Views on Translanguaging: Scholars vs Teachers vs Students

If a school officially provides instruction in the dominant societal language, but has multilingual students from many language backgrounds, what should be done with students’ languages according to the teachers and students themselves? To answer this question, four translanguaging researchers visited classes in two public and two private international schools in the Netherlands to record instances of multilingual language use. Then, they interviewed teachers and students, and other translanguaging scholars—a total of 55 people—on what they thought of these multilingual actions, and what they thought about what others said. Interestingly, there was much more difference of opinions within rather than between groups, as everyone in all the groups kept referring to the same challenges again and again, differing individually with regard to “what should be done” about them. These challenges and ways to address them are presented as 7 key findings.

Ticheloven, A., Blom, E., Leseman, P., & McMonagle, S. (2019). Translanguaging challenges in multilingual classrooms: Scholar, teacher and student perspectives. International Journal of Multilingualism, 1-24. Early view. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2019.1686002

K-12 teachers do not want to deprive students of their home languages in class, but may be faced with challenging situations when their students speak languages they do not understand. Then there are the language interactions between students. Translanguaging can be oversimplified or romanticized if we focus exclusively on the person’s right to use their whole language repertoire to learn and navigate the social life of the class:

Translanguaging is a social accomplishment. Translanguaging not only involves a person drawing from all the languages in his/her repertoire to communicate, it also involves shuttling between the languages brought by the other to co-construct meaning. (Canagarajah, 2011a, as cited in Ticheloven et al., 2019, p. 2; see also Mendoza, 2020)

In a multilingual classroom where students and teachers speak different languages rather than sharing the same languages to different degrees, and teachers do not speak all students’ languages, an “English only” policy is often less intended as an oppressive mechanism but as an egalitarian mechanism, a misguided way to level the playing field.

On the other hand, there are also arguments for translanguaging. The authors give two insightful reasons why translanguaging scholarship has exploded globally the way it has (for a review, see Poza, 2017). First, “translanguaging occurs among multilinguals anyway, whether teachers teach it or not” (Ticheloven et al., 2019, p. 2). Second, translanguaging has been a relatively easy sell to policymakers, even instrumental ones—particularly instrumental ones—because it can be linked to the promise of improved academic performance and well-being among “disadvantaged” immigrant students who, according to the standardized tests, show lower educational attainment. [See Bagga-Gupta and Messina Dahlberg (2018), and Jaspers (2018), for a critique of such promises; in my own view, translanguaging is necessary, but not sufficient, for such outcomes.]

In the multilingual classroom, the goal is not to mainly to “teach languages,” but to let students use their entire language repertoire in formal education, despite teachers not knowing those languages (García & Li, 2014). Here, translanguaging is not a service to minorities, but produces benefits for all. At the same time, “translanguaging in education has been both praised as a unique answer to developments in changing societies as well as criticised for being too romanticised and pedagogically underdeveloped… [Therefore,] the present study responds by unpacking some of the pedagogical issues that emerge, or may be anticipated” (Ticheloven et al., 2019, p. 3), so that teachers do not dismiss translanguaging as too impractical to implement, but approach it with a better understanding of the issues that will inform their pedagogical decision-making.

Multidisciplinary theory… applied to the real world

Given Ticheloven et al.’s very practical research orientation, their article’s theoretical grounding is broad. They argue that to guide translanguaging in education, we need insights from psycholinguistics (the brain science of language development), sociolinguistics (the social science of how people use languages in an endless variety of places and social contexts), and education research. Ticheloven et al. outline what the three fields have found that can be useful to teachers (pp. 3-4):

  • “Firstly, psycholinguistic research has shown that children are, from a very young age, capable of adapting their language[s] and degree of language mixing to the interlocutor and context” (p. 3), as long as they make the choice to do so, and as long as they have reached certain developmental milestones (to distinguish between languages, to be aware that other minds are different from theirs).
  • “Secondly… educational linguistic research indicates that language mixing in school is not detrimental to learning. Positive effects of alternating languages in educational settings have also been found among students who were encouraged to express themselves in whichever language(s) they chose” (p. 4).
  • “Thirdly, from a sociolinguistic and affective perspective, rejection of home languages may lead to feelings of alienation and self identity crises, especially with regard to immigrant languages of low status… translanguaging pedagogies may contribute to the development of a stronger multilingual identity” (p. 4).

When we say “the practical side” is of translanguaging is undeveloped compared to the theoretical side (e.g., Canagarajah, 2011b), it does not mean there is a lack of research on what teachers (can) do in practice. What is lacking is research that grapples with the perilous side of every theoretically-informed, research-based, and socially just practice. Here are some of the good things teachers have been documented to do:

  • empowering students to use their languages via small actions and adaptations, such as making those languages visible in the classroom or by learning to say ‘hello’ in different languages;
  • have students complete writing assignments in which they use all of their linguistic resources;
  • let students collaborate in ‘language pairs’ using the language(s) of their choosing. This would preferably occur between students who have different levels of the language of schooling, as based on the principles of scaffolding;
  • where such a strategy is impossible in terms of logistics, i.e. where languages are not equally represented in the classroom, students can be encouraged to compare languages, such as by searching for cognates in different languages for vocabulary development and morphological awareness;
  • translate particular discourses or specific vocabulary, and then paraphrase in other languages;
  • actively contrast languages for vocabulary expansion and reading comprehension, and for metalinguistic awareness, which is associated with enhanced foreign language learning. (Ticheloven et al., 2019, p. 5)

But what do teachers and students think of the translanguaging practices that emerge spontaneously in classroom communication? That is the question the study aimed to answer.

Methods of data collection

Ticheloven et al. point out that “implementing translanguaging strategies and tailoring them to context is a task imbued with negotiation” (p. 5). In their study, such negotiation is the main source of data, as opposed to an underlying current in virtually every other piece of qualitative research on translanguaging.

Ticheloven et al. follow Moustakas’ empirical and transcendental phenomenology (as described and cited in Creswell, 2007), in which they attempted to set aside their own interpretations and understandings of the phenomenon called “translanguaging,” by deliberately collecting data from people who may have experienced translanguaging in education in different ways. To do this, they attended a few classes in four schools in the Netherlands: two public schools enrolling recent immigrants, and two international schools. They observed typical academic lessons in Dutch, English, history and math. During the same period, they conducted interviews in Dutch, English, or German with 7 teachers and 31 students who spoke Turkish, Bosnian, Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Spanish, Dutch, Romanian, Punjabi, Hindi, Portuguese, Bulgarian, and Polish as first/heritage languages, as well as 16 scholars of translanguaging from their network. The primary interview topic was the concrete situations that they observed. For example:

Interviewer: In the classroom I visited last week, a student told me that he was happy that he
did not have Arabic-speaking peers in his classroom anymore, so that he was now finally
forced to speak Dutch. How do you see this?
(p. 7)

The researchers did their best to find pro- and contra- examples of each phenomenon (perhaps counterbalancing the above with some data showing someone felt more lost after their same-language peers left the class). The study was iterative, meaning that a person’s response to the above question could be included in the data for a later interviewee to respond to. To guard against people giving fake answers that were socially desirable, Ticheloven et al. fully informed them that the study was iterative, and that the data would be anonymized (except for being systematically labeled: “from a scholar in field X,” “from a teacher in Z type of school,” or “from a student in gr. Y from Z type of school”). Moreover. the interviewers did their best to respond neutrally, and presented their final results to the adults (scholars and teachers). No participant requested that any changes be made, suggesting that participants were satisfied with the representation of their views.

Four researchers interviewing 55 people for an average of 51 minutes (per scholar), 32 minutes (per teacher) and 18 minutes (per student) yielded 802 minutes of talk. Ticheloven, Blom, Leseman, and McMonagle listened to the interviews and coded a “break” each time “a different aspect, situation or context was introduced” (p. 8). This yielded 1,237 fragments, from a couple of words to a few sentences. The fragments were analyzed thematically and yielded the following 7 issues.

Translanguaging in the multilingual classroom: Issues to be aware of

The fact that all 3 groups of experts kept bringing up the same issues shows that translanguaging is a social accomplishment that individuals have different perspectives on.

1. Side effects

When you use languages that not all your interlocutors speak, you primarily have to mitigate the possible, but not certain, effects of isolation and awkwardness (p. 9):

  • A parent complained (…) because the teacher allowed other languages during break time. Her kid was the only Bulgarian in the group and did not understand a word of what other kids were saying.” (scholar and teacher)
  • “I think translanguaging can help, but sometimes it doesn’t because then the other person doesn’t understand and then it is, like, awkward.’ (11 year old, International School)

And yet, from all the data on this theme, the authors come to the overall conclusion that, generally speaking, “as long as students did not feel excluded, they were positive about other languages in the classroom. Moreover, they described adjusting their behaviour to the interlocutors they are with” (p. 9). The authors note that this supports psycholinguistic [and sociolinguistic] studies that show people adapt their language choices based on context, interlocutors, and degree of alignment with interlocutors’ needs. The context doesn’t determine what you do, but you choose what to do after considering the context.

Not only students but teachers have to make choices, such as the teacher who was called a whore in Polish. This is, of course, a problem with respect rather than the language used: “At the end of the day, it is all about being caring and respectful and that’s it and as long as you drum that in [emphasize that to students] there is no need for specific rules about languages” (teacher, International School) (p. 10). This quote gives all the more reason for teachers to bring translanguaging into classrooms and then guide it, because respectful use of your language resources (dialectal or multilingual) when your interlocutors do not fully share them is a life skill.

Teachers also mentioned not being able to know if students were on task when they were translanguaging, or not being able to correct students’ misconceptions. Again, however, we can question if this is a language policy issue per se : (1) Can the teacher always ensure students are on task with a class of monolingual students? And doesn’t having on task students have more to do with teacher-student rapport and task design than rules or policies? (2) How many misconceptions can the teacher correct in a monolingual class, when the teacher hears only a smattering of what happens in small group work? Strategies such as having a “reporting back” phase of the lesson in the language of instruction, or reading students’ body language to know whether they are on task, mitigate these challenges.

One of the best findings: some teachers expressed needing to separate students who spoke the same home languages, while scholars as a group strongly disagreed with this, and students expressed split views on the issue. Ticheloven et al. don’t analyze this finding at length, but I assume that some students appreciate the scaffolding provided by same-language peers, while other students want to practice the lingua franca. I think that a variety of social arrangements need to be cultivated, and it is important for students to have positive experiences in all of them. They also end up working on different parts of their linguistic and multimodal repertoire, as different social arrangements challenge this repertoire in different ways… which ties in with Merrill Swain’s classic Output Hypothesis in the field of second language acquisition.

The researchers conclude this important area of findings with a call for “simultaneous consideration of both teachers’ and pupils’ cognitive, linguistic and symbolic challenges when implementing translanguaging” (p. 11). Moreover, they call for investigating the general quality of teacher-student interaction.

2. Goal setting

A scholar participant told Ticheloven et al.: “The goal is always the primary issue. … My starting point needs to be: “What do I want to achieve?” (p. 11). Another scholar said: “Is it all about an attitude issue or is it something more, is it language as a resource? (…) Is it about ‘acknowledging multilingualism,’ ‘being impressed by multilingualism,’ and ‘showing multilingualism,’ or is it ‘using multilingualism [to learn]’?” (p. 11). While another scholar worried that promoting multilingualism may only promote token engagement, a teacher expressed that even tokenism is a step in the right direction in a rigidly monolingual institution.

Some teachers thought that translanguaging was only for social and emotional benefits and did not see how it could be used to help students learn subject content or the language of schooling, a question that I answer here and here. As for students, their varied attitudes could be “ascribed to many causes, such as individual student differences and preferences, the classroom climate, social and monolingual forces, feelings of shame, but also the suitability of the chosen translanguaging strategy” (p. 12). Put more strongly, we must beware of “sugar-coating’ in educational attempts to establish continuity between students’ in-school and out-of-school practices that become superficial and non-sensical, and do not contribute to actual learning, especially when teachers feel little affinity with those ideas” (p. 12). It is important for teachers and students to understand how translanguaging is useful to achieving learning outcomes, defined as (1) better access to content and language learning, and more active participation in educational activities, rather than (2) particular outcomes on quantitative assessments (e.g., experiments, standardized tests), as research supports translanguaging’s positive impact on the first but not the second.

Therefore, it is important for teachers and students to be on the same page with goal-setting: translanguaging will help with academic learning, and ease access to content and target language, but it cannot be promised to lead to all minoritized students getting high marks on standardized tests. However, what cognitive and socioemotional benefits it has should certainly be enough.

3. Learning the language of schooling / 4. English and other semiotic resources

A pro-immersion teacher in Newcomer Education expressed that translanguaging was holding two students back from fully developing their Dutch:

Somehow two Greek girls are not in the extra programme with more Dutch-language support,
but just in the regular programme. I have no idea why. And then I realised at some point ‘wow,
how bad your Dutch actually still is….’. But they are really getting away with it. Yeah, in Dutch
assessments I see, their Dutch is really, really bad, but they can somehow deal with it in the
regular programme.
(p. 13)

The teacher sees the limits of the girls’ Dutch acquisition—i.e., how the girls use Dutch fluently yet not in a “standard” way to get by in daily life, socially and academically—and attributes it to translanguaging, rather than any second language acquisition factors such as lack of pushed output in Dutch—i.e., lack of situations in which the girls receive explicit instruction in “proper Dutch,” and few situations in which using “proper Dutch” matters socially. Immersion in a regular Dutch classroom does not mean the girls will need to use “proper Dutch,” just as Merrill Swain found that French immersion classrooms did little to foster “proper French” because students simply communicated with whatever language forms they found did well enough, which is in fact how lingua franca interaction happens in the real world.

Related to the lack of pushed output in “proper Dutch,” teachers (mis)perceived students’ first languages (L1s), the use of English as a preferred lingua franca, and other semiotic resources (e.g., multimodalities like gestures and technology) as a hindrance, as students often translanguaged using these. In response, Ticheloven et al. point out that “language use [and in fact all communication modes] is negotiated, contextualized, and interwoven with ideological factors” (p. 13). Even if we accept that “proper Dutch” is a legitimate goal, students’ translingual, multidialectal, and multimodal translanguaging can make more explicit what target academic language entails, as translanguaging can be used to talk about and plan language for exams and job interviews in a narrower range of modalities/languages/dialects in ways students fully understand, also allowing for students to be reflective and make their own choices in the language forms they choose, another life skill.

On the other hand, if the classroom’s oral communication for the purposes of learning is translingual, multidialectal, multimodal, and lingua franca in nature so that people can express themselves fully when going through the important “thinking aloud” and collaborative processes foundational to learning, it prepares students for how communication happens in the real world, which prioritizes understanding and task accomplishment with whatever linguistic resources work, not which ones are “proper.” Selected products in “proper” language that have been planned and rehearsed through all kinds of translanguaging and bridging pedagogies also prepare students for the real world. Therefore, appropriately chosen translanguaging strategies (see point 2) prepare students for the types of communication that they will encounter in life: dynamic interpersonal communication, as well as rehearsed high-stakes performances.

5. Affect / 6. Effort

When it came to affect and emotional value of students’ languages, no teacher was against translanguaging. In fact, “in contrast to the inconclusive views between and within expert groups in the previous sections, the encouragement of other languages was unanimously recognised as serving direct affective [emotional] functions” (p. 15). However, while teachers tended to see the importance of translanguaging when the feelings were negative (e.g., sadness, anger, frustration, conflict), students had a broader view, explaining that it was important to them to translanguage in the whole range of feelings, including positive ones. One 15-year-old explained: “When we first moved, the school principal kind of forbade us to talk to each other in our mother tongue, which was so freaking unfair (…). We had just moved there, none of us had friends and none of us could talk or express ourselves.” A 14-year-old described missing his language, particularly when he wanted to make a joke. The researchers highlight this as a key point… while teachers see translanguaging in terms of a “last resort”—you can use your language if you’re under stress or suffering—students expressed the need to use their languages for all affective purposes.

The students who had been in the Netherlands longer mentioned the effort needed to maintain their heritage languages. One reported texting in Dutch to her mother (who had receptive proficiency), while the mother texted back in the home language (in which the student had receptive proficiency). I noted that this kind of communication is common in immigrant families, and it is the point at which language shift (and heritage language loss) occurs within about two generations, as ways of communicating that are most convenient for each generation are accommodated; the future child of the teenager is likely to have little to no skills in the heritage language unless these are actively cultivated. Even students more fluent in their heritage languages felt that Dutch was easier to use at school because that was the language they were learning the subject matter in.

In this case, when students already know the language of schooling, some teachers felt that translanguaging slows lessons down unnecessarily, and the pedagogical effort is unjustified. In contrast, one teacher explained how he halted his lessons to explain the background of words and how they may relate to languages in the class: “And yes, of course that takes time. But I think that is education. And not running through the curriculum. (…) And my students always pass their exams” (p. 16). Every individual needs to accept that sometimes the learning processes or working processes in the class will cater more to the needs of others who are more monolingual or more multilingual, and how to negotiate and adjust language practices in give-and-take is an important life lesson. Note that this teacher’s practice has nothing to do with increasing heritage language proficiency and turning some students into speakers like their parents. It has to do with cultivating appreciation and respect, beyond tokenism, for language knowledge outside the official curriculum, one’s own and others. Furthermore, if parents are heritage-language dominant, one teacher observed that translanguaging could be useful in homework assignments as a way to get parents involved (p. 16). The researchers conclude the affect and effort section with a call for context-specific translanguaging practices that take stock of participants’ socioemotional needs, individual language repertoires, and negotiated communicative preferences, as well as the task.

7. Confusion

Ticheloven et al. found it interesting how some participants experienced cognitive dissonance when mixing languages, while others did not (p. 17). Age did not seem to be the reason:

  • “I think my brain does not work like that. I can do, like, one thing at one time. Like, one language at one time.” (12-year-old international student)
  • “Sometimes, all these languages in my head really slow down my reaction. (…) then sometimes (…) the word I want to say only pops up in another language. And then I really have to think hard before I remember it in the right language. It feels like a blockade. (23-year-old immigrant student pursuing high school diploma)

Contrast these statements with the one by another 12-year-old international student: “Mixing languages? Oh, that’s me. I do it all the time.”

If we assume that these people are trying their best to report what really goes on in their minds, rather than socially desirable answers, it may be that mixing languages is something that takes just as much cognitive effort as keeping them separate if the acquisition of the languages was not in a dynamic language mixing environment, which contradicts much of the seminal work of García and Li (2014), writing from the field of education rather than psycholinguistics. That is, some people get used to mixing and non-mixing, while others are accustomed only to mixing, or only to non-mixing (see psycholinguists Green & Abutalebi, 2013, for a fairly accessible discussion of this and the social contexts that give rise to three different degrees of language integration). Languages are connected in our brains, not in separate compartments, which educational researchers and educational activists have rightly argued, but exactly how they are connected appears to vary immensely.

Even more interesting is what students choose to do with what they’re accustomed to: some students want to capitalize on it while others want to go beyond it. As one teacher said, “Some students would thrive on confusion because that makes them work it out and learn more. And some students, and I would have been one of them, would just drown. And as a teacher you need to make sure that you cater to both of those different types of students” (p. 17). Like translanguaging being bound up with respect for others (point 1), it is also bound up with the notion of balancing efficiency/safety and challenge/risk (point 7); it is bound up with so many of the choices we make in life about other practices… a human instinct that must be guided by teachers while still allowing for individual choice and agency. To address translanguaging explicitly in multilingual classrooms is to teach many other life skills.

Summary

The authors conclude by reminding us that their exploratory study sought to elicit a breadth of perspectives, and recommend that future studies collect additional data about how people’s backgrounds, life experiences, and language proficiencies impact their views. Despite not being able to do this themselves, they believe they have a key contribution to make from the interview data alone to “show that to implement translanguaging in the classroom, negotiation is required (attitudes and experiences aside)” (p. 19). This is discussed in the 7 pedagogical challenges that point to the requirement of negotiation. Ticheloven, Blom, Leseman and McMonagle also stress the importance of bridging different theoretical perspectives on translanguaging, while bridges between theory and practice are built through “direct consultation with stakeholders as equals” (p. 19).

References

Bagga-Gupta, S., & Messina Dahlberg, G. (2018). Meaning-making or heterogeneity in the areas of language and identity? The case of translanguaging and nyanlända (newly-arrived) across time and space. International Journal of Multilingualism15(4), 383-411. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2018.1468446

Canagarajah, S. (2011a). Codemeshing in academic writing: Identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. The Modern Language Journal, 95, 401–417. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01207.x

Canagarajah, S. (2011b). Translanguaging in the classroom: Emerging issues for research and pedagogy. Applied Linguistics Review, 2, 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110239331.1

Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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

Green, D. W., & Abutalebi, J. (2013). Language control in bilinguals: The adaptive control hypothesis. Journal of Cognitive Psychology25(5), 515-530. https://doi.org/10.1080/20445911.2013.796377

Jaspers, J. (2018). The transformative limits of translanguaging. Language & Communication, 58, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2017.12.001

Mendoza, A. (2020). What does translanguaging-for-equity really involve? An interactional analysis of a 9th grade English class. Applied Linguistics Review, 1-21. Early view. https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2019-0106 

Poza, L. (2017). Translanguaging: Definitions, implications, and further needs in burgeoning inquiry. Berkeley Review of Education6(2), 101-128. https://doi.org/10.5070/B86110060

Published by annamend

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

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