Why don’t people in Linguistics use the term “translanguaging”?

I was walking around the HKU campus this past week when I ran into a booth peopled by undergraduates in the Linguistics Society. It was all about—translanguaging! But none of the displays or materials used the term “translanguaging,” and in this week’s post I attempt to explore why. I took photos of the display and accepted a 22-page booklet titled Do You Hear the People Talk? Linguistics Festival 2021. Because this material contains Chinese-English translanguaging and I don’t know Chinese, my analysis will be limited to what I can understand. Also, I regret that I was too shy to ask the club members questions such as, “Have you ever heard of translanguaging?” In any case, I was prompted to consider how people in different academic fields may have different understandings of the terms they share, but that does not mean they have vastly different knowledge orientations or practical goals. To illustrate, I analyze my photographs of the display and the booklet, addressing the questions: (1) Why don’t people in Linguistics use the term “translanguaging”? and (2) What appear to be the similarities and differences in the terms we use?

Some biographical background

I did my PhD in Second Language Studies in what was, until recent mergers occurred, the College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Each year, we would have a conference across all the departments in the college: East Asian Literatures and Languages, Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures, Languages and Literatures of Europe and the Americas, Linguistics (the study of languages, their spread, and their evolution), and Second Language Studies (also called “Applied Linguistics,” the study of language learning, use, and pedagogy). As a result, there was cross-pollination between the study of languages, of literatures, of pedagogy, and of different cultural traditions, in the College of LLL, as well as cross-pollination between the different areas of SLS because all graduate students had to take foundational coursework across different theoretical camps explaining how languages are learned: generative, emergentist, cognitive-interactionist, sociocultural, sociolinguistic (conversation analytic and discourse analytic), critical, etc. Even as I found myself learning a lot, meeting people from across the departments and across different research fields in my department was a constant reminder of all the things I didn’t know: other perspectives on how languages are learned in the brain, or how structured they are, or how they’re used in interaction.

I decided on my dissertation topic (and the research area that would define my academic career) about halfway through my PhD. Up to then, I had been straddling two areas of interest in both coursework and GA-ships: Second Language Writing in English for Academic Purposes, because of my teaching background prior to becoming a graduate student, and Bi/Multilingual Education, because of my life experiences. When I was teaching “ELI 83: Advanced Academic Writing for Graduate Students” in the English Language Institute, I met and befriended Sharon Bulalang, a PhD Linguistics student auditing my class. (We graduated at about the same time; she got a 3-year postdoctoral job in Texas.) Sharon is a Linguist whose dissertation was the first complete grammar of the endangered southern Philippine language Subanon—”the first ever comprehensive description of the language and the first to be accompanied by a documentary corpus” (Abstract). This is a great accomplishment because languages that go extinct still have a chance of being revitalized if there is a complete-enough written grammar of them.

This is the case with the revitalized Native American language Myaamia. The community of my classmate Jarrid Baldwin, who did his MA at the same time I did my PhD, played a major role in that revitalization. In its early days, Jarrid’s parents collaborated with the non-indigenous scholar who had spent his life documenting the language’s grammar. In a talk Jarrid gave to my SLS 150 students in both years of his MA, he described a simulation of language revitalization in which the people in his community, of all ages, would stand in a circle, holding onto different parts of a stretched-out net.

A person would get go of their part, and they would say, “there go songs.” Another person would let go of their part, and they would say, “there go medicinal tools.” Another person would let go, and they would say, “there goes history.” When the net was almost collapsed, they would start picking up the parts again, and say, “here are songs,” “here are medicinal tools,” “here is history”—but the lesson is that the net will not be in the same configuration as it was before. The net is language, and the point of revitalizing language is not to keep it in the same form, but to maintain the language so that the culture and the community keep going for generation after generation. Languages cannot be revitalized if there is no net to begin with, if there is no documentation. This is the difference, Jarrid told me, between a dead language and one that is just dormant, waiting to be revitalized as the people learn from the documentation and invent neologisms (new words) of their own.

By knowing linguists, I remain skeptical about a discourse in translanguaging scholarship that implies Linguistics is prescriptive. One of the first things that you learn in a Linguistics 101 course, and I took a variation of it in the first semester of my PhD called SLS 441—is that linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive. People go into the field and with painstaking hard work, they create bottom-up corpora describing what language speakers say and do (yes, focusing on fluent L1 speakers, but this is logical if you are trying to document an endangered language: you want to find the last remaining fluent L1 speakers, if they are still alive), piecing together the language grammar from phonetics and phonology, to morphology, to lexis, to syntax, to pragmatics, and if that isn’t enough, investigate dialectal or generational variation—see the work of the late Charlene Sato, a legend in the SLS Department, who was the first wife (until her untimely death of cancer in middle age) of the famous applied linguist Mike Long; he passed away just this year. Another of the scholars of multilingual language use in K-12 schools that I admire, because he has linguist training, is the linguistic ethnographer Ben Rampton, because in his transcription of dialogues and interviews (e.g., this article), he is able to illustrate using the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols just what styles of speaking his youthful participants are using.

Just because linguists document language grammars, often for the purposes of language revitalization and maintenance, does not mean that they then go on to implement target-language-only policies or native-speaker standards in language classrooms. That’s other people having a particular approach to a different profession. The bottom-up nature of linguistic data collection is evident in the HKU Linguistics Society’s brochure title: Do you hear the people talk?

That is my extended introduction to what I know about Linguistics and linguists, and why I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they are portrayed as prescriptive in translanguaging research. I now go on to analyze the materials from the HKU Linguistics Society display to answer the questions: (1) Why don’t people in Linguistics use the term “translanguaging”? and (2) What appear to be the similarities and differences in the terms we use?

Why don’t people in Linguistics use the term “translanguaging”?

By the frequent appearance of the term “code-switching” in the display and booklet (HKU Linguistics Society, 2021), and the many examples they give of why and how code-switching happens, I conclude that people in Linguistics don’t use the term “translanguaging,” defined as using one’s entire language repertoire to make meaning using resources from different named languages, because they call it “code-switching.” There is evidence for this in an empirical study published as a chapter in a recent edited collection of translanguaging studies (Tian, Aghai, Sayer, & Schissel, 2020). In an early post on this blog, I summarized that study, in which a university instructor tried to introduce translanguaging to pre-service teachers (Andrei, Kibler, & Salerno, 2020). After the instructor presented a video about translanguaging, she noted:

After the video, I got a lot of pushback on the term translanguaging, especially from the students studying linguistics. Several of them asked me, “How is it different from code-switching?” I drew upon what I had learned at the conference mentioned above, explaining that translanguaging assumes a bilingual person is not two monolingual persons in one while code-switching regards a bilingual person as drawing upon two separate codes. … At that time, I was not aware that authors writing from a code-switching theoretical perspective would contest this description. I went on to explain that translanguaging helps us see how bilingual people, or emergent bilinguals, are able to access all their language resources while communicating. The students who studied linguistics shook their heads in disagreement. One of them looked at me and said, “No, Professor, that is not true. That is code-switching.” (p. 101)

My photographs of the HKU Linguistics Society booth suggest, too, that Linguistics students call translanguaging code-switching. They do not think that people are switching between different language systems. They see them as using an integrated repertoire with resources from different named languages to make meaning, for many reasons besides lack of language competence (not knowing the word in the other language):

Now how does this compare to how applied linguists define code-switching (i.e., folks in SLS rather than Linguistics)? Elsewhere, I have discussed how applied linguists define code-switching in two main ways, as explained by Peter Auer (1998):

  1. Psycholinguistic code-switching: the bilingual child’s ability to mix languages without breaking the grammatical rules of either (see MacSwan, 2020), which shows “native-like competence,” but not in the form of double-monolingualism (one language at a time). Auer would rather call this phenomenon “speaking a mixed code” (because it is one code that anyone who grows up immersed in, say, English and Spanish will generally follow).
  2. Interactional code-switching, which is what Auer thought should really be called “code-switching.” When people switch between Language A and Language B in conversation, they usually are signaling 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. Here is an example from Hong Kong: Teacher: (in English) Close all your textbook and class workbook. (in Cantonese) There are some classmates not back yet. Be quick! (in English) Now, any problem about the class work? (R. Johnson, as cited in Lin, 2013, p. 200; original Cantonese not provided).

Interestingly, the Linguistics Society offered similar descriptions of two types of language-mixing, but focusing on the forms rather than the functions of “code-mixing/speaking a mixed code” versus “code-switching.” This poster from the LS booth suggests that code-switching is likely to happen across some kind of socially perceived boundary in a spoken or written utterance, e.g., between sentences, or between a tag phrase and the rest of the sentence that follows, or between a key phrase and the surrounding words (see examples from the booklet)… while code-mixing requires some ability to mix words on morphological and phonological levels and meet the requirements of both languages.

Examples of code-switching (as Auer would like to call it)

Green and Abutalebi (2013), two psycholinguists who do lab research—which is different from the field research of applied linguists like Auer and the field research of linguists—ALSO describe the same two kinds of mixed language use, in addition to monolingual language use, comparing cognitive processing in each of these three modes. However, and this is what can be confusing, Green and Abutalebi call code-switching “dual language,” and code-mixing “dense code-switching.” For code-mixing/mixed code/dense code-switching, they say:

a speaker may adapt French verbs through the addition of a German particle -ieren as in “choisieren” from the French “choisir” [to choose] rather than switch to the German word for chose, “wählen”… In English/Tagalog code-switched speech too there is morphosynactic adaptation as in: “Wala akong cash pang grocery ngayon, if you want, ipagdadrive pa kita!” … The phrase “ipagdadrive” [I will even drive] is a code-switched stretch of speech comprising a personal pronoun, auxiliary, modifier, and verb. (p. 518)

As for dual language use (what the Linguistics Society calls code-switching), Green and Abutalebi describe it as things that are unambiguously in Language A alongside things that are unambiguously in Language B. They give the example of an interpreter speaking with someone who knows only Language A, then translating to someone who knows only Language B. Unfortunately, they don’t account for code-switching between people who know both languages (see “Reasons for Code-Switching” posters and ads above), but I agree with them that code-switching and dual language involve one kind of psycholinguistic process, different from the one for dense code-switching, which requires “nativelike” generative grammar (i.e., a subconscious rather than conscious sense of how the languages mix at the morphological and phonological levels according to requirements of both languages). Dense code-switching, “native-like” as it is, is not valued like monolingual “native speaker” competence—not that I am advocating for us to value any form of “native speaker” competence! Instead, let’s celebrate multicompetence (Cook, 1992). This is also what the Linguistics Society thinks when they promote translanguaging, which they call code-switching:

To conclude, different areas of linguistics can develop misunderstandings due to what are called jingle/jangle fallacies in the social sciences. “Jingle” is when phenomena are called by the same term, even if they are different phenomena. “Jangle” is when phenomena are called by different terms, even if they are the same phenomenon.

Linguistics SociolinguisticsPsycholinguisticsTranslinguistics
#1. The bilingual child’s ability to mix languages without breaking the grammatical rules of either (bi/multilingual “nativelikeness” in contrast to default monolingual “nativelikeness”)Code-mixingSpeaking a mixed codeDense code-switchingUnknown
#2. Using our whole language repertoires to communicate, drawing on resources from different named languagesCode-switching(Interactional) code-switchingDual languageTranslanguaging

What we all want to promote in education, I assume, is #2, without penalizing or stigmatizing bilingual or bialectal children (e.g., Latinx children in the U.S.) for #1. There is no doubt what the Linguistics Society’s stance on the issue is, and I leave you with these pages from their booklet, about code-switching, identity, creativity, and flexibility—in Chinese followed by English rather than using translanguaging (presumably for access, so that people who know only one of these languages can understand the message; if it is translanguaged, you need to know both languages)… alongside Li Wei’s (2018) seminal article in Applied Linguistics on what translanguaging is. Comparing them should assuage doubts that both texts theorize much the same thing and have similar practical/societal implications.


Andrei, E., Kibler, A. K., & Salerno, A. S. (2020). “No, Professor, that is not true”: First attempts at introducing translanguaging to pre-service teachers. In Z. Tian, L. Aghai, P. Sayer, & J. L. Schissel (Eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens (pp. 93-109). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Auer, P. (1998). Code-switching in conversation: Language, interaction, and identity. London, UK; New York, NY: Routledge.

Cook, V. J. (1992). Evidence for multicompetence. Language Learning42(4), 557-591. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-1770.1992.tb01044.x

Green, D. W., & Abutalebi, J. (2013). Language control in bilinguals: The adaptive control hypothesis. Journal of Cognitive Psychology25(5), 515-530. https://doi.org/10.1080/20445911.2013.796377

HKU Linguistics Society. (2021). Do you hear the people talk? Fong Shu Chuen Amenities Centre: University of Hong Kong.

Li Wei. (2018). Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics39(1), 9- 30. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amx039

Lin, A. (2013). Classroom code-switching: Three decades of research. Applied Linguistics Review, 4(1), 195-218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2013-0009

MacSwan, J. (2020). Sociolinguistic and linguistic foundations of codeswitching research. In J. MacSwan & C. Faltis (Eds.), Codeswitching in the classroom: Critical perspectives on teaching, learning, policy, & ideology (pp. 3-38). Abingdon, UK; New York, NY: Routledge.

Tian, Z., Aghai, L., Sayer, P., & Schissel, J. L. (2020). Envisioning TESOL through a Translanguaging Lens. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Published by annamend

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

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