Adult Learner
The United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda for sustainable development emphasises, among other things, the importance of education to economic development, and ambitiously sets up several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate poverty and economic inequality. The fourth SDG, in particular, is set to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
Lifelong learning, however, is a challenging concept – and a complex process – which pushes the traditional boundaries of education and escapes oversimplification and overcategorization, poses both theoretical and practical challenges, and asks to consider and redefine the idea of a) adult learners and b) adult learning in relation to different perspectives, policy developments, individual and social variables.
First of all, whom do we mean by ‘adult learner’ in the context of lifelong learning and in a broad social setting? What characteristics should identify an adult learner, apart from his/her age? (and what age we referring to?) Can all adult learners in a given national and social setting be included in a single definition/group? Should adult migrant learners be seen as a separate group of adult learners? And if they should, on what bases (linguistic, cultural, motivational, etc.?).
According to Owusu-Agyeman (2019), adult learners could be categorised into two main domains, one group comprising adult learners in formal settings, and the other comprising those in non-formal and informal settings. In the formal context, adult learners are considered to be those who continue their education after a period of interruption: they are generally over twenty-five years of age and can be categorised as “deferrers”, “second chancers” and “returners” enrolled in an education institution after a break in their education. On the other hand, the definition of adult learners in the non-formal and informal context would be mainly based on sociocultural, economic and political considerations; thus, it could differ from one social and cultural setting to another. It generally includes those who are over eighteen years of age, economically independent and considered as matured in a cultural context.
As for the definition of adult learning, it should be considered that it embraces a continuum from formal to non-formal to informal learning, where formal learning typically occurs in an education or training institution; non-formal learning takes place outside the formal system; and informal learning is experience based and often accidental, occurring e.g. at home, during a leisure activity or at work. The same concept should also encompass adult learners’ characteristics and contexts as essential factors in promoting inclusive education, the context of learning referring not only to the physical locations where learners receive their instruction, increase their knowledge, and develop individual and professional skills, but also to personal attributes and experiences gained through life.
In the context of formal learning, the characteristics of adult learners are particularly useful for making policy decisions regarding entry requirement and access, curriculum provision, education financing, and the development of learning resources. Policy development with respect to adult learners in non-formal and informal settings seeks to address gaps in skills, recognition of previous learning, community dialogue and functional and financial literacy. From this perspective, education looks essential also to reduce social exclusion and foster civil participation.
As Karen Myers and Arthur Sweetman (2014) claim, learning among adults is a multi-layered process and a combination of routes like foundational learning; learning in higher education (after completion of secondary school); workplace-related learning; other labour market-related learning; and personal/social learning. While many scholars still focus on the definition of adult learner based on formal learning environments, it is therefore also important to analyse the position of adults who engage in learning outside this environment. Since the process of learning is socially situated, individuals who drop out of formal schooling still obtain knowledge and skills necessary for their survival and personal development. As Andrew Gonczi (2004) claims. learning should be then considered as a process consisting of affective, moral, physical and cognitive aspects that are not present only in formal learning settings, but, more importantly, also in social settings.
Fenwick and Tennant (2004, p. 55) further suggest that adult learning can be measured by way of four interrelated dimensions, namely learning as acquiring a new language, a competency or a habit through experiences; learning as reflected in the creation of new meanings and realities; learning as co-emergent processes that rely on relationships between individuals in social settings consisting of objects, tools and movements; and learning that focuses on meaningful participation of members of a community through practice-based activities.
Fenwick T., Tennant M. 2004, Understanding adult learners, in Griff Foley (ed.), Dimensions of adult learning, London, Routledge, pp. 55–73.
Gonczi A 2004, The new professional and vocational education, in Griff Foley (ed.), Dimensions of adult learning, London, Routledge, pp. 19-34.
Myers K, Sweetman A. 2014, The Adult Learning and Returns to Training Project – Final Report, Social Research and Demonstration Corporation, Ottawa.
Owosu-Agyeman Y. 2019, An Analysis of Theoretical Perspectives That Define Adult Learners for Effective and Inclusive Adult Education Policies, “International Review of Education”, Vol. 65 No. 6, pp. 929-53.
Snyman M, van den Berg G. 2018, The Significance of the Learner Profile in Recognition of Prior Learning. “Adult Education Quarterly”, 68 (1), pp. 24-40.
Capabilities approach
“Capabilities approach” is an expression introduced by Amartya Sen, Nobel prize for economy, and revised by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. This concept marks a paradigm shift in the United Nations’ assessment of development.
In the 1990, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published the first annual Human Development Report (HDR). What is new with respect to the past is the idea that, in order to consider developed a country, it is not sufficient to calculate GDP or average per capita income. Instead, it is extremely important to monitor the degree of well-being, freedom and agency of the population. The Human Development Index (HDI) brings the focus from nations to people and therefore introduces specific indicators, such as education, health and goods, that are not exclusively economic ones.
The HDI assumes Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach”, emphasizing the importance of goals (like the freedom to make choices, the opportunity to enjoy care) over means (like family income). Hence Sen proposal could be ascribed to the field of consequentialist ethical theories.
Martha Nussbaum develops the capabilities approach mainly to combine the universality of human rights with multiculturalism and the politics of difference. In fact, making people capable and creative is suitable for any cultural context and belonging because training somebody’s capabilities does not necessarily forcing the person to use or using them in a certain way. Focusing on skills rather than contents therefore avoids the risk of educational assimilation into the dominant cultural system.
Nussbaum and Sen converge in affirming that enjoying a right, being entitled to have it, is not enough; to enact a right the person needs to have developed a number of related skills. For example, someone who does not have sufficient linguistic-expressive skills will find that his/her right to freedom of speech is an empty letter, and those who have such a low level of education that they will not be able to understand a newsletter, will not manage to make anything of freedom of information and will not be even able consciously to exercise their political rights. Poor computation skills affect economic rights; social rights are affected for those who cannot juggle bureaucracy and public administration.
So, the educational practice is the precondition to enjoy human rights. Empowerment corresponds to acquire the necessary capabilities to have a free and dignified life.
Students designated as “vulnerable” members of society are often object of welfarist policy, for which primary needs are satisfied, but at the cost of feeding their dependence from the helpers. Whereas the capabilities approach means a growth process toward autonomy in interdependence: to become the author of your own life and co-actor of the social consortium of which it belongs.
Stanton, E.A. 2007. The Human Development Index: A History. “Working-paper Series University of Massachusetts-Amherst”, no. 127 (February 2007).
UNDP. 1990. Human Development Report, UNDP, New York.
Sen, A., 1987. The Standard of Living, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK).
Sen, A., 1999. Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford University Press, New York.
Sen, A. 1985. Well‐being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984. “Journal of Philosophy”, no. 82.
Nussbaum, M.C. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach,: Cambridge University Press, New York .
Nussbaum, M.C. 2011. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (USA).
The concept of citizenship varies depending on the model of society at hand. For example, in an imperial autocracy the citizens may be just all the people who are subject to the same authority. Less minimal accounts of citizenship stress the ethnic or cultural dimension of membership[1]. Still, in liberal-democratic society – according to the traditional citizenship theory[2]–, being citizen means being «a full and equal member of society». To be a citizen, the member of the society should be guaranteed civil, political and social rights, so that the more these rights are secured, the more members of the society deserve the name of citizens. The, citizenship is, basically, the right to have rights. 
In the last two decades political theorists have tried to overcome the traditional, passive, conception of citizenship, in order to elaborate an active account of democratic citizenship. The project may be summarized in two aspects closely related.
The first idea underlying this project is a shift from fundamental rights to responsibilities and virtues. Modern critics argue that the recognition of rights is a necessary but noy sufficient condition for full-fledged citizenship. According to this idea, the citizen must cultivate civic virtues, such as courage and loyalty, open-mindedness, the capacity to delay self-gratification, and also some peculiar political virtues such as the willingness to question political authority and the willingness to engage in public discourse. This last virtue needs to be closely scrutinized. It requires not only to actively participate to public discourse, but also to state her own ideas candidly, preferring persuasion to manipulation. Moreover, it requires the citizen to distinguish, among her beliefs and commitments, those who are a matter of “private faith”, from those which can be understood and accepted by people belonging to different cultures – the “public reasons” –, and to use this kind of considerations in the public debate. As it can be easily seen, the need of a demanding conception of citizenship meets here the needs of a multicultural society (see, multiculturalism).
The responsibility to get involved in the public debate introduces the second aspect that modern political theorists want to highlight, that is the shift from a “vote-centric” to a “talk-centric” theory of democracy. According to the traditional liberal-democratic account of citizenship, citizens are provided with «a set of preferences, fixed prior to and independent of the political process». The aim of democracy would be, then, just to aggregate these preferences – expressed through voting –, and to translate the result of the aggregation in public policies. A “talk-centric” democracy – often called “deliberative democracy” – is a system in which, instead, a relevant part of the citizens tries to affect the opinion-formation process which precedes voting. From the point of view of multiculturalism deliberative democracy has a certain appeal since allows organized minorities to gain visibility and affect concretely the public deliberative process[3].
Putting aside the issues related to the concept of citizenship, and moving forward to the topic of the acquisition of citizenship – an aspect of the inclusion policies –, three main solutions may be distinguished. A first possible way to acquire citizenship is based on ius sanguinis, that is, on the basis of descent: parents, or other ancestors, transmit their citizenship to their descendants, according to an ethnic conception of national belonging. The second criterion, ius soli, implies that people get citizenship for being born in the national soil. Finally, the third, and most liberal, way thanks to which people may get citizenship is naturalisation – or ius domicili –, the circumstance of lawful, protracted, residency on the territory of the state. These pure models – along with other requirements, like the knowledge of the language and culture of the host society – often concur in the same legal system, generating hybrid solutions to the problem of the acquisition of citizenship[4].
Although many migrants do not become full-blown citizens, they often get access to a set of rights[5]. The status of migrants lawfully resident in the host country but not naturalized as citizenship challenges the traditional, liberal-democratic, representation of citizenship in many ways.
First of all, the traditional conception divides citizenship in three components, the civil, the political and the social components, and tells a story in which the members of the society acquire first civil rights, then political right, and finally social rights. The condition of many migrants is very different, since they enjoy the social component of citizenship – they have access to the labour market, as well as to many public services such as public education, and the social security system –, but, relevantly, they are denied the political component of citizenship[6].
Another crucial departure from the traditional model is represented by the proliferation of status groups – a “civic stratification”[7]–, instead of a binary contraposition between citizens and “aliens”. The top of the pyramid is occupied by super-citizens. In addition to all the rights accorded by the law to citizenship, supe-citizens are able to move safely across national-borders, thanks to their strong position in the globalized economy – they are a cosmopolitan elite. Marginal citizens, on the contrary, are those people who, although recognized as citizens by the law, do not enjoy the status of citizen fully, either because of economic deprivation or because of social exclusion. Whereas these two groups are full-blown citizens, the third group – quasi-citizens – consists of long-term residents who have gained access to many welfare rights on the same extent as citizens, without having the right to vote in general elections – though they may have the right to vote in local elections. An even more precarious position is that of sub-citizens, migrants who do not have access to social rights, though they are entitled to stay – indeed precariously – on the territory of the state. This group includes, for example, migrants who made an application for asylum, which is currently under examination, as well as persons dependants of quasi-citizens lacking an independent right to residence. And finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, there are un-citizens, undocumented migrants exposed to the risk of deportation, even though they might have been working in the host society for years[8].
Ambrosini M., 2011. Sociologia delle migrazioni, Bologna, Il Mulino.
Castles S., Haas H. de, Miller M.J., 2014. The Age of Migration. International Population Movements in the Modern World (Fifth Edition), 2014, UK, Palgrave Macmillan.
Hammar T., 2016 (1990). Democracy and the Nation State Aliens, Denizens and Citizens in a World of International Migration, New York, Routledge.
Kymlicka W., 2002. Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Introduction, Second Edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Marshall T.H., 1965 (1949). Class, Citizenship and Social Development, Anchor, New-York.
Morris L., 2002. Managing Migration. Civic stratification and migrants’ rights, London-New York, Routledge.
Nash K., 2009. Between Citizenship and Human Rights, «Sociology», 43, 6, pp. 1067-1083
Walzer M., 1983. Spheres of Justice. A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, US, Basic Books.

[1] Castles, Haas, Miller 2014, 66 ff. 
[2] Marshall, 1965 (1949).
[3] Kymlicka 2002, 285-293.
[4] Ambrosini 2011, 230. See also Walzer 1983, 31 ff.
[5] Walzer 1983, pp. 31 ff.; Hammar 2016 (1990).
[6] Ambrosini 2011, 232.
[7] Morris 2002. 
[8] Nash 2009, 1067 ff.; Ambrosini 2011, 234 f.
Culturalism or cultural essentialism
The term “culturalism” can be used in different meanings. Here it will be explained as a form of essentialism on cultural basis. It is a drift of cultural relativism, a philosophical position that claims that the different cultural universes are incommensurable and never fully translatable. Due to this assumption, it is not correct to judge beliefs and behaviors born in a cultural setting with the standards and values of one’s own culture.
After the concept of biological race ceased to be a legal category and was discredited into the public discourse, it was replaced by other categories that took on a similar function: to establish a system of relations between groups that consider themselves different in essence (Guillaumin, 1972: 69).
We can define a culturalism approach when ethnicity, nationality, culture, and religion are not treated as open, negotiable, mutable categories, the result of historical processes, but as a natural, inalienable and immutable datum, which totally determines the behavior and opinions of the individual who is enrolled in it and decrees its immeasurable diversity from “us”. In this way the word “culture” behaves as the “race” notion.
The harmful impact of culturalizing subjects does not depend on the attribution of negative or positive identity characteristics. We have culturalism, racism, or gender stereotyping when the minority is locked into a racialized category, which can even be positive, while the majority sails between fluid and liberal categories, which allow individualities to pose and act as such. The clichés of the black man who is good at dancing, the sweet and sensitive gay man, the motherly woman can be cages in which individuals are barricaded. Categories cover the individual and make him invisible.
From here we see another important aspect of culturalism: only those who are identified as “others” are considered culturally determined. Those in the majority and dominant group do not perceive themselves as influenced by the culture they belong to. This establishes a hierarchy between those who are free because “they have culture”, and those “who are of a culture” able to dominate them under every aspect. In the first case the subject possesses culture, in the second case culture possesses the subject. So the first are perceived as individuals, the second as masses.
The main fallacies of the culturalist mindset are:
1. Proposing a naive idea of culture, thinking of it as something static, isolable, coherent and homogeneous.
2. Misunderstanding how the cultural milieu affects everyone: both members of the in-group and the out-group, i.e. it affects “them” as much as “us”.
3. Not realizing how each individual is influenced by many factors of a different nature, always reworked by the person in a unique and unrepeatable way.
4. Neglecting that cultural or national affiliations are constantly evolving, especially because of critical internal forces. In fact, there are always individuals who betray, abandon, modify, mix traditional customs.
Culturalist stereotypes are very present in the language of press, social media, politics, and everyday people. Education can also be affected and reinforce culturalist stereotypes. These have an extremely deleterious and pervasive effect because they can be uttered without the disapproval and outrage of overtly racist language.
We report an eloquent example of policy affected by culturalism. The population of Roma origin has varied legal statuses (there are European citizens, economic migrants, refugees, stateless persons and a small minority of irregulars). Most of them are settled. The mobility of Roma people was partly linked to traditional occupations (carousers, circus people, horse sellers), now it is sometimes due to migration for economic reasons or to persecution. It is not correct to say, therefore, that they are a nomadic people. However incorrect, the term “nomadic” has become synonymous with Roma both in common language and in the bureaucratic one. As explained in a report of the European Roma Rights Center (2000: 10) in Italy was invent the camp as the typical housing context for Roma, passing it off as consistent with a certain vision of cultural traditions: «In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ten Italian regions adopted laws for the “protection of nomadic cultures” through the construction of segregated camps.
This project made official the perception that all Roma and Sinti are nomads and can only live in camps isolated from the rest of Italian society. The result is that many Roma have actually been forced to live the romantic and repressive image that Italians had of them. The Italian authorities claim that their desire to live in homes is not genuine and relegate them to “nomadic camps”».
It should be noted that the exoticizing gaze that sees the Roma as the “sons of the wind”, free and traveler people is combined with the segregationist and repressive institution of the camps. Thus, a pretended benevolent intent of defending nomadic cultures justifies the imposition of an exclusionary identity, neither chosen nor negotiated by those directly involved.
ERRC – European Roma Rights Center. 2000. Il paese dei campi. La segregazione dei rom in Italia, in «Rapporti nazionali», n. 9, in addition with “Carta”, no. 12 (ottobre 2000).
Guillaumin C. 1972. L’idéologie raciste. Genèse et langage actuel, Mouton, Paris.
Aime M. 2004. Eccessi di culture, Einaudi, Torino
Chemla K., Fox K.E. (eds.). 2017. Cultures without Culturalism. The Making of Scientific Knowledge, Duke University Press, Durham (USA).
Language needs       
Since the 1970s, the notion of language need(s) has been often explored by pedagogists and experts wishing to guarantee and assess quality training in line with the needs of specific audiences (such as migrant workers) who need to communicate in specific languages for specific purposes. In the second half of the Seventies, the Council of Europe commissioned René Richterich and Jean-Louis Chancerel the study Identifying the needs of adults learning a foreign language,with the aim of finding criteria to assess the learners’ requirements and expectations when approaching foreign languages.
However, a few years later, in 1985, the same Richterich claimed that such an interest in language (and learners’) needs was not entirely the result of a humanistic and humanitarian concern, but was mainly due to managerial logic and entrepreneurial needs, which were also informing language policies by relating the integration of migrant populations in their new countries to their ability to express themselves functionally in given contexts and circumstances, and reach a set of learning goals. For this reasons, Richterich had already (1979: 56) proposed to differentiate between “language needs” and “learning goals”, and  between “subjective needs”, expressed by learners, and “objective needs”, expressed by a third party such as an employer or an institution. To avoid the misuse of the concept, he also proposed to question the ways in which needs were assessed (who identifies them?, for whom?, for what purpose?, where, when, and how?), especially in case objective needs imposed by a third party took precedence over subjective needs.
To reconcile between subjective and objective needs, further articulations of the concept focused on the importance of negotiating needs between education systems and learners, whose individual profiles and previous socio-linguistic backgrounds should be considered more carefully (Van Avermaet and Gysen 2006). However, some ambiguity persisted as migrants’ language needs were, and would be, mainly defined as communicative skills (oral and written) that the (adult) migrant learner wishes to manage or that a third party requires him/her to be able to manage (Beacco, Little and Hedges, 2014).
As a matter of fact, identification of language needs – and learners needs in terms of language acquisition – has remained a complex matter, and should be looked at from different – sometimes complementary, sometimes divergent – perspectives, such as the institutions’, the teachers’/trainers’ (and the teaching institutions’), and the learners (with all their heterogenous backgrounds, meta-competence, motivations).
Within this framework, for national and regional institutions and institutional representatives, migrants’ language needs are and should be linked, and subjected, to learning objectives (usually set up by institutions) and, more broadly, to socio-professional integration. Language needs should therefore relate to communication, especially oral communication, and merge with societal needs as long as they can enhance training and employability through the acquisition of a set of (linguistic) skills.
For teaching and training centres, language needs usually have to be measured against the European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​(CEFR), and to provide learners with some kind of language certification. In this context, frameworks of reference seem to be essential not only for providing learners with (marketable) certifications or diplomas, but also to assess competence at different stages of the learning process. Very often, this competence was the grammar one, i.e. the grammatical correctness of sentences. Nevertheless, by acknowledging learners’ diversity, and by addressing learners as individuals and not only as a group, teachers and trainers may become aware that language needs of migrants cannot be reduced to assessable professional skills, and that social integration may need to be prioritised against linguistic assessable competence.
From the learners’ point of view, subjective needs should be taken into a much wider consideration, as they cannot be forcibly harmonised in the classroom, and as learners should be asked to engage with the learning process more personally. However, learners may need to prioritise the acquisition of a good and functional level of language in order to increase their chances to become socially and economically integrated in their new contexts. They may then to prioritise learning objectives and qualifications to other, more subjective, needs.
Through the observation of learning environments and processes, pedagogists and scholar have been able to challenge the dichotomy objective vs. subjective needs. By listening to learners and teachers/trainers, they could not only evaluate methodologies and aims, but also provide both learners and teachers/trainers with questions and a critical perspectives. Also, they could state that the lack of consideration of subjective needs by institutional and teaching/training approaches was not necessarily malicious, but on the contrary reflected the concern of providing learners with the useful competences and skills, to enable them to use the language of the host community as soon as possible, to communicate and interact with the local population. Also, the gaps felt by the learners led teachers and trainers to question their conceptions of language needs, and the practice of assessing needs only at the beginning of the teaching experience/training. Instead, the joint design of a shared and common grid of needs between learners and teachers/trainers, and its periodic re-negotiation  – through both an individual and collective review – against motivations and achievable results makes the learning community perceive needs as the outcome of no longer fixed strategies but of dynamics.
Beacco J-C., Little D., Hedges C. 2014, The linguistic integration of adult migrants. Guide for Policy Development and Implementation, Unit of language policies. Strasbourg, The Council of Europe.
Richterich R, Chancerel J-L. 1977, Identifying the needs of adults learning a foreign language / prepared for the Council of Europe, Oxford, Pergamon press.
Richtereich R. 1979
Richtereich R. 1985, Language needs and learning objectives, Paris, Hachette.
Van Avermaet P., Gysen S. 2008, Learning, teaching and assessment of languages, and integration of adult migrants. Importance of needs analysis, Strasbourg, The Council of Europe.
Language repertoire
The concept of repertoire of languages (or language repertoire) is not specific to migrants: it refers to the fact that all individuals are potentially or actually plurilingual. The plurilingual competence or multilingual competence is the manifestation of the capacity for speech, which is part of the genetic make-up of all human beings and which can be used in several languages in succession throughout a person’s lifetime.
The repertoire of languages known by each individual (individual repertoire) comprises languages acquired in different ways (languages learnt at home from infancy onwards, learnt subsequently during schooling or afterwards, learnt independently, etc.) for which people have different competences (everyday conversation, reading, listening, etc.) at levels of mastery which also differ (elementary, independent, experienced, etc.). These languages can have specific functions (communicating within the family, socialising with neighbours, working, expressing one’s belonging to a group, etc.), but these functions can nonetheless be fulfilled jointly by several languages. This distribution of languages in the repertoire may change over time or may depend on communication situations (using several languages simultaneously in exchanges, known as code alternation).
Learning a new language can modify the balance between repertoires. In most cases, when a foreign language is learnt at school, the repertoire is broadened without any further consequences, apart from an enhanced perception of cross-connections between the existing languages. In the case of migrants, the reorganisation is more complicated, because acquiring the majority language is an important issue (indeed a vital one when residence rights depend on it), a fundamentally identity-based process that takes place in full public view in the host country and which is usually called linguistic integration (although this over-simplifies matters). In fact, such integration is only one of the possible ways of reorganising repertoires, which is characterised by the fact that it occurs under pressure, the pressure of efficiently communicating in a new social space and building up a (new?) linguistic and cultural identity in that space, and may not match with the learner’s language needs.
For supra-national organisations (such as the UN, the EU, and the Council of Europe), the goals of language teaching, for whatever purpose, are those of plurilingual education. Such education is geared to enhancing individual language repertories, especially the language(s) already present, in order at least to prevent them from becoming a sign of marginality on the part of the adult migrants themselves, or their children. It is also intended to expand the repertoire in accordance with institutional and individual needs (or objective and subjective needs), expectations, interests and desires and the role which the individual wishes ‘his/her’ languages to play in building up his/her plural belonging, which establishes the social player in his or her cultural uniqueness. The central place of plurilingualism thus constitutes one of the bases for critical education in linguistic tolerance, i.e. intercultural education.
Busch B. 2017, Expanding the Notion of the Linguistic Repertoire: On the Concept of Spracherleben, “Applied Linguistics”, Vol. 38, Issue 3, pp. 340-58.
Busch B. 2012, The linguistic repertoire revisited, “Applied Linguistics”,Vol. 32, Issue 5, pp. 1-22.
Language repertoire (s.d.), in Council of Europe – Language Policy Unit, Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants, Strasbourg, The Council of Europe.
Linguistic integration

The integration of newly-arrived migrants is a multifaceted process, and therefore complex to evaluate.  Various indicators have been developed to assess how successful adjustment to another society has been. These include using as a basis broad areas, like social inclusion, health, etc. or more specific indicators (income, employment, housing, education, participation in society, etc.) such as those developed by Eurostat (Indicators of Immigrant Integration, 2011). These methods of analysis very often do not include criteria which are directly related to languages, even though the language(s) of the host country is to greater or lesser degree crucial for adult migrants, especially in cases of long-term settlement.
The ‘genuine’ integration of migrants into their new society also involves efforts to accommodate them that go beyond the specific steps taken to welcome them. The acceptance of new forms of social behaviour presupposes that the society in question is open to otherness and tolerant of change. Thus aspiring towards an inclusive society. It is important that this “collective self-questioning”, which challenges the natural inertia of long-lasting cultural change, should be accompanied by educational measures for the benefit of everyone everywhere.
While it is possible to use the term ‘linguistic integration’, this kind of integration is definitely not to be regarded as being the same as other kinds. This is because languages are not to be seen merely as practical means of communication which simply need to be acquired, just as migrants end up finding housing or employment. Languages can also be used as material for building both individual and group cultural identities. As identity markers that are assumed, laid, claim to, or merely tolerated, languages play an integral part in creating social and cultural distinctions, just as religious beliefs and clothing do. Thus, learning and using a new language – the language of the host society – or using other languages the migrant already knows but which are unfamiliar to the established population is not just a practical matter but may also trigger processes that lead to the questioning of identities.
The linguistic integration of migrants who speak other languages in the society which receives them is not a symmetrical process. For the members of the host society the visible and audible presence of new language(s) can trigger several social, political, and emotional reactions.
Among the emotional reactions, host societies can express anxiety or fears about national identity surrounding challenges to (often imagined) linguistic unity or ‘corruption’ of the dominant language as a result of what is perceived as ‘contamination’ from other languages, not necessarily just those used by migrants.
People may find it hard to accept the development of a new form of diversity that replaces the traditional linguistic diversity of their home territory (regional and minority languages). These reactions occur at an ideological level, although the arrival of new languages in a given territory does not have direct implications for the established population who are under no obligation to learn the new languages.
For migrants, the issues are immediate and have other implications: they may view the acquisition of the dominant language of their new home as a form of enrichment of their identity, or may feel that this acquisition – and the challenging process leading to it – may make them vulnerable.
Then again, learning the new language may cause suffering (through inability to express oneself) or may possibly undermine their existing identity. Migrants may rightly fear that the language to be learnt will “drive out” their previous languages (including their mother tongue) for functional reasons and lead to the loss of a ‘sense of identity’.
Whereas for the established population it is their understanding of national identity which is at stake, for migrants both their cultural identity and their group allegiances may be called into question. The price of integration definitely differs according to the viewpoint.
In the case of migrants, linguistic integration through acquiring a majority language may be a vital issue one when residence rights depend on it, but also a fundamentally identity-based process that takes place in full public view in the host country.
The very idea of linguistic integration may actually only be one of what the established population deem to be the duties of newcomers and it is not necessarily the main aim of the newcomer. ‘Integration’ is actually often taken to mean that migrants do not stand out from other speakers or do so only minimally (through a slight accent, for instance) or even that they do not use their other languages in public and forget them. In this view of integration, migrants should go unnoticed linguistically and use the ‘normal’ language of the native population. This is an external interpretation of integration, which relates to the wishes of certain native speakers, namely the gradual elimination of differences combined with linguistic standardisation. This interpretation also requires adult migrants to show a high level of proficiency in the dominant/official language  which is perceived as a demonstration of their loyalty and allegiance to the host country. In the final analysis, proficiency in language is equated with citizenship: “someone who speaks French (well) is French”.
These ‘assimilationist’ expectations may be offset by a curiosity for unknown languages, a desire to learn them, goodwill regarding mistakes that are made or difficulties migrants have in expressing themselves and acceptance of the use of other languages in public or in the media. These more positive attitudes may depend on the degree of legitimacy attached to the languages (migrants’ languages versus foreigners’ languages) and to a large extent on the degree of acceptance of inherited diversity. These positive attitudes should be encouraged by all forms of intercultural education.
The external definition of linguistic integration mentioned above is not consistent with either the real needs of the host society or the expectations of migrants themselves or the rights they should be granted. From an internal perspective, integration should not be defined solely in relation to acquisition of the majority/dominant language, but in relation to each individual’s language repertoire. From the point of view of migrant speakers, linguistic integration should accordingly be understood as their adjustment to their (new) communication environment, i.e. as a rearrangement of their individual repertoires and the integration of the languages that make up these repertoires.
 Looked at from this point of view, several forms of linguistic integration are possible, and just as many ways of adjusting individual language repertoires to a new linguistic environment. They reflect the various aims or needs of migrants (or other groups). Whether the adjustments are satisfactory or not is for the individuals concerned to judge.
A distinction may be made between:
–       Low level integration of the languages in the repertoire: the language resources available in the individual repertoire are uneven because the resources in the majority language are insufficient to deal with communication situations effectively without considerable effort. Communication often requires the involvement of third parties and its success depends largely on the linguistic goodwill of the other speakers. This may lead to social self-censorship: the migrants do not take part in or actually avoid, certain activities because they seem linguistically too challenging. They may regard their repertoire as ineffective and a source of frustration. This may lead to them being ‘excluded’ by native speakers of the language. However, they may equally well be accepted by them with greater value being assigned to their previous languages and a purely practical role to the majority language of the host society, and may not develop their proficiency in the new language further. Their language of origin may retain a strong identity function here;
–       Functional integration of the languages in the repertoire: the resources in the repertoire (essentially in the majority language) suffice for dealing (relatively) successfully with most social, professional and personal communication situations and are sufficient to ensure that most verbal exchanges are successful. There may be mistakes or examples of fossilisation, which the migrants may ignore if they are mainly concerned about effectiveness or may attempt to address with a view to achieving greater linguistic ‘naturalisation’ and not standing out less if they believe this to be useful and acceptable. In this case, the language of origin does not necessarily have a prominent identity function;
–       Integration of the languages in the repertoire: the migrants actively rearrange their repertoires and incorporate the majority language, which then takes its place alongside the languages in which they are already proficient. It is no longer a strain to draw on as it can now be used naturally, with the speakers shifting between languages depending on the social situation; in this case, the language of origin, which may have been the sole language of identity, may retain joint identity status with the majority language. In this sense, the fact that there are several languages of identity in a repertoire is analogous to having dual nationality. The migrants’ languages of origin may then achieve such value that they wish to pass them on. But, from the point of view of identity, it is the rearranged repertoire that now matters.
These albeit abstract forms of integration of the languages in the migrants’ repertoire probably depend on the higher or lower value accorded to the languages present in their repertoire before they arrived in the host society. The degree of success in integrating languages into the repertoire is not quantifiable (e.g. low integration, functional integration, integration proper). These forms of linguistic integration and their variants represent the possible choices open to the adult migrants:
–       Deciding not to change their repertoire, i.e. not systematically to learn the main language of the host society; the migrants put up with the functional pressure, of not being able to use it, especially if they spend most of their time in environments where their language of origin dominates;
–       Wishing to change their repertoire, but being unable to do so due to lack of time or self-confidence, etc., which causes psychological and social discomfort;
–       Aiming to functionally ‘rearrange their repertoire, without attempting normative adaptation, i.e. accepting fossilisation, retaining a non-native accent and transposing cultural communication habits into the target language, etc., as part of a single-identity language strategy i.e. marked by the migrant’s language of origin;
–       Aiming to rearrange the linguistic repertoire in order to achieve ‘linguistic naturalisation’, involving the gradual dropping of the language of origin and its ultimate disappearance so that it is not passed on between generations,, Again this is part of a single-identity language strategy marked by the language of the host society;
–       Aiming to rearrange the functional repertoire,
but with two joint languages of identity.

It is up to migrants to decide for themselves, their families and children which of these language strategies are best suited to their goals in life and the management of their identity, to the role of language training, is to inform them about the consequences of these choices and explain that migration necessarily involves an identity adjustment process which should be managed with plurality and mixing in mind rather than with nostalgic inflexibility.
When providing training these language users could be asked to reflect on how to manage code shifting, for example ‘micro shifting’ within the same communicative situation depending on the participants and their tolerance of linguistic diversity), or the distribution of two or more languages throughout their social exchanges (macro shifting). In any case, the fact that migrants may wish to choose among these various types of adaptation implies that arrangements need to be made for listening to migrants’ views and for designing and managing tailor-made courses.
Migration policies: control policies
States regulate people’s movement across national borders, they enact immigration control policies[1].
Even though today the national border is often conceived as something through which the State selects and rejects people, traditionally States have used the border for the opposite purpose, that is, for hindering or prohibiting their citizens to leave the country.
The last two hundred years have seen deep changes about the policies and, in general, the attitudes that political entities have shown towards migrants. These changes may be summarized in four periods. In the first period, from the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars to the First World War, migration has not been intensively controlled by European States (with the remarkable exception of Tzarist Russia). During this period people could go to other countries in order to live and work without a passport, though the host country maintained the right to send them back to their countries of origin. As a result, millions of migrants left Europe directed towards other continents. The second period, collocated between the two World Wars, has been, instead, a timespan of restrictive regulation of migratory flows: both armed conflicts and economic depression supported the protectionist claims of the national workforce. In the third period, after the Second World War, there was a return to more liberal migratory policies, due to the need of workers in many of the States which had been involved in the war. During this period migration was thought to be largely temporary, and little effort has been made to integrate migrants in the host country (see inclusion policies). This trend favourable towards migrations has stopped – fourth period – during 70’, and, in Europe, we are currently living in a period characterized by an officially restrictive attitude of States towards migration[2] .
States’ controls about migrants may be divided between external controls and internal controls. External control policies consist in visa restrictive regulations, border patrolling, outsourcing of migration control, cooperation with other countries – such as the country of origin or the country of transit – to stop irregular migrants from crossing the national borders, cooperation with other countries for the expulsion of migrants. Internal controls are the exclusion of migrants from legal documents and registrations required to get access to the labour and housing market, internal police controls, identification of the irregular migrants in view of their expulsion, and labour inspections aimed at verifying foreign workers’ status[3].
Though European States try to control migration flows, their policies have proven to some extent ineffective, and a considerable number of irregular migrants has become part of the European population, creating the need for periodical regularisations.
 Different factors explain the limits of the impact of control policies, and the increase in the number of irregular migrants. First of all, certain relevant parts of the national community – for example some entrepreneurs – are interested in a helpless workforce ready to be employed in those jobs which are despised by more guaranteed citizens. As a result, it is not clear that a coherent interest in controlling migration flows can be ascribed to the political community as a whole. Secondly, the reasons prompting people to migrate are not defeated by the constraints posed by States. Thirdly, migrants’ social networks are disposed to help the newcomers – most of the time fellow countrymen – to find their way in the host society. A fourth reason of general application is the limit in the resources which the political community wants to allocate to the contrast to irregular migration[4]. Besides this bureaucratic and economic constraints, there is a political constraint – a fifth general reason – consisting in the respect of human rights, which limits the national power on the delicate issues of patrolling the borders, and performing inspections in private houses, hospitals, and other public institutions[5].
Ambrosini M., 2011. Sociologia delle migrazioni, Bologna, Il Mulino.
Benhabib S., 2002. The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Boswell C., 2007. Theorizing Migration Policy: Is There a Third Way?, in «International Migration Review», 41, 1, pp. 75-100.
Engbersen G., Broeders D., 2009. The State versus the Alien: Immigration Control and Strategies of Irregular Immigrants, in «West European Politics», 32, 5, pp. 867-885.
Hammar T., 1990. Democracy and the Nation State, Aldershot, Averbury.
Meyers E., 2000. Theories of International Immigration Policy-A Comparative Analysis, in «International Migration Review», Vol. 34, No. 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 1245-1282.
Meyers E., 2004. International Immigration Policy: A Theoretical and Comparative Analysis, New York, Palgrave MacMillan.
Penninx R., Doomernik J., 1998. Towards Migration Regulation in Globalized Society, in Van Amersfoort H. and Doomernik J. (eds.), International Migrations. Processes and Interventions, pp. 129-138.
Van Amersfoort H., 1996. Migration: The limits of governmental control, in «New Community», 22, 2, pp. 243-257.

[1] For an analysis of the different theoretical approaches to immigration control policies, see Meyers 2000; 2004.
[2] Hammar 1990, 42 ff.; Ambrosini 2011, 199 ff.
[3] Ambrosioni 2011, 208; Engbersen, Broeders 2009.
[4] Van Amersfoort 1996; Penninx, Doomernik 1998; Ambrosini 2011, 209 ff.
[5] Benhabib, 2002; Boswell 2007; Ambrosini 2011, 210, 215.
Migration policies: inclusion policies
In addition to control national and, sometimes, regional borders, States adopt different politics targeting migrants living in their territory. Three very general models of inclusion may be drawn, taking into account that the word “inclusion” is used in a very loose way.
The first model is represented by the connubium of temporary admission and differential exclusion. Migrants are admitted mainly as temporary workers. Their social and linguistic integration is not pursued: the investments on language teaching are very scarce, migrants cannot normally gain citizenship or political rights, family reunion is prevented. The only rights which are secured are the rights to an equal wage and equal working conditions, whose recognition is often motivated by the national workers’ concerns about the competition with migrants in the job market. This model has been embodied by European countries like Germany, and it is still lively in regions like that of the Gulf oil states. The label “differential exclusion” means that, though migrants are legally admitted to stay and work in the receiving society, their status is profoundly different from that of citizens[1].
The second model is the assimilationist model, based on the idea of the cultural homologation of migrants in the host society. This second model may be meant in two completely different way, that is, as a predictive perspective and as a normative – ideological – perspective. Who adopts the former tries to forecast migrants’ destiny, while the latter consists in a debate about the more desirable politics to adopt. The supporters of assimilationist politics are in favour of a «one-sided process of adaptation: immigrants are expected to give up their distinctive linguistic, cultural or social characteristics and become indistinguishable from the majority population»[2]. The two positions may, of course, coexists.  According to the Chicago School of Sociology, for example, assimilation is both an inevitable trend – descriptive, predictive, standpoint –, and an appraisable state of affairs – normative perspective.
The Chicago School of Sociology theorized optimistically considering the mainstream values of the timea movement from a condition of relative deprivation to one of peaceful assimilation. At the beginning migrants live at the margin of the host society, populating ethnic ghettoes and doing those jobs which the native population is no longer ready to do. But progressively, they rise the socio-economic elevator, a process which has been described as the passage from “the peddler” to “the plumber”, and then from “the plumber” to “the professional”. They abandon the ethnic ghettoes and spread in many different neighbourhoods. The void created by their social ascent is, then, going to be filled by migrant newcomers who will face the same fate of the previous generation. While migrants improve their socio-economic conditions, they learn the language and the culture of the host society, but they also abandon many aspects of their original identity, becoming progressively similar to the native group. This traditional analysis is rather unrealistic if meant to be a general account about migratory trends, still it preserves some utility to understand some historical and social phenomena, like the assimilation of migrants during the industrial revolution and until 1970’, or the condition of skilled migrants in North America[3].
We put aside for the moment the predictive issue of the concrete destiny of migrants, and focus instead on the normative issue of the politics intentionally carried out by public institutions to achieve migrants’ assimilation. Typical features of the normative assimilationist account are a relatively easy access to citizenship through naturalization – after an exam assessing not only the linguistic knowledge of the applicant, but also her understanding of the history and constitutional values of the host society –, as well as the acquisition of the citizenship by migrants’ children at birth – ius soli. At the same time migrants’ inclusion in the host society is pursued through universalistic measures, which neglect the peculiarities of migrants’ position, and may result in an indirect form of discrimination. An example of this trend may be found in the prohibition of the exposure of religious symbols in some public spaces, a measure which may cause discomfort for some specific groups of migrants. Historically the assimilationist model has been embodied – or thought to be embodied – in the U.S. of the early XX century, as well as in France[4].
Finally, a third type of general immigration policy may be represented by the pluralist model, which reflects the value of multiculturalism. According to this model, the state is committed not only to safeguard migrants as individuals, but also as communities with special needs, concerning their language, religion and culture. Therefore, while migrants are granted equal rights, they are not asked to give up their cultural identities, though they are – as any citizen – required to respect the most fundamental values cherished by the host society. A benchmark of this model is represented by active social policies – affirmative actions –, that is, policies which accord different treatments to different groups, following the idea that equality sometimes requires to treat people differently. According to the pluralist model, the formation of migrants’ associations is encouraged, and these institutions are used to connect the respective communities with the host society. Quota systems – concerning for examples scholarship or governmental occupations – are employed to fight against segregation and discrimination. Examples of other deviations from the general rules valid for everyone are the right to wear traditional clothes instead of the uniform required for certain jobs, and the recognition of the jurisdiction of religious courts. Countries which have approximated this model are Canada, Australia, Sweden, Netherlands and – in a version much more oriented to a laissez faire approach – U.S.. Pluralistic policies have been accused to create stereotypes and ethnic enclaves; moreover, the last two decades – the “post  9/11 era” – have seen a rise in the concerns about migrants’ inclusion in western societies and a retreat from multiculturalism[5].
Though these models reflects somehow the main ideologies adopted by many countries, some scholars have pointed out a mismatch between the models of inclusion and the reality (similarly to the phenomenon analysed while speaking about control policies). The remaining of this section provides a brief overview of the patterns followed by second-generation migrants – a category which may well encompass people who have become citizens – in their inclusion in the host society.
The first pattern is the traditional assimilation, that is, a state in which the newcomers make remarkable progresses in socio-economic terms, and these progresses are coupled with the gradual but steady identification with the members of the host society, as well as an abandonment of the original habits and traditions. Traditional assimilation captures the conditions of skilled migrants in Canada and Australia, and, somehow, the story of many European migrants in U.S. between the XIX century and the first half of the XX century. As we have seen above, this condition has been thought to be the necessary outcome of the inclusion process. Still, the reality tells a different story.
A second pattern which has been conceptualized by scholars is the “downward assimilation”, meaning that the migrants do not improve their socio-economic conditions, and do not reshape their identities either, remaining at the margin of the society and, often, developing an antagonist ideology. Mexican migrants in U.S. represent a case-study for this model.
Then we have a hybrid, third, pattern in which migrants have been successfully integrated in the host society from a cultural point of view – acculturation –, but their socio-economic status remains similar to – or sometimes worse than – their parents’ status. With the relevant differences that, whereas the first-generation migrants’ expectations have been generally met by the host society, these second-generation migrants, because of the successful cultural integration, have developed expectations similar to the host society members’ expectations, and are no longer ready to accept the working conditions which have been endured by their parents. The youth of the French banlieues represent a case in point of this type of inclusion.
The last hybrid pattern – a fourth trajectory which may be followed by second generation migrants – is “selective integration”. Selective integration means that second generation migrants retain many aspects of their parents’ cultural background, turning it in a resource for socio-economic improvement, even outperforming the native majority. The relevant case-study here is that of Asian Americans, who, for example, have developed an ethnic system of supplementary education, and whose young members are helped in the learning process by their culturally-rooted respect for teachers[6]. (Ambrosini, 179 ff., 192; Zhou 1997, 990 ff.; Zhou 2014, 1117 ff.)
Ambrosini M., 2011. Sociologia delle migrazioni, Bologna, Il Mulino.
Castles S., 1995. How nation‐states respond to immigration and ethnic diversity, in «Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies», 21, 3, 293-308.
Castles S., Haas H. de, Miller M.J., 2014. The Age of Migration. International Population Movements in the Modern World (Fifth Edition), 2014, UK, Palgrave Macmillan.
Brubaker R., 1993. The Return of Assimilation? Changing Perspectives on Immigration and its Sequels in France, Germany, and the United States, in Joppke C. and Morawska E. (eds.), Toward Assimilation and Citizenship: Immigrants in Liberal Nation-States, New York, Palgrave-Macmillan.
Park R.E., Burgess E.W. 1924. Introduction to the Science of Sociology, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Zhou M., 1997. Segmented Assimilation: Issues, Controversies, and Recent Research on the New Second Generation, in «International Migration Review», 31, 4, pp. 975-1008.
Zhou M., 2014. Segmented assimilation and socio-economic integration of Chinese immigrant children in the USA, in «Ethnic and Racial Studies», 37, 7, pp. 1172-1183.

[1] Ambrosini 2011, 221 ff.; Castles 1995, 294 ff.
[2] Castles 1995, 298 f.
[3] Park, Burgess 1924; Ambrosini 2011, 57-62.
[4] Ambrosini 2011, 223 ff.; Castles 1995, 297 ff.
[5] Ambrosini 2011, 224 ff.; Castles 1995, 301; Castles, Haas, Miller 2014, ch.12; Brubaker 2003, 37 ff.
[6] Ambrosini 2011, 179 ff., 192; Zhou 1997, 990 ff.; Zhou 2014, 1117 ff.
Multiculturalism is a general ideal about the regulation of a multicultural society. A Multicultural society is a society consisting of different cultural groups: peoples having different religions, languages and lifestyles, or representing themselves as different ethnic nations. In particular, the ideal of multiculturalism stands against the ideal of assimilation in rejecting the dissolution of minority groups’ identities into the dominant group. This ideal means the protection of collective identities and grounds the integration of minorities in the society.
The subjects whose identities matter from a multicultural point of view are women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, but in the contemporary debate a prominent role is given to religious minorities, migrants, minority nations and indigenous people.
Synonyms of multiculturalism are “the politics of difference” and “the politics of recognition”. These two labels jointly stress the central claim of multiculturalism which may be taken to be its slogan: the struggle for the recognition of the differences.
There is a remarkable difference between minorities’ claims and the class-based political movements (especially) of the past. The class-based political movements aim at reducing differences and becoming part of the common national culture. Their needs and claims are essentially economic and the politics which meet these needs – welfare politics – are a step in the nation-building process: the workers who might be attracted by foreign or globalist ideals are made loyal to the nation through the welfare state.
Instead, minorities’ needs and claims – though they often have an economic base too – have also a non-economic component. What they want to be recognized is not economic equality and political participation but also a distinctive status. The non-economic component of minorities’ claims is not the only difference between them and class-based vulnerable groups. Another related peculiar feature is that their claims of recognition cannot be met through an individualistic approach in the same way class-based claims can be. In fact, while it is possible – in principle – to integrate a single worker disregarding the general workers’ conditions, it is not possible to integrate the member of a minority without integrating the minority itself. In fact, the members of the minority aspire to be incorporated into the political community not only as individuals but also as a group. Thirdly, the integration of the community in the host society means that the community preserves its peculiar rules and its members’ rights and duties will depend not only by the host society but also by the community. Then, while the integration of class-based movements leads to the creation of equal citizens, a multiculturalist approach to minorities’ integration leads to a fracture in the unitarity of citizenship.
Minorities pose different problems depending on the claims they put forward and different models of society may be distinguished on the basis of how they respond to these claims. For instance, minorities may want to establish a secluded self-government which is distinct from the general government of the country – this is the case of national minorities, like Québécois, Catalans, Basques, and Scots. Or, they may prefer to remain in a state of permanent marginalization – this sometimes is the option of some isolationist groups. Or, they aspire to become an integrated part of the host country while preserving some distinctive cultural features.
Many important distinctions about minorities’ claims may be listed. Still, a distinction which deserves to be preliminary discussed – due to its sensitivity for the public opinion – is that between minorities claiming the power to coercively limit the basic liberties and other fundamental rights of their members, and minorities whose claims are consistent with liberal principles.
A first model of society meets not only the second but also the first type of claims, entitling the cultural community to limit its members’ liberties and rights. A typical example of these limitations is the confinement of the women to the home. This may be regarded as an extreme form of multiculturalism in which every culture – though subjected to the sovereign power of the state – has, in turn, absolute powers over its members in certain matters. Though it may seem just a straw man used for theoretical purposes, something close to this model has been embodied by real societies through history, like in the “millet system” under the Ottoman Empire where each of the main religious confessions had autonomous authority over its own believers (the Armenian church had the authority to qualify some conducts as heretical and punish the authors accordingly if and only if they were Armenians, and so the Christian church, while both Armenians and Christians were just minorities under the political control of Turks). Allowing minorities to coercively limit their members liberties and rights would mean to derogate to the constitutional framework of liberal societies. So this form of extreme multiculturalism is not commonly advocated.
At the opposite end of the spectrum there are societies which do not meet any of the minorities’ claims. These society openly aim at the assimilationof minorities and are against the politics of recognition. Assimilation is not only pursued by non-liberal societies, there may be models of liberal societies matching this picture as well. This would be the case of a society which does not limit itself to enabling the members of a minority to use constitutional rights against their community, but prompts these people to develop a critical attitude towards their traditional – a cult of critical thought.
Between these two extreme positions – the extreme multiculturalist and the extreme assimilationist societies – there are more moderate forms of politics of recognition. A moderate politic of recognition is based on the idea that many minorities does not claim prerogatives which are against the constitutional framework. This raises a general question. Why a politic of recognition is needed? Why do minorities claim a different treatment – the recognition of their differences? Why the constitutional framework is not enough? The moderate answer is that (i) differences-blind politics, even though by definition are not formally discriminatory, may be concretely discriminatory for minorities – treating unequal members as if they were equal may damage those members –, and (ii) the recognition of differences serves the purpose of protecting minorities’ liberties from the economic, political and symbolic power of the majority (for example when migrants claims mother-tongue language programmes or exemptions from a particular dress-code they are protecting their liberties and fundamental identity against external forces stemming from the majority).
Given these premises the general formula underlying a moderate politic of recognition consists in enforcing peculiar measures in favour of minorities, enabling at the same time the individuals belonging to these minorities to abandon their community, and respecting the nation-building process (that is, assuring a common language and loyalty to the institution of the state). Therefore, even though a moderate politic of recognition does not pursue assimilation intentionally, assimilation may be the side-effect of the need to protect individuals and the need to favour the nation-building process. As a result, the borderline between what is allowed under a moderate multicultural approach and what represents already an assimilationist politic is ambiguous and becomes a peculiar field of disagreement. Imagine a certain religious community which allows its members to abandon it, and nonetheless asks that its children would not be exposed to some ideas or experiences in the public school because these ideas and experiences may lead them to abandon the prescribed lifestyle. Provided that, from one hand, individuals are formally free to abandon their community – traditional basic liberties are respected – and, from another hand, the state does not want to make individuals abandon the community – this would be an assimilationist policy –, should the state accept to narrow children’s cultural horizon or should it keep teaching children to critically evaluate their background even though this may make them more likely to disown their origin?
The term “subaltern” was adopted like a political category by Antonio Gramsci who used it in his Prison Notebooks when he was planning to write a «history of subaltern social groups».  Gramsci noted that the history written by social elites concerning the population judged as inferior embraces naïve categories of analysis, giving restrictive, folkloric or pathological explanations of those events, romanticizing and caricaturing descriptions of the protagonists.  Therefore, a more realistic and fair history of this population must take into account that: «The subaltern groups always suffer the dominant groups’ initiative, even when they rebel and rise up. Only the ‘permanent’ victory breaks, and not immediately, the subordination. In reality, even when they appear triumphant, the subaltern groups remain simply in a state of alarmed defense» (Gramsci 2011).
Subaltern social groups are therefore those social strata under to the hegemony of dominant groups. According to Gramsci, there is an organic relationship between civil society and political society, or in other words, there is a network of relationships that connects the political elites with the economic and cultural ones. This alliance guarantees the monopoly of public decision-making, control of access to the professions, influence over educational institutions, the scientific community and information agencies. It is that kind of not coercive but effective power which Gramsci defined as hegemony.
A collective of Indian scholars, in the early 1980s, took up the Gramscian project, giving rise to the current of studies called subaltern studies.  They observe as Indian history has been written from a colonialist and elitist perspective, although the main actors have been the subaltern classes. Thus, there is a need for a new narrative of the past that gives the right space and the deserved role by those excluded from winners’ history. Their attention to the Italian thinker derived also from the will to generate a broad social analysis, not only historical, that – in controversy with the orthodox Marxism widespread among Indian intellectuals – would provide explanations of oppression and supremacy not exclusively in economic terms.
The success achieved by the Subaltern studies collective, into different disciplines and in numerous countries, has further extended and articulated the semantic potential of their terminology. Particularly important is the contribution offered by Gayatri Spivak in several of his publications starting with her well-known paper Can the subaltern speak?. The word “subaltern” thus comes to designate anyone who is excluded from access to upward social mobility. And this exclusion is due to the fact that the subaltern inhabits a system of domination that does not hand him any tools to participate in the control of power. He cannot understand, nor express himself, because he/she is excluded from the production and mastery of hegemonic codes. It is important to note that the subaltern is not simply oppressed, but is more than oppressed: the oppressed can, in fact, react, protest, defend themselves. For example, a worker who has been unfairly treated and turns to the relevant unions or courts, recognizes that he or she is a victim of abuse and knows the ways to react to his or her condition. The subaltern, on the other hand, is accomplice of his/her pitiful condition, as in the case of those black slaves who espoused the racism of their masters, the colonized grateful to their colonists, or women who participate in the patriarchal mindset.
Starting from the concept of subalternity just outlined, it is easy to conclude with Spivak that the subaltern cannot speak. It is, in fact, intrinsic to her definition that the subaltern does not master the only language legitimated to be heard: that one of the dominant group. And even when the subaltern seems to know how to express himself, when the embarrassed and reverential stammering turns into speech, he uses words that are not his own: his words are borrowed from the hegemonic culture. The subaltern’s speaker is actually like a ventriloquist’s puppet that has borrowed the voice of those who manipulate him. 
Subalternity theory has particular relevance in educational work with marginal groups, as is often the case with migrant communities, because there is always the risk of reinforcing the hegemonic culture and reproducing a narrative of society that supports the dominants and exclude the subalterns.
Thus, Subaltern studies can provide relevant insights into critical analysis of pedagogical content and approaches unmasking the ethnocentric, colonial and elitist aspect: an essential process in order to unfold an inclusive and plural community.
Gramsci A. 2011. Notebook 25 (XXIII), in Id, Prison Notebooks, Columbia University Press, New York: 1992.
Guha R. (ed.). 1982-1999. Subaltern Studies. Writings on South Asian History and Society, no. 1st-10th, Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Spivak. G. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak?, in C. Nelson, L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism & The Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan, London, pp. 271-313.
Guha R., Spivak. G. (eds.), 1988. Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Bartoli C. 2008. La teoria della subalternità e il caso dei dalit in India, Rubettino, Cosenza.
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