Translanguaging, multivocality, borrowing, or stylization?: Analyzing and writing about multilingual data

I didn’t originally expect this post to be about multilingual research methods. Originally, it was just supposed to be a review of Turnbull’s (2019) study on how Japan, a country often thought of as monolingual, is actually not only multilingual but translingual. This post still promotes that finding in the study—which challenges powerful national discourses of monolingualism, native speakerism, language standardization, etc., when there is still a lot of work to do to challenge these discourses. However, I would also like to illustrate (1) what happens when challenging such discourses through translanguaging theory is the main focus of research, compared to (2) when our goal is simply to analyze language in use, without the translanguaging term and its explicitly social justice/activist stance. In this post, I describe what we can take away from Turnbull’s study in terms of a much-needed translanguaging perspective on language use in Japan. Then, I analyze his data using other sociolinguistic terms—multivocality, borrowing, and stylization—that recognize distinct languages, and discuss what critical and social justice-oriented insights these terms can offer.

Former president of the American Association of Applied Linguistics (2015-16) Paul Kei Matsuda gave a recent talk at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, which, among other things, addressed how translingualism and translanguaging are not novel phenomena, but have always existed, whether such practices are promoted as ideal, or “swept under the rug” as undesirable, or simply accepted with a shrug (Matsuda, 2013, 2020). In other words, they are not inherently good or bad; they just happen. Therefore, the question becomes: if monolingual standard language ideologies (e.g., “one nation, one people, one language”) are obviously problematic, would “celebrating” or objectively “documenting” multilingualism and/or translanguaging be more helpful to promote marginalized people’s language rights? (I define “multilingualism” as use of more than one language, and “translanguaging” as the phenomenon in which people use their whole language repertoires without regard for distinct language boundaries.)

The answer depends, I think, on what we are trying to accomplish in activism, or pedagogy, and who our audiences are. If the goal is to theorize about language practices that happen in the absence of pedagogical intervention (i.e., teachers and researchers leading students to do this or that), we need to be open to seeing the language data from multiple perspectives, not just that of the intervention or the theoretical paradigm in which it was based (e.g., translanguaging). This goes for both linguistic ethnographies about students’ spontaneous multilingual language use in classrooms, as well as studies of multilingualism outside of classrooms.

In this post, I step out of the K-12 classroom context that I normally research, but what I am discussing here goes for any context. I discuss the limitations of taking only a translanguaging stance in any analysis of multilingual data—even though I also want to emphasize the value that translanguaging studies bring, because they go against problematic discourses of “one nation, one culture, one language.” I illustrate this necessary two-sided argument using a study by Turnbull (2019), on how Japan is not a monolingual, but a multilingual and even translingual society.

Turnbull, B. (2019). Beyond bilingualism in Japan: Examining the translingual trends of a ‘monolingual’ nation. International Journal of Bilingualism, 1-17. Early view.

Turnbull’s purpose was to challenge the common view that Japan is a linguistically homogeneous, monolingual society (i.e., unified in its language, Japanese). He does this by documenting “the largely unrecognized translanguaging practices prevalent throughout Japanese society,” and furthermore takes an explicitly critical stance, “address[ing] the question of why Japanese people largely fail to recognize their own translingual status despite their ability to live and act in an increasingly translingual society with few communicative issues” (Abstract). 

Turnbull begins with a discussion of macro-level discourses (i.e., large-scale ideologies in society). In the 1980s and 1990s, both Japanese and Western scholars highlighted that Japan was, among nations, more racially, ethnically, and linguistically homogeneous than most. However, other scholars pointed out the existence of ethnic and minority groups, such as Okinawans, Ainu, foreign service workers, Japanese returnees who grew up abroad and moved back to Japan, expatriates with high proficiency in Japanese, children of international couples, etc. Interestingly, very few Japanese consider themselves to be bi- or multilingual despite undergoing years of English education (Yamamoto, 2003), i.e., having some proficiency in English and possibly other languages as well.

This misperception may be due to the government-cultivated national image and the nihonjinron discourse, an ethnocentric collection of theories about the uniqueness of Japan as a monolingual and monocultural society, often in contrast to “the West,” and in particular the United States [to which, I might add, Japan was economically subservient in the years following World War II] (Kubota, 1998; Liddicoat, 2007; McKenzie, 2010; Sugimoto, 2003). The nihonjinron discourse posits that Japanese is too difficult for non-Japanese to learn—even though this is not true for all people—and English is too difficult for Japanese to acquire—even though there are a great number of Japanese who do speak English (Miller, 1982). 

According to Turnbull, one possible reason that Japanese people do not claim to be bi/multilingual, apart from modesty, is that they may subscribe to the idea that bi/multilinguals have to be perfectly fluent and native-like in both/all languages, even though this definition of bi/multilingualism rarely or never exists in real life (Dewaele, Housen, & Li Wei, 2003), because of domain-specificity within the individual language repertoire (which is nevertheless an integrated whole, without separate compartments for separate languages; see my post on emergentism explaining this).

Turnbull then goes into canonical translanguaging theory about the fluid language practices that individuals use in daily life (Canagarajah, 2013; Dovchin, 2018; García, 2009; García & Li Wei, 2014; Pennycook & Otsuji, 2015). Pennycook (2007) defines translanguaging as “the communicative practices of people interacting across different linguistic and communicative codes, borrowing, bending and blending languages into new modes of expression” (p. 47). Turnbull, in this article, adds:

Such practices have become increasingly more prominent in Japanese society, and thus it is here, in the emergent paradigm of translingualism, where the true status of the Japanese people is revealed. … Japanese society is rich with the integrated use of multiple languages and multi-modal semiotics that work to convey intended meaning to a specifically Japanese audience. This notion is grounded in what Cook (1992) first termed as ‘multicompetence.’ (Turnbull, 2019, p. 3) 

Being exposed to, and having knowledge of, multiple linguistic resources in everyday life; both from formal instruction and from out-of-class experiences; both productively (in speaking/writing) and receptively (in listening/reading) allows Japanese people to translanguage in signs with a specifically Japanese audience, which suggests that Japan is much more linguistically diverse than often thought. Turnbull points out that translanguaging may be more prevalent among youth (p. 5), but while youth in any country are exposed to more foreign languages through contemporary media and the Internet, and take up new forms of linguistic and multimodal translanguaging, they also tend to lose their knowledge of regional and heritage languages through formal schooling, with elders translanguaging between as many as five of these languages plus two nationally “official” ones in an example documented by none other than famed translanguaging scholar Li Wei (Li, 2018).

I now move on to Turnbull’s study, in which he analyzed the linguistic landscape of two Japanese cities by taking photographs. Turnbull avoided the signs of Western-based international corporations like McDonalds and Starbucks, focusing on translingual signs made by national and local companies or organizations. He defined five types of multilingual language use in these signs: 

  • Direct/parallel translation: What is in Japanese is repeated in English, and possibly also in other languages


  • Inter/sentential translanguaging: TL between sentences, e.g., a sentence in Japanese followed by a sentence in English
  • Intra/sentential translanguaging: TL within sentences, e.g., part of a sentence in Japanese and then part of it in English
  • Inter/lexical translanguaging: TL between two words in a sentence
  • Intra/lexical translanguaging: TL within the same word


Turnbull first begins with types of multilingualism that are not translanguaging but parallel translation. We see these typically in government signs:

Turnbull intimates, or lightly suggests, that such signs may be for tourists:

It is not uncommon to find direct translations of signs and/or information in Japan, especially in areas densely populated by tourists. … Because these signs are not designed to convey a complex linguistic message to a specific Japanese target audience, they fall within a ‘translation’ categorization rather than a translanguaing framework. There are, however, an assortment of translingual examples in Japan, seen through the fluid meshing of linguistic resources, language practices, and multi-modal/semiotic-based messages that are targeted specifically at the Japanese people. (pp. 7-8; my bold)

These translingual signs are the signs he discusses next. First, there are inter-sentential signs:

In the train/bus sign on the left, the Japanese 機内限定 means “limited to in-flight” and the second sentence, in English, says “Get discount!” In the other sign, the English “Happy New Year” is followed by a Japanese saying that is hard to translate; it seems idiomatic. Literally, it means, “please treat me well this year too,” but the best English gloss is “best wishes for this year” or “I look forward to working with you this year.”

Now let’s look at the intra-sentential translingual signs:

In the 50% off sign, the “50% off” is in English and the Japanese characters above say saidai, meaning “maximum.” In the other figure, the English word “new” appears beside the letter L, which means “large,” and beside that is “chiki”/チキ in Japanese (short for “chickin,” a borrowed word from English pronounced according to Japanese pronunciation). Underneath that is the Japanese word tōjyō, which means “appearance,” i.e., “new large-in-appearance chickens have arrived.”

Now let’s look at inter-lexical translanguaging:

In the first example, the word “aloha” (which everyone knows as a greeting in Hawaiian) is fused with “haisai” in Okinawan, a Japanese ethnic minority language. (Another name for Okinawa is the Ryukyus; this a cluster of islands south of Japan, historically a kingdom unto itself, annexed by Japan.) The annexation of Okinawa mirrors, in some ways, that of Hawai’i, and this sign features some solidarity between the two cultures. In the other sign, an advertisement, the Japanese word 香り kaori, meaning “fragrance” or “scent,” has dropped the hiragana character for ri り and replaced it with the English word “ring.”

Finally, let’s look at intra-lexical translanguaging:

The one on the left says “I [heart] Sakaemachi” (a district in a Japanese city), and it involves multimodal translanguaging in the unicode character of the heart, understood worldwide. The last example, with the dog, is particularly interesting. People who don’t know Japanese (like myself) should first know that this is an advertisement for custom T-shirts, saying that the company can print them off in a minute. On the right side is the Japanese word “wan,” which is the Japanese equivalent of “woof” (the sound of a dog barking—“wang wang” in Chinese and “wan wan” in Japanese), and here it is a pun on “one,” as in one minute. On the left, it says minitsu, which means “minute” in Japanese (another borrowed word from English, said according to Japanese pronunciation). 

In conclusion, Turnbull says: “The reason such marketing techniques exist is simple: the Japanese people understand them, and it is therefore unjust and illogical to deny them a translingual status beyond that of simple [Japanese/English] bilingualism. … [A]n assortment of intersentential, intrasentential, interlexical, intralexical, and semiotic-reliant translingual practices work together to create a linguistically rich linguascape in Japanese society that is undeniably deserving of a translingual accreditation” (pp. 14-15). 

Other ways to study and report on this data

Let me first start with saying that I like this study’s purpose and intent. In fact, I don’t really disagree with much that it says, and fully applaud the thesis that Japan is a translingual society (like any other society), but I think the data can be analyzed in other ways, and the conclusions expressed in more neutral language, particularly to avoid reproducing the same linguistic and cultural boundaries that translanguaging scholarship seeks to transcend. I now go on to analyze the same five types of multilingualism with an eye to looking for distinct languages rather than dismantling of language boundaries.

This is easy for the government-made parallel translation signs. Turnbull intimates a tourist audience for these, while I think they are for everyone. It is necessary for everyone to know, in his two examples above, (1) what to do with the fire extinguisher, or (2) that there is a “No Smoking” rule. Another study by Backhaus (2010), about government-made signs in Japan, discusses the replacement of Japanese/English bilingual signs with newer Japanese/English/Korean/Chinese signs to accommodate locals, tourists, expats, foreign workers, you name it. The connection made by Turnbull between the parallel translation signs and tourists specifically (even if the largest groups of tourists are English, Chinese, and Korean speakers) is unconvincing to me, especially when you consider the general nature of the signs’ content. Consider these signs about garbage collection from Backhaus’ study:

To say that the parallel translation signs are for foreigners and the translingual ones for Japanese inadvertently sets up boundaries between the two groups, which the article, in its lit review, rightfully questioned. The difference is not in audience but in genre: corporate advertising readily blends languages to market and sell things, while government signs are more likely to have parallel translations to announce information. Two macro-level discourses (large scale ideologies) can be contrasted: the blurry language/national borders of international capitalism versus the one-language-one-ethnicity discourse of national discourse. Seen from this perspective rather than the theory of translanguaging, it is hard to tell whether one kind of sign is more democratic or anti-authoritarian than the other. Of course, you can argue that the corporate advertising Turnbull analyzes in this study is national or local/regional rather than international; however, that only means that the symbolic value placed on certain (mainly English) words and symbols comes to be associated with “class” and “sophistication” at the national or local/regional level. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go through the remaining eight images—i.e., the translingual ones, most of which are from advertising.

I will do something here that sociolinguist Peter Auer did with the work of translanguaging scholars Ofelia García and Li Wei: he re-analyzed their published data (which they used to illustrate the construct of translanguaging in classrooms), not in order to challenge their claim that students used their entire language repertoire to learn and navigate the social life of the class, but in order to point out that students were, at times, orienting to distinct languages in interactions that García and Li used as examples of translanguaging (Auer, 2019). I will re-analyze Turnbull’s data from a “distinct codes” perspective, because I believe that there is value in both translanguaging and “distinct codes” perspectives depending on what you are trying to argue. For example, if you are teaching students to compose a piece of writing, as Turnbull (2019) demonstrated in another study, translanguaging seems to improve the final product compared to restricting students to work in one language at a time. However, when we analyze linguistic landscapes, sociolinguists have some “distinct language” tools in their toolbox—such as multivocality, borrowing, and stylization—that can be used alongside the translanguaging lens.

Multivocality (Higgins, 2009) means that the same message can mean different things to different people based on their schemas of linguistic and cultural knowledge. In this way, colonial languages like English can be “localized” and “owned” by people outside of English-dominant countries, while also maintaining some traces of their colonial meanings. Just as with the government signs, I do not think that the sign advertising a train/bus journey—with “limited to in-flight” (whatever that means) in Japanese, and “discount available” in English—is for Japanese people or locals only. Rather, it was possibly meant to hide certain information from tourists/English-only speakers to give people bilingual in Japanese and English (i.e., locals and naturalized residents) a full understanding of the situation, and is somewhat misleading to people who know only English. The same is true for the sign that says “50% off” in English and “up to” in Japanese.

In the sign with the peanut character (which is the Planters mascot from the American peanut company, who symbolizes graciousness/politeness/refinedness), “Happy New Year” is in English and the untranslatable greeting (“please treat me well this year” —> “looking forward to working with you this year”) is in Japanese. (This is presumably not a sign for the Lunar New Year but January 1st.) Also, the very reason the Japanese phrase is in Japanese is that it needs Japanese to express that meaning; it is untranslatable, and this shows that in some cases the nihonjinron discourse is right, even though I would say that is a small number of cases; I am not a fan of that discourse. Of course, the meaning is in the whole sign, so translanguaging is happening here. At the same time, distinct codes and culture-specific symbols are drawn on as well; we can identify them.

Now let’s take a look at the “kao-ring” advertisement and the “I [heart] Sakaemachi.” These advertisements draw on the many positive associations of the code English to sell goods and services and promote a gazillion social causes, a fact that Peter Sayer, a linguistic landscape and translanguaging/multilingualism scholar, documented in Mexico. (See Sayer, 2010, an article that is very well-cited for a short piece in a pedagogical journal… because it is so accessible and relevant to both theory and pedagogy.) In other words, this is a form of stylization—use of language resources that are out-of-place in that context in a way that commands attention; it is a framing mechanism (Coupland, 2001). English is associated with credibility, class, coolness, modernity... pretty much everything good… and it is somewhat disturbing how early on children worldwide are socialized into these associations, as Norton and Kamal (2003) demonstrated in Pakistan. Similarly, the “I [heart]” trope has been repeated everywhere around the world, particularly on T-shirts, baseball caps, and stickers, but let us not forget its origin: that most iconic and quintessential of American cities, New York, New York!

The “large size chicken” and “one minute T-shirt” examples are instances of language borrowing, with words like “chiki” and “minitsu.” The vast majority of linguistic borrowings in Japanese are from English, but in the Japanese writing system, Chinese characters are used. These borrowings reflect (1) the unequal economic and cultural exchange relationship between Japan and the U.S. in the post-WWII era, and (2) imperial China’s dominance over neighbouring kingdoms in pre-modern times, reflected in Japanese kingdoms being tributaries of Chinese kingdoms like Wei (even a cursory look at Japanese history shows that Chinese art, antiques, and even literary tropes were very fashionable during these past eras). As in many cases around the world, the culture that is subordinate borrows more words from the culture that is dominant than vice versa (I know many examples between Spanish and Tagalog), and those words are recast according to the phonology of the language they are borrowed into; they become 100% part of that language. Turnbull recognizes this in the discussion: “This paper has focused solely on translingual practices… overlooking the way in which English and other languages have slowly permeated their way into spoken Japanese as adopted and transformed words (gairaigo) and as Japanese-created English terms (wasei eigo)” (p. 14). 

Finally, let us take a look at “alohaisai.” It is not hard to see why Okinawans and Hawaiians feel affinity with each other. Both are victims of linguistic imperialism: Okinawan is often thought of as a dialect of Japanese rather than a language in its own right, and both ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i and Pidgin (Hawai’i Creole) have suffered the linguistic imperialism of “standard” American English, which positions Pidgin, a grammatically systematic creole, as “broken English,” “casual English spoken in Hawai’i,” etc. rather than a language in its own right. Turnbull only mentions the Hawaiian and Okinawan languages in the image, but it is in the hand gesture of the shaka pictured beneath “alohaisai” that Pidgin appears. This gesture is part of that language; I know this from doing my PhD in Honolulu, where the shaka was a local greeting which non-locals or “malihini” like myself could use in stylization. So, we need to think of the language rights of speakers of distinct languages, as well as translanguaging, for social justice.

Our online graduation party (May 2020) due to COVID-19

In summary, I do not contradict Turnbull’s analyses, but offer alternative analyses using other sociolinguistic constructs that (1) pertain to distinct languages, and (2) also foster critical perspectives related to social justice. I also cannot help critiquing this sentence in the conclusion of Turnbull’s article:

[A]n assortment of intersentential, intrasentential, interlexical, intralexical, and semiotic-reliant translingual practices work together to create a linguistically rich linguascape in Japanese society that is undeniably deserving of a translingual accreditation. (p. 15; my bold)

Since both (1) translanguaging and (2) use of codes that are socially perceived as distinct… are universal human phenomena in everyday interaction, I am not sure why Japanese society needs a “translingual accreditation,” and furthermore, who would be giving it. I hope not scholars in English-speaking countries, among whom translanguaging theory presently dominates over other theories of multilingualism. But given Turnbull’s lit review, I think a translanguaging stance is something that he sees Japanese people as needing to give themselves. I support this view, even though “accreditation” is not the word I would use; neither would I say “deserving” or “linguistically rich”; is there somewhere not deserving or linguistically poor by comparison? Instead, I would prefer to conclude—in a way that is wordy and rhetorically weaker, but more ethnographically precise—that there is “plenty of evidence in the linguascape in urban Japanese society that is indicative of translanguaging, particularly (but not limited to) between Japanese and English,” and that many subtle forms of dialectal and ethnolinguistic translanguaging surely exist in the countryside or less urbanized areas of Japan, beyond the scope of this paper.


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Published by annamend

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

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