What does translanguaging look like in English-as-a-Foreign Language contexts?

In 2012, Graham Hall and Guy Cook did a survey for the British Council on bi/multilingual language use in K-12 and adult English classrooms. Within three months, they had 2,785 teachers from 111 countries participate. Hall and Cook did not call the practice “translanguaging” but referred to teachers’ use of students’ “own language” — not necessarily students’ first language (L1), or mother tongue, but the regional/national lingua franca they shared (and had varying degrees of ownership of according to societal ideologies). It was through this language, typically the national language, that the class accessed English. Among Hall and Cook’s main findings, many of which are summarized here, was that translanguaging between English and the other language was an inevitable, but often invisible, part of many so-called “English monolingual classrooms.” Their findings also prompt discussion about which TL practices in English teaching are universal and which are context-specific — collected from the ground up, i.e. from nearly 3,000 teachers around the world.

Hall, G., & Cook, G. (2013). Own-language use in ELT: Exploring global practices and attitudes. London, UK: British Council.

English teachers who speak the learners’ own language use it in class every day. There are a variety of reasons for doing so: to teach the target language; to frame, manage, and organise classroom events; to establish more equitable relationships between teachers and learners; to create a more positive affective environment for learning, etc. In their article, Hall and Cook begin by outlining a paradox: (1) own-language use is often prohibited in English Language Teaching (ELT), (2) teachers who speak their students’ language use it in class every day, and may be devising arbitrary practices for lack of professional discussion; (3) on the other hand, teachers are also best placed to decide what is appropriate for their own classrooms (p. 9).

Taking such teacher expertise as the foundation for their study, Hall and Cook sought to map out — given contextual differences like geographical location, level of education, beginner or intermediate class, or K-12 education vs private language schools — the similar or different ways in which teachers used the class lingua franca to teach English. They were interested in connecting different manifestations of what we now call translanguaging to the contexts in which they arose, to stimulate much-needed open discussion (instead of invisibility!) among educational professionals about this important classroom practice:

A global survey of classroom practices, teachers’ attitudes and the possible reasons for these attitudes provide a wide-ranging empirical base for further discussion about the role of own-language use within ELT, while also allowing for and acknowledging the difference in perspectives which may emerge as a consequence of contextual factors (p. 10).

Their 15- to 20-minute survey dealt with both teacher attitudes and practices, and they also collected biographic data including participants’ location, type of school, typical number of students per class, whether or not students shared a first language, and teachers’ professional qualifications and years of experience teaching. The only criterion was that participants be practising ELT teachers. As the study was done for the British Council, they seem to have had very little problem in publicizing it: from February to April 2012, they collected 2,785 responses from 111 countries. Five countries returned 100 or more responses: China, Portugal, Spain, Indonesia, and Turkey. Another 11 countries returned 50 or more responses: Latvia, United Arab Emirates, India, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Egypt, Lithuania, Netherlands, Mexico, France, and Japan. (This seems to reflect, in some ways, the British networks of the sample.) Among the teachers, 58.7% worked in the K-12 public sector, and the vast majority (87%) shared an own language with the learners. About two thirds (62.5%) of teachers classified themselves as expert or native speakers of their students’ language, while another 7.9% were advanced level speakers. About half the respondents had gone to graduate school: 41.4% had a Master’s and 5.9% had a Doctorate.

Hall and Cook conducted semi-structured interviews with 17 teachers who formed a representative sample: Primary teachers from China, Indonesia, France, Estonia, and Argentina; Secondary teachers from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Latvia, Spain, Greece, and Egypt; and Tertiary teachers from Armenia, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, and Turkey. In most of these contexts, the teachers’ students shared an “own language” — the regional or national language that was the language primarily used in translanguaging (see Sah and Li, 2020, for a critical discussion on why this leads to another kind of linguistic inequality even though translanguaging is promoted) — unlike in Inner-Circle English speaking countries (Kachru, 1986) where students tend to have different “own languages.”

In terms of practices, or how often teachers used students’ other languages and for what purposes, there were a great many teachers who selected “Always,” “Often,” “Sometimes,” “Rarely” or “Never” (i.e., all the answers on the scale had many respondents). This was true for all the purposes: using bilingual dictionaries or word lists, comparing English grammar to the grammar of the other language, watching English videos with subtitles, doing spoken translation activities, doing written translation activities, and preparing for tasks and activities in the other language before switching to English. The general conclusion can only be that “the vast majority of teachers use the own language at least some of the time for a variety of purposes” — which is common sense.

When it came to the attitude statements, the findings are even more insightful:

1. An overwhelming majority of teachers agreed with the statements “I allow own-language use only at certain points of a lesson,” and “English should be the main language used in the classroom.”

2. For the statement “I feel guilty if other languages are used,” many more teachers put “Often/Sometimes/Rarely” rather than “Always/Never.”

3. For the statement “own-language use helps learners express their cultural and linguistic identity more easily,” the vast majority of teachers said “often (#1)” or “sometimes (#2),” and relatively few said “Always” or “Rarely/Never.”

What can we tell from these statements? These findings resonate with a recent study by Jaspers (2020), an established multilingual classroom researcher in Belgium, who argues that teachers exist in a state of “chronic ambivalence.” Teachers often have to reconcile contrary views on language, teaching, and learning, and their behavior must be explained in relation to these tensions. In Hall and Cook’s survey, teachers understood that they needed to provide students with enough input and practice in the target language, but also recognized the pedagogical and socioemotional benefits of translanguaging (points 1 and 3). This is why teachers orchestrated their lessons to be more/less English-only depending on the phase of the lesson, and why few teachers felt guilty about translanguaging Always or Never. Interestingly, while few teachers put that own-language use was “Rarely/Never” important to cultural or linguistic identity, few also believed that it was “Always” tied to cultural or linguistic identity — here again, teachers tended to cluster towards the middle of the scale.

The teachers’ most agreed-upon reasons against own-language use had to do with the need to maximize opportunities to practice English, while the reason “own-language interference” in learning English did not concern them as much. (While L1 English monolingual teachers may more likely be concerned with own-language interference, recall that the sample consisted of fluent and educated bilinguals who knew it wasn’t a big deal compared to the need to practice the target language.) The participating teachers’ most agreed-upon reasons to support translanguaging included relating new English-language knowledge to existing own-language knowledge and reducing learner anxiety. Some of these findings resonate with key messages in an important textbook on translanguaging in English-medium subject classes in English-as-a-Foreign-Language contexts (Lin, 2016).

In terms of contextual beliefs, most respondents thought own-language use was more important with beginner than intermediate classes, and when learners shared a language. These are logical beliefs, but they can be questioned. Additionally, most respondents thought that own-language use is less suitable (1) for children and (2) for larger classes. For the first point, I wonder if it is because people still widely and falsely believe that children always soak up languages like sponges (when 40+ years have passed since a literature review proved this only works for second language rather than foreign language settings; Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979)? For the second point, is it because teachers want to use “English only” — a language they are fluent in, but most of their students are not — in large-size classes to maintain order and discipline? If this is the case, I don’t think it is a good enough reason. In other words, even though teachers have plenty of sensible practices and attitudes due to their experience (see above), surveys like this can investigate areas where they might need to have additional professional development. Also, translanguaging can occur even when students do not share an “own language” (García, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017; ROMtels Project, 2017), so this common belief shown by participants should also be challenged. Another belief that may need to be addressed was their tendency to favor own-language use less and less as students’ English proficiency increased (p. 25). The deliberate reduction of own-language use over time is unnecessary, as the teachers themselves reported that intermediate students did not always translanguage less than beginner ones. Students translanguaged to meet needs at their level — although beginning students did translation activities more, intermediate students used translanguaging to study grammar and vocabulary as much as beginner students (p. 23).

A few more interesting points:

  • Three fourths of teachers (29.6% Strongly Agree, 45% Agree) thought that teachers can decide for themselves the balance of English and own-language use in the classroom. I can see where this is coming from — a teacher knows their class best.
  • “Participants overwhelmingly reported that both the pre-service and in-service teacher training programmes that they had experienced discouraged own-language use in the ELT classroom. … [I]t is also notable that many survey participants acknowledge that it was ‘common’ to find discussion of own-language use at professional conferences” (p. 21). This clearly meant that an important classroom practice was being rendered invisible in professional discourse. In the interviews, a teacher in Malta pointed out that own-language use “is not something we can control even if we want to.” A U.S. teacher mused: “it is very uncommon to find a presentation on own-language use at professional conferences about ELT, but it is extremely common to find teachers debating own-language use amongst themselves at professional conferences about ELT.” A teacher in China noted: “the debate has always been there” (all quotes from p. 21). This suggests that translanguaging has long been an elephant in the room in ELT conferences before the term took off in the second decade of the 21st century.

A note on why many teachers in EFL contexts appear to understand translanguaging as the use of students’ “own languages”: In these locations, many students’ only exposure to English is at school. TL between their own language(s) and English for academic purposes may thus not be all that dynamic, hence the continued use of language labels. Lin (2013) argues for attention to this fact and more research on how bilingual teachers in EFL contexts engage in pedagogical translanguaging. However, this is not to say that students don’t translanguage in their social life as well, and translanguaging in this context appears to be more dynamic (Dovchin, Sultana, & Pennycook, 2017; see also Rampton’s 1995 work on language crossing).

When it came to K-12 vs private language schools, it should come as no surprise that Hall and Cook discovered that own language use was more acceptable in the former than the latter. Total immersion is the selling point of the private language teaching industry. Perhaps students expect and want this, leading to a different interaction order in K-12 versus the private language school, while different teacher demographics and availability of resources surely must also play a role in determining the differing language policies. On the other hand, the interaction order in K-12 appears to facilitate national-language-and-English translangauging primarily (Sah & Li, 2020).

Two more noteworthy points! First,

The experience factor appeared to be a more significant determiner of views on own-language use than the national context in which the interviewee is working…. There was a strong tendency across the whole sample [of nearly 3,000 teachers!] for the most experienced teachers to be more pragmatic and less dogmatic in their views on own-language use than the less-experienced teachers. Even those who generally favored maximising target-language use also extolled the virtues of a ‘middle road’ (Egypt, secondary). … One explicitly referred to the softening of her views as she became more experienced: “[A]s I said, at the beginning I was like very pious, maintaining this English only policy. But then I thought, wait a second, it’s not working. It doesn’t work.” (Japan, tertiary)

Second, “The reasoning behind the use of the students’ language was not written anywhere and did not arise from following ‘specific rules’ (Latvia, secondary). It should rather be a spontaneous response to a perception of student need” (p. 24).

The authors conclude their approx. 40-page report for the British Council with a call for further research that examines different geographic contexts, teachers who speak/do not speak the students’ own language, or classes where the learners share/do not share a language besides English. They describe their study as “only a starting point in the relationship between own-language use and contextual and background variables in ELT” (p. 25).


Dovchin, S., Pennycook, A., & Sultana, S. (2017). Popular culture, voice and linguistic diversity: Young adults on-and offline. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

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

Jaspers, J. (2020). Linguistic dilemmas and chronic ambivalence in the classroom: Introduction. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2020.1733586

Kachru, B. B. (1986). The alchemy of English: The spread, functions, and models of non-native Englishes. University of Illinois Press.

Krashen, S. D., Long, M. A., & Scarcella, R. C. (1979). Age, rate and eventual attainment in second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 13(4), 573-582. https://doi.org/10.2307/3586451

Lin, A. (2013). Classroom code-switching: Three decades of research. Applied Linguistics Review4(1), 195-218. https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2013-0009

Lin, A. (2016). Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an additional language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Rampton, B. (1995). Language crossing and the problematisation of ethnicity and socialisation. Pragmatics5(4), 485-513. https://doi.org/10.1075/prag.5.4.04ram

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

Sah, P. K., & Li, G. (2020). Translanguaging or unequal languaging? Unfolding the plurilingual discourse of English medium instruction policy in Nepal’s public schools. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Early view. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2020.1849011

Published by annamend

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

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