skip to content

Constructing inequality in multilingual classrooms

by Luisa Martín Rojo;

  Print book

1 of 1 people found this review helpful.
Constructing Inequality in Multilingual Classrooms   (2011-12-17)


User profile avatar
by papabueno

reviewed by <a href="">Briana Ronan</a> — February 02, 2011

<div class="sticky"> <div class="w1"> <div class="w2"> <div class="w3"> <div class="w4"><a href="" target="_blank"><img src="" border="0" alt="cover" hspace="8" vspace="3" align="right" /></a>Title: Constructing Inequality in Multilingual Classrooms
Author(s): Luisa Martin Rojo
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton,
ISBN: 3110226634, Pages: 422, Year: 2010
<a href="" target="_blank">Search for book at</a></div> </div> </div> </div> </div>

Over the past two decades, Spain has experienced unprecedented waves of immigration from countries as diverse as Morocco, Ecuador, Romania, and China, resulting in dramatic changes in the linguistic and cultural make-up of society. In her book, Constructing Inequality in Multilingual Classrooms, Luisa Martín Rojo examines how Spanish schools are addressing the needs of such a diverse student body. The book is based on research the author conducted with colleagues from 2003 to 2006 in Madrid’s multilingual/ multicultural public school classrooms, where students of foreign origin comprise 15 percent of the city’s student population (p. 5).


Martín Rojo begins her book by outlining her research agenda, which examines how linguistic diversity is managed in Madrid schools and how inequality is constructed in daily linguistic practices. In Chapter 2, she provides a detailed description of various government policies and educational programs developed for migrant students, including short-term Spanish as a Second Language classes and compensatory education programs, traditionally reserved for students with learning difficulties. Chapters 3 and 4, written by Martín Rojo and Patiño-Santos respectively, detail the theoretical framework and methodological perspectives framing the study, which is described as a “critical sociolinguistic ethnography” (p. 57). Building on Bourdieu’s (1977) theory of symbolic capital, the book argues that the rejection of students’ home linguistic varieties and communicative practices is part of the decapitalization process that takes place in schools. Decapitalization, as Martín Rojo points out, involves not only the devaluation of students’ own linguistic resources but also the denial of knowledge and resources needed to succeed in the mainstream classroom.


The author and her colleagues conducted their study in four different secondary public schools in Madrid and collected data in the form of audio-recordings and field notes from classroom activities, and interviews with teachers, school officials, and students. The data was then analyzed “to explore how the distribution of symbolic capital through linguistic practices takes place” in schools (p. 76). Despite differences in how government policies and educational programs were implemented in each of the schools, common approaches to teaching and learning were evident in all four sites of investigation. Overlapping themes included the positioning of diversity as an obstacle, the lowering of expectations for migrant students, and the superficial implementation of multicultural activities and pedagogy.


Chapter 5 presents excerpts from classroom activities that exemplify how a “compensatory logic,” or the lowering of teachers’ demands for students of migrant backgrounds emerges from linguistic practices (p. 137). The book compares linguistic practices in classroom activities across the four school sites and finds that compensatory logic is most evident in special education and Spanish as a Second Language classes. In these classes, the author states, “Contents, activities and demands are lowered to such an extent as to make it difficult for these [migrant] students to follow a mainstream programme in the future” (p. 182). In Chapter 6, Martín Rojo and fellow researcher Esther Alcalá expand on the negative impacts of compensatory logic, by exploring the labels attributed to migrant students on the basis of their behavior and home languages. According to the researchers, “Students develop identities and academic trajectories partly through the categories that teachers establish in the school…” (p. 218). In Chapter 7, Martín Rojo argues that the inclusion of students’ home languages could challenge these teacher-imposed identities and school-sanctioned categories. Yet during her classroom visits, the author finds that monolingual norms dominate and constrain the use of students’ home languages in the schools.


The issue of symbolic capital and its unequal distribution in the classroom is further discussed in Chapter 8, which Martín Rojo co-writes with researchers Ana María Relaño Pastor and Irina Rasskin Gutman. In this chapter, the authors provide alarming examples of ethnicizing discourses that label and position students along an ethnic hierarchy based on how distant their cultures are from “mainstream” Spanish culture. Student resistance to this ethnicization process is explored in Chapter 9. The chapter examines acts of student resistance, as they exist along a continuum from playful challenges to overt contestation. The author finds that the intensity of resistance is amplified in the schools, “where there is symbolic domination” and where students are unchallenged by low academic standards (p. 324). Echoing the work of Willis (1977), the book recognizes the positive results of resistance such as increased sense of solidarity among migrant students and liberation from authority, yet it is also careful to note that students cannot escape evaluation in schools, and “an evaluation of ‘failure’ will prevent them from gaining social mobility” (p. 336). Thus resistance may not secure positive outcomes for students of migrant backgrounds.


The final chapter provides a review of the decapitalization process on which the book’s main arguments and findings hinge. Martín Rojo describes the decapitalization of migrant students in schools as the result of three factors working in concert: 1) compensatory logic, or the lowering of expectations and provision of resources to migrant students, 2) the sociolinguistic order of Spanish society and the compensatory classroom, which devalues migrant students’ cultural capital and demands their assimilation, and 3) the ethnicization of migrant students, in which differences are seen as deficiencies. The author argues that the confluence of these three factors can have damaging impacts on students’ academic achievement. Many of the migrant students followed in the study were either tracked into special educational programs or dropped out of school after completing the compulsory portion of their secondary education. To improve educational delivery for these students, Martín Rojo recommends the implementation of content-based language teaching methods and the creation of a school atmosphere that embraces “linguistic hybridity and multilingual practices” (p. 365). Such recommendations are by no means new to those of us working in the field of multilingual education, yet they remain absent from most teacher training curricula in Spain.


In delivering her strong repudiation of hegemonic linguistic norms and social order, Martín Rojo relies heavily on theoretical argumentation, leaving this reader wanting more analysis of original data. Specifically, the book’s chapter on student resistance could be enhanced with the inclusion of more excerpts from the student interviews, which would further illuminate how students understand their own identity and resistance efforts in the face of marginalization. Overall, Constructing Inequality in Multilingual Classrooms presents a powerful and timely analysis of how monolingual practices and ideologies in schools delegitimize and marginalize today’s newest and most diverse generation of learners.




Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Farnborough: Saxon House.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2011
<a href=""></a> ID Number: 16328, Date Accessed: 12/17/2011 2:22:37 PM


<a href="">Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review</a>

Was this review helpful to you?     

Flag as Inappropriate; Flag as Inappropriate
Close Window

Please sign in to WorldCat 

Don't have an account? You can easily create a free account.