Elite Multilingualism: an exploration of linguistic privilege and distinction

8 February 2024 · Christoph Purschke · 2 minute read · #conversations

CuCo Lab Conversations | Elisabeth Barakos (University of Vienna)


Intensified transnational population flows, changing socio-political and geopolitical constellations and economic systems have shifted perceptions from seeing multilingualism as a problem to treating it as a resource which provides added value and serves as a marker of distinction. However, not all people are multilingual for the same reasons, and not all types of multilingualism are equal in treatment and perception. Rather, multilingualism and attendant linguistic varieties used are an object of aspiration and prestige for some, whilst creating vulnerability and injustices in access to education or the job market for others. Multilingualism is thus marked by classed and racialised hierarchies.

In this paper, I take up the concept of elite multilingualism as a space to talk about eliteness and the formation of positions of (linguistic) privilege, distinction and power in an age of social division and inequality. I will first provide a historical sketch of ’elites’, ’eliteness’ and ’elite multilingualism’ by reviewing how different scholars have talked about these phenomena in different contexts and points in time, using different discursive labels. I will then connect these phenomena to standard language ideology, accentism and the figure of the native speaker – perennial sociolinguistic and applied linguistic issues that haven’t loosened their grip. To exemplify, selected studies are presented that offer an understanding of various elite sites, elite meaning-making practices and current elitist understandings of who counts as a legitimate speaker. I will conclude by engaging with how elite studies can connect more meaningfully to the study of language and social class, and in what forms different types of elite multilingualism may feature in the creation of class and racial distinction.


  • Dr. Elisabeth Barakos, University of Vienna | Website