The historical development of translanguaging – On the legacy of Ofelia García

No scholar of bi/multilingualism has had as large an impact as Ofelia García, with her far-reaching positive effect on education in the U.S. and internationally. In this post, I argue that we should focus on this far-reaching pedagogical effect—of how she conceptualizes language learners’ bi/multilingualism—which leads to a more socially just way of teaching languages, and NOT on what has become (I fear) most famous about her work: the trending idea that languages such as “Spanish,” “Swahili,” and “Swedish” do not exist. I make this argument by summarizing (1) a tribute speech on her retirement by her British colleague and friend Colin Baker and (2) a book chapter by Guadalupe Valdés, another famous bi/multilingual teacher-scholar in the U.S., on how translanguaging can inform various program designs. Moreover, this post on translanguaging’s history will have side discussions to introduce a number of other world-leading translanguaging scholars in K-12 education, their different theoretical views, and their shared social justice aims. After all, it is the intention of pedagogy, and a focus on what students have rather than what they lack, that matters most.

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Baker, C. (2019). A tribute to Ofelia García. Journal of Multilingual Education Research, 9(1), 175-182. https://research.library.fordham.edu/jmer/vol9/iss1/8

When Ofelia García retired, her Welsh colleague Colin Baker wrote her a tribute speech, later published as a journal article (Baker, 2019), which included excerpts from his diaries over 20+ years related to their collaboration on translanguaging pedagogy. The term “translanguaging” goes back to a language revitalization movement in Wales, when the Welsh poet and schoolteacher Cen Williams, another colleague of Baker’s, described in his PhD dissertation (Williams, 1994) a teaching technique he called “trawsieithu” that switched the language of input and output in Welsh heritage language classrooms. Baker identified four benefits of this practice: to promote deeper understanding of content, to develop the weaker language, to facilitate home-school links, and to integrate early learners with fluent speakers (Lewis, Jones, and Baker, 2012).

The collaboration of Baker and García on the first edition of Baker’s book, Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, during the early 1990s, put García in touch with Williams’ term, a term that she later expanded and redefined in important ways. Baker describes himself and García having “a cross-Atlantic friendship over 25 years. … We met each other’s families, and I watched her grow into an academic superstar” (Baker, 2019, p. 175). Here are his diary notes from their first meeting when he visited New York in 1992:

Evening meal at Ofelia’s house. Meet Ricardo [i.e., Ricardo Otheguy, also a language scholar] who is instantly friendly and welcoming. Really lovely person. Three children all welcome me. Eric, Raquel, and Emma. We have a chat. Give them their presents. They talk in Spanish to Ofelia. Good to hear. Crickets outside talking loudly as we eat outside.

Down to business: we discuss at CCNY [City College of New York] the draft chapters of ‘Foundations’. In a most diplomatic and charming manner, Ofelia tells me my draft manuscript needs to develop a more political dimension, and include more sociolinguistic coverage. Correct. I enjoy learning about US politics, but sociolinguistics is a different language from my specialisms in psychology, education, and statistics. Ofelia educates me about different US types of bilingual education. Has feet on the ground and is realistic. Our typology of bilingual education is refined. Need to credit Ofelia for that typology.

A decade later, in 2002, García applied for a professor job at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, and Baker wrote her a reference letter. She got the job and held the post of Professor of Bilingual Education and Program Coordinator from 2002-2008. In his reference letter, Baker wrote:

  • Professor García’s writings show a considerable width of scholarship. There is no myopic examination of one topic in depth but a colorful repertoire of interests that include international bilingual education, language minority economics, literacy and biliteracy, urban education, social and academic issues surrounding bilingualism, the history of bilingual education, and multitudinous Latino/Hispanic topics. This immense breadth of interest is integrated and cohesive, with cross-fertilization from one topic to another.
  • Professor García has a remarkable, almost intuitive understanding of classrooms that creates very sensitive and empathic understandings of bilinguals, bilingual education and communities. Alongside this is a deep political understanding, with a highly insightful knowledge of the social, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which bilinguals are situated.

Fast forward another decade. By this point, García had published her seminal book on translanguaging, Bilingual Education in the 21st Century (García, 2009). Continuing to work with Baker on further editions of the Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism book whose first edition was in the early 1990s [latest edition is Baker & Wright, 2017, 5th ed.], she spent a week at the University of Bangor in Wales, where she met Cen Williams in person. Baker describes their meeting thus:

Simple introductions. Both Ofelia and Cen rarely shy, but this time a little. Some degree of mutual awe. Room full of smiles. We all realize this is an historic occasion. Cen then says he had a chat with me. Explained the idea. Asked me for a translation [of trawsieithu]. My first stab was “crosslinguifying.” Afterwards, that seemed an awkward word, so told Cen “translanguaging” might be better. Ofelia then explains why she is attracted to the term, and suggests it can be generalized from classrooms to the everyday language of bilinguals. She seemed to worry that Cen might not like the extension. Wrong. Cen saw the point and the potential. Wonderful! Ofelia possibly relieved, and encouraged to extend and advance.

Piece of history made today. Noticed that a tip-top New York academic and a famed poet-cum-educationist might have been worlds apart. One driven by the plight of urban immigrants with many languages, while the other driven by the fight to retain the indigenous Welsh language in its heartlands. Both are driven by social and language conscience. Same underlying motivations. Both know that political action is essential and translanguaging has a positive political potential.

Baker’s diary (bold highlights mine) speaks to García’s extension of Williams’ pedagogical method, which, as we know, alternated languages of input and output to increase students’ proficiency in Welsh, their heritage language. In her important book on translanguaging that introduced the construct of dynamic bilingualism, called Bilingual Education in the 21st Century (García, 2009)García noted that the process involved much more than input in one language and output in the other, as children switch rapidly back and forth between languages in the same utterance to achieve a single communicative end. A bi/multilingual mind, she stressed, is not a bicycle with two or more identical wheels but an all-terrain vehicle in which each part serves its own function and not all languages need to be fully acquired with the monolingual native speaker as the target. The wheels “turn, extend and contract, [and] make up for each other” (p. 143).

The importance of dynamic translanguaging

At Columbia, García continued to develop dynamic bilingualism with her London-based colleague, Li Wei, in another famous book, Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism, and Education (García & Li, 2014). This book dealt with educational contexts in which recognizing this kind of bi/multilingualism (i.e., dynamic) went hand-in-hand with social justice.

Sociolinguist Li Wei has done research on dynamic bi/multilingualism within and beyond the classroom among ethnically Chinese youth. For example, he showed that Chinese university students in London develop ties to more than one country and a similarly cosmopolitan linguistic repertoire that comprises different Chinese languages; British, New Zealand, and Singaporean English; and other languages such as Spanish, Japanese, and French. In a naturalistic study in which five of them were given pocket-sized USB recorders and asked to place them in their shared apartments, Li Wei and his spouse Zhu Hua, also a sociolinguist (Li & Zhu, 2013) showed that these young adults spoke amongst each other, rather than Standard Mandarin, a language best termed Global Chinese: “an emergent variety that draws from different varieties of Chinese, occasionally intermixed with elements from other languages, for lingua franca communication amongst heritage Chinese users” (p. 520).

Also, in an ethnography of Mandarin and Cantonese heritage language classes for 10- to 12- year-olds in the U.K., Li Wei (2014) found that the youth were similarly cosmopolitan in their linguistic and cultural funds of knowledge—even if the school curriculum, which privileged the more traditional aspects of Chinese culture and Mandarin over other Chinese languages, did not always recognize this, promoting speaking (standard) Chinese only in class and discouraging dynamic translanguaging. This issue has also been investigated by another linguist couple in Britain, Angela Creese and Adrian Blackledge, as they studied heritage language schools that taught various languages (e.g., Creese & Blackledge 2010, 2011). Creese and Blackledge noted more flexibility in translanguaging practices, including a principal who translanguaged dynamically at an assembly.

Dynamic bilingualism theory has done much to pinpoint the weakness of institutionalized bilingual and heritage language education: it essentializes and compartmentalizes languages and hence cannot account for the bi/multilingual communication of 21st century youth. In the public realm, it also essentializes and Others the linguistic and cultural identities of multilinguals—constructing unnecessary boundaries between U.S. and U.K. citizens of various language backgrounds, or between Chinese transnationals and the residents of the English-speaking countries where they study, live, and work.

Another colleague of García’s, Kate Menken, demonstrated the need for a dynamic orientation to bilingualism in New York public schools as well as those heritage language schools in Britain. Menken’s research was on students given the problematic and condescending label LTELLs (“Long-Term English Language Learners”) in the U.S. school system. These were immigrant youth who had grown up in the U.S. but would never be seen as “competent” English users. Their schooling had not allowed for academic Spanish development, even though they spoke Spanish at home. Nor had this schooling ever helped them catch up to grade-level academic English, because they had always been in a “sink-or-swim” English-only learning environment since they first started school at age 5, when they were dominant in Spanish (even though over the years they became English-dominant).

In a three-year study of three New York high schools (Menken & Kleyn, 2010), Menken, her colleague Kleyn, and four research assistants interviewed five administrators, four teachers, and 29 students in grades 9-12 who had been in the U.S. for an average of 10 years. They found that although schools provided instruction in both Spanish and English, the lack of dynamic bilingual programs was not responding to these students’ specific needs. Their English-only ESL classes, which were designed for newcomers to the U.S., were too easy, and they responded by disengaging from the classes. A Spanish-as-a-foreign-language class, with a “Spanish-only” language policy, designed for their fellow Americans who did not speak Spanish at home, would be too easy for the same reasons. However, grade-level subject instruction in either Spanish or English, also monolingual, was too hard, as the same trend was found for the 29 students as a group—even though they lacked grade-level literacy skills in English, their literacy skills were worse in Spanish. Standardized tests, administered monolingually (in English or Spanish only), found that they read and wrote 3 years below grade level in English and 3.5 years below grade level in Spanish.

A clue as to what might best be done for these students lies in how to teach academic texts to monolingual English speakers with low levels of academic literacy, who need to discuss academic texts in everyday English with the teacher and peers to make the material accessible. What these bilingual students needed was for the teacher to let them discuss texts’ meaning in a mix of Spanish and English (“unpacking”), and again work in a mix of Spanish and English to plan their academic writing about the same texts in academic English (“repacking”); see work by Angel Lin on how to do this process here. The teacher can help students if the teacher can speak their language; if not, allowing dynamic language-mixing in unpacking/repacking discussions already is a powerful tool. In a class with a target-language-only policy, whether English or Spanish, there are only two options: for students to follow the policy with content that is too easy, or to struggle with grade-level content since they are not able to draw on their entire language repertoires to master it. Either way, they learn very little.

What happens when we take dynamic translanguaging beyond its context?

As translanguaging theory in education gained worldwide popularity, striking chords with people who similarly saw the social justice potential among their own students (e.g., Agbozo & ResCue, 2020, in Ghana), García and Li’s theory also began to be misapplied. For example, in Sweden, translanguaging was promoted only to help newly arrived students have better outcomes on school-based tests in the dominant national language (Bagga-Gupta & Messina Dahlberg, 2018). Dynamic translanguaging was also generalized to contexts in which it was less appropriate. One of these contexts was Hong Kong, where blue collar students’ only exposure to English is in officially English-only classrooms, even though the students understand very little of the instruction (for more advice on what to do in this sad situation, click here). In such situations, the curriculum is too hard, the teacher does most of the talking, and many students find it difficult to produce a sentence in English, let alone fluently mix English with their other language(s).

In 2013, a famous bi/multilingual education professor at the University of Hong Kong, Angel Lin, published a gentle critique about the “dynamic” translanguaging coming from the U.S. In this critique, Lin (2013) feared that the trending translanguaging literature would push away three decades of internationally valuable research on code-switching in classrooms, much of it pioneered in Hong Kong, on how teachers deliberately managed their input and output in respective languages to build students’ proficiency in the weaker language, much as Williams (1994) had imagined when he coined the term trawsieithu. However, Lin has also done work on dynamic translanguaging, along with Li Wei and Ofelia García (see García & Lin, 2017; Li & Lin, 2019; Lin, 2019; Lin & He, 2017), because at other pedagogical moments, we all draw on an integrated language repertoire to learn and navigate the social life of the class.

A more teacher-directed approach to translanguaging pedagogy, which one might call pedagogical translanguaging rather than dynamic translanguaging, is also seen in the Basque language revitalization work of another well known couple in educational sociolinguistics, Jasone Cenoz and Durk Gorter in Spain (e.g., Gorter, Zenotz, and Cenoz, 2014; Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter, 2017). Cenoz and Gorter discuss the benefits of meaningful translation—not getting students to translate decontextualized sentences in the grammar-translation method, but to translate their personal reflections and research findings to each other, across languages. These activities develop students’ linguistic analysis skills for later independent language learning.

Cenoz and Gorter also emphasize the need to allow minority languages like Welsh and Basque “breathing space“—i.e., heritage language classes need to be “target language only” at certain times. In a recent talk (Cenoz & Gorter, 2021), they stated that an ideal education would involve both classes in which teachers do pedagogical translanguaging and lead translation activities to expand students’ language repertoires, and social spaces where students speak the minority language only so it does not compete with majority languages. In their talk, Gorter stated: “We’re not going to tell you it’s going to be 43% of one and 57% of the other”—the point is to create both. This dual approach to heritage language education, which combines government language policy, curriculum design, and teaching practices in the Basque region of Spain, has helped the Basque language to thrive and grow in number of fluent speakers.

This brings us to the topic of translanguaging in language program design, which is addressed in a book chapter praising García’s work, by education professor Guadalupe Valdés at Stanford.

Pedagogical applications: Language program design

Valdés, G. (2020). Sandwiching, polylanguaging, translanguaging, and codeswitching: Challenging monolingual dogma in institutionalized language teaching. In J. MacSwan & C. Faltis (Eds.), Codeswitching in the classroom: Critical perspectives on teaching, learning, policy, and ideology (pp. 114-147). London, UK; New York, NY: Routledge.

Valdés, a veteran scholar, starts with a very broad view of what virtually ALL language education programs (regardless of country, age of learners, or language taught) have in common, and what they do NOT have in common—what differs from program to program.

What all language education programs have in common is that they have undergone a process she calls “language curricularization,” described as follows:

When language is curricularized it is treated, not as a species-unique communicative system… but as an academic subject or skill the elements of which can be ordered and sequenced, practiced and studied, learned and tested in artificial contexts…. This process of curricularizing language—an essential aspect of all language teaching—involves the activity of organizing and selecting elements from a particular dialect/variety of a language (e.g., Spanish, English, French, German, Chinese) for instructional purposes as if they could be arranged into a finite, agreed-upon set of structures, skills, tasks or functions.

All language programs, for example, must be aligned with educational language policies, that is, with credit-unit requirements and with state or profession-wide language standards (i.e., aspirational progressions stating what students can do and how well at different levels of study). Program designers are not free to simply respond to perceived student needs. They are constrained and informed, moreover, by ideologies of language, race, class and identity, by their conceptualizations of language, by theories of second language and second dialect acquisition, by perspectives on bilingualism/multilingualism and by educational language policies. (Valdés, 2020, pp. 116-117)

What language programs DON’T have in common, however, are the “perceived student needs” that I highlight in bold above, and individual student/program aims. Here, Valdés speaks to program types in the U.S. that she is familiar with. In four program types—university foreign language instruction, adult ESL programs, middle/high school ESL programs that focus on different academic subjects, and elementary ESL programs—students normally share English as a common language (in other countries, they will share the dominant societal and school language as a lingua franca). In university foreign language instruction, some students may simply want to pass graduation requirements, while some need to prepare to major in the language; in adult ESL programs, the goal may be “survival” or basic English; in middle/high school ESL, students have to prepare for university or vocational studies in English as well as graduate from high school; in elementary ESL, students need to prepare for high-school subject instruction in English.

There are another four program types: “transitional” bilingual programs, “maintenance” bilingual programs, one-way immersion programs, and two-way immersion programs. In transitional bilingual programs (also common in Southeast Asia and Africa where there are many indigenous languages; see Sercombe & Tupas, 2014; Wiley, 2014), students are “weaned” of their mother tongue (or even the regional language that they speak alongside their mother tongue), getting less and less instruction in this over the years as they are cultivated to become dominant in the national language. In “maintenance” bilingual programs, which require bilingual teachers and typically do not exist beyond the elementary level, students are encouraged to maintain both languages for as long as it is feasible. In one-way bilingual programs, students who share Language A receive immersion in Language B; this is found in French immersion programs for anglophone (English-speaking) children in Canada. In two-way bilingual programs (e.g., English-Spanish in the U.S.), students who speak different home languages are supposed to immerse each other, in a class that is ~50% Language A speakers and ~50% Language B speakers, although sometimes these K-12 classes have been criticized for privileging the learning of the Language A speakers, who get more out of the classes as speakers of the dominant societal language (de Jong & Howard, 2009).

Valdés discusses this range of program types and learner needs in order to point out that any language practice—target language only (at least at certain points), dynamic translanguaging, or code-switching between distinct codes, and “the ways that both teachers and students respond to any deviation from the expected or mandated choice” (pp. 126-127)—will be interpreted based on factors such as as the course purpose (influenced by language policy and wider societal conditions at different geographical levels), whether or not the learners share a common language, and whether the instructor speaks a language other than that being taught (p. 126). What scholars do NOT need to do is to promote one instructional practice over any other with no reference to context:

[W]e will have to move beyond arguments about metaterminology. We need to agree on ways that language, if it must be curricularized, can be organized to make the process of expanding students’ heteroglossic [=”all-terrain vehicle”] repertoires as painless as possible. (Valdés, 2020, p. 139)

What is the cause of students’ pain? It is the “blind acceptance” that target language only is the best practice “in spite of extensive research that supports the superiority of bilingual [or multilingual] techniques” (Valdés, 2020, p. 127). We need to use students’ whole language repertoires “in various different ways and following numerous carefully-thought-out strategies… supported by empirical research” (p. 129) to teach and learn languages, according to goals and needs negotiated among stakeholders. [This goes with another post I have written, which, among other topics, deals with goal-setting in translanguaging classrooms between teachers, students, and scholars.]

Given the numerous terms to describe language mixing, Valdés rates “translanguaging” the highest (pp. 132-137) because it challenges virtually everything about language curricularization and the monolingual orthodoxies therein. It takes into account ideologies and conceptualizations of language, interrogates philosophical stances on language purity, and provides a lot of practical suggestions for programs (materials design, instruction, and assessments) while also taking into account mediating mechanisms such as language policy.

Do language programs need all the ideologies of dynamic translanguaging?

In other publications, García and Otheguy have extended their theory beyond education studies, making claims that different languages have no psycholinguistic reality, and are social fictions (García & Otheguy, 2020; Otheguy, García, & Reid, 2015), and a similar argument was made by Li Wei in a prestigious and well-cited article (Li, 2018). This is where Jeff MacSwan, a linguist and educational researcher, and his colleague Christian Faltis, another social justice oriented teacher-educator, disagree. Both men have spent their careers in different parts of the U.S., working mainly with Latinx students. They point to codeswitching research that shows people do make language distinctions, in at least two ways:

  1. Psycholinguistic code-switching, the bilingual child’s ability to mix languages without breaking the grammatical rules of either (MacSwan, 2020), which shows “native-like competence,” but not in the form of double-monolingualism (one language at a time);
  2. Interactional code-switching, which I studied in detail in my PhD dissertation and discuss at length in this blog post on code-switching and in an academic paper. When people switch between Language A and Language B in conversation, they usually are signalling a shift in topic, task, phase of the conversation, or addressee, and the language switch signals this. A distinction between two codes is noted by participants in the conversation—this cues them that the “shifting gears” is taking place.

MacSwan distinguishes between individual language repertoires, which are integrated all-terrain vehicles, and language grammars, which are language-specific. He argues that language program designers can embrace two of the groundbreaking theoretical contributions of García (MacSwan, 2020, p. 24):

  1. “A conceptual framework which affirms a holistic view of bilingualism (Grosjean, 1985, 2010) and rejects prescriptivist dogma related to the language of bilingual communities and individuals,” and
  2. “A pedagogical research program, often realized as a particular point of view on bilingual instruction which rejects strict language separation policies,”

while rejecting a third argument,

which questions the existence of discrete languages, along with complementary ideas such as multilingualism, language rights [i.e., how can you fight for Hawaiian language, Hawaii Creole language, or African American English speakers’ rights if these codes do not exist?], mother tongues, or codeswitching. This third component of translanguaging… is absent from early treatments such as García (2009), where codeswitching is extensively used and discussed as one example of dynamic language use. (MacSwan, 2020, p. 24)

Summary

Baker (2019) concluded his speech at García’s retirement by calling her “Queen Ofelia García”:

Her list of publications, honors, visits to many Universities around the globe, her academic and professional awards, journal editorships and editorial boards, keynote addresses at major conferences, puts Hilary Clinton in the shade and Donald Trump in the dark. There are at least 21 books and several hundred articles. She is thus the undisputed heavyweight champion of bilingual education and bilingualism.It is Ofelia that has made ‘translanguaging’ famous throughout the world. Her 2009 book ‘Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective’ showed how translangauging was not just about classrooms and codeswitching, but is the reality of the integrated everyday language of bilinguals. She has developed the term so it makes bilingualism [particularly language-mixing!] feel more positive, more politically acceptable, more about the power of people who speak two or more languages. (Baker, 2019, p. 182; my bold and insertion)

What is the most important thing about the legacy of this benevolent and illustrious empress of bi/multilingualism? Answer: the dynamic translanguaging theory as the cornerstone of social justice in many contexts (within and beyond the U.S.) because it puts ALL language users on equal footing, regardless of how they use their language(s), to set the stage for learning. It is an asset-based rather than a deficit-based perspective, focusing on the language resources people have, and not what they lack. At the same time, the same theory may be reduced to a U.S./U.K.-led trend in language education in contexts (again, both within and outside the U.S.) where other types of translanguaging besides dynamic translanguaging are more relevant. When I say “contexts,” I do not mean “countries”… I mean “contexts” at the level of particular programs, classes, and moments within a class—in terms of their translanguaging purposes and situations—the level that Valdés (2020) refers to. It is here that teachers and students, the translanguaging citizenry, need to negotiate what translanguaging will entail and how to carry it out.

References

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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

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Published by annamend

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

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