Language Portrait


Originally developed as a language awareness exercise in education, the Language Portrait is now increasingly used as a research tool investigating how speakers themselves experience and interpret their heteroglossic practices and repertoires (Busch 2018).

It allows a multimodal approach as it combines discursive and presentational forms of symbolization (Langer 1948).

By providing a body image, body portraits offer the possibility of reflecting on one’s communicative repertoire both from the ‘inner’ perspective of the experiencing subject-body as well as from an ‘external’ perspective on the object-body.

In research, the Language Portrait became more widespread through the work of Krumm who collected and commented the portraits in Krumm & Jenkins 2001. Most studies that use the whole-body mapping are about themes like health, trauma, social inequality, political advocacy, migration, community development and education.

In German-speaking countries, the Language Portrait has been adopted in pre-school education, but also adult education and teacher training (Gogolin 2015), while the bodily and emotional dimensions of language learning has been emphasized by others (Coffey 2015). It is a great instrument to stimulate language awareness, not only in schools where it emphasizes that "languages and language-learning are linked to emotions, belonging and biographical experience" (Krumm & Jenkins 2001). We can explore language ideologies, the problematic classification of one person's first languages and the individual linguistic biography, as well as the overall experience in the context of social exclusion. Language Portraits can be used as a tool to gain insight into everyday linguistic practices of bodily and emotional language experience, as well as ideologically informed ideas and attitudes. 

With bi-modal "image-text" representation, invites to create meaning using both modes that are not necessarily (intrinsically) the translation or illustration of each other. The image functions rather as a means of opening a conversation and as a point of reference within the conversation. Through the creative process of visualization, participants experience the possibility of reflecting on linguistic practices and preferences.  


What is a Language Portrait?

The Language Portrait is an exercise I do with my clients and during my group trainings. The goal is for participants to visualize their linguistic repertoire using the outline of a body silhouette – or one they draw or design themselves.

In a Language Portrait, the languages we acquired and learned are not listed according to the degree of competence, nor the chronological order in which we learned them. When designing the portrait, talking about it, commenting and interpreting it, we become aware of the linguistic resources we usually may not deem important.

I have observed participants adding some of their languages in peripheral areas around the silhouette of the portrait, for several reasons: because they learned the language later in life, acquired it in informal contexts, or considered the language as less prestigious, or their fluency not proficient enough to be mentioned or included in the portrait itself.

By assessing (or re-assessing) our own language repertoire and validating it, we get a sense of self-empowerment. We can reflect on normative expectations and patterns and the way we perceive them and react to them.

The visualization allows us to explore our attitudes towards our languages, our bodily and emotional aspects of experiences with the languages. What Kramsch (2009: 60) observes about foreign languages applies to all our languages: "Far from being perceived as primarily a tool for communication and exchange of information the foreign language is first and foremost experienced physically, linguistically, emotionally, artistically". 

Language portraits can become performative, as they create a reality that we might not have expressed and realized before.

The multi-modal aspect of a language portrait allows us to change from one mode to the other. We can switch from the representation of language as an object, to the representation of moments in lived experience of language as a bodily-emotional state, to the representation of language ideologies, and attitudes towards particular languages or their use. During this process the image should not be considered as the representation of a hidden truth, but rather as a gesture that shows the interaction between language and emotion, language and perception (Busch 2018). – I personally prefer leaving a psychological interpretation to  professionals in the field. As a linguist, I merely use the language portrait to let participants become aware of their vast repertoire of languages, of the many layers and facets of communication they have across all their languages. In school settings, the language portrait can be used to explore and elaborate school language profiles (Busch 2010).

Furthermore, the Language Portrait is always a representation of the individual language repertoire in a given situation and setting, it is a synchronic view, a snap shot of the language use. Our experience with languages change over time. The way we perceive our languages, and the way others perceive them, influences us and changes our attitude towards them and our use of them.

Personally I find that asking participants to "use a different color for every language that you speak", like mentioned in most studies, can be limiting. Not only have colors different meanings across cultures, we also have individual preferences that should not play a role in this exercise. Therefore I suggest that whenever possible, a combination of colors and text should be allowed and not be object of discussion.


How to start this exercise: 

Like I just mentioned, I personally don't ask participants to choose colors that fit the different languages as I prefer them to be drawn naturally to choosing what they like. Instead of colors one can also draw different shapes (little circles, lines, triangles etc.), which can be as expressive.

With children I introduce this exercise like a fun activity to discover where our languages can be placed in our body:

"Show me where you would place your languages in this silhouette."

With adults I introduce this exercise the same way as for children, adding some more details:

"I would like you to indicate in the silhouette the languages and ways of speaking that are important for you. You can include dialects, registers, any kind of language or linguistic repertoire you prefer, including sign language."

After completion, participants will then present their portrait and explain, interpret their drawings. It is important to specify that there is no "right" or "wrong", not a "better" or "worse", and that changes can be made at any moment.

Further questions can be:

  • How do you experience your languages in your daily life?
  • Do you use different registers of your languages? (colloquial, slang etc.)
  • Do you use different varieties of your languages? (dialects, regional variants etc.)
  • How do you experience using your languages in your family, in your community, at work, in the broader society?
  • Are there any languages that you used to speak that are not in the portrait?
  • Are there languages you only speak in specific contexts and circumstances?
  • Do you understand, speak, read and write these languages?
  • If you use sign language and gestures: with whom, how and when do you use it? 



Explanation about the Language Portrait in the picture of this post

The Language Portrait of this post is one I did on Instagram for a challenge on IG (by @creciendoconlaspalabras). Here is why I placed my languages where you can find them in the portrait:

German: I place the language my parents speak in my head, together with Italian. It reflects my way of thinking and communicating. People assume that because I am German I would think and speak in a certain way, but then they are surprised that I don't meet their expectations. I am very organized in my way of working and I like to organize things (always have a plan B and C...), but in my planning I am also very flexible and even need to be. I use my imagination to adjust things if needed, which can be disorienting for some, but also refreshing for others. 

Italian: Italian is the language of my emotions, hence the position in my heart. It's the language I use most spontaneously (my children know that when I say something in Italian, it's getting serious...) I think very fast and speak fast, in Italian and in other languages too, when the situation allows me to. I can adjust to other paces, but my most natural one would be rather fast. I get impatient and loose interest when people take too long to explain things. 

French: French is my third language, chronologically speaking. I learned it at age 6 and never stoped since. I wrote most of my scientific work including my PhD in French (and Italian), I love French medieval literature (lit. provençale / occitane et ancien française), and fin de siècle

Swiss German: I placed it on my wrist because it's my "watch", it's my sense of punctuality. I learned being punctual the hard way when I moved to Switzerland at age 18 for my studies. Since then I always make sure to be 5-10 minutes early to every appointment. I acquired Swiss German at age 4 through watching TV (receptively) which made it easier to activate it once I moved to Switzerland 14 years later.

Spanish: I like Spanish music and funnily I started reading Spanish in my early 20ies for my studies, but never got to really learn how to speak it. I understand my friends when they talk Spanish, but will need to work on my oral skills to "get there". This is why the arrow points at my ears. I hope to soon be able to add another arrow pointing at my mouth.

English: I learned English at school when I was 11 (until I was 18) and didn't use it much until my late 30ies. It's only during the past 9 years that English has become the language I write in the most. Before it was Italian, French and German (that's why they are placed on my right hand & computer). I am constantly working on my writing skills in English though (currently I'm following a course on "memoire writing": I am very much aware that my vocabulary is rather technical in the field of linguistics and philology...)

Dutch and Spanish: I place both in my legs and feet because I love to dance (Rumba, Cha-cha-cha, Merengue, Samba, Salsa, Jive etc.), cycle and walk. Dutch makes me "move" – I live in the Netherlands and run my business from the Netherlands, so I was very eager to learn the language as quickly as possible. I now speak, read and write it, and hold workshops in Dutch too.

Korean: Korean is a language I want to learn by myself. I am teaching it to myself by watching Korean series, youtube videos and am also slowly starting to read it. But I'm still in the "listening" phase, so it will take some time to hear me speak it (I do practice speaking, but for now only when I am alone).


Musical Language Portrait

When I saw this reel of "Irish Eyes" by @rosebettmusic appear on IG I immediately thought that this could be a great musical alternative to the "picture" of a language portrait. You can find the lyrics of the song here.
What you can do is replace the Irish/English etc. by other nationalities/cultures/languages even, and find alternatives – for example, instead of "under stormy skies", "under blue blue skies" or whatever the person prefers.
Also "mother/father/sister/nana" etc. can be replaced by those people we ask about how they see us. 

What I particularly like is the many facets Rose Betts highlights in this song, and that everyone is "a map of the world".




How would your Language Portrait look like?
How would your Musical Language or Culture Portrait look like?
Please let me know in the comments! 


Busch, Brigitta, School language profiles: valorizing linguistic resources in heteroglossic situations in South Africa, Language and Education, 24,4, 2010, 283-294.

Busch, Brigitta, The language portrait in multilingualism research: Theoretical and methodological considerations, in Urban Language & Literacies, 2018.

Boehm, Gottfried, Jenseits der Sprache? Anmerkungen zur Logik der Bilder, Christa Maar und Hubert Burda (Eds) Iconic turn. Die neue Macht der Bilder, Köln, Du Mont, 2005, 28-44.

Coffey, Simon, Reframing Teachers' Language Knowledge Through Metaphor Analysis of Language Portraits, The Modern Language Journal 99, 3, 500-514.

Dressler, Roswita, Exploring Linguistic Identity in Young Multilingual Learners, TESL CANADA JOURNAL/REVUE TESL DU CANADA 51 Volume 32, issue 1, 2014, 42-52.

Gogolin, Ingrid, Die Karriere einer Kontur – Sprachenportraits, Inci Dirim et al Impulse für die Migrationsgesellschaft. Bildung, Politik und Religion, Münster, New York, Waymann, 2015, 294-304.

Kramsch, Claire, The Multilingual Subject, Oxford, OUP, 2009, 60.

Krumm, Hans-Jürgen, Jenkins, Eva-Maria, Kinder und ihre Sprachen - lebendige Mehrsprachigkeit: Sprachenportraits gesammelt und kommentiert von Hans-Jürgen Krumm, Wien, Eviva, 2001.

Langer, Suzanne, Philosohpy in a New Key. A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, New York, New American Library, 1948.



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  1. Pingback: From Cultural Identity Model to Language Identity Model - Ute's International Lounge

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