The Third Language Model

Audio The Third Language Model

How do multilinguals preceive, experience their languages? How do their languages influence the way they perceive themselves, their identity and sense of belonging? We know that multilinguals are not a combination of multiple monolinguals in one, but a unique combination and sum of their languages that they have acquired and learned to different levels of competence, for different purposes and in various domains of life.

When it comes to identity and language, or identity and culture, I find that we can not separate them, and the same way multilinguals are a unique symphony of all their languages, multiculturals are a unique symphony of all their cultures (and all that comes with them). As cultures are transmitted through languages, and languages translate cultures, they are both inseparable.

With their Third Culture Model, David Pollock and Ruth van Reken explain how cultures are involved when children grow up in different cultures or adults live in different cultures. I propose a Third Language Model that aims to explain how  multilinguals experience their languages.

More than half of the world’s population is multilingual, i.e. uses more than one language on a regular basis. No matter when they acquired or learned the languages, and no matter to what extent and level of competence, and what skill (understanding, speaking, reading, writing). This rather broad definition of multilinguals reflects the reality of the very diverse, complex and always changing panorama of “living with multiple languages”. 

No matter for what reason we live in another country than the one of our origin or passport, there are always three cultures – or three social contexts – we switch between: the home culture – the one of the core family –, the host culture or cultures, and the one of the community we tend to thrive, which would be the one that shares our same experience of living abroad, far away from extended family, speaking other languages etc. 

The Third Culture Model, therefore, applies to every international – refugee, immigrant, expat etc. however we want to label ourselves (or are labeled by others!…)

(see description in David Pollock, Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock’s “Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds” (2017, 3rd edition))

As one very important aspect of each culture is its language, or its languages, I like to translate this model into the Third Language Model for multilinguals, where the Home Language(s) are those spoken at home – or in the micro-society – which are the first languages a person acquires (chronologically speaking) – and in multilingual families it can be more than 2 (hence languages).

The Host Languages are those spoken by the community and/or at school (or at work), and represent the “second” layer of languages, those spoken in the meso- and macro-society. 

The Interstitial languages, or “Third Languages”, are those we share with our community of people who we share the same interests, that we meet at school, work etc.. 

The Third Language doesn’t mean that one speaks only three languages, the same way as Third Culture doesn’t mean the third culture in a chronological sense (as in opposition of second, fourth etc.).

It means that there is a third dimension which is the one multilinguals thrive: the interstitial dimension where the home languages and all those we are or have been in contact and acquired or learned to different extent coalesce. Multilinguals thrive in contexts where they can use all their languages unconditionally, without any bias or judgment, where they don’t have to explain or justify the use of one language or the other, or all of them for that matter.

The same way a TCK builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full – and I prefer to add “exclusive” – ownership in any, a multilingual child (or person), can communicate to some extent in all his/her languages, while not necessarily needing to be fully fluent (up to CALP = Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency level; see studies by Prof. Jim Cummins) in all of them.

I always had a problem with defining “full ownership” in the description of a TCK and I prefer avoiding its definition as it differs considerably from person to person. I rather prefer the other formulation in my Third Language Model because, in fact, we can be fully fluent in one, two or three of our languages, which means that we can fully function for the situations and purposes we need, and be multili-terate! There is not one kind of being multilingual but a continuum of increasing complex ways of being multilingual. 

Multilinguals will always thrive in international settings, with people who share their multilingual experience. It is not necessary that they share the same languages, the same way TCKs will always thrive in international settings no matter where the other TCKs have lived before. In fact, knowing several languages allows us also to understand languages that we didn’t learn yet, simply because we can access them with a broader variety of forms or tools, i.e. the variety of the languages we already understand and use.

I once said that “I am all the languages I speak” and that “my home are my languages“, and this is very true for many multilinguals!

With all the languages we speak we have a great repertoire of words and expressions that we would love to be able to use as often as we can. The ideal would be if we could use all our languages in one conversation and fully exploit all facets of our languages. It is the multlingual advantage and privilege

If you are speaking (reading and writing) multiple languages, I hope you can relate to this Third Language Model.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments’ section!

Pollock, David C. and Van Reken, Ruth E., Third culture kids: growing up among worlds, London, Nicholas Brealey, 2009.

Pollock, David C.,  Ruth E.Van Reken, Michael Pollock, Third culture kids: growing up among worlds, 2017, 3rd edition.

Definition of a Third Culture Kid in Pollock, David C.,  Ruth E.Van Reken, Micheal Pollock, Third culture kids: growing up among worlds, 2017 3rd edition. p. 27: “A traditional TCK is a person who spends a significant part of his or her first eighteen years of life accompanying parent(s) into a country that is different from at least one parent’s passport country(ies) due to a parent’s choice of work or advanced training”

For a multilingual approach to the use of multiple languages, read: A Multilingual Perspective on Translanguaging by Jeff Mac Swan 


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