How do we know translanguaging benefits language acquisition?

Though the socioemotional and critical pedagogy aspects of translanguaging have often been researched, what remains under-researched is the extent to which translanguaging benefits language development. This is not the kind of question that can simply be researched through pre-tests and post-tests. Using painstaking analysis of transcripts of student-centred interaction as her main data source, Viniti Vaish investigated this question with regard to teaching grammar and comprehension skills to linguistically diverse students struggling to read in English in Singapore. She found interactions between an enabling translanguaging pedagogy and students’ a priori domains of language acquisition. The result was detailed evidence that translanguaging benefits language learning for all regardless, but in what ways and to what degrees is something she further investigated for different groups and individuals with or without deliberate TL pedagogy. This post summarizes her valuable book.

Vaish, V. (2020). Translanguaging in multilingual English classrooms: An Asian perspective and contexts. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature.

Vaish begins her book with a necessary discussion of the geographic and linguistic context. Whenever someone does this, I note that even though what they describe is place-specific, language diglossia (inequalities) reflect universal patterns:

Those who have traveled in the MRT or the local train in Singapore could not but have experienced the babble of languages surrounding them. They must have heard Chinese, Malay, some Indian languages, and also a plethora of South East Asian languages (Burmese, Tagalog) along with a smattering of European languages. (p. 11)

The three main ethnic groups in Singapore are Chinese, Indians, and Malays, with the first two having more access to English due to factors such as social class and colonial history. In a 2015 census, 36.9% of people reported speaking English at home, while 34.9% reported Mandarin, 12.2% other Chinese languages, 10.7% Malay, 3.3% Tamil (the most commonly spoken Indian language, though recently there have been immigrants who speak other Indian languages), and 2.0% others. However, it is not hard to picture that multiple languages are probably spoken in homes to various degrees and in various configurations. There also appears to be a young generation of bilinguals who possess greater competence in Mandarin than in English, and display greater affinity for Mandarin due to popular culture (Seng, as cited in Vaish, 2020, p. 13). This is facilitated by the government’s “Speak Mandarin Campaign” (Curdt-Christiansen, 2014).

The Singaporean Constitution lists Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English as the four official languages, but when Tang (2018) collected 1,554 signs from the MRT, he found that 42% of government signs and 40.2% of signs by corporations were in English only. The next most common sign was bilingual in English and another language, with English more prominent. Among the non-English languages, Chinese (the majority language) and Malay vied for second place. The least most common sign was one which was bilingual and emphasized a non-English language. There is also the question of Singlish, or the local dialect of English which is a grammatically systematic language. Its most common features are pragmatic particles like “lah, ” “ah,” “leh,” “lor,” “meh,” and “what,” and dropping of inflectional morphology such as plurals and tenses (Vaish, 2020, p. 15). Wong (2005) has demonstrated that most of the non-English influences on Singlish have come from Mandarin, other Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese, or Malay. Like many world varieties of English (e.g. Hawai’i Creole, African-American English), Singlish exists in a diglossic or unequal relation with standard (in this case British) English.

The elementary school children in the 5 + 3 classes Vaish studied were English dominant, which means they were Singlish dominant: these children did not have access to the linguistic capital of Standard English in their homes and communities. The only Standard English they heard was at school. However, there were also children from other language backgrounds (i.e. households where English was not the main language of communication; in their case, the language at home was a Chinese language or Malay). What all the students had in common was that they came from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and struggled with literacy skills in English, leading to their being put in a learning support (LSP) program, which took them into a separate room for 30 mins. per day for small-group support on what the mainstream teacher was teaching. In 5 of these LSP tutorials, Vaish observed students translanguaging as the teacher taught monolingually. In 3 other LSP tutorials, she piloted a translanguaging pedagogy called Raise the BAR (Bilingual Approach to Reading). Multilingual interactional data that suggested language uptake and learning was collected in both studies: in 2008 (regular LSP) and 2016 (Raise the BAR). Vaish (2020, p. 40) explains:

Raise the BAR was profoundly disruptive. Language learning in Singapore, despite a bilingual education policy, is based on the concept that the bilingual is two monolinguals in one. Both the English classes and Mother Tongue classes are largely conducted without any hybrid practices. (p. 40)

Her coding procedures (Chapter 4) take into account both code-switching and translanguaging, taking note of language differences but also analyzing utterances as whole units of meaning-making even if they incorporate resources from different named languages. The coding categories — applied to the fully transcribed 19 hrs. of video data from the 5 “monolingual” classes and the 14 hrs. of video data from the 3 Raise the BAR classes — were both quantitative and qualitative. They included:

  • Amount of Talk
  • Mean Length of Utterance (MLU)
  • Contexts for translanguaging
  • Questioning patterns
  • Interactional patterns
  • Lexical density
  • Episodic structure (story grammar)

Below, I summarize her findings as she outlines them in her book: (1) Comparing monolingual (regular LSP) and bilingual (Raise the BAR) classrooms to see whether and how Raise the BAR helped, (2) Interactional patterns among Malay and Chinese students who experienced Raise the BAR, showing how their translanguaging reflected domains of language acquisition, and (3) Oral retellings of bilingual children struggling to read in English, suggesting that TL is always valuable to let students draw on all their available resources to learn.

Comparing monolingual and bilingual Learning Support Program classrooms

Specifically I explored how questioning patterns and the nature of interaction changes when translanguaging is the pedagogic practice. (p. 57)

The 3 schools that participated in Raise the BAR did so for several weeks. On Mondays, the LSP teacher taught in English only to ask comprehension questions of the students and assess what level of comprehension they already possessed. On Tuesdays, the Chinese-speaking LSP teacher and/or Vaish’s Malay-speaking research assistant taught specific vocabulary and grammatical items bilingually. On Wednesdays, they continued to do so. On Thursdays, Vaish demonstrated an oral retelling in English using theatrical props and digital pictures from the text. On Fridays, the students gave their own oral retellings in English.

The first finding was that the classes remained teacher-fronted, with the teacher asking over 80% or 90% of the questions regardless of whether it was Raise the BAR or regular LSP. The question types also did not change their distributions. Quantitative data showed that the majority of questions remained factual ones. The qualitative dialogues, however, indicated that in the bilingual classes students understood more — that is, when the teacher asked (mostly factual) questions, they more often knew what was being asked and knew the answer (though expression could be difficult). Vaish (2020, p. 68) explained: “Though the average MLU [mean length of utterance] of the students is low… instances in the interaction indicated that translanguaging did increase amount of talk at a number of junctures.”

My personal take on these findings is that TL pedagogy heightens the achievement ceiling, not the baseline. For example, when Vaish measured the average percentage of questions asked by students, this leapt from 6% in the monolingual classrooms to 16.1% in a bilingual Chinese class (p. 70). TL broadens what students can learn and achieve, but it doesn’t mean that it will substantially change what they are typically used to doing in the context of a learning support class, given the interactional order, setting, learning outcomes, and possible stigma of the class. In other words, we should not expect miracles from learning support classes — i.e. short-term measurable gains on test scores or norm-referenced criteria. We can only assume that if students understand more in these classes, they may ask more questions, and this will keep them more engaged in school, with the benefits accruing over the long term (years rather than the parameters of a semester-long intervention).

Vaish also demonstrated that there can be costs to implementing bilingual pedagogy, such as a rise in procedural questions, like “Can you all see?” (19% to 34.8%) and a drop in speculative (opinion, hypothesizing, imagining) questions (20% to 13.2%; p. 72) — as students presumably had to get used to a new interaction order and/or struggle to do theorizing they had never practiced in a heritage language due to English-dominant schooling. My takeaway from these findings is that, again, we cannot always justify translanguaging according to short-term, definitively measurable outcomes. If we focus on these, the finding may be that TL does not do good… but who is to deny that procedural questions suggest engagement and communication practice, and can lead to language learning? Moreover, some of the factual questions Vaish analyzed could be viewed as speculative, e.g., a student clarifying her understanding of the meaning of a word before trying it out (p. 71).

In addition, the similar rankings of procedural (#2), factual (#1), speculative (#3) and process (#4) questions regardless of the type of class suggest that these are in fact the distributions of such questions in any class. We check understanding of content with others most commonly, negotiate classroom procedures second most commonly, do higher-order speculations third most commonly, and explain our thinking process least commonly. For example, ten factual questions may be needed to scaffold students’ answering a speculative question well. Even though this is my own idea, it means there are more or less valid ways of measuring learning outcomes of translanguaging, and Vaish’s multi-faceted data suggest what these might be.

The translanguaging of two ethnolinguistic groups of children

For the Malay students, MLUs went up and down over the 2-3 weeks of the intervention (pp. 78-39), but it was clear that overall, the average MLU was lower in the bilingual classes than in the English classes. What this suggests (to me) is that translanguaging may involve language acquisition in the much same way monolingual discourse does: do learners have enough input in rich, long, varied sentences in translingual discourse? Do they have enough practice being pushed to create output that looks like this? Being encouraged to draw on all their languages to learn will lead to that — drawing on all their languages to learn, as is their instinct — but not necessarily long, complex sentences, which reflects a form of discourse that needs to be learned. Vaish reflected: “They are used to a school system where both their taught languages, English and the Mother Tongue, are kept in separate domains” (p. 80). She also stated, “The hyper diversity of language backgrounds in the LSP classes makes it difficult to speculate on the exact outcome of translanguaging pedagogy for each type of student” (p. 81). An interesting finding occurred with one Malay student, Shahirah, who seemed advanced for the group — in the class, her MLU went down, but individual translingual tutoring caused her MLU to go up (pp. 84-86). It is possible that this was because Shahirah had higher proficiency in English and Malay and thus used them together productively (i.e. in her speech and not just her listening comprehension) more than most. Vaish noted specific information that Shahirah provided when allowed to translanguage (p. 86); however, in English Shahirah could also produce longer utterances (p. 87).

On to the findings for Chinese students. According to the 2010 census, 32% of Singaporean Chinese speak English most at home, 47.7% speak Mandarin most, and 19.2% speak another Chinese language most (p. 92). There is likewise a lot of linguistic variety among the Chinese students Vaish studied. However, what they all seem to have in common is that they are not used to translanguaging for academic purposes. As with the Malay students, MLU went down during Raise the BAR. Also, Vaish stated: “My data has practically no utterances in Chinese only and relatively few utterances in Malay only” (p. 94). This cannot be chalked down to English-only policy, as students were in Raise the BAR, and we also know that an English-only policy is rarely maintained in practice when students can and have the urge to speak other languages. In other words, this finding points more convincingly to heritage language loss/attrition. Nevertheless, as with the Malay group, Vaish showed translanguaging stimulated metalinguistic awareness among Chinese students (e.g. about homophones, -ed past tense endings, and degrees of meaning like “scared” vs “terrified”).

In sum, the two groups have more similarities than differences, namely: (1) they are not used to translanguaging for academic purposes, which does not mean that they should not do so, but that we want to measure the learning outcomes in a valid way, and (2) the benefits of translanguaging, such as greater comprehension and prompting of metalinguistic awareness, are seen in classroom dialogues more than in numerical data (Vaish collected both), suggesting that these benefits are more qualitative. Teachers may know about these benefits, but it is hard to furnish the quantitative data that are valued by those who are more concerned with short-term language gains than participants’ experience of the class and how that can positively affect their long-term educational trajectories — or the incidental learning that builds up cumulatively over time and cannot be measured within the scope of a time-bound study (qualitative or quantitative).

Oral retellings of bilingual children struggling to read in English

For this topic, Vaish focused on 22 oral retellings by eight 6- and 7-year olds in two schools who participated in Raise the BAR:

Every week a book was started on Monday. … On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the teacher used translanguaging pedagogy to teach difficult vocabulary, specific grammatical rules (e.g., possessives), and comprehension. On each Thursday, the Principal Investigator… performed an oral retelling of the book in English as a model. And finally, on Fridays the children were supposed to volunteer to perform an oral retelling by themselves. On Thursday and Fridays, the pages of each of the books were flashed on a PowerPoint though all the prose had been deleted. On some of these pages, we inserted the new vocabulary that the children had been taught. The children could refer to the PowerPoint to retell the story for the class. (p. 111)

Individual differences were very relevant here, as seen in a comparison of five students: Shahirah, the strongest; Waylon, the weakest; and Nicholas, Allen, and Shue Lee in the middle. Shairah’s words per performance, over three performances, jumped from 84 to 160 to 195. Waylon’s results were inconclusive: 105, 123, and 83 in chronological order. Everyone else showed a modest, gradual rise: 72, n/a, 97 (Shue Lee); 100, 100, 110 (Allen); 72, n/a, 117 (Nicholas). Overall, it seems the pedagogy results in a modest benefit for most students, and did not seem to do any harm: “Shahirah, Nicholas, and Allen used more story elements in their second and third performances. On the other hand, Waylon and Shue Lee displayed the same number of story elements in each performance” (p. 116). Ms. A, the teacher, felt students like Shahirah benefited most from TL pedagogy because she came from a Malay dominant home and was an active class participant (i.e. a student with strong home language proficiency and study skills fostered by a parent or guardian will transfer a lot of their literacy skills to the practice of translanguaging).

Shahirah also seems to have picked up on rhetorical elements of the story that the instructors might have taught more explicitly, so others might have done so as well. Comparing her 3 oral retells, Vaish notes that she described action 85.4% of the time in the first telling, which dropped to 52.5% in the second, and 29.7% in the third. In contrast, she discussed the motivations and reactions of characters increasingly: 0% to 6.3% to 9.7%. She also learned to take time to describe the setting (0% to 13.8% to 20.5%) and the resolution (0% to 6.3% to 9.7%), and identified the problem similarly across tellings (15.5% to 20.0% to 20.5%). In other words, she learned to tell a more rhetorically pleasing, carefully crafted narrative. Thinking about the individual outcomes of the storytelling practice, Vaish concluded:

Though translanguaging does not essentialize directionality or transfer between the languages of a bilingual, and transfer could happen from the weaker to the stronger language, it is still important to find the correct pedagogy that will facilitate this transfer. … [T]his pedagogy should be finely customized for learners with different language backgrounds. (p. 121).

Conclusion: How do we know translanguaging benefits language acquisition?

Many Singaporean children do not have a clearly defined L1 and L2 and grow up as simultaneous bi/multilinguals, exposed to different languages in various domains. English is the main language of instruction in the school system, and many students are dominant in the Singaporean variety of English. At the same time, students who are English-dominant must learn Mandarin as a second language at school. Diversity must be addressed because classes have students who are home-language dominant, students who are Singlish/English-dominant, and others who are fairly balanced bilinguals — one in three marriages in Singapore is between a Singaporean and a foreigner (p. 125).

Because of the individual diversity even among a handful of children, the benefits of translanguaging are definitely there but cannot be documented just in terms of amount of talk or complexity of utterances. Other factors (e.g. domains of language acquisition) will influence the data. If we are to search for benefits, we must take note of Vaish’s conclusion:

[T]he mixed results point to how challenging it is for teachers and researchers to use translanguaging in the classroom. … This, despite the most rigorous design, must be decided on the spur of the moment, making both spontaneity and design an integral part of implementing translanguaging pedagogy in the classroom. At the same time, the researcher should keep in mind that a formal intervention with standardized testing of homogeneous groups is not suitable in an environment… where nearly every child comes with a different linguistic background. (p. 129)

And yet, it is important to note that translanguaging helped comprehension, engagement, and metalinguistic awareness across the board (seen throughout the transcripts) and led to exponential progress for “strong bilinguals” — as well as modest but discernible progress for almost everyone else — in the target language. We should, like Vaish, assume that multidirectional transfer of knowledge between languages is always happening regardless of domains of language acquisition (p. 128), and facilitate this to the best of our ability. That is enough to recommend translanguaging, as we embrace what it can do for everyone and implement it for the sake of these universal benefits, while also being cognizant of its limitations (domains of language acquisition due to language use in society), and how some students may benefit more than others (see my own research on this in a university heritage language class; Mendoza & Parba, 2019).

References

Curdt-Christiansen, X. L. (2014). Family language policy: Is learning Chinese at odds with learning English? In X. L. Curdt-Christiansen & A. Hancock (Eds.), Learning Chinese in diasporic communities (pp. 35-56). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Mendoza, A., & Parba, J. (2019). Thwarted: relinquishing educator beliefs to understand translanguaging from learners’ point of view. International Journal of Multilingualism16(3), 270-285. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2018.1441843

Tang, H. K. (2020). Linguistic landscaping in Singapore: Multilingualism or the dominance of English and its dual identity in the local linguistic ecology? International Journal of Multilingualism17(2), 152-173. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2018.1467422

Wong, J. (2005). ” Why you so Singlish one?” A semantic and cultural interpretation of the Singapore English particle one. Language in Society, 34(2), 239-275. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4169416

Published by annamend

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

3 thoughts on “How do we know translanguaging benefits language acquisition?

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