Definitions and examples of translanguaging: Do they remain justice-oriented? – Two lit reviews from the Global “North” and “South”

In 2017, Luis Poza, an assistant professor of Education in the U.S., examined 53 studies on translanguaging (1996-2014), investigating how the term was defined in each study, what examples were given, and what percentage of studies linked translanguaging to educational reform for linguistically and culturally marginalized students, as opposed to merely promising that translanguaging would lead to better academic outcomes for them. In 2020, Chaka Chaka, an English Studies professor at the University of South Africa, did a lit review examining 16 recent studies on translanguaging with a Global South perspective (2012-19), asking how translanguaging was defined and exemplified, whether it was framed as post-monoglossic, and whether there was an explicit justice-oriented intention in each study linked to decoloniality and the Global South. Here, I present some of their findings, and, based on both reviews, conclude with 5 under-researched contexts where translanguaging studies can make even more strides in the area of critical pedagogy.

Poza, L. (2017). Translanguaging: Definitions, implications, and further needs in burgeoning inquiry. Berkeley Review of Education, 6(2), 101-128.

Poza describes how he first encountered the concept of translanguaging as a doctoral student in 2010, saying, “It offered a lens through which to view the language practices of bilingual Latinx students as valuable, generative, and powerful, rather than in need of remediation” (p. 102). However, as translanguaging pedagogy attained worldwide attention during the 2010s, largely due to the work of Cuban American professor Ofelia García, he worried that “translanguaging would be reduced to a means for closing achievement disparities [between linguistic minority students and students who spoke the dominant national language as their first], thus losing questions about the broader historical hierarchies and neoliberal socioeconomic imperatives from which these disparities emerge” (p. 102). 

Poza begins his literature review by charting the impact of García’s 2009 book, Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective, on number of publications about translanguaging. [Note that the 1996 publication is by Cen Williams, who is credited with coining the term.]

Poza (2017), p. 105

A key feature of García’s 2009 book was a challenge to the standard language ideologies of many nation states, and their discourses about their “national language(s),”

by which the language practices of the political elite in urban centres became intertwined with the formation of a national identity. Thus, language practices of those outside the empowered urban center[s]—whether in the national periphery [i.e., rural areas] or in colonized territories—were subjugated, devalued, or repressed (Anderson, 2006; Scott, 1998). In many nation-states, extensive centralized planning placed one language variety atop all others as the exclusive variety for use in official channels and then diffused this variety by way of media, schooling, and coercion through allocation of educational and occupational opportunities to users of prestige varieties over others. (Poza, 2017, p. 106)

Now, let’s examine why translanguaging in education poses a threat to these national ideologies of monolingualism. In her 2009 book, García referred to scholars who influenced her, Sinfree Makoni and Alastair Pennycook, who published a book of studies from all over the world (Makoni & Pennycook, 2007). Makoni and Pennycook, and García, drew attention to the fact that “people who are multilingual reject the boundaries placed around idealized constructions of ‘standard’ language or languages and instead draw from complex repertoires of linguistic features to negotiate meaning and understanding with interlocutors” (Poza, 2017, pp. 106-107).

García and her close collaborator Li Wei, and other translanguaging scholars like Creese and Blackledge (2010), embrace a concept called heteroglossia, which originated with the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1981). Heteroglossia is a term that describes language as mixed by nature in our everyday interactions, whether this mix is multilingual, multidialectal, multimodal, or multidiscursive. The term normalizes such language mixing in all contexts, challenging “appropriateness” discourses (Flores & Rosa, 2015) that devalue some people’s language practices for not being standard and monolingual, and that includes the practices of English monolinguals in the U.S. and U.K. who do not keep their slang, youthful ways of speaking, or blue-collar dialects from mixing with their “standard” English at school.

Sociolinguists like Blommaert and Backus (2013) and Pennycook and Otsuji (2014) point out that (1) linguistic resources are fluid within a person across the lifespan (they are picked up or discarded depending on how necessary they are at that point in one’s life, rather than being accumulated like a hoard), and that (2) people are individual carries of linguistic resources that they bring into and out of the spaces where they come and go (e.g., workplaces, schools, family members’ homes). And scholars of language acquisition, such as Vivian Cook, have also conceptualized language learning and use in similar ways for a long time (Cook, 1997, 1999).

In the global South, the developing world, or “non-Western” countries—I realize these terms do not exactly overlap, and are contested, but still—“societal multilingualism is more frequent and valued” (Poza, 2017, p. 107) than in the global North or “the West,” even though national discourses about “standard language” exist everywhere. In fact, Poza discusses how there was quite a bit of work on translanguaging in subaltern parts of the world that came before García. Indian scholars like Kachru (1994) and Sridhar (1994) showed that translanguaging was “business as usual” for the vast majority of people in the world. It was also shown to be a natural practice among Latinx students in the U.S. by Gutiérrez, Baquedano-López, and Tejeda (1999) and Gutiérrez, Baquedano-López, Alvarez, and Chiu (1999).

What makes García’s life work a massive achievement, then, is not that the idea is new but that she was able to go beyond translingual theory or even case studies of successful translanguaging pedagogy to proliferate curricular and teacher education materials to serve the needs of linguistically marginalized bi/multilingual students on a large scale. It is the practical implementation of translanguaging pedagogy with a justice-oriented aim. In addition to her publishing many articles, most of the textbook/practitioner guides in Poza’s review come from her and her colleagues in New York, specifically the City University of New York-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals (CUNY-NYSIEB;

Poza (2017), p. 110

[Side note: Another project with substantive textbook/practitioner guides for translanguaging pedagogy is the ROMtels Project at Newcastle University, with different handbooks for (1) teachers, (2) teacher educators, and (3) schools/communities, translated into five languages. Please let me know, readers, if you encounter others!]

Now let us see what Poza found in his review (for a detailed description of literature search and screening procedures, see Poza, 2017, p. 109). He classifies the 53 studies in the final sample into three categories. Category 1 studies (7/53) misunderstood García’s theory because the researchers did not see the bi/multilingual mind as an all-terrain vehicle, instead perceiving students to switch between languages. Category 2 studies (27/53) understood García’s theory about integrated bi/multilingualism, but saw translanguaging merely as a vehicle for helping students do better at school by allowing them to draw on their whole language repertoires to learn. Category 3 studies (19/53) had heteroglossic views tied to wider societal implications. Poza conceded, however, that even if the researcher(s) did not tie the theoretical framing to wider social justice implications, the examples of translanguaging might point to these. He then goes on to examine these examples.

Not all the articles were classroom-based empirical studies (some where theoretical essays), but among those articles that were classroom-based empirical studies, 27 dealt with pre-K-12 education, 7 dealt with college or university education, and 3 dealt with the professions. A few studies dealt with multiple contexts, and were thus “double-counted.” Moreover, 37 studies presented oral and/or written data on translanguaging. The data were oral in 8 studies, written in 4 studies, and both oral and written in 25 studies.

One positive finding was that the studies that reported on both oral and written translanguaging showed how translanguaging helped students learn by blurring the boundaries between the “4 skills” (listening, speaking, reading, writing), as students deconstructed texts in everyday language, code-meshed to establish their voices in academic writing and online texts, did textual or online research in multiple languages to later report to the class, and so on. Poza writes: “Importantly, the practices described in many of these works resulted from deliberate planning by teachers and researchers who incorporated translanguaging in planning writing or oral presentations, and allowed translanguaging in assessment (for specific examples of translanguaging in assessment, see Shohamy, 2011)” (p. 117).

On the other hand, this “rich, multimodal array of bilingual languaging practices beyond simple oral alternation of languages… does not, by itself, point to a significant reorientation of values with respect to language practices allowed and supported in classrooms, nor to a subversion of oppressive language ideologies” (p. 117). Moreover, they do not tend to go beyond the elementary level, suggesting that when it comes to academic subject instruction at the secondary level, institutionalized curricular materials and the speed at which the class needs to get through them leaves little room for students’ other languages apart from the dominant national language (but this is true of subtractive bilingualism worldwide). It is also worth noting that the sample of 53 studies contains many works by García and her colleagues, which carry the social justice agenda. [My own note: Jaspers (2018) has critiqued García for promising too much, but that is a topic for another post.]

Poza concludes his literature review in this way: The fact that one cannot really publish anything on translanguaging these days without citing García, her integrated model of bi/multilingualism, and her social justice orientation makes it clear that this orientation will never really be that diluted, even if translanguaging is largely framed in some studies as linguistic scaffolds (p. 120). He ends by making two valuable points related to this need to maintain the term’s critical edge.

First, even if there is work on translanguaging as a linguistic scaffold in particular lessons, we need more research showing that it promotes sustained academic development, as well as sustained critical reorientations to what languages are and how they work (beyond the translanguaging unit or lesson): “Studies that look beyond single exchanges and learning activities to the broader patterns of interaction over time will prove immensely valuable in this pursuit” (p. 120). In other words, he is calling for longitudinal research, which is rare in qualitative studies (even on popular topics like translanguaging) because it is difficult and tedious, but worth it.

Second, his literature review’s penultimate paragraph states:

[I]t bears repeating that translanguaging is but one term among many for the translingual practices that current scholarship seeks to highlight and value in its work with multilingual populations. Similar inquiry is perhaps warranted with respect to the various terms mentioned early in this work (global Englishes, flexible bilingualism, hybrid language practices, polylingual languaging, transidiomatic practices, code meshing translingual practice, and metrolingualism) and with respect to terms that preceded them, like jointfostering (Faltis, 2001), and, of course, code switching (Auer, 1995; Gumperz, 1982; Heller, 1988). That said, although investigating the differences across these conceptualizations may reveal important distinctions, some broader perspective is also in order. It is uplifting that so much attention is being given to the normalization of multilingual communicative practices and to the disruption of language hierarchies tied to standardization. (pp. 120-121)

Chaka Chaka. (2020). Translanguaging, decoloniality, and the Global South: An integrative review study. Scrutiny2: Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa, 25(1), 6-42.

Chaka set out to synthesize “the definitions, exemplifications, theories, and theoretical frameworks attributed to translanguaging as posited from decolonial and Global South perspectives” (p. 7), basing his literature review on three paradigms: integrationism, decoloniality, and the Global South. The first paradigm, integrationism, is similar to the heteroglossic view discussed above. It “rejects language as a discrete, bounded, autonomous, and abstract object that can be named and counted, as posited by canonical, mainstream sociolinguistic theory” (p. 8). The second paradigm, decoloniality, is “adopted from Escobar (2010) and Mignolo (2010), and critiques mainly Western epistemologies grounded on and informed by coloniality/modernity. … It does so by foregrounding subaltern knowledges (cf. Kumaravadivelu, 2016; Prinsloo, 2020), which are often marginalised by and backgrounded in ‘Western-centric, canonic epistemologies’” (p. 8). And while the term “Global South” is highly contested, it is generally understood to be shorthand for economically struggling countries, even though they are not all the same—“They do not share the same epistemes [ways of knowing] and cultures, nor are they clustered in the same geographical regions” (p. 8).

Because translanguaging holds a different view of how languages work in society from the view of autonomous codes, we can hypothesize that translanguaging is a “friend” to Global South and decolonial paradigms. But instead of taking this for granted, Chaka investigated how translanguaging was defined and illustrated in studies that took up a decolonial or Global South perspective.

He searched “translanguaging,” “decoloniality,” “Global South,” and their various permutations on three search engines (Google Search, Google Scholar, and Semantic Scholar), four databases (Taylor and Francis Online, Wiley Online Library, Education Resources Information Center [ERIC], and Journal Storage [JSTOR]), and two online academic social networking sites (ResearchGate and He also did “snowball sampling” based on the bibliographies of the journal articles he found. Then, he screened articles based on time period (2012-19, after translanguaging took off from the U.S.), article type (only those in peer-reviewed journals were included), and language (English only). A flowchart showing this process appears in Chaka (2020, p. 12). The final sample consisted of 16 studies. 

Chaka (2020), p. 13

Now, let us examine what he found, in terms of translanguaging definitions, translanguaging examples, and translanguaging theories and theoretical frameworks.

When it comes to definitions of translanguaging, he acknowledges that the term is “dynamic, evolving, and, at times, elusive” (p. 25). Nonetheless, he found four definitions of translanguaging among the articles:

1. The school-based additive view of translanguaging (similar to Poza’s category 2 of translanguaging studies, which conceptualized translanguaging as a linguistic scaffold to do better at school)

2. Linguistic alternation (similar to Poza’s category 1 studies, which misunderstood Garcia’s theory)

3. Translanguaging as a disruptive decolonial practice (similar to Poza’s category 3 studies)

4. The heteroglossic view of translanguaging as an enabling or navigational learning tool (which seems to straddle Poza’s categories 2 and 3, a line that Poza found blurry himself)

Compared to Poza, Chaka seems to be a bit more charitable towards the studies that focus entirely on helping students succeed at school, IF translanguaging is accompanied by the right dispositions and intentions:

Invariably, a school-based additive view of translanguaging is student-oriented. It is employed as a tool to enable students to learn and to access learning through linguistic resources they have already mastered, which often differ from and run counter to the dominant and normative language of learning and teaching (LoLT). Through this view, students derive a humanizing experience (Childs 2016) and have their linguistic resources affirmed and their categories of understanding enhanced (Cushman 2016). This view is also pedagogically oriented and, as such, has classroom utilitarian value. The classroom functional value tends to challenge existing classroom language normativity by trying to equalise the available linguistic resources and repertoires students possess. In this sense, it seems to have a decolonial orientation. However, adding a language practice to an existing normative language practice is, in itself, not decolonial. Rather, it is the underlying motive behind that additive language move that determines whether such a move is decolonial or simply mechanical. (p. 26)

The same, he argues, goes for “linguistic alternation” or pedagogical code-switching:

As is the case with a school-based additive view of translanguaging, linguistic alternation may entail a decolonial intentionality, but unless such intentionality is manifestly articulated (and this is not the case with the three articles in question), it may not be easy for an outsider to detect it. This implies that linguistic alternation must be undergirded by and undertaken with explicitly articulated decolonial intentions. (p. 26)

Another issue Chaka comments on is the issue of integrationism and how this is contradicted by the examples in the studies, which implicitly define instances of translanguaging as whatever contains a mix of named languages. He writes: “Bagga-Gupta (2017) cautions that at times prefixes such as ‘multi-‘, ‘pluri-‘, ‘trans-‘, and ‘super-’ [as in ‘superdiversity’] may have the unintended stratifying effects of indexing and reproducing boundaries” (p. 27).

In fact, because we live in a heteroglossic world, everything is translanguaging—it would be near impossible to find something that was not. However, instances of translanguaging are diverse; in his study, Chaka found “medical French and patients’ languages, and isiZulu, Sepedi/Setswana, and English… multilingual materials, fiction… Chinese-American bilingualism… Spanish-English bilingualism… a university course presented in English, isiXhosa, and isiZulu… multilingual students’ written assignments in a bilingual first-year course… multiple scripts and media… varieties of Englishes… and a theoretical example relating to Brazilian history learners” (p. 27). This reminds me of a quote from another article:

As a descriptive catch-all term, ‘hybridity’ per se fails to discriminate between the diverse modalities of hybridity, for example, forced assimilation, internalized self-rejection, political cooptation, social conformism, cultural mimicry, and creative transcendence. (Shohat, as cited in Kubota, 2014, p. 482) 

A third point Chaka makes, besides (1) educating students in the dominant language with a decolonial intent (I think this intent depends largely on many subtle nonverbal cues as it does on explicit teaching), and (2) suggesting that translanguaging is a universal phenomenon with many specific forms, is (3) how translanguaging can shift roles of expertise. Basically, translanguaging in the classroom forces monolingual English speakers to adapt to the translanguagers (Janks, 2004). According to Chaka, translanguaging can “deconstruct and destabilize the ‘invisible architecture’ bequeathed to [certain] second-language writing [instructional practices] by monolingualist ideology (Lu and Horner 2016) in the form of asymmetrical power/knowledge matrices embedded in normative language theorising” (Chaka, 2020, p. 29).

Translingual practices may even lead to new ways of thinking, or what he calls “border thinking”—delinking assumptions that certain things always go together, or should always be thought of as distinct; opening up disciplinary silos (isolated areas of study) to each other; and “engendering new genres and pluriversal realities” (p. 29). There is some evidence in his literature review of these processes, as translanguaging from subaltern frameworks introduces other theories and methodologies. Among these, he points out (1) an ubuntu theoretical framework, (2) Freirean humanising pedagogy, and (3) autoethnographic narratives (pp. 30-32). Ubuntu is epitomised by the mantra “I am because you are, you are because we are” (Makalela, 2018, p. 2), “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (in Nguni) and “motho ke motho ka batho” (in Sotho)—“a human being is a human being because of other human beings” (Letseka, 2012, p. 48). To me, Freirean critical pedagogy is interesting because it is multi-centric (Brazilian + Decolonial + Internationalized + Marxist + Western). This leads to different understandings of it, but the benefits (conversations) will outweigh the drawbacks as long as people are actively searching for differences in understanding and approach them with an open mind and without losing Freire’s decolonial intent. As for autoethnography, this allows people to engage in a double narrative process involving their stories and their reflections on them—“one of its goals is to challenge canonical and conventional ways of doing research and representing participants in research” (Chaka, 2020, p. 32); however, he also acknowledges that it is criticized for lacking methodological rigor and for potentially being self-serving.

All in all, Chaka concedes that there is probably more work that he did not find, but he wanted to focus on peer-reviewed journal articles because these were most likely to be widely accessible (p. 34); the same probably goes for the decision to include only articles published in English, despite the irony of this.

I now suggest, based on the two reviews and my own knowledge on this subject, where more research on translanguaging needs to be done, which is a big issue for graduate student training. Here is a tally of the geographic contexts in both literature reviews; even if it is not 100% accurate, proportions are clear.

Studies reviewed in Poza (2017)Studies reviewed in Chaka (2020)
USA: 29
UK: 11
USA-Mexico: 1
Mexico: 1
Puerto Rico: 1
Spain: 1
France: 1
South Africa: 2
Kenya: 1
Singapore: 1
Theoretical article/Unknown): 3
South Africa: 4
USA: 4
Brazil: 1
Theoretical article/Unknown): 7
Comparison of the two lit reviews

In Chaka’s lit review, theoretical articles about decoloniality and translanguaging tend to be published by scholars based in the Global North (even if they are people of color, and/or grew up in the Global South). The U.S. material in his review is centered on the work of Suresh Canagarajah, on code-meshing and translingual writing in U.S. higher education. There is a body of research in Chaka Chaka’s country, and that is it… apart from a lone study from Brazil. In Poza’s review, over three fourths of the studies are from Inner Circle English-speaking countries (the U.S. and U.K.), and many of the rest are from Outer Circle English-speaking countries that were colonies of English-speaking countries (Puerto Rico, South Africa, Kenya, and Singapore), where English is more prevalent in daily communication and the media. There is little work from Expanding Circle English-speaking countries, which are not so English-dominant (see Kachru, 1986, a seminal work on Global Englishes, for these terms’ origin). In other words, translanguaging is almost synonymous with translanguaging between English and some other language(s); translanguaging is anglophone-centric.

Translanguaging is also under-researched in contexts where it is EXTREMELY misaligned with educational policies, structures, and ideologies concerning language instruction. Here are five under-researched contexts where translanguaging is concerned, and where translanguaging research can really disrupt the systemic marginalization of students’ whole language repertoires:

First, look at the interface between translanguaging and EFL instruction, for example in two developed capitalist democracies of East Asia—Japan and South Korea—which put out a lot of internationally recognized research on language learning (of English and their globally valued national languages… almost always with a native-speakerist orientation) and haven’t embraced translanguaging to any great degree. In these two countries, an assumption of ethnolinguistic hegemony, though false, is very strong (e.g., Kubota, 1998; Yang et al., 2020).

Second, look at adult education in other “global languages.” Look at BRICS countries that belong to the Expanding rather than Outer Circle—these include Brazil, Russia, and China. Also, look at Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Finally, look at the countries in the European Union. These countries are international gatekeepers for the standard forms of their national languages (e.g., Confucius Institutes; JLPT Proficiency Test; Alliance Française, Goethe Institute, etc.). How we might do translanguaging in such language classrooms? Even in the rare study that shows how this is done successfully (e.g., Wang, 2019), the dynamic translanguaging is between English and the other global language, necessitating that adult learners learn English first, which almost guarantees that they are middle-class elective bilinguals whose lives made it relatively easy for them to know English, and they are learning the other language because they want to, not because they’re forced to. Note that countries in the EU prefer to work with the theory of plurilingualism and the notion of discrete codes, and standardized assessment frameworks for measuring language proficiency like the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), rather than embrace dynamic translanguaging (Garcia & Otheguy 2020). One can argue that the CEFR deals with assessing the language skills of adult immigrants and workers, rather than teaching bilingual elementary school children using their whole language repertoires, yet Blommaert and Backus (2013) have proposed a framework of reference for language proficiency more in line with contemporary sociolinguistic theory than the CEFR.

Third, look at translanguaging in K-12 beyond elementary education. Look at countries in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, with dozens or hundreds of native languages. In these countries, nationalism plays a great role in inhibiting translanguaging, as elites tie assimilation to the national language with the promise of economic growth and prosperity (Sercombe & Tupas, 2014). Even if Mother Tongue K-8 instruction is implemented, this is usually in the form of transitional bilingual education, away from “mother tongues” and toward the national language… and at any rate, so-called “mother tongue education” in the early grades takes students from the regionally dominant language to the national language, with the regionally dominant language misconstrued as students’ mother tongue. This phenomenon—how hard it is to implement use of students’ whole language repertoires beyond the elementary level—points to why Poza also found few U.S. studies beyond the elementary level in his lit review (Poza, 2017, p. 115). Therefore, we need to look into harnessing translanguaging in secondary academic subject instruction in a dominant societal language—including, but going beyond, classrooms where this language is English.

Fourth, we must look at indigenous language education around the world, which, though absolutely necessary, can become traditionalist and monolingual native-speakerist, with its own gatekeepers (e.g., Patrick, 2007; Zavala, 2015).

Fifth, let us seriously consider why much international scholarship on translanguaging and applied linguistics is published in written academic English, and ways to make it more accessible in terms of varieties of languages, registers, and modalities.

Translanguaging challenges too many of the ideologies and pedagogical norms on which language education in these five contexts are built. If we want to teach translanguaging for social justice, these contexts are where we most need research of all kinds—action research, discourse analysis, ethnography, quantitative research on the effects of language policy, and (as García has paved the way) widespread professional development for educators and prolific curricular design, with longitudinal research on the effects of these on long-term learning and sustained language awareness.


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Published by annamend

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

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