Researching translanguaging in education: Beyond the social justice oriented classroom intervention

Most studies connecting translanguaging, education, and social justice take the form of participatory action research—i.e., teacher-scholar partnerships to promote translanguaging in classrooms. In this post, I describe two other research methods relevant to these topics: (1) interviews and document analysis of language attitudes and policies, and (2) ethnography in which the researcher is a “fly on the classroom wall.” I compare these research methods with (3) classroom-based action research in which co-researchers (classroom teachers and scholars) try to implement translanguaging to further social justice aims. For each study type, I use an example from K-12 education in Cyprus, where translanguaging pedagogy is enacted in light of a decades-long ethnic conflict between Greek speakers and Turkish speakers. Although social justice is a key issue in all three types, it is the research outlook, not the type of research, that gives a study its social justice orientation.

Charalambous, C. (2019). Language education and ‘conflicted heritage’: Implications for teaching and learning. The Modern Language Journal103(4), 874-891.

In the above study, Constadina Charalambous, now an Assistant Professor at European University Cyprus, examined what it means to “do” heritage language education in post-conflict situations. Cyprus, originally settled by Greeks, was invaded by the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s, and was also a former British colonial territory. Since the 1974 war, it has been divided into the Turkish-speaking north and the Greek-speaking south, where Turkish is often seen as the “language of the enemy.” Charalambous writes:

Nevertheless, Turkish is also a language with more than 400 years of presence on the island alongside Greek and other languages. This long history of language contact has left its traces on the local Greek variety spoken today by Greek Cypriots, and it is even more visible in older generations that have lived before the separation alongside Turkish Cypriots. (p. 2)

This results in a paradox in which a language simultaneously carries a “mark of otherness” but is also part of a shared history and heritage.

By interviewing people, Charalambous was not interested in defining a heritage speaker of a language or giving pointers for effective heritage language education. What she wanted to find out was how people constructed their identities as (non)heritage speakers in a post-conflict situation, and why. She draws from an area of study called Critical Heritage Studies: “a set of social, cultural, and political practices that relate both to choice of what counts as heritage (and the motives behind this selection), and to its consumption or reception (what people do with it) (Waterton & Smith, 2010)” (p. 3).

Charalambous cites Graham (2002), who points out that cultural heritage doesn’t simply exist. People have to select particular artifacts (or languages or practices) that are meaningful while relegating others to non-meaningfulness. For the things they find meaningful, they explain why they have been “selected from the infinity of the past… It follows too that the meanings and functions of memory and tradition are defined in the present” (Graham, 2002, p. 1004; my underline). 

As Charalambous explains, Turkish has had a historic presence in Cyprus for 400+ years, reflected in the Turkish influences on Cypriot Greek and the vocabulary shared by Cypriot varieties of Greek and Turkish. When Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, both languages were recognized as official languages, and were often used in parallel in government documents, road signs, stamps, money, etc. In 1963, there was an outbreak of violence that led to Turkish Cypriots moving to ethnic enclaves (ghettos); in 1974, a pro-Greek coup gained control of the government; a week later, Turkish armies occupied the northern part of the island, and Greek and Turkish Cypriots were forced to relocate to the south and north, respectively. Cyprus has been divided ever since.

The relations between the two sides resembled North and South Korea in terms of the limitedness of communication. Until 2003, Turkish was not taught in Cypriot Greek schools. In 2003, however, it became a foreign language option in secondary school and free to adults wanting to learn it in public education institutes. For some students, “national security” was the reason they wished to learn Turkish. For others, it was an attempt to reconnect with the pre-conflict past and a common heritage and identity. It is this heritage language learning that Charalambous investigated through interviews within a larger linguistic ethnography: part one in secondary schools, part two in adult institutions. She examined how Turkish language learning was different in 2006-07 versus 2012-13, and across the two educational settings (K-12 and adult education)—paying attention to policy, teaching, and learning. 

Charalambous (2019), p. 6

Findings of the interviews

In 2005-2007, Turkish learning was promoted as part of a token reconciliatory discourse. According to curriculum documents, it was said to “bring the two communities closer, with the aim of making feasible the coexistence of the two communities” (p. 7). Their common vocabulary was pointed out as one example of a common heritage that teachers could draw on. However, the ethnographic research that Charalambous conducted at that time with her colleagues, Zembylas and P. Charalambous, uncovered intense opposition from teachers. By 2010, a revised curriculum came out that promoted Turkish learning as part of European multilingualism, a desire to be cosmopolitan like the rest of Europe—Turkish being framed as a language of Europe rather than a local language with a conflicted past. In fact, “…the curriculum committee was asked to remove all references to common vocabularies that existed in previous drafts” (pp. 8-9); one official told Charalambous: “that was an order! It wasn’t a suggestion! It was like ‘they should be deleted!’” (p. 9).

It was only towards the end of the revised curriculum policy document that the local context was mentioned, “as a measure for building support which will bring the two communities closer” (Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture, 2010, p. 5). Instead of this reconciliation being a focus in the curriculum, as it was before, it was “prefaced and followed by references to students’ future where the needs of job market features prominently as the ‘basic criterion’ for selecting the language” (pp. 9-10). Instead of Turkish being a language of shared heritage, it underwent a process of “cosmopolitization” that rendered it into a more neutral linguistic code, at the expense of “localization,” which was more painful but arguably more productive, with its explicit pro-reconciliation stance and its unflinching treatment of the island’s troubled past.

This lack of “localization” was also observed in the ethnographies that the researchers conducted: only a small number of teachers who had an explicit pro-reconciliation stance continued to “localize” their Turkish pedagogy. Charalambous explains that it tended to happen only in adult classes and in a rather unique secondary school class (a small class where the students all had pro-reconciliatory views). While more adult learners mentioned that learning Turkish was fair and showed respect, younger learners more often talked about the need to “understand the enemy” (pp. 11-12). (While the older learners are the ones who lived through the events of 1974, it is also they who recall the peaceful times.) Gone from the curriculum were common words, collective narratives of conflict and dislocation, family histories, and “discussion of ongoing political processes affect[ing] learners’ relation to the language inside and outside the classroom” (p. 11). However, there were also a number of younger students who (re)discovered their Cypriot linguistic heritage through Turkish (p. 12):

Charalambous discusses how it is only through such localization that students can reconfigure the troubled past and collectively reposition the future (p. 13). If Turkish is taught as a “global” language, one has to imagine ideal “native speaker” interlocutors (e.g., Mainland Turks), which would spark intense reaction (and is problematic anyway due to native speaker ideologies in the teaching of any language). Therefore, the new curriculum resorted to an unproblematic, rather boring method of instruction: grammar translation, presumably of trivial sentences (p. 14). There was a lack of connection to “troubled knowledge” or “difficult knowledge” that people collectively need to confront to build a post-conflict society—and a lack of “pedagogical strategies that can deal with learners’ emotional challenges involved in this process as teachers and students will have ‘to tolerate the loss of certainty in the very effort to know’” (Farley, as cited in Zembylas, 2017, p. 662). 

Charalambous, P., Charalambous, C., & Zembylas, M. (2016). Troubling translanguaging: Language ideologies, superdiversity and interethnic conflict. Applied Linguistics Review7(3), 327-352.

In this “fly on the wall” classroom ethnography, Charalambous and her two colleagues investigated how the internationally popular translanguaging pedagogy was being enacted by children of diverse Turkish-speaking heritages (i.e., from different Turkish-speaking countries and ethnolinguistic groups) enrolled in a primary school in the officially Greek-speaking part of the island. In their study’s abstract, they point out that when Turkishness is associated with “the enemy group” and children are socialized into “essentialist assumptions about language and national belonging,” these discourses of conflict create very unfavourable ecologies for hybrid creative linguistic practices such as translanguaging.

According to Charalambous et al., famous sociolinguists such as Jan Blommaert, Judith Irvine, Susan Gal, and Alexandra Jaffe have critiqued the idea of “one language, one nation, one people” as oversimplified, and in modern societies, such ideologies may hold less relevance. However, in modern societies characterized by ethnic conflict, these ideologies hold a great deal of relevance and a lot of people buy into them.

The study featured 7- and 8-year olds in a primary school in the officially Greek-speaking part of the island who spoke Turkish as a heritage language. These students were ethnically diverse. They could be Turkish-Cypriot (belonging to that side of Cyprus that spoke Turkish rather than Greek, recognized only as an independent state by Turkey), Pontian (a group of ethnically Greek Orthodox Christians who have been migrating all over Europe since the Dark Ages due to persecution, but spent most centuries around the Black Sea, acquiring Turkish as their main language, even though they may affiliate more with Greek culture because of their religion), and Turkish-Bulgarians who have been a persecuted linguistic minority since Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire (i.e., they left Bulgaria because of their Turkish heritage). 

In fact, this school had “a strikingly superdiverse population, with 95% of its students being of migrant working class backgrounds [Bulgarian, Roma, Turkish, Turkish-Cypriot], with diverse and complex migration trajectories” (p. 336), so in actual reality, students’ linguistic and cultural identities were dynamic and complex; however, the discursive construction of these identities pointed towards nationalism and essentialism. 

Findings of the ethnography

The Year 3 class consisted of 11 students, one of whom was from the dominant ethnolinguistic group, Greek-Cypriot; the rest were Georgian-Pontian (4), Russian-Pontian (1), Turkish-Bulgarian (1), Slav-Bulgarian (1), Russian (1) and Filipino (2). The Pontian children, similar to English-dominant Latinx students in New York, “were generally more confident in Greek, as they had been attending Greek-speaking education since their early childhood, while Turkish was used in their home environments mostly for oral communication” (p. 337). In the classroom, they did all they could to up-play their Greek identities and down-play their Turkish identities—from explanations of how they spoke Turkish but were not Turkish, to going by different school and home names (e.g., Emil/Mehmet).

Interestingly, they were not shy to show their Turkish proficiency when it did not index being Turkish, such as when comparing the English, Russian, and Turkish words for “spider” during a discussion of Spiderman. [I wonder why the Filipino word was not elicited, but anyway…] The well-liked teacher encouraged such cross-linguistic translations, but when she called on students to showcase their Turkish heritage in a display of multilingualism, students’ reactions were different. One day, when she asked them, “What would you tell Meltem [a book character who lives in mainland Turkey] in Turkish if you met her?”, multiple children suddenly claimed to not remember much Turkish, to not speak much Turkish, or to only understand but not speak it (pp. 342-343). In a later class, when a boy said he could write a note to Meltem in Turkish and was invited to share in front of everybody what he would say in the note, he became hesitant until the teacher said he could say the message first in Greek, then in Turkish, at which point he produced less hesitations in Greek than in Turkish even though he was more proficient in Turkish (pp. 344-345).

Charalambous et al. point out that even in a classroom with a kindly teacher who valued her students’ funds of knowledge, “students displayed emotional difficulties and resistance when invited to publicly perform their fluency in Turkish” (p. 347). This is seen in the following dialogue, in which the teacher, Thalia, did not succeed in bringing out their Turkish knowledge (pp. 342):

The researchers conclude that “the teacher’s well-intentioned invitation to translanguaging in the classroom produces linguistic insecurities and identity trouble among a group of Turkish-speaking students, manifested in the form of hesitations, silences, and inarticulateness” (p. 347). This did not affect Thalia’s “instructional practices in fram[ing] Turkish speaking as a legitimate and valued activity” (p. 347). However, it does have implications for the theory that translanguaging is a naturally occurring phenomenon for bilinguals, even in contexts where participants self-censor in their efforts to not be identified with the “wrong” group.

Ethnography is useful in studying translanguaging because “it is as important to analyze pauses, half-uttered sentences and inarticulateness (cf. Rampton and Charalambous 2016, Spyrou 2016) as it is to attend to articulate and creative polylingual performances” (pp. 348-349).

Stavrou, S., Charalambous, C, & Macleroy, V. (2021). Translanguaging through the lens of drama and digital storytelling: Shaping new language pedagogies in the classroom. Pedagogy, Culture & Society29(1), 99-118.

Now we move on to a teacher action research study, the kind of teacher-scholar collaboration that is most common in the literature on translanguaging in education for social justice. Here, “C. Charalambous” is a different scholar.

The abstract of the study discusses how “bringing drama and digital storytelling together allowed these young children to view themselves and the world differently and experience themselves as bidialectal learners. … These young children were able to think, discuss, explore and evaluate through both linguistic varieties of Cypriot Greek (CG) and Standard Modern Greek (SMG).” (Already, it is noteworthy that the translanguaging discussed does not involve Turkish, but a high and low variety of Greek. However, the article does not report on whether the children came from exclusively Greek-speaking families.)

As in most studies of translanguaging in education, a political context is explained in the beginning of the article to show how translanguaging relates to social justice. The authors state in their introduction:

“As this study is located in Cyprus, it is important to understand the highly political and contested linguistic context. The official languages of the Republic of Cyprus and the official languages in education are Greek and Turkish… however, Turkish is only used in areas occupied by Turkey” (p. 100; my underline). None of the rest of the study deals with Turkish, but focuses instead on standard and local Greek:

Whilst Standard Modern Greek (SMG) is considered the language of power in education, media, administration, and written code, the Cypriot Greek variety is the unofficial everyday language variety spoken by the majority of the population… . We argue that making use of this dialect-standard continuum in Cypriot classrooms empowers young people as meaning makers and reflects the creative linguistic practices that Greek Cypriot students experience through translanguaging. This research adds new insights into language practices and extends notions of literacy and digital storytelling within a biadialectal context (p. 100; my underline).

The teacher action research project was part of a multi-national, multilingual digital storytelling project involving teachers and schools in Algeria, Cyprus, England, Luxembourg, Palestine, Taiwan, and the United States, over 1,500 students aged 6-18, and digital stories told in the form of short videos (3-7 mins.) in 15 languages. The theme of “belonging” was chosen for all the stories in project schools in 2016-17, and the class in this study produced a film called Irene—A refugee’s story.

The researchers go on to explain that there were “14 Cypriot students, 9 girls and 5 boys, aged 7″ (p. 106) in “a primary school in a village in South-Eastern Cyprus in the non-occupied area of Famagusta” (p. 106; my underline). The video-making project was integrated into their Standard Modern Greek language lessons. They worked on narrative oral language skills, and examined cultural perspectives on refugees, migration, and diversity. The project took 7 months, and students learned how to use video cameras and successfully produce their own shots, including different types of camera shots through several practical and theoretical exercises. Their movie was about a girl named Irene who had to leave her home after it was burnt down. Irene went on an Odyssey to find her parents. The researchers explain: “This narrative was also used because the notion of ‘belonging’ in this specific story was strongly connected with local emotions after the 1974 invasion by Turks of the island and the illegal possession of the north part of Cyprus” (p. 106; my underline). The class shot the film at a sculpture park, taking field trip(s) in order to do so.

Findings of the action research

The researchers identified four themes: (a) drama and ‘becoming,’ (b) moments of critical language awareness, (c) translanguaging within transformative pedagogy, and (d) intentional translanguaging. 

For theme (a), drama and becoming, they state that 

Despite the very young age of the participants, they were able to express their ideas about important issues relevant to our lives such as migration, racism and refugees. … In our case the re-telling of the story of Irene happened collectively and gave the participants the opportunity to re-imagine together another future and allowed them on the micro level of their class to act on their social realities. (p. 107) 

You will see that the video (in Greek with English subtitles) begins with a child narrator’s voice saying, “Irene left the country of the poor crying.” Irene meets many fantastical creatures across different islands/lands, until she finally finds her parents, who have turned to stone. When Irene sheds a tear on them, they come to life again and embrace her. One can choose to read the Cypriot conflict (e.g., the Turkish invasion of 1974) into this story—or in fact any other historical conflict resulting in children becoming refugees—but then again, one can also choose to see it as an entirely fictional fantasy about a girl wandering lost in a land of magical creatures. There is also not a word of Turkish in the film.

For theme (b), critical language awareness, the researchers mention “how students focused on language use and explored the relationship between SMG and CG encompassing aspects of language and power” (p. 110). In the dialogue below, the teacher tries to convince students to include some of the dialogue in CG (bold), since they were code-switching between SMG/CG to plan and direct the film, and pure SMG in the lines of the film.

Stavrou, Charalambous, & Macleroy (2021), p. 110

The students do not take her up, as S10 mentions how they will “feel bad” if they say the words differently (i.e., in CG), and S9 says that a CG word “will destroy the video.” While the seeds of critical language awareness could have been planted through the teacher’s words, the researchers focus on students and portray them as the critical ones in the exchange: “students were discussing intentional translanguaging and such discussions open up spaces for becoming critical towards the use of SMG along with CG” (p. 111). Eventually, the students agreed to shoot one scene in CG—the one in which Irene converses with a hippopotamus (not the scenes where she meets the Sphinx, the Mermaid, or Odysseus), and a CG-confident student (S7) who was described as popular played the part of the hippopotamus, making others laugh.

Stavrou, Charalambous, & Macleroy (2021), p. 111

Based on this data, the researchers recognize that SMG is considered the powerful and official language, though “students realized the legitimacy of both of their language options and became aware of the different ways they could express their ideas and opinions” (p. 111).

For theme (c), translanguaging within transformative pedagogy, the researchers discuss words coined by the students which mixed linguistic features of both dialects—even though this could happen with any degree of (non-)deliberate/critical agency. This section states: “Such original statements, facilitated by a pedagogy that enabled students to manipulate language freely, enabled them [the students]—not only to engage in complex thinking activities but also to develop confidence in self-expression” (p. 113). Under this theme, the researchers also included a dialogue in which students actively negotiated the ending they would give their story (p. 114). While this is best facilitated by students being allowed to draw on their entire language repertoires, how active negotiation is supported by translanguaging, and/or film-making, specifically, rather than broader reasons such as teacher-student relations and class atmosphere needs to be further examined.

For theme (d), intentional translanguaging, researchers pointed to students’ code-switching into SMG to voice Irene, while they planned (and narrated) the story in a mix of CG/SMG—for example, Irene’s climactic line before she sheds the tear to wake her parents is in pure SMG.

Stavrou, Charalambous, & Macleroy (2021), p. 114

On another occasion, a student who was translanguaging between CG and SMG was informed by her peers that the recorder was on, upon which point she immediately switched to “pure” SMG (p. 115).

None of these findings are bad, but they definitely point to the students’ pragmatic awareness and to diglossia, the division between “high” and “low” language varieties, which Ofelia García, the mother of modern translanguaging pedagogy, argues against in much of her work. However, the authors note that “students tried to present content and structure their text through the linguistic choices that would make their texts a legitimate piece of writing in the eyes of official educational demands” (p. 115). Such a claim is worth questioning, though, as the non-Greek speaking international audience would say “It’s all Greek to me,” and those who would recognize the dialects would not necessarily see CG as unusual in a story about a little girl from Cyprus. It is important for teachers to prepare their students for assessments in official languages, but teachers should also lead students to question what students pre-assume to be appropriate language for a given context or audience. [This could lead to a discussion of why different language varieties have the spread they do; for example, as a presumed foreign language learner of SMG from Uganda, the hippopotamus might have the least knowledge of CG of the sculptures in the park.]

All in all, the students were very engaged in the storytelling and movie-making process, an authentic and pedagogically flexible activity, within the parameters of the official SMG curriculum, which allowed them “to experience themselves as bidialectal beings” (p. 117) as spaces were created for them to “think, discuss, explore, create, and evaluate through both linguistic varieties” (p. 117).


In this week’s post, I intentionally framed a teacher action research study on translanguaging with (1) a classroom ethnography and (2) a multi-sited interview study + language policy document analysis to illustrate that degree of criticality, focus of criticality, and transformational potential arise more from the aims, rather than the methods, of the research. Three takeaways are apparent:

  1. The need for classroom researchers to approach participatory action research with a critical eye to what children and youth are doing; we do not need to praise everything they do, but guide them with our greater life experiences as multilingual adults;
  2. The need for researchers who study multilingualism (within and beyond applied linguistics!) but do not use participatory action research to make their findings and studies accessible to a general audience, including teachers, so that teachers can be more critical and self-reflexive in how they do action research involving multilingualism;
  3. The need for teachers to explore non-pedagogical readings/videos/podcasts on language policy, urban studies, history, critical heritage studies, etc. as essential to their work. As Prof. Linda Harkau in the College of Education, University of Georgia, wrote on educational research that is not practical or teaching-oriented, such research is valuable not in terms of suggestions on “what to do” but in terms of “heuristic value” (Harklau, 2000, p. 64)—it raises our awareness of how we represent identity in educational settings.


Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture. (2010). Programma Spoudwn Xenwn Glosswn [Foreign language curricula]. Nicosia, Cyprus: MOEC, Pedagogical Institute.

Graham, B. (2002). Heritage as knowledge: Capital or culture? Urban Studies39, 1003–1017.

Harklau, L. (2000). From the ‘good kids to the ‘worst’: Representations of English language learners across educational settings. TESOL Quarterly, 34(1), 35-67.

Rampton, B., & Charalambous, C. ( 2016). Breaking classroom silences: A view from linguistic ethnography. Language and Intercultural Communication, 16(1), 4–21.

Spyrou, S. (2002). Images of “the Other”: The Turk in Greek Cypriot children’s imaginations. Race, Ethnicity & Education, 5(3), 255–272.

Waterton, E., & Smith, L. (2010). The recognition and misrecognition of community heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies16, 4–15.

Zembylas, M. (2017). Teacher resistance to engage with ‘alternative’ perspectives of difficult histories: The limits and prospects of affective disruption. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education38, 659–675.

Published by annamend

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

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