Translanguaging and Emotion

This post is an introductory chapter (for teacher education) on what translanguaging has to do with emotional well-being and ultimately with learning. I first review a cutting-edge academic paper on translanguaging and emotion (Dovchin, 2021), but since this blog is focused on K-12 education, I next review two classroom-based studies that show what translanguaging and academic/socioemotional scaffolding look like in the classroom from two points of view: a teacher who doesn’t speak students’ languages (Linares, 2019) and teaching assistants who do (Back, Han, & Weng, 2020).

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Dovchin, S. (2021). Translanguaging, emotionality, and English as a Second Language immigrants: Mongolian background women in Australia. TESOL Quarterly. Early view.

Dovchin’s paper is based on interviews with adult immigrants, and the role of translanguaging in providing them with emotional support. The premise of the paper is that linguicism (i.e., discrimination based on language) and inability to express yourself using the whole of your language repertoire leads to a whole host of negative emotions, possibly even depression, which affects, among other things, school performance. Translanguaging provides learners with a safe space to fully participate in classes (García & Li, 2012; Menken & Sánchez, 2019). But while most classroom translanguaging research is quite positive, in terms of more active learning or playful social interaction, Dovchin (2021) mentions “precarious realities that occur behind the classrooms” (p, 3), which

involve cultural and linguistic shock, trying to fit into a new environment including schools and workplaces, learning new or different languages, unemployment or survival jobs, lack of access to academic/health opportunities, homesickness, separation, loneliness, and other discrimination-based exclusions in the various contexts of the host society. (p. 3)

The emotions students experience because of linguicism, negative interactions, and failed social and emotional networks can be very, very ugly. Dovchin’s research, in fact, focuses on immigrant women who have very little social support in an English-dominant society, and it is these immigrants—rather than those who can draw on the social, emotional, and logistical support systems of so-called “ethnolinguistic enclaves”—who are most prone to depression because of lack of support. [Side note on “ethnolinguistic enclaves”: not only do they provide people with necessary means of survival (think how English speakers have their own L1 support structures when they live/work abroad!), it doesn’t mean the people in them don’t also have other, linguistically diverse social networks (Surtees & Balyasnikova, 2016). Let us therefore avoid double standards.]

There are some very sad stories in her literature review, such as Piller’s (2016, p. 194) report of an international student from South Korea at the University of Sydney who left a suicide note calling herself a “loser” because she did not have enough English to cope with her coursework; she wrote that she felt “guilty” that her English was not better and had thus “betrayed” her parents and others who cared for her. We can only think of the instructors who, intentionally or unintentionally, fed this student’s view of herself. Similarly, Dovchin explains that migrant workers and healthcare professionals (Canagarajah, 2017; Laadegaard, 2015) also have a right to their languages or to translangauge at work, not the least because doing so helps them fulfill institutional expectations. Moreover, if students or immigrants are depressed, and have mostly bad experiences with the dominant societal language, they cannot be expected to be emotionally and cognitively open to learning it (Park, 2014).

I now briefly discuss her findings in a linguistic ethnography of 11 women of Mongolian background living in Western Australia. Participants were gathered through “snowball sampling,” in that new participants were recruited from current participants’ networks. Dovchin accompanied these women to diverse settings, from cooking, shopping, hiking, visiting cafés, etc. She found interview themes both deductively (regarding her pre-determined topics of translanguaging, emotions, mental and psychological issues) and inductively (based on other, unexpected themes), noting not only what was said but paralinguistic features like volume, tone of voice, etc. 

Although the women—some immigrants, some students—had been living in Australia for 1 to 16 years, none were satisfied with their level of English. Of the 6 who were working rather than studying, their occupations were housewife (4), receptionist (1), and kitchen hand (1). They found themselves in a catch-22 documented in the 1990s by Norton (2000/2013): many wanted to improve their English to find work (or work that required more face-to-face interaction), but while they didn’t have access to these jobs and social experiences, there was no way to become more fluent in English. Another goal that came up in the interviews was getting a driver’s license to have more mobility and independence, and access to wider social networks, but lack of English proficiency made passing the driving test impossible. Moreover, the women’s foreign degrees were not accepted as legitimate evidence of their education, but without English proficiency, it was impossible to re-train. As for the university students, they felt their academic failures were due to a language barrier, with one saying, “I was so confident with my English when I was in Mongolia, and now at my university here, my confidence level went to zero. I’ve realized I’m so behind” (p. 16). Being trapped in a very small social bubble caused many of the women to feel depressed. While they would have benefited from counselling, again, they were “not confident enough with their English to share their mental and emotional problems with English-speaking psychologists. Instead, they [became] their own therapists and counsellors… seeking each other out for consolation, emotional affinity, and spaces for relief” (p. 10).

One might say, “If you can’t take it, why did you come?” Let me bring my own testimony into this. My husband and I have, on occasion, suffered here in Hong Kong, as he has supported me to pursue my career as an academic. He is a Caucasian monolingual English speaker from Canada, and while we are socioeconomically privileged, he doesn’t have much of a network of people like him, telling me, “How many blue-collar white guys move to Hong Kong! It’s all academics and bankers.” Although he attends a Go/Weiqi/Baduk club and has a few local friends and a few international friends, he still keeps in touch with friends and family in Canada on the phone, and spends a lot of time watching and reading the Canadian news. We haven’t learned any Chinese because it is very hard for us, and frankly, we can get by without any societal pressure to do so. If we were to share our moments of depression, loneliness, quarrels, and isolation even from each other, I doubt people would tell us: “If you can’t take it, why did you come?” or criticize our non-Chinese-speaking and keep-in-contact-with-our-country-and-language habits. Again, let us avoid double standards.

Dovchin’s participants’ ability to express themselves in their translanguaging dialogues with each other showed they were feeling “emotionally safe” (p. 20). The implication for educators is that we need to think about what students’ emotions, traumas, psychological and mental issues might be beyond our classrooms, even if they do not share them with us. Keeping these in mind, we must treat students with empathy at the classroom level. One result of doing so might be reduced stress and higher motivation/participation on the part of students, though of course getting them to “perform” is among the least of our concerns as ethical educators. Dovchin concludes: “any party involved can contribute to… being more cooperative and sensitive to students’ emotional needs and difficulties, which will, in turn, make the environment more holistic to learning and educational exchange” (p. 22).

Now, in the rest of this post, I discuss strategies for creating this supportive classroom environment, from the point of view of (1) monolingual teachers, and (2) bi/multilingual classroom assistants.

What can monolingual teachers do?

Linares, R. E. (2019). Meaningful writing opportunities: Write‐alouds and dialogue journaling with newcomer and English learner high schoolers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy62(5), 521-530.

This study in an established, theoretically-informed, teacher-oriented journal shows how secondary ESL teacher Ms. Rosewall (pseudonym) used two strategies—write-alouds and dialogue journaling (Peyton, 1997)—to build community and as instructional tools. This study took place in the U.S. state of Kentucky, but what Ms. Rosewall did for her newcomer students could also work for teachers in countries where the national language is not English. Ms. Rosewell’s multilingual students (studied by Linares in the 2015-16 school year) were five Guatemalan youth aged 14 to 17 years who spoke Quiché, Kaqchikel, and/or Spanish.

In dialogue journaling, the teacher had students write in individual notebooks about the course content, responding to prompts provided by her. I see this working in an academic subject course as well, such as a science or history course; it does not have to be language arts… and it can work in adult classes too (Larotta, 2009). The teacher collected the journals at regular intervals and wrote back encouragingly to what students had written, from an asset- rather than deficit-oriented perspective. That is, students received comments that were individually tailored, “genuine and meaningful” (Peyton & Reed, 1990, p. 11). At the same time, Ms. Rosewall gave individualized feedback and corrections. At the level of the whole class, she gathered information about the group’s learning needs through the journals, which informed her mini-lectures on grammar points. This way, both language learning and socioemotional rapport went hand in hand.

Linares draws on Brazilian critical education scholar Paolo Freire’s (2012) definition of dialogue as “an encounter in which two or more individuals are united and engaged in a mutual and collaborative effort to understand and reflect on what is shared” (Linares, 2019, p. 522). She also cites African-American scholar bell hooks, who explains that students “learn best when there is an interactive relationship” (hooks, 2010, p. 19). Through this important backstage process, “students build positive, trusting relationships with their teacher” (Linares, 2019, p. 523), assured that their teacher is responsive to them.

Ms. Rosewall collected these journals regularly—every other week—and responded in writing, with colourful stickers. Students wrote in their journals two or three times per week, for 30 minutes each time. Ms. Rosewall provided them with prompts related to the content of the course, which she encouraged them to answer in any format or language. Although she did not speak students’ languages, she relied on electronic translators and contextual clues which students deliberately gave her (knowing she would read the journals), including illustrations, conversations with students about what they were writing, and a basic knowledge of Spanish.

In write-alouds, Ms. Rosewall engaged students in languaging, or “talking things through” (Swain & Watanabe, 2013). During this type of activity, she modelled writing about a course topic on the board, at the same time talking about what she was writing, demonstrating the behaviours and strategies of an efficient writer. Linares (2019, p. 524) explains that “the write-aloud functioned similarly to a read-aloud, in which teachers model their ‘thinking by voicing all the things they are noticing, doing, seeing, feeling, and asking when they process text’ (Wilhelm, 2001, p. 26).”

Connecting the write-alouds to the dialogue journals allowed Ms. Rosewall to demonstrate to students how much they were learning. She told Linares: “They have to see they’ve learned, or I think they don’t have the confidence to continue. They have to see where they’ve come from” (p. 524). She began each write-aloud by reading the instructions about what they would be writing about and inviting students to brainstorm relevant vocabulary (presumably, they could use dictionaries/translators). She modelled how to turn the instructions, usually in the form of a question or imperative, into sentences, providing sentence starters or academic language that students could draw on in their writing. While Ms. Rosewall modelled how to do academic writing, she did not remain too serious as to intimidate students: “She frequently supplemented her writing with illustrations, joking with students that although she was not the most skilled artist, the illustrations helped her convey her thinking” (p. 525).

There were many different types of interaction generated by this activity, which 

combined modelling, sharing, student-student [e.g., brainstorming, discussion] and student-teacher interactions, group writing, and independent writing. The write-alouds engaged students across five language modes as they viewed, listened, spoke, read, and wrote collectively and independently. (p. 525)

Another connection between the write-alouds and the dialogue journals was that Ms. Rosewall was able to monitor whether and how students understood the content, or adopted the language she modelled, which would inform her future teaching or review. While she taught in fairly low-tech ways, her “identity-centered” literacy practices were “hands-on, context-rich” (p. 526). Even though she gave feedback and corrections, she encouraged low-stress participation from all students, with open-ended prompts—“describe,” “tell me,” and “share”—that would allow everyone to contribute something, in their language/modality of choice, making it safer to take language risks. She also often told students, “There’s not one right answer” and “It’s your opinion, meaning… there are many [answers]” (p. 527) and even explicitly told them they could “mix up [their] languages” (i.e., translanguage), with no negativity attached to this practice. As they expressed themselves, they could share their perspectives and ideas, to the extent that they wished. If they largely drew pictures, she gently encouraged them to “try and write a little bit and tell me what it is” (p. 527), reminding them about the language generated in the write-aloud.

Even though Linares does not use the word “translanguaging” in her article (in fact, Linares writes “code-switch” once on p. 528), which means it is possible that neither she nor Ms. Rosewall were familiar with “translanguaging,” Linares describes multilingual, multimodal translanguaging perfectly: 

She [Ms. Rosewall] also encouraged students to utilize all resources at their disposal, including bilingual dictionaries, high-frequency word lists, and information generated during the write-aloud. … I frequently observed her asking students during down time about topics in their dialogue journal entries. In reading their writing, she became aware of students’ socioemotional needs and, therefore, more targeted in her response to their behaviours. For example, after one student wrote an emotional entry about not looking forward to spending his first birthday away from his mother, Ms. Rosewall asked him, in writing and in person, about how he maintained contact with his mother, and she wished him a happy birthday the day after his birthday, which had occurred over the weekend. (p. 527; my bold)

Perhaps it is most astonishing to know that this class had not 10 but 25 students. Linares suggests that in a larger class, alternating cycles might allow the teacher to give feedback to half the class in one cycle and the other half in another cycle. Translanguaging “granted students access to… literacy practice[s] in which they otherwise might not have been willing or able to participate” (p. 528), but it was not multilingualism per se but Ms. Rosewall’s good nature that brought out students’ translanguaging, echoing Dovchin’s observation that translanguaging happens when people feel they are in a safe space (Dovchin, 2021, p. 20).

What can bi/multilingual teaching assistants do?

Back, M., Han, M., & Weng, S. C. (2020). Emotional scaffolding for emergent multilingual learners through translanguaging: Case stories. Language and Education34(5), 387-406.

I now turn to the third and last study to illustrate that even with a teacher like Ms. Rosewall, students can only access certain emotional and cognitive affordances with an adult who speaks their language. This study shows how in two rural elementary schools in New England, U.S.A., but the lessons about translanguaging and emotional well-being can apply more broadly to immigrant students in any country. It is a “double case study” of two students for whom translanguaging reduced anxiety in an English classroom (Lasagabaster, 2013), supported their socialization into the class as competent members of the group (Gort & Sembiante, 2015), and encouraged them to take ownership of their learning (Martínez-Álvarez, 2017). K-12 students in this district appear to have been socioeconomically and ethnolinguistically diverse; they were from Argentina, China, Greece, and Syria, and other places. Some were the children of faculty and graduate students at the nearby university. 

The article’s second and third authors, Mihyun and Angela, worked as volunteers with two students in different elementary schools in the district in the 2017-18 academic year. Mihyun, a PhD student in Educational Psychology who had two children herself in the school district, worked with Jessica, a third grader from South Korea. Angela, a Master’s student in Chinese language education from Taiwan, worked with Shen, a first grader from mainland China. Both volunteers had participated in nine monthly professional development sessions on translanguaging pedagogies. Data collected included classroom audio-recordings, students’ work, interviews with stakeholders (e.g., parents, teachers, ESL/reading specialists) and the volunteers’ journals.

Upon walking into Jessica’s classroom for the first time, Mihyun noticed translanguaging strategies already being implemented, such as Korean signs on objects. She reported feeling “touched” (p. 392) by the teacher’s effort to support her students, but this was not sufficient support for Jessica. Mihyun saw the “depressed and helpless look on Jessica’s face” (p. 393). The child said nothing in class, and even when classmates reached out to her, she only smiled weakly and nodded or shook her head, answering simply “Yes” or “No” to every teacher question. She did well in subjects less directly related to language, such as drawing and mathematics, but an interview with a social worker revealed that “Jessica had cried at home almost every night, yelling at her mom that she did not want to go to school. […] the teacher felt sorry that she had not been able to realize the degree to which Jessica was feeling stressed and frustrated about her lack of English proficiency” (p. 393). In fact, because Jessica was obedient, quiet, and pleasant, and followed what everyone else was doing when the teacher gave instructions, the teacher assumed Jessica understood her words when in fact she had understood nothing, telling Mihyun in Korean, “Um…honestly…I have no idea what she’s talking about” (p. 393).

Mihyun’s presence and her translingual scaffolding changed the level of support for Jessica significantly. In her journal, Mihyun wrote about their reading together:

I read each line first in English and then in Korean, adding some Korean explanations… in an attempt to support her understanding of the new English words and connect the words to her previous knowledge in Korean… I could tell how much Jessica was in love with the story by looking at Jessica’s eyes that were busy following the book pages and looking at my mouth and eyes while I was reading the book. I was happy to look at her intense but joyful face that delivered a ‘Now I, too, understand this story!’ message and a relieved feeling of finally figuring out what the class had shared. (p. 394; my bold)

A key event occurred when Mihyun noticed that Jessica’s picture on the display board, along with her classmates’ work, under the title “OUR IDEAS,” was the only drawing with no labels. While drawing ideas is an affordance and the visual modality is very powerful, it can also be embarrassing to be the only one in the group who cannot express yourself in words. Mihyun helped Jessica translate her ideas in English and label her drawing, getting rid of “the painfully visual representation of Jessica’s ‘deficit’ in English” (p. 396). She helped Jessica write a label and used that opportunity to explore related grammar expressions. Similar to Linares’ (2019) study, emotional and academic scaffolding went hand-in-hand through translanguaging. 

The other student, Shen, in another school—which did not have many Mandarin speakers, even though there were many Mandarin speakers in the community, suggesting that this was an elite, English-dominant school—exercised a similar strategy as Jessica in class: he copied others’ behaviour to pretend he understood, and thus hid his non-comprehension from the teacher and others in order to avoid embarrassment. Angela reflected: “I was the only person/teacher who could communicate with him in his native language in the school, which made him happy because he was able to convey his feelings to someone finally” (p. 398). 

Shen’s teacher, Señora Miller, was similarly empathetic, but could not help Shen to the fullest extent language-wise. On occasion, she expressed the need to work with Shen to improve his behavior, as he once hit a substitute teacher with a bag that he was swinging around; it is not clear whether it was on purpose. Angela developed a behavior rubric in Mandarin, adapted from the school’s list of expectations: “Be safe 注意校园以及教室安全: use supplies appropriately and sit on your seat appropriately, Be responsible 负学习责任: complete the assigned work for today, and Be respectful 尊敬师长和同学: follow teachers’ instructions” (p. 400). After this, Angela observed, “Señora Miller and I found that Shen changed a lot both in his language and behaviors,” and Señora Miller explained that originally, Shen’s attitude had been “I don’t understand, so I won’t do it’” (p. 400). This engagement also improved his interactions with his peers, and Back et al. imply it made him more well-liked. At the end of the semester. he presented a PowerPoint about a vacation he took to the Harvard Museum of Natural History using pictures and labels in English, Chinese, and pinyin. After the presentation, several students commented on Shen’s multilingualism in English, Chinese, and some Spanish from Señora Miller’s classes (pp. 400-401).

These case studies show that translanguaging, emotional well-being, and learning go hand in hand, and express the need for teachers and volunteers to “provide all EMLLs [Emergent Multilingual Learners] with some type of home language support. This support offers unique benefits that monolingual English support cannot” (p. 401). Although the teachers helped students to adapt to some extent, and their strategies (such as bilingual labels and everything Ms. Rosewall did in Linares’ study above) should not be abandoned, these teachers did not fully understand what students were going through and could not fully address their learning-related and socioemotional challenges. And yet, even though Mihyun and Angela’s support “took place only once a week for one to two hours, the results were transformational” (p. 402).

However, “even bringing in a home language volunteer via online video, such as Skype or Zoom, could have profound effects, although this has been under explored and is an important topic for future research, particularly given the need for online course delivery in many school districts as a response to COVID-19 in 2020” (p. 402). Back et al. also suggest creating multilingual artifacts (e.g., Shen’s bilingual behavior rubric) that can be used by other students than the ones they were initially made for, citing Han’s (2002) study of an English-Korean handbook “How to Survive an American School” as an example.


Dovchin (2021) shows us that learning cannot happen in the absence of emotional well-being. Negative feelings get in the way. However, students should not only be allowed to express themselves in their language and/or translanguage when they feel negative emotions, a misconception discussed by Tiecheloven et al. (2019); they need to translanguage to express the full range of emotions.

Linares (2019) illustrates how even a monolingual teacher or a teacher not proficient in any language but the dominant societal language can create a textually rich, emotionally welcoming translanguaging classroom where students can “see what they’ve learned” to have “the confidence to continue” (to quote Ms. Rosewall, p. 524). However, Back et al. (2020) show us that there is still a very real need for students to have access to adult assistance in their own languages, for both academic and socioemotional reasons. To this end, those authors urge schools to find a way for every student, exhausting the possibilities of help from parents, community members, older peers at school, and/or students at colleges and universities.


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Published by annamend

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

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