What is translanguaging?

I am not the first person to grapple with this question, which is a very big question that can have different legitimate answers. However, as someone whose PhD lit review attempted to distinguish a host of multilingual practices (including, but not limited to, translanguaging and code-switching), I have written the posts in this blog under the category “Definitions” to try to come to grips with these terms. This post is about the most well known theory of translanguaging in education, put forward by Ofelia García and Li Wei (García, 2009; García & Li, 2014; García, Otheguy, & Reid, 2015). Their theory might best be termed dynamic translanguaging, and it occurs in both the classroom and beyond.

For me, the best graphic for understanding dynamic translanguaging and what it tells us about the individual linguistic repertoire is García’s “all-terrain vehicle.” It really makes us re-think what it means to be a bilingual. Using the example of a monocycle, bicycle, and all-terrain vehicle, García (2009) suggests that bilingualism is not two parallel monolingualisms. In my case, as a Filipino-Canadian from Vancouver, I do not “know” everything in French which I know in English… nor do I have parallel monolingualisms in English, French, and Tagalog (tricycle?). My repertoire is like an all-terrain vehicle, in which the parts connect and supplement each other. Instead of thinking about it as consisting of clearly bounded, separate, parallel monolingualisms, I use my whole language repertoire (including languages I only know a few words of, like Mandarin) to make meaning, as on the morning when, half-asleep, I groped around thinking, “Shit! Où sont wǒ de glasses??”

In the U.S., where García lives, this means teachers should not try to make bilinguals forget their home languages and assimilate to English — nor is the goal to make them “double monolinguals” in each language, able to speak each purely without drawing on the other. The goal is to harness the all-terrain vehicle in the process of learning, whatever the subject or grade level of the students.

According to García and her colleagues, teachers do not need to be bi/multilingual in order to do so, because they follow the students’ lead in meaning-making. However, teachers do need to take proactive action. A classroom led by a teacher who fosters dynamic translanguaging has three features (García, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017): translanguaging stance, translanguaging design, and translanguaging shifts. In layperson’s terms, these correspond roughly to teacher attitudes towards multilingualism, lesson planning to involve multilingualism, and spontaneous interactions while teaching that invite multilingualism.

Seltzer and García (2020) illustrate what this looks like in the classroom of high-school English teacher Ms. Winter, but it could happen in any K-12 subject area classroom. Ms. Winter began the school year by telling students that they did not always have to speak English, or even “proper English” in her classroom — her translanguaging stance. From the beginning of the semester, she told and continued to remind students that they could communicate their understanding in whatever style of language or language practices they saw fit during the process of learning. I see a translanguaging stance as the most difficult part of translanguaging pedagogy: if a teacher does not believe students have a right and need to make use of their whole language repertoires in the process of learning, even if they have to be trained to produce monolingual output of a standard variety for some assessments, the teacher cannot have a translanguaging stance. Even if teachers tell students one thing because they feel professional pressure to do so, the subtle verbal and nonverbal information they communicate during their teaching will tell students what their real stance is. That said, a translanguaging stance is actually very sensible and practical. Using real world examples and in-class examples, teachers can draw students’ attention to the fact that it is possible to have serious discussions about their subjects in a casual tone, or in multiple languages, and that experts and authorities do so all the time in the media.

This brings us to translanguaging design. Ms. Winter included different varieties of English — White, African American, and postcolonial literature — in her syllabus, and taught a variety of forms of literature that were all of a high standard. She also pointed out how the authors used their integrated language repertoires to make meaning, drawing on resources from different languages to achieve the rhetorical whole. Canagarajah (2011) calls this code-meshing, which I address in another post. Ms. Winter also grouped students and then assigned each group an author whose work they would study over the course of 5 weeks for the author’s influences, voice, linguistic choices, engagement with audience, censorship and critique. (This is also possible to do with historical figures or scientists!) Students read and shared excerpts of their authors’ works, biographical readings, articles and criticism, and interviews (if available). According to Seltzer and García (2020), “the combination of the authors’ writing and writing about their writing provided models of both translingual text production and critical metacommentary about language” (p. 34). It is important to highlight that Ms. Winter did not speak any language and dialect but White American English — her students, who were mainly Latinx and African-American, acted as language brokers for her and for one another.

As for translanguaging shifts, these are “the ‘moves’ that teachers make that respond to students’ language, questions, and critique, none of which can be predicted” (p. 36), which García has sometimes referred to as “la corriente,” the current. At times, Ms. Winter used a language of solidarity that positioned herself as a co-learner: “I’ve learned a lot with you guys about the history of different language practices and how people who have power determine what language is considered good or valid and people who don’t have power, their languages — or language practices — are considered inferior. But that’s not actually the case” (p. 37). She drew connections between the varied literature and the high quality works in her class that were likewise linguistically varied. This led one student to reflect that “if we always adjust our language practices [in academic settings], then we perpetuate, we keep up, the idea that there are certain ways of speaking that are good and certain ways that are bad. So let’s not change, let’s use our language practices and resist the ideas of what’s good and what’s bad that society has” (p. 37). This quote from Ms. Winter’s student Oscar resonates with findings from another study — one of my favourites! — of an elementary social studies class in which a teacher who similarly fostered translanguaging was able to garner support for translanguaging from White English monolingual students whose vernacular had been banned in their previous classroom experience (Woodley & Brown, 2016).

Through a translanguaging stance, translanguaging design, and translanguaging shifts, students develop metalinguistic awareness, an ability to dissect and analyze language — both in terms of linguistic features and critical discourse awareness. Again, this kind of affordance does not need to exclusively happen in an English Language Arts class, if teachers take a translanguaging stance as students are learning, show students that experts in every field can be multilingual or use a mix of academic and vernacular, and position themselves humbly in interaction, i.e., do not “talk above” students (even as they model discipline-specific communication). Seltzer and García (2020) conclude that such metalinguistic awareness “will find students much success outside the classroom” (p. 39).

Teacher Resource:

The ROMtels Project at Newcastle University published a handbook featuring a Q&A section titled “Principles for Practice” for classrooms with a great deal of linguistic diversity, including among students who ostensibly speak the same 2-3 languages but with different proficiencies and in different domains. The handbook deals with questions such as:

– Do brains get confused when learning more than one language?

– How does translanguaging support learning of school subjects if the children do not have access to that sort of language in their home languages?

– Will pupils begin to feel alienated from each other, forming language cliques?

– Will this approach lead to some pupils feeling uncomfortable, isolated or targeted?

– What if I can’t understand the pupils, how will I know they are doing their work? How will I be able to assess them? What if they are making mistakes in their work which I can’t identify?

– What happens if pupils don’t want to translate for each other?

What is especially well done about this handbook series, besides its social justice orientation and practical advice, is that it has been translated into Finnish, French, Romanian and Spanish! Also, the 3 handbooks are for teachers, teacher educators, and schools respectively.


Canagarajah, S. (2011). Codemeshing in academic writing: Identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. The Modern Language Journal95(3), 401-417. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01207.x

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

García, O., Johnson, S. I., & Seltzer, K. (2017). The translanguaging classroom: Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

García, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism, and education. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Otheguy, R., García, O., & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review6(3), 281-307. https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2015-0014

ROMtels project. (2017). A pedagogy for bi/plurilingual pupils: Translanguaging – Guidance for teachers (Handbook 1). https://research.ncl.ac.uk/romtels/resources/guidancehandbooks

Seltzer, K., & García, O. (2020). Broadening the view: Taking up a translanguaging pedagogy with all language-minoritized students. In Z. Tian, L. Aghai, P. Sayer & J. Schissel (Eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives (pp. 23-42). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Woodley, H., & Brown, A. (2016). Balancing windows and mirrors: Translanguaging in a linguistically diverse classroom. In O. García & T. Kleyn (Eds.), Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments (pp. 83-99). Abingdon, UK; New York, NY: Routledge.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

14 thoughts on “What is translanguaging?

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