What do teachers make of translanguaging the first time they learn about it?

Formerly an EFL teacher in Romania and a public middle school ESL teacher in the southern U.S., Dr. Elena Andrei, Assistant Professor of TESOL at a Midwestern U.S. university, attempted to introduce the construct “translanguaging” to a group of 20 undergraduate and graduate students preparing to teach ESL in K-12 schools. About a third of the class (8 students) were studying Linguistics; the others did not have a background in any language-related field. Their course was on Second Language Acquisition. To her surprise, Andrei found that “discussions about translanguaging were marked by respectful but contentious debate” (p. 93). She wrote this narrative inquiry to examine why, and revised it with extensive feedback from students and her co-authors.

Andrei, E., Kibler, A. K., & Salerno, A. S. (2020). “No, Professor, that is not true”: First attempts at introducing translanguaging to pre-service teachers. In Z. Tian, L. Aghai, P. Sayer, & J. L. Schissel (Eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens (pp. 93-109). Springer.

In the introduction to their article, Andrei et al. first note that the course learning outcomes of teacher education programs (as they are displayed on course syllabi) list constructs that can come from a variety of educational fields, such that the academics behind these “topics” may doubt the validity of each others’ constructs — yet they all appear on the syllabi together, and have to be studied together by principals, teachers, etc. and taught together by teacher educators. One example they give are two topics in the course, “interlanguage” and “translanguaging.” “Interlanguage” refers to the imperfect language an L2 user speaks while in the process of mastering the L2, while “translanguaging” sees different language forms in the same utterance (standard or nonstandard, monolingual or multilingual) as a valid way of communicating meaning and making sense of the world. “[I]nterlanguage and translanguaging, for example — are derived from very different perspectives on language and language development” (p. 94).

Andrei frames her narrative, and her teaching, with a commitment to social justice: “I have personally heard negative and deficit-oriented discourse about [multilingual] students from my peers in schools and sometimes in higher education, too. These experiences increased my desire to introduce the term of translanguaging” (p. 99). Her narrative focuses on Weeks 4, 11, and 13 of the weekly 3-hour course: in Week 4, she first introduced the term; Week 11 was the class focused on translanguaging; and Week 13 was the course wrap-up.

In Week 4, Andrei introduced the term translanguaging through a KWL chart (where K stands for what students already now, W for what they want to learn, and L for what they learned; Ogle, 1986). “Most students said they had not heard about translanguaging at all and that they were curious about it” (p. 100). Andrei then shared a video from García (2017) presenting key ideas about translanguaging. She narrates:

After the video, I got a lot of pushback on the term translanguaging, especially from the students studying linguistics. Several of them asked me, “How is it different from code-switching?” I drew upon what I had learned at the conference mentioned above, explaining that translanguaging assumes a bilingual person is not two monolingual persons in one while code-switching regards a bilingual person as drawing upon two separate codes. … At that time, I was not aware that authors writing from a code-switching theoretical perspective would contest this description. I went on to explain that translanguaging helps us see how bilingual people, or emergent bilinguals, are able to access all their language resources while communicating. The students who studied linguistics shook their heads in disagreement. One of them looked at me and said, “No, Professor, that is not true. That is code-switching.” (p. 101)

Andrei positions herself an instructor who appreciates students’ funds of knowledge, and who strives to listen to students’ opinions in ways that validate them, even if they are sharing misconceptions. She went into a discussion of epistemology: how different people have different ways of viewing the world. However, despite this discussion, students were still unclear of the difference between translanguaging and code-switching, and pressed her with this question. It is here that Andrei admitted that she herself was not entirely sure. She told the students, “I think for now, let’s just agree to use the term translanguaging for what you also may think of as code-switching.”

In Week 11, the class focused on translanguaging, students had to read about the construct before class. In addition to these readings, they had to draw on findings from a “conversation partner” assignment, interviewing an international student on campus. Interestingly, “none of the students shared non-English languages with their partners” (p. 103). (I wonder if this was because the students tended to be English monolinguals or because Andrei explicitly told them to seek out partners that did not share other languages with them.) The students again pressed her for an example of translanguaging that would clearly show what the term meant. She gave an example about her and her husband talking about a tax bill being proposed in the U.S. that might affect them: “Nu știu exact cum o să ne afecteze pe noi efectiv tax brackets-uriile astea, plus că diferă de la un bill la altul. Va trebui să mai citim.” She explained that her husband and she chose the words that seemed most precise from Romanian or English to talk about the taxes and tax reforms, which she considered to be translanguaging. “OK,” said a student, “so translanguaging is just the use of two languages?” Reflecting on these continued challenges, Andrei wrote: “I must admit I was surprised how difficult this concept was for both students who know about code-switching and those who did not” (p. 103).

After the group discussion, they moved to a whole-class discussion on the day’s readings. The graduate student leading that session started by asking, “What is translanguaging?” The common theme of responses was “the use of two languages whenever needed” (p. 104). One linguistics student notably commented, “Translanguaging/code-switching, however you want to call it.”

By the end of the course, Week 13, Andrei observed:

The students did not seem to leave the course with “correct” definitions and conceptualizations of translanguaging or code-switching, as scholars define them, although they did show knowledge of the existence of both ideas. Several students still acknowledged confusion between the two terms. I could also read loud and clear students’ needs to learn more about how to apply the ideas in their teaching. (p. 104)

When it came to the discussion section of their article, Andrei et al. interpret the situation as one in which the teacher educator “needed connection — rather than distance or difference — between the theories in order to maintain relationships with and among her students” (p. 105). In a move indicative of both courage and humility, Andrei admitted that “although her examples were at times ‘half truths’ that reflected her own nascent understandings of these theories and not those that scholars in these debates would endorse, she used them to keep the dialogue going with her students as they all sought to deepen their knowledge” (p. 105). Finally, the authors conclude: “With all due respect to the complexity of these issues, the one student’s final assessment of the issue, ‘translanguaging/code-switching, however you want to call it’ perhaps represents the reality of the practitioner field better than he could have known” (p. 105). They urge academics to consider others’ differing terms/views on the same phenomena as generously as did the people in the class.

For their implications, they suggest that teacher educators (pp. 106-107):

  • provide a variety of examples of multilingual language use for teachers to apply the different theories and constructs to, and to explore implications for their practice;
  • not get bogged down in labeling/distinguishing terms;
  • make clear how the theories align with pedagogies that support equitable and socially just classroom instruction; “students’ multilingual resources are precious assets, to be leveraged for helping students reach instructional goals, and to be nurtured for the great value with which they enrich students’ lives” (p. 107).


García, O. (2017). What is translanguaging? [YouTube video.] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch/?v=veylQoGrySg

Ogle, D. M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20199156

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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