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The Multiple Languages of Early Education


The Multiple Languages of Early Education:

An Ethnographic Research on Processes of Institutionalisation

in Luxembourgish Early Childcare Settings

 Claudia Seele, University of Luxembourg


In Luxembourg, multilingualism is an everyday reality. Not only are there three official languages: Luxembourgish, French and German. Luxembourg is also the EU member state with the highest proportion of resident foreigners (45.3% in 2014). In this context, educational practice in early childcare settings is confronted with multiple, at times divergent demands, ranging from language promotion and school preparation to contributing to social cohesion and to the integration of a heterogeneous society. Instead of asking how effectively educational practices meet these expectations, my research rather takes a non-normative approach by exploring how multilingualism is actually dealt with in everyday practice.

Taking a praxeological perspective, I regard language as a social practice, thus putting the focus on the actual doing of language and its contribution to the practical accomplishment of an institutional order. Institutionalisation, here, is understood as the intricate processes of referring and answering to external expectations in everyday practice in order to negotiate what “early childhood education and care” (ECEC) actually is and means. Hence, not everything that happens in educational fields is per se “education”; rather it has to be performed and practically enacted as such in response to certain institutionalised norms, values and expectations.

In order to track the processes of institutionalisation in ECEC and the role that different aspects of language practices (e.g. their material, bodily, spatial and representational dimensions) play in these processes, an ethnographic research has been carried out in three Luxembourgish day care centres over the course of three years. Pertinent questions that guided my observations and analyses were for example: What are the different kinds of language practices to be observed in the centres? How do these language practices, on the one hand, contribute to the accomplishment of an institutional order and are, on the other hand, themselves constrained by this order? What are the respective roles of adults and children in these processes? How is early education thereby constituted but also challenged or transformed?

Data analysis is based on a reflexive Grounded Theory approach and yielded several interrelated aspects of language-mediated institutionalisation processes: First, language serves to constitute institutional boundaries and to differentiate the pedagogical social space from the “outside” or “everyday” world. Second, language serves to create an institutional order within this pedagogical space and helps to position actors within this order. Third, language is part of processes of routinisation and incorporation that serve to stabilise the institutional practice. Finally, language also serves to represent the early educational practice vis-à-vis its constitutive outside, such as the family and the school, thus supporting its claims to legitimacy. These processes, however, are not as straightforward as it may seem, because language also plays a part in destabilising processes of institutionalisation and bringing forward institutional changes. For example, language practices also transcend and fracture the monolingual pedagogical space. They may not only constitute and support but also challenge and resist the institutional order as well as question its legitimacy.

The study raises some important further questions that are touched upon in the thesis: What are the possibilities and the limits of practices of language promotion in ECEC? How do children contribute to the constitution of ECEC? What are the implications of the research beyond the Luxembourgish context?

This PhD research project is carried out under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Michael-Sebastian Honig and funded by the Fonds National de la Recherche Luxembourg (2011-2015).