love reading French books. As for Spanish, I read Spanish (so I point at my eyes) better than I speak it (so far) – I’m working on it so I hope I will soon be able to point that arrow to my mouth too. I am learning Korean by listening at the moment. I recently started speaking it but it is pretty much the listening and understanding part that I’m focusing on most.
In the past 10 years, English has become the language I speak on a daily basis and write in the most. I placed Dutch and Spanish to my legs because I love to dance (Latin), cycle (which I associate to my Dutch life) and walk (idem).

What I could not add in this portrait is the historical, diachronic perspective of my languages. Although I now write mainly in English (like this post…) I used to write mainly in Italian, French and German. I am constantly working on my writing skills in all these languages, so I place them all on my right hand. The fact that Italiano, Français an Deutsch are written in smaller characters, indicates that I am not using them as often (as I would wish!). Furthermore, I did not indicate all the languages I have been in contact with and learned to a certain extent. Using the portrait somehow made me focus on the languages I use here-and-now or that I still “feel” present.

⇒For a history of the Language Portrait see: Ingrid Gogolin, Die Karriere einer Kontur – Sprachenportraits, in Inci Dirim et al (eds.), Impulse für die MigrationsgesellschaftBildung ,Politik und Religion, Münster, New York, Wasmann, 2015, 294-304.

⇒ Erving Goffman, Geschlecht und Werbung, Frankfurt / Main, Suhrkamp, 1981.

The Dominant Language Constellation

Another way to portray the languages we use or feel are important for us is the Dominant Language Constellation Model. Although we can use multiple languages regularly, there are always some languages – on average 3 (but it can be also 2 or 4…) – that are “in the foreground”, that we use more frequently and to a greater extent than the others. I tend to indicate it with my hand: if I have 5 languages – no matter the level of competence in each, there will always be two-three who are predominant, which does not mean that the other one, two or more, are absent. We know that all our languages are always present somehow and retrievable anytime. For those who are more in the background we might need to make more effort to activate them, to feel comfortable using them again if we hadn’t done so for a while, but they are still “there”.

You can watch my video on Language Shift here below.

Thanks to the model of Dominant Language Constellation we can indicate this language shift, what languages are more important, more dominant for us and which are not, by simply rotating the 3D model.

The model allows us to indicate our very personal view on our languages: we choose the color and the size of each “planet”.

Although the sum of our linguistic skills in all our languages can be defined as our language repertoire, the Dominant Language Constellation is the active part of the language repertoire:

“The concepts of language repertoire and Dominant Language Constellation concur, differ, and mutually complement each other. While a language repertoire relates to the totality of linguistic skills in all the languages possessed by an individual or by a community, a Dominant Language Constellation embraces only several languages (typically but not always three) that are deemed to be of prime importance. In other words, DLC is the active part of one’s language repertoire. One may say that a language repertoire is about the linguistic assets and a DLC refers to active usage of languages. Within the unit of DLC, languages play different roles and various linguistic and cognitive skills in several languages serve to carry out the necessary functions of a human language.” (Larissa Aronin, 2021:20)

I invite you to watch the interview we had with Prof. Larissa Aronin at Raising Multilinguals LIVE, the broadcast I organize with my partners-in-multilingualism, Rita Rosenback and Tetsu Yung.

⇒Larissa Aronin, Dominant Language Constellations in Education: Patterns and Visualisations, in Larissa Aronin, Eva Vetter, (eds.) Dominant Language Constellations Approach in Education and Language Acquisition,  Springer, 2021, 19-42.


Language Use and Fluency

Another way to indicate our language use and fluency is through a grid that François Grosjean developed for this purpose. This grid allows us to categorize our languages based on these two criteria in a specific moment.

François Grosjean suggests to regularly repeat this exercise to get a clearer picture about our language use and fluency throughout a longer period of time (or our lifespan).

It is thanks to this kind of consideration that we become aware of what can cause a language shift or a change in motivation to use (speak, read, write) a given language.

⇒ François Grosjean, Bicultural Bilinguals, in International Journal of Bilingualism, 2015, vol. 19(5), 572-586. He mentions this grid in other studies

Language Timeline

When asked about what languages we use (speak, read or write), we normally think synchronically, we take snapshots of a particular moment of our life – now or in the past – where we use or used the languages in question. Like in a Language Portrait, the language grid or the Dominant Language Constellation model, we indicate our language use, preference and fluency at a given time.

The 3D model of the Dominant Language Constellation comes very close to a more diachronic perspective on our language use and development. When someone asked me lately how many languages I had acquired and learned so far, I had to draw a timeline and define the moments where I was exposed to certain languages but didn’t speak them (yet), and the moments where I started speaking them.
In this following picture I have indicated all the languages that I have acquired (in green with (*) – I must add that I later also learned German and Italian! –, and those that are only “spoken” languages, like Swiss-German and that I couldn’t possibly “learn” in a formal setting (although there are some online lessons available now, but we still miss books written in at least one of the many variants of Swiss-German!). Furthermore there are those languages I learned for a short period of time (between 1-6 months) and that I still understand a bit (Hungarian and Norwegian), and some “dead” languages that I learned through reading and writing, and where the “speaking” consisted only in reading aloud – these are Latin, Old Occitan, Old French and Old Catalan. Flemish is a language that I acquired together with Dutch when we moved to the Netherlands: I understood some Dutch already, but in the beginning I found it easier to follow the news and some shows on TV on a Flemish TV channel, which lead me to also acquire Flemish. Korean is a language I tried to acquire for more than a year now, but I recently started to occasionally follow classes online. I will need to set a clearer goal to become more confident and competent in it.

When I did a similar exercise with some clients recently, they noticed that they are in contact with many more languages than they thought and that they understand them to a certain extent, even if they never “learned” them consciously, intentionally.

When I showed this timeline to the group of parents, they asked me where the Australian, New Zealand, U.S. and Irish English is on my list, and what about Scottish – that were the variants they were talking during the workshop and I understood them all. Fact is that they all talked the standard version of their language which makes mutual understanding among us all easier. What I found most important in that session was the fact that everyone became more aware of their personal use of language and languages. 

Language and language use are constantly changing, like organisms. Therefore, every attempt to capture our language use, preference, dominance is only a snap-shot. If we want to get an idea about our language use, preference, dominance and shifts across a longer period of time, we should put these snap-shots on a timeline and enjoy what we see (and experience)!

Have you ever done a Language Portrait, or a Dominant Language Constellation model, or have you tried to compete a grid like the one above, or put your languages on a timeline?
Please let me know in the comments.

To quote this post using the APA style (please insert the date indicated here below as it refers to the latest update of the post!):
Limacher-Riebold, U. (2021, December 22). How to portray, feel and explain language use for a multilingual. Retrieved from https://utesinternationallounge.com/mother-tongue-first-language-native-language-or-dominant-language/