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Expert in the spotlight in November/December 2011: Cecilia Serra

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Cecilia Serra has retired from teaching (applied linguistics) at the universities of Neuchâtel and Lausanne, but she keeps on doing research at the university of Geneva.  Her specialisations are plurilingualism, CLIL-type education, language policy, social representations, minority languages and migrant communicative practises. She has carried out research on these domaines in and outside Switzerland, and has developed and/or evaluated bi-plurilingual programs in different  countries (Italy, Poland, Bhutan, etc.). She has also worked as an expert on behalf of the Language Policy Division of the Council of Europe.
The universities of Geneva and Lausanne are partner in the Dylan project. In the context of the emergence of a knowledge-based society, the project has studied the conditions under which Europe's linguistic diversity can be an asset rather than a drawback. The goal has been to investigate how different modes of thought, argumentation and action, which are themselves linked to different languages, partake in the development and transmission of knowledge, and what role they play in the control of interactions, problem solving and decision making. In particular, a mixed team of the universities of Geneva and Lausanne has studied plurilingual instructional practices, language policies and representations of plurilingualism in Swiss universities. 
The project is now coming to an end: the fieldwork has been completed in October 2011, whereas results will be extensively published in 2012 - 2013. 

Face to face with Cecilia Serra

What is your background in the field of regional and minority languages/education/multilingualism? 

Starting in the eighties, my first multilingual field was migration : Italians living in Switzerland or Swiss-Italians moving to the majority Swiss-German regions. In both cases, I studied how their « multilingual speech » was used in everyday life. I was equally interested in migrants’ social representations and changing of stereotypes.
I then moved to education, studying how multilingual teaching, under the form of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), develops languages and content acquisition. An important outcome is that students’ first language and the target language are both to be used as a medium to work out content in depth.
I did research and was an expert on multilingual teaching, from primary school to university, in Switzerland and in other European countries.

What do you think is the major challenge in your field of work?

A major challenge, in regard to education and social cohesion, consists in disseminating multilingual teaching in local majority and minority languages together with an international language. This type of teaching, however, is not widely endorsed by language authorities who favour the learning of an international language, chiefly English, as a way of bypassing local language problems. Nor is multilingual teaching often supported by minority communities, who wrongly believe that it will undermine their language, instead of strenghtening it, as it does. By contrast, the European Dylan project, I have participated in, shows the positive impact of multilingualism on all situations of our everyday life, from work places to education. We live indeed in a multilingual society, let’s make the most of it!

What is one of the hottest new projects / items you are working on?

At present, I’m studying how to adapt the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR) to multilingual education (CLIL). The six CEFR reference levels are becoming widely accepted as the European standard for grading an individual's language proficiency. They are however intended to grade the « traditional » foreign language learners. In early stages, CLIL teaching develops language skills at a different pace. Comprehension, for instance, is more quickly improved when compared to production. Differentiate outcomes are natural phases of the learning process, yet we need evolving tools which document its richness and grade skills as they develop. The field is the International School of Geneva, where students learning in both French and English have about 140 different first languages. 

Are there any important references such as articles, links, etc. you would like to mention?

Most of my references are in French.

[Oesch]Serra C.(1998). Discourse connectives in bilingual conversation. In : Auer P. (ed) Code-Switching in conversation. London : Routledge, 101-124.

Serra C. (2007). Assessing CLIL at Primary School : A Longitudinal Study. In : Coyle D. and H. Baetens Beardsmore (eds) Research on Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), special issue. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, vol. 10 : 5, 582-602.

Gajo, L. and Serra, C. (2002). Bilingual Teaching: Connecting Language and Concepts in Mathematics. In: So, Daniel W.C. and Gary M. Jones (eds) Education and Society in Plurilingual Contexts, Bruxelles : VUB Brussels University Press, 75-95.

Maillat, D. and Serra, C. (2009). Immersion education and cognitive strategies: Can the obstacle be the advantage in a multilingual society? International Journal of Multilingualism, vol. 6:2,186 -206.

Council of Europe : From linguistic diversity to plurilingual education: Guide for the Development of Language Education Policies in Europe.

Dylan Project

Do you have any questions on these topics?

Ask Cecilia

Featured topic

Our focus this month lies on multilingual teaching