We live in uncertain times of serious deterioration of solidarity for human diversity, a widening of economic inequalities and intensification of racial and religious hatred, and alarming tides of authoritarian populism spreading in the West. Many multilinguals – even more so multilinguals in marginalized communities – are vulnerable in the present climate. Multilingualism can be studied from many disciplinary perspectives, and the one addressed in this talk is second language acquisition (SLA), whose goal is to account for the development of communicative competencies when the new language is learned formally or informally during young, middle, or older adulthood, and therefore well outside primary socialization in the family. How well equipped are SLA researchers to illuminate adult bi/multilingualism while responding to the challenges that multilinguals face in our uncertain times? I will unpack four constraints that have hampered disciplinarity capacity to generate useful knowledge about adult multilingualism: (1) the romanticization of an ‘early start’ and the deficit construction of a ‘late timing’ for language learning, together with the isolation of the new language as the proper object of inquiry at the exclusion of the other familiar languages of emergent bilinguals; (2) the adherence to an essentialist ontology of language that considers it a system separate from the act of communication; (3) a teleological view of language development benchmarked against an ideal monolingual native speaker model; and (4) a post-positivist disaffection for ethics, power, and ideologies. Ortega also offers hopeful openings for the transformation of the research habitus so as to build capacity and respond to the needs that so many multilingual individuals, families, and communities are experiencing.
Lourdes Ortega is a Professor at Georgetown University, where she mentors language educators and linguistics doctoral students. She investigates how adults learn new languages, particularly in higher education settings. She is best known for an award-winning meta-analysis of second language instruction published in 2000, a best-seller graduate-level textbook Understanding Second Language Acquisition (Routledge 2009, translated into Mandarin in 2016), and since 2010 for championing a bilingual and social justice turn in her field of second language acquisition. Her latest books, both published this year, are Usage-inspired L2 Instruction, with John Benjamins (co-edited with applied cognitive linguist Andrea Tyler and colleagues) and The Handbook of Bilingualism with Cambridge University Press (co-edited with infant bilingualism researcher Annick De Houwer). Lourdes was born, raised, and college-educated in southern Spain, spent a year abroad at the University of Munich in the early 1980s, worked as a teacher of Spanish for almost a decade in Greece, and obtained her doctorate in the United States, the country where she has lived for 25 years now. These choices have afforded her a different dominant language at different periods in her life (so far): Spanish, German, Modern Greek, and English. This trajectory has shaped her professional identities as an educator and a researcher. She is committed to investigating what it means to become bilingual or multilingual later in life and across elite and marginalized contexts for language learning. In her work she seeks to encourage connections between research and teaching and to support harmonious bilingualism and the well-being of all multilinguals.