When students (do not) accept their teachers’ translanguaging: A tale of two teachers

There is a lot of research on what teachers make of their students’ translanguaging. Less research is on what students make of their teachers’ translanguaging. This is one topic addressed in a year-long linguistic ethnography by Jaspreet Kaur Takhi and her mentors, translanguaging scholars Angela Creese and Adrian Blackledge. Their study took place in a Panjabi heritage language class taught by an experienced teacher (42) and an assistant teacher (27). Although both teachers were “native” speakers of Panjabi who had immigrated to the U.K. upon marriage in their 20s—hence, one had lived in the UK nearly half her life and the other had recently arrived—students did not legitimate their recently-arrived Panjabi teacher’s translanguaging. In this post, I relate the data examining why, and reflect on how this study raises more questions than it answers. Then, I make the argument that Takhi, Creese and Blackledge’s findings lead to deep understandings of Ofelia García’s term “translanguaging stance” (García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017).

Creese, A., Blackledge, A., & Takhi, J. K. (2014). The ideal ‘native speaker’ teacher: Negotiating authenticity and legitimacy in the language classroom. The Modern Language Journal98(4), 937-951. https://doi.org/10.1111/modl.12148

Creese et al.’s study is a Linguistic Ethnography (LE; Copland & Creese, 2015) of a Panjabi complementary school in Birmingham, UK, that offered heritage language classes. The researchers were primarily interested in how the teachers and students in two of these classes negotiated the authenticity and legitimacy of the “native speaker,” an ideological term that is very, very muddy. That is, we think it is straightforward but it is not.

Much scholarship criticizing the term “native speaker” is about so-called “native/non-native” speakers of English, particularly when it comes to teaching English. An under-researched area, these authors point out, is native speakerism (Holliday, 2006), a form of discrimination like racism, classism, or sexism, “in other language teaching markets and local economies” (Creese, Takhi, & Blackledge, 2014, p. 938). I agree, and that is a topic I am very interested in—I see it in the teaching of French, my second language, in Canada, re: the Quebec vs the Parisian accent. For example, I was irritated to find out that international students in Canada who came to study French at a particular institution did not value Canadian French and hence valued classroom French over practicing French with people on the street (Liakina, 2020). I felt it was my French being insulted when I attended the lecture that shared those findings, even though I am not an L1 French speaker and don’t speak the Quebec variety of French. By the way, L2 speakers of French are not necessarily disadvantaged in Canada, as they are often socioeconomically privileged anglophones learning “standard” French competing with blue-collar francophones for jobs in call centres, as documented by the well-known sociolinguist Monica Heller, who also studies the commercialization of traditional/village Quebecois culture and language to tourists (Heller, 2003, 2010). I also have explored other economies of native speakerism by doing linguistic ethnography in my friend’s 300-level Filipino heritage language class at the University of Hawai’i (Mendoza & Parba, 2019), through which I discovered that studying authenticity, legitimacy, and identity in national/regional Philippine languages using LE in this class and in my dissertation research in a Hawai’i public school (Mendoza, 2020) fascinated me more than improving my Filipino.

Sociolinguist Mary Bucholtz (2003) proposes that “being authentic” is not a real quality but an agreed-upon label which people agree to recognize through a social process called authentication. Elsewhere, I have discussed the process of deciding that something is authentic—see the first third of this post on Critical Heritage Studies and the middle third of this post in which high school students undermine each other’s language use. In Creese et al.’s study, the authors state: “it is the tactic of authentication that produces authenticity as its effect” (p. 939). They also write:

Gill (2011) argues that rather than asking what is authentic, we should ask what it means to be authentic in a particular setting, according to what norms, and what are the authenticating practices by which it [authenticity] is conferred or denied. We should pay attention to how speakers use the notion of authenticity, to what ideological ends, through which authenticating practices. (Creese et al., 2014, p. 939)

In the Saturday class they studied, a teacher and teaching assistant worked with youth preparing to take the Panjabi language examination for the U.K. General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). In such a classroom, the language repertoires of the teacher and students covered the same languages, but there is always much overlap and much non-overlap in language resources in classes like these—everyone is a unique speaker-hearer with a complex migration history whose individual language repertoire differs from the others’, and that fact is key to understanding the tensions in heritage language classes. There is heterogeneity (i.e., differences in usage) not just among “non-native” speakers of a language but also among people who grew up with it, “native” and heritage speakers, and because of these individual differences, there are questions of whose language is normal, desirable, or powerful in that particular context, such as a class or a group of friends (Kubota, 2009; Martin-Jones & Heller, 1996a, 1996b). And because there are always power struggles, there will be people who accept or resist the status quo in that particular context, which—from the perspective of outsiders—can just seem like a idealized community where people maintain or revitalize their heritage languages. (For a study of how youth challenge traditionalism in heritage language teaching, see Li Wei, 2014.)

Kramsch (2012) explains that people may be socially positioned as authentic speakers of a language due to stereotyping, despite their doubts at being able to perform the role. Conversely, some people may be positioned as “non-native” speakers (e.g., due to appearances and stereotypes) but actually be L1 speakers of a language. I am sure we can all rack our brains for examples of both situations, which show how much these terms are social constructions. In this study, language practices recorded over time (which is the nature of linguistic ethnography) illustrate how “teachers and students negotiate legitimacy and authenticity through the deployment of nuanced linguistic signs and through evaluations of distinctions between them” (p. 941; my italics). As I have written in another post, citing the work of Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall, identities are socially constructed in interaction when there is an oversimplification or exaggeration of either the similarities or the difference in language use between two people. “Linguistic and other semiotic signs [e.g., dress, posture, gesture, tone] serve as benchmarks for authenticity and legitimacy” (p. 941), but these, in the end, need to be evaluated and agreed upon as (non)authentic and (il)legitimate; in themselves, they have little meaning.

Research Context

For 32 months, Creese et al. studied language and literacy practices in heritage language classes, held on evenings and weekends, for ethnically Bengali, Chinese, Gujarati, Panjabi, and Turkish youth in four European cities, in a project funded by the European Science Foundation. They explain that “many thousands of young people in the United Kingdom attend complementary schools [to maintain their heritage languages] for several hours each week. Complementary schools serve specific linguistic or religious and cultural communities, particularly through community language classes. Largely outside of the state’s apparatus of control and regulation, they provide an autonomous space for alternative educational, linguistic, social, and cultural agendas” (p. 941).

This study is a subset of a subset of data: one school in Birmingham taught Panjabi on Saturdays. It was founded in 2004 by a group of successful Birmingham businessmen, and employed 15 teachers and teaching assistants part-time to teach 200 pupils aged 5 through 18. The school operated in two sites: a school-owned building and a local mainstream secondary school. In the latter, Creese et al. observed a multi-age class (students 10 to 18 years old) taught by Hema and her assistant Narinder. The three researchers attended every Saturday class for an academic year, exchanged field notes weekly, and discussed their observations. Hema, Narinder, and focal students were given audio recorders to hold with them in class and also to record selected interactions they engaged in during recess, at home, and in other environments. Creese et al. also interviewed 15 other stakeholders, including administrators and parents, bilingually or monolingually in English and/or Panjabi.

Over time, they were able to record the young people’s behavior towards their teachers. Hema and Narinder also worked as teachers in the mainstream secondary school where the heritage language class was held; Hema had worked there for 16 years, and Narinder for 6 months. As the table below shows, both had similar life trajectories—both had done their Masters in Mathematics Education (Narinder) and Economics (Hema) in India before immigrating to the U.K. for marriage in their 20s. Both described themselves as multilingual in English, Hindi, and Panjabi, and both (during interviews) commented on their “accented” English as well as students’ “accented” Panjabi.

Creese, Takhi, & Blackledge (2014), p. 942

What was different about them was that Narinder (according to the article) was more fixed on keeping the languages in separate domains. There was an understandable reasoning behind this, as she said, “I am seeing that English is becoming the norm for so many people. There is the fear that in a few years we don’t know where our language is going to be” (p. 943). Clearly, she wanted to create what sociolinguists Jasone Cenoz and Durk Gorter call “breathing space” for the minority language, even though this is more successful when done at the community or even national (law-making) level, as is the case in their context (Basque in Spain). Compared to Narinder, Hema was described as being “confident that mixing languages is a legitimate and everyday practice which arises from pragmatic communicative need” (p. 943). These reported attitudes seemed to influence the two teachers’ practices in the classroom, and didn’t turn out so well for Narinder.


First, I want to highlight that Hema and Narinder also had things in common, for example their “nativist” stance towards pronunciation—which would, admittedly, be tested to some extent on the GCSE Exam; it would be thus remiss of them as educators not to make students aware of pronunciation. They had students recite particular sounds repeatedly, and look for distinctions between English and Panjabi sounds (e.g., in English, whether a sound like p is aspirated or not in one’s breath still makes it the same sound; in Panjabi, there is a difference in meaning, leading to a totally different word). Hema would say things like, “Look at me. Take your tongue to the top. OK, now say this five times. Come on, all together” and “Come on, pronunciation. Just think how your bibi <grandmother> would say it” (p. 943). In the example below, which is the beginning of a longer extract, she asks Narinder to model the correct pronunciation of SaaDay, meaning “our,” versus SaaDHay, which means “half past the hour” (pp. 943-944):

Creese, Takhi, & Blackledge (2014), p. 943

Creese et al. point out something interesting about this dialogue: even though Hema holds up Narinder as the model because Narinder has recently come to the U.K. from India (and is also trying to cultivate admiration and respect for her junior colleague as a teacher), Narinder, in Line 4, is actually not clearly pronouncing SaaDay or SaaDHay, so Hema, in Line 5, demonstrates how to exaggerate the pronunciation. In other words, what Narinder naturally produces in that moment (“saaday”) is not what Hema evaluates as authentic and legitimate to show off to the students (as she replies, “yeah ‘SaaDay’ so they, they hear the sound”). In other words, Creese et al. state: “Hema is initially dissatisfied with Narinder’s production of the sound that will be the focus of her teaching point” (p. 944) as she continues to lecture students on SaaDay and SaaDHay (full dialogue on pp. 943-944).

Since both Hema and Narinder had lived in India until their 20s and did not speak “standard” British English, another interesting finding was how students often marked Narinder’s deviations but barely seemed to notice Hema’s. For example:

A child asks Narinder for clarification about her translation from Panjabi to English. He wants to know if she said “eating.” She repeats and says “knitting,” but with a very long /i/ sound. The young man still looks a bit perplexed and so Narinder writes the word on the board. She writes “kneeting.” This causes the class to snigger. (p. 945)

In contrast, Creese et al. explain on the same page:

As we have seen, Hema often spoke to the students in a nonstandard variety of English: “when somebody’s taking you,” “you look people’s lips,” “where I’m taking my tongue?” and so on. The students are familiar with Hema’s nonstandard variety, which may be described as Birmingham Asian Vernacular English. The dialect is recognizable to the students, even if they tend to use a more Standard variety of English themselves. In the eyes of the students, the distinction between Hema’s nonstandard speech and Narinder’s confusion with the sound and spelling of the word “knitting” is that while Hema’s Birmingham Asian Vernacular English is familiar, and so indexes the local, Narinder’s attempt at Standard English pronunciation and spelling indexes an identity as newly arrived and fresh. … Talmy (2004) refers to linguicism at work in the social practice of “the public teasing and humbling of lower L2 English proficient students by their more proficient classmates,” which “was one of the primary ways that students produced and reproduced the linguicist hierarchy” (p. 164). In the case reported here, students humble not each other, but the assistant teacher. The distinctions are nuanced and relatively subtle, but immediately recognizable to the students.

I have read Talmy’s work, from his PhD dissertation in Hawai’i, where I also did my PhD: he studied Hawai’i Creole English (Pidgin) speakers who had grown up in Hawai’i but spoke a “nonstandard” dialect of English teasing newcomers about their ways of speaking English, while I observed Filipino recent arrivals who were the class linguistic majority making fun of the language(s) of their Chinese, Marshallese and Micronesian peers; they also made fun of the English accents of Filipino peers whose L1s were minority Philippine languages rather than Tagalog (Mendoza, 2020). Also, Jaspers (2011) studied how Moroccan Dutch students (who resisted the label “Moroccan Dutch” when he proposed it to them) made fun of the language(s) of their Turkish- and Berber-speaking peers.

The students’ teasing of Narinder took place on repeated occasions; it wasn’t so much that they used “standard” English to tease her, as any linguistic resources they shared that she did not. For example:

Narinder’s native Panjabi seems to mean that there is more Panjabi spoken in class. However, it also brings more comments from the students and more laughter and general undermining. She speaks again in Panjabi and this time one of the older boys shouts “¿qué?” in Spanish, and there is laughter.” (field notes)Here, a novice teacher is finding her feet, and at this stage is out of alignment with the normative practices of this classroom. Housekeeping and classroom management is usually conducted in English, whereas Narinder addresses the students in Panjabi. … It may be that the stylized “¿qué?” references Manuel, a character in the popular BBC television comedy, Fawlty Towers. Manuel is a well-meaning but disorganised and constantly confused waiter from Barcelona, a “freshie” with a limited grasp of English language and customs. … Too much Panjabi and not enough English from the new teacher means that the students position her as illegitimate in their classroom. (p. 946)

Creese et al. go on to explain that Narinder told a boy off in class for chewing gum, and he replied back to her in Panjabi, which caused the class to laugh—I think because (1) the students tend to address teachers in English except when displaying answers to questions, so this is unusual, and a surprise, and (2) it is therefore taken to be aggressive (the boy’s using Panjabi suddenly and unexpectedly). Narinder was stricter than Hema, taking issue with students eating in class, listening to music, checking Facebook, etc., which again positioned her as newly-arrived. Thus, according to Creese et al., even if Narinder was arguably a legitimate representation of the target language and culture, by birth and biography, her transgression of local and situated classroom norms did not allow her to meet students’ own benchmarks of what counted as legitimate. This was in spite of Hema supporting her and trying to set her up so that students respected her, e.g., “OK and next week if I hear any complaint from Miss [Narinder] somebody misbehaved or they were chatty, OK, then I will have a word with your parents. … [to Narinder:] OK miss now all is yours. Now this is your class now” (p. 946).

Creese et al.’s findings are in line with sociolinguistic research that explains how contradictory values exist in the larger society, and the selective use of them in interpersonal interactions leads to the (non)recognition of people’s linguistic and cultural knowledge. Just to show how many different ideologies were at play, the researchers explain:

Over the course of a year observing in this classroom we saw that a range of language ideologies coexisted in dynamic equilibrium. One set of ideologies held that correct pronunciation of Panjabi should be practised in order to produce more accurate written text. The pedagogic aim of teaching correct pronunciation further endorses and upholds the Sandard variety. In our field notes and interviews participants commented regularly on varieties of Panjabi. For example, varieties include “posh,” “rough,” regional varieties, “Pakistani Panjabi,” “African Panjabi,” “English Panjabi,” and “decent Panjabi.” The principal mentioned that Panjabi families at the school pass on a “rough” variety of Panjabi: “Over time I’ve found that some of the families here whose ancestors I would say or grandparents came from really rural backgrounds—from villages. They passed on the language, very rough, very—not posh language to their next generation and the next generation passed it onto the young children.” … He makes a further distinction between the Panjabi spoken by people born and raised in the Panjab and the Panjabi spoken by people born in the diaspora, saying “whoever is born over here they speak actually Panjabi in an English accent.” A pedagogic rationale of the school appeared to be to counter the spread of nonstandard varieties. (p. 947)

This, of course, contrasted with what was the norm in the classroom: the Birmingham Asian/Indian English spoken by Hema as she taught with students’ full respect, and students’ own highly Anglicized Panjabi, which in turn undermined Narinder’s authority because she couldn’t use these varieties of English to teach Panjabi. For me, this study raises more questions than it answers because I keep wondering why Narinder didn’t do very well with the class compared to Hema: was it teaching experience, her attitude towards translanguaging, or students’ prejudices against her language repertoire? Probably a mix of these factors, and Creese et al. come to a similar conclusion:

Narinder’s journey into becoming a legitimate teacher was a painful one, and learning from these events would require individual reflexivity, improved in-classroom teaching partnerships, and an increased student awareness of linguicism. … [W]e argue for an ideological orientation to language teaching which recognises the diversity and variability of experience as the norm, and views excellence as locally negotiated. …[W]e found the legitimate Panjabi native speaker was not the teacher who separated two different languages, and linked these to the standard varieties of particular regions. Rather we found a highly valued teacher whose normative mode was a nonstandard variety of Midlands English, who had the ability to translanguage, was able to draw on linguistic and community repertoires, and use local knowledge to engage students. However, the success of Hema as a bilingual teacher skillfully deploying her linguistic resources is balanced against the students’ construction of her colleague as a freshie. (p. 949)

That is, Narinder, by presenting herself a certain way and getting a certain response from students, made Hema look good, and students’ perceptions of Hema might have been different if Hema had had no assistant, or a different assistant, or if Narinder had taken a different stance towards translangauging. 

Why this study raises more questions than it answers

This study leads me to the question, “Should we then just double, or multiply, the linguistic resources and the communicative competencies that people need to master to be ‘good’ language teachers—to not just be ‘native’ speakers of the target language, but bi/multilingual, and know different varieties of a language, and have a host of communicative and intercultural competencies?” No no no no no! At the heart of Ofelia García’s translanguaging theory is that we need to see what people have from an asset-based rather than a deficit-oriented perspective. The problem, in my view, was not Narinder’s lack of students’ funds of knowledge per se in contrast to Hema, but her policy of maximizing the target language, and keeping the languages separate and pure (which, by the way, was the official school policy, and to some extent its selling point). This threatened the students’ self-view, and they retaliated in kind, finding deficit in the assistant teacher and refusing to legitimate her “different” way of speaking in the way they did for Hema (who spoke just as differently from them).

The study by Creese et al. also gives us a deep understanding of Ofelia García’s term “translanguaging stance” (García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017). García et al. outline three general principles of translanguaging pedagogy, stance (attitudes towards language practices), design (planning of instruction) and shifts (dynamic choices made during instruction). Creese et al.’s findings suggest that TL stance is not primarily a classroom policy, teaching strategy, or personal quality (though it is these). TL stance is primarily a choice, made in the moment, towards someone. You may make a very different kind of choice two minutes later, towards the same or another individual. This leads us to the lesson not to idealize classroom participants’ translanguaging as de facto critical or justice-oriented; distinct national languages, and evaluations of people’s renditions of them as (not) good enough, come into play in participant interactions, and we must pay attention to how forms are negotiated as acceptable or unacceptable, how participants construct their identities and competence, and whether and how those propositions are accepted or rejected by others.

TL stance is about constantly positioning people in good ways, in interaction after interaction—legitimating them not just linguistically (“your language repertoire at present is enough for us to communicate effectively”), but also academically (“I see you as smart and capable”), and socially (“I see you as socially adept and a valuable member of the team”), etc. The stance cannot be divorced from general asset- or deficit-oriented beliefs, and broader interpersonal dynamics. But language is a key point of contention. It was Narinder’s lack of a translanguaging stance, perhaps due to her relative inexperience as a teacher (i.e., her expectations may not have been reasonable and she may not have realized their social effects) that led to escalation of linguistic insecurity. In a language class, particularly a heritage language class, people are constantly escalating or de-escalating linguistic insecurity. When ethnolinguistic ownership of multiple languages is collective, but levels of proficiency and ways of using the languages vary from person to person, you have to be aware of how your stance and linguistic identity positioning may impact the linguistic identity positioning—and hence the stances—of those around you.

I sign off with further questions for research into such contexts using LE and other methods: if teacher training can help, how so? And what would such teacher training look like? Presumably students also need to develop critical language awareness, so how do we foster this? How do we create legitimate translanguaging spaces for everyone despite wide variation in individual repertoires? How do we create protected spaces for minority languages (where we try to practice them as much as possible, and help novices learn them) without being native-speakerist or exclusive? For these past two questions, can individuals and communities do it on their own, or do they need the support of national policy and discourse? And when larger-scale ideologies that cause people linguistic and social insecurity (of one kind or another) are always in circulation, at the national, community, or institutional level, how can we extend our thinking beyond our own individual vulnerabilities to care about, and create a safe space for, others?


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Published by annamend

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

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