Bringing together translanguaging and Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT)

This study investigated the use of translanguaging and Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT) together in a secondary EFL class. The authors begin by summarizing research on translanguaging and TBLT, and discussing where the two theories of language teaching meet, comparing and contrasting their similarities/differences and concluding, overall, that they have many commonalities. Next, the authors apply theory to practice in a study of a secondary EFL class in Hanoi, which examined when and how students’ L1, Vietnamese, was used in an oral English presentation task. Finally, they make the argument that translanguaging and TBLT combined together offer a pedagogy that very closely mirrors actual real-world language use, preparing learners for communicative practices they will encounter outside the classroom, particularly in the workplace.

Seals, C. A., Newton, J., Ash, M., & Nguyen, B. T. T. (2020). Translanguaging and Task Based Language Teaching: Crossovers and challenges. In Z. Tian, L. Aghai, P. Sayer, & J. L. Schissel (Eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives (pp. 275-292). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Seals et al. begin with a quote from Lemke (2002, p. 85):

Could it be that all our current pedagogic methods in fact make multilingual development more difficult than it need be, simply because we bow to dominant political and ideological pressures to keep languages pure and separate?

To answer this question, the researchers examine the role that learners’ full linguistic repertoires—including first languages and “First Acquired Languages” (that is, the national languages in EFL contexts, such as Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesia, or Mandarin in China)—play in oral task performance in the EFL classroom where students share a common L1 or FIA. To do this, they simultaneously examine translanguaging and Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT) in oral presentation activities in a secondary EFL class.

What is TBLT? How does L1 work in TBLT?

Ellis (2003, p. 16) defines “task” in TBLT as “a workplan that requires learners to process language pragmatically to achieve an outcome [e.g., report, presentation]…. intended to result in language use that bears a resemblance, direct or indirect, to the way language is used in the real world” (p. 13). TBLT was developed from the 1980s to the 2000s with roots in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), but both these ways of language teaching “privileged the native speaker and tended to adopt a subtractive view of L1 use in the classroom” (Seals et al., 2020, p. 277)—i.e., removing L1 from the oral communicative processes used to plan out the task.

Reduced, if not necessarily absent, L1 use might have made more sense in the North American and British college/university ESL classes where TBLT was researched in the 1980s and 1990s, in which students did not share an L1 with each other or with the teacher… but other, more recent research (in the past 10-15 years) has examined L1 use in TBLT in classrooms where students and teacher do share this L1 resource. These are well summarized in Seals et al.’s chapter (pp. 278-279):

Subjects/LocationFindings: When and why use L1?
Storch & Aldosari (2010)EFL students at a Saudi Arabian collegeTask type had more influence than English proficiency on L1 use in pair work [i.e., certain tasks will elicit lots of L1 use because they are more difficult/richer]
Lasito & Storch (2013)Indonesian adolescent EFL learnersL1 use for task management and dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary
Moore (2013, 2017)University-level Japanese EFL learnersIn preparing for an oral presentation, individual learners displayed high/low L1 use patterns [contrary to Storch & Aldosari (2010)]. Still, there was a common finding among the students: when L1 talk occurred, it tended to be for negotiating procedures and for off-task/social talk.
Tognini & Oliver (2012)Primary/secondary foreign language learners in AustraliaL1 (English) use increased as tasks became more demanding. It also increased in pair/group work, in which students had to collaborate to construct a text or do a task, like a role play or arguments for a debate.
Azkarai & García Mayo (2017)Spanish primary school EFL learnersL1 used to appeal for help (i.e. to find a word), metacognitive talk (i.e. L1 to talk about correctness/appropriacy of L2 forms), or to keep the conversational flow when doing the task
Shintani (2014)Six-year-old beginner Japanese learners of EnglishL1 for metacognitive talk and to communicate with the teacher
Review of studies in Seals, Newton, Ash, & Nguyen (2020), pp. 278-279

What is interesting are the (largely) similar themes and findings of when and why people use their L1 when doing a task in L2, regardless of learner age, what the L1/L2 is, and whether they are in a second or foreign language context: “The consistent orientation in all of these studies is towards the productive functions played by L1 in task performance, especially its role in metacognitive talk, task management and appeals for help” (p. 279). Even if students are not beginners, L1 use could help them achieve more challenging tasks than working in the target language alone. However, use of L1 is under-researched in TBLT studies. Plonsky and Kim’s (2016) meta-analysis of TBLT studies found that “only six explicitly accounted for L1 use in the data” (as cited in Seals et al., 2020, p. 279). This suggests that translanguaging is either designed out of the activity, or if it remains, translanguaging data is not considered relevant to the analysis of talk leading to language learning.

How are TBLT and translanguaging theories similar or different?

García and Sylvan (2011) established eight guiding principles of translanguaging: heterogeneity, student collaboration, faculty collaboration, learner-centered classrooms, language and content integration, plurilingualism “from the students up,” experiential learning, and localised autonomy and responsibility.

Ellis (2018, p. 12) describes the task-as-workplan in TBLT as having four key features: a focus on meaning, a gap to be filled with information/reasoning/opinions, learners needing to use their own linguistic and non-linguistic resources, and a communicative outcome [e.g., report, presentation] that is measured not in terms of whether language is used correctly but on whether the communicative outcome was achieved.

Long (2009, p. 376) lays out ten methodological principles for TBLT: Using the task, not the text, as the unit of analysis; promoting learning by doing; elaborating input; providing rich input; encouraging inductive learning of “chunks” of language; drawing attention to form; providing negative feedback when necessary; respecting learner’s developmental processes (e.g., the learner’s pace); promoting cooperative and collaborative learning; and individualizing instruction.

Based on this general overview, Seals et al. compare and contrast translanguaging and TBLT (pp. 281-282), but ultimately decide that they have more similarities than differences:

– Translanguaging provides us with the ideological framework for respecting students’ whole language repertoires; TBLT provides us with the practical pedagogical steps

– Translanguaging is a sociocultural theory; TBLT is a cognitive theory
– Both focus on student collaboration and meaning negotiation
– Both advocate for content and language integration
– Both advocate for experiential learning: “learners must actively take part in their acquisition of sociolinguistic knowledge” (p. 281)—choosing what bits of language they will transfer from the task to future contexts
– Both recognize that learner-centered classrooms are critical
– Both argue that curricula must be needs-based and fluidly responding to learner needs
– Both focus on functional, communicative language use tailored to learner needs
Translanguaging and TBLT, Seals et al. (2020), pp. 281-282

The study

The chapter reports on Newton and Nguyen (2019), a study that took place at a secondary school in Hanoi, Vietnam. The original purpose of the study was to investigate EFL speaking lessons; data included video and audio recordings and field notes from 45 lessons in 9 classes, taught by 9 different teachers. Students ranged from gr. 10, 11, and 12. Interviews were conducted with teachers and selected students. Since there was a great deal of translanguaging in the data, the authors were also able to publish the empirical study in the book chapter reviewed in this post.

One important thing to notice about their methodology is that they embrace translanguaging, code-switching, AND code-meshing lenses. Do we use our whole language repertoire to learn? Yes. Do we switch between specific codes to signal a “shifting gears” in the collaborative process? Also yes. And do we mesh codes together in a text to achieve our rhetorical meaning? Yes indeed! In fact, they state:

Chiefly, translanguaging is a macro lens through which language use can be viewed that acknowledges all parts of the linguistic repertoire as connected and equally valid. It is a position actively aligned with critical pedagogy… Within a translanguaging lens, it is entirely possible to have micro units of analysis such as codeswitching/codemeshing, etc. Therefore, a translanguaging lens does not preclude the existence or use of codeswitching and codemeshing. However, naming translanguaging is also naming an activist position. (p. 283)

Quantitative findings

The researchers first quantitatively examined amount and % of English and Vietnamese, (1) by turn—or how many lines of dialogue were in English, Vietnamese, or both, and (2) by words in each language. Only “by turn” analysis revealed statistically significant differences; students produced similar amounts of English and Vietnamese words (M=164.37 English; SD=122.39 / M=130.22 Vietnamese; SD=93.13); t(47)=1.643; p=.107, and hence any (small) difference was likely to have occurred by chance.

“By turn” analysis yielded significant differences:

Seals, Newton, Ash, & Nguyen (2020), p. 283

What this chart shows is that English-only and Vietnamese-only utterances substantially outnumbered translanguaged utterances. There were not any significant differences in English and Vietnamese production by turn, but there was a significant difference in amount of monolingual versus translanguaged utterances, highlighting the fact that these students were more comfortable speaking each language without mixing them in the clause or phrase, but were most comfortable translanguaging between the languages when doing the activity rather than working monolingually. In other words, we all translanguage quite naturally, but only people who are used to mixing one language’s words in the syntactic structure of the other, and vice versa, can do the form of translanguaging called “dense code-switching” (Green & Abutalebi, 2013). It is not common in foreign language classrooms between students’ L1 and the foreign language they have little exposure to outside of class, for obvious reasons (i.e., much of the input they have in the taught language is monolingual).

Qualitative findings

Students translanguaged extensively because they saw the “English only” performance as final, and the translanguaging in planning and rehearsal as preparatory. In the planning and rehearsal, “the students used L1 to sort out their ideas and marshal language resources to express the messages they wanted to convey” (p. 284). In interviews, students often said things like: “Time for preparation is often limited, if we use English [or any target L2] right away, it is very time-consuming. So we use Vietnamese [the L1 in our case] first to be quick to prepare ideas and find English words later” (p. 285). The researchers note that teachers structured classes in this way: a rehearsal phase in the first half of speaking lessons in which L1 could be used freely, followed by a performance phase in which students presented what they had learned in English.

These procedures seem apt for a foreign language context in which learners share an L1 or FIA, and are old enough (i.e., secondary education or above) to self-regulate, manage tasks, plan ideas, and discuss linguistic appropriateness in L1/FIA without the teacher needing to help as much. Translanguaging to discuss and resolve language problems, to ask for assistance finding an English word, to discuss whether the English phrasings reflect intended meanings, to weigh solutions (pp. 285-287)—all this suggests that metalanguage (i.e., language for talking about language) is mostly encoded in L1, not L2. [If you want to teach metalanguage in L2 (for example, to more precisely describe forms that exist only in L2), this has to be taught as an additional resource, even as translanguaging is fully encouraged.]

Here are two examples of translanguaging for metalinguistic purposes, in which translanguaging (use of the whole language repertoire to learn) and code-switching (cognitively salient distinctions between languages) appear together. In the first, students are discussing the right part of speech to use:

Seals, Newton, Ash, & Nguyen (2020), p. 285

Note how S1 asks in Vietnamese, “Is it air pollute?”, with only “air pollute” in English. S3 provides a candidate form, but this is rejected by S4, who provides the correct form, and then explains in Vietnamese why it is correct: “Pollution is the state of being polluted,” with only “pollution” in English. Translanguaging occurs because students use their whole language repertoire to learn. Code-switching occurs because they frame the target language with meta-talk in L1.

In the second example, students brainstorm ideas in L1, then translate to L2. Here, students are discussing the pros of having big families:

Seals, Newton, Ash, & Nguyen (2020), p. 286

Note how S1 translanguges to himself: “They old (.) when they old (.) they old (.) they are old chứ!” (line 2), to think aloud to himself not to forget the “be” verb. He uses translanguaging as a cognitive tool to monitor and evaluate his L2 output. In lines 6 to 8, notice how an idea that is first expressed in Vietnamese is worked on to recast it in English. This is an example of meaningful translation: students use their whole language repertoire to talk things through, yet also use translanguaging to figure out how to say things in the target language. While translanguaging theory provides the class with the ideal dispositions for harnessing their whole language repertoires, TBLT theory shows the linguistic processes that lead to this learning, which have also been shown in Second Language Acquisition research more broadly, and in research on pragmatics.

While deficit approaches may see students as “resorting to L1,” translanguaging gives us an asset-based perspective in line with critical pedagogy. At times (as when students are looking for a word), this may indicate a gap in English proficiency, but language gaps are definitely not the only reason people translanguage. Therefore, translanguaging is not merely “resorting to L1”; it is “a complex negotiation of the linguistic and social setting” (p. 287), which is evident in the ways in which students semi-consciously use the necessary linguistic resources for particular purposes which are almost immediately aligned to by all group members.

Instead of expecting students to “think in English” (when they may have little practice thinking in L2 without first translating from L1, given the life purposes for which they use English), we may consider that for these purposes, TBLT strategies that include translation are not only legitimate but most appropriate: “via translanguaging, the [ideological] script is flipped, and instead, L1 is seen to be beneficial in bridging students’ cognition” (p. 288).


The authors end with a quote from applied linguist Vivian Cook, famous for his theory of multicompetence:

Bringing the L1 back from exile may lead not only to the improvement of existing teaching methods but also to innovations in methodology. In particular, it may liberate the task-based learning approach so that it can foster the students’ natural collaborative efforts in the classroom through their L1 as well as their L2. (Cook, 2001, p. 419)

In other words, how much richer would TBLT research and methods be if they incorporated translanguaging as a factor, and as a “fact of life” both inside and outside the classroom, when people are completing tasks (e.g., in the workplace) (Seals et al., 2020, p. 288)? Unfortunately, in many Asian contexts, this translanguaging is exactly what is forbidden in EFL classes, due to standard monolingual English ideology, when in fact it could be what is most useful, especially when teachers also speak students’ language(s). In this study, students described their oral presentations as “the ‘happy ending’ of the task-based speaking lessons” (p. 288), as “students were able to successfully negotiate the task and perform it in the still required target form” (p. 289).

When it comes to both national languages and ELF, people who speak minoritized languages as L1s must plan products in these societally dominant lingua francas. In addition to being allowed to translanguage, they must have their work recognized from an asset-based perspective, as audiences consider the complex discourse and collaborative ingenuity that went into the task processes… and judge the product according to lingua franca norms.

Did you enjoy this summary of an empirical research article about translanguaging in a multilingual K-12 English-medium classroom? Subscribe to have a different research summary on this topic sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday!


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Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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Published by annamend

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

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