From Translanguaging Space to “Critical Translanguaging Space”

One of the debated aspects of translanguaging scholarship is whether translanguaging spaces, in which students use their whole linguistic and multimodal repertoires to make meaning, are critical in and of themselves and lead to social justice (compared to classes that seek to implement a monolingual or target-language-only policy). Based on a study of a dual English-Spanish classroom in the Midwestern U.S. with middle-class White children and blue-collar Latinx children, Dr. Laura Hamman-Ortiz, a bi/multilingual educator in Colorado, would say no… for a translanguaging space to be critical, it must (1) interrogate micro- and macro-level power flows in the classroom and (2) involve conscious, deliberate strategies for language use. For this reason, she proposes the construct “critical translanguaging space” as an extension of “translanguaging space” and ends with some practical and fairly generalizable advice on how to foster critical translanguaging spaces in multilingual classrooms.

Hamman, L. (2018). Translanguaging and positioning in two-way dual language classrooms: A case for criticality. Language and Education32(1), 21-42.

Dual language immersion (DLI) is a type of classroom in the U.S. where elementary or middle school students (whose first language, or L1, is English or Spanish) take classes together with the goal of fostering bilingualism and biliteracy for all of them. While some scholars propose that the best DLI results come from language separation (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2016), this ideal is challenged by others (e.g., Flores & García, 2013; Palmer & Martínez, 2013) because of alternative perspectives to theorizing bilingualism, such as translanguaging (García, 2009).

Hamman-Ortiz is a researcher of translanguaging who questions whether it leads to equitable learning spaces by itself—whether in DLI or some other educational context (see also Mendoza, 2020; Sah & Li, 2020). In other words, is translanguaging rather than language separation the key to equity, or is it just one ingredient? And if it is just one ingredient, what are the other ingredients? To research this question, she observed a dual language classroom for one academic year.

While dual language programs can change people’s view of minoritized languages and promote positive attitudes towards bilingualism and bilingual speakers (Fitts, 2006; Palmer et al., 2014), when it comes to English and Spanish in the U.S., the languages are not equal in the wider society, and this has an effect on what goes on in DLI classes. High-stakes examinations are almost always in English, as that is the dominant language in the wider society. The dominance of English in the wider society has an impact on the actions of individuals, teacher and students in a DLI class, as well as their positioning. Positioning means that during class, people make identity bids through their language use, which are supported or ignored by others (Davies & Harré, 1990; Hawkins, 2004).

Rockland Elementary, a Kindergarten-through-Grade-2 school in a Midwestern U.S. city, “serves a diverse group of students who, quite literally, come from opposite sides of town” (p. 27). Therefore, White, middle-class children go to the school with working-class Black and Latinx children. The dual language program began in 2010, and the study took place in the 2014-15 school year. In kindergarten, students were to be instructed 90% in Spanish and 10% in English, which would become 80-20 in grade 1 and 70-30 in grade 2. This was just in principle, however, because by grade 2 students were old enough to feel the effects of English being the dominant language in the wider society, one in which they would take grade 3 standardized tests.

While the program was designed to be transitional towards English as the years went by, students also had less and less reason to use Spanish as time passed (especially those who did not speak it at home). The result—and this has been found in other studies (e.g., Potowski, 2007)—was that students used more and more English and less and less Spanish even faster than the program intended; by grade 2, Hamman-Ortiz observed that the class did not seem to use 70% Spanish, firstly, because the English L1 students were not keeping up their Spanish that well, due to lack of use beyond the classroom, and secondly, because the Spanish L1 students, even those who were proficient in Spanish, were accommodating the English speakers.

The program design also seemed to be partly at fault: even though Spanish was supposed to be used 70, 80, or 90 percent of the time, what it was used for was not the equal of English. General skills like reading, writing, and mathematics were taught in Spanish, while content in science or social studies (history) was taught in English. Therefore, this arrangement did not value or preserve the academic funds of knowledge of Spanish L1 speakers, and rather was designed to give English L1 speakers access to basic conversational or everyday Spanish. Moreover, all non-academic subjects at Rockland Elementary (music, PE, and art) were taught in English, and talk during recess and lunch also tended to be in English, so in truth, even if students had followed the “70% Spanish language policy” in grade 2 DLI classrooms, their Spanish exposure at school would still have been substantially less than 70%.

What did this mean for the actual DLI classroom interactions? Maestra Gabriela, the teacher, had read and learned about translanguaging and embraced a dynamic view of bilingualism (García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017). However, as a teacher, she did not model dynamic bilingualism much, but generally communicated with students using the language of instruction for the period, as her job required. She allowed students to be more flexible with language use than she was, and this is where the problem lay: when this flexible language policy was enacted, it often resulted in students using English a lot during Spanish time (translanguaging), whereas they used virtually all English during English time. 

Of course, Maestra Gabriela still taught students a lot more Spanish than they otherwise would have learned without DLI. She was a competent and caring teacher who was inspired to maintain her bilingualism and teach in a dual language program by her grandfather, Gabriel, from Mexico. She “often guided her students toward explorations of the lexical and syntactic connections between Spanish and English, both intentionally (as part of planned lessons) and organically, as opportunities for teachable moments arose” (p. 27). However, she also felt, in her own words, that “a lot of accommodations [were] made for those Spanish language learners that [were] sometimes detrimental to the native Spanish speakers” (p. 27), and she participated in this herself, as she simplified instruction in Spanish after realizing that it would be difficult for the class as a whole to understand if she kept Spanish to age-appropriate levels (though there was no need to do this for English; everyone understood). 

Here are some illustrative examples from Hamman-Ortiz’ data. She visited the classroom weekly in the spring of 2015, collecting about 30 hours of video-recordings in a variety of participation patterns (whole-class, small group, and pairs) with a focus on analyzing classroom translanguaging practices. She formally interviewed Maestra Gabriela at the start and end of the study, and informally throughout the study, mentioning what was seen on the videos and asking Maestra Gabriela to share her interpretations.

In selecting excerpts for this blog post, I do not want to imply that Spanish was “vanishing” altogether from the classes. It was not; it could often be seen and heard. Students were well aware of English-Spanish word cognates, which they collected throughout the year on a classroom poster.

Hamman (2018), p. 31

On the other hand, Spanish was used in less than optimal ways—e.g., receptive bilingualism (English L1 speakers understanding what their peers were saying in Spanish but responding back in English) or English L1 speakers expressing themselves in imperfect Spanish without the social “push” to improve accuracy or complexity of expression since others accommodated or understood. The young children showed that they were developing pragmatic competence, addressing peers in peers’ “strong” languages or languages of preference. At the same time, we see why Spanish is not developed to the same extent as English, and can sometimes pinpoint the exact place in dialogues where the development stops. Take the excerpt below, in which Maestra Gabriela (MG) asks students what might negatively affect the growth of a pumpkin (p. 30):

Hamman (2018), p. 30

In this extract, Derrick, an African-American boy, expresses himself mostly in English in the first line, using only the Spanish word sol for sun. The teacher asks him, in Spanish, to try to say it in Spanish, and Derrick apparently tries his best. He does know the word for pumpkin, and he can answer in 60% or so Spanish (line 3). The pause in “Si tú tienes too much sol, the calabaza… they will burn” suggests that it is burn which he does not know in Spanish, and MG’s recast: “Demasiado sol se quema la planta” literally translates into “Too much sun burns the plants,” so it is actually a verbal abstraction (scientific process) that she is teaching Derrick: academic language in Spanish appropriate for his age level. For Derrick to take this phrase up—to repeat it himself and learn it—there would probably need to be some literacy exercise in Spanish, e.g., note-taking and recycling of the phrase in a presentation on factors that foster or inhibit plant growth, in Spanish. But as Hamman mentioned, science was taught in English. Therefore, just because Derrick hears this gives him no reason to repeat or learn it himself.

Furthermore, in classroom interactions, “native English speakers often demonstrated their ‘right to speak’ (Darvin and Norton 2015) in their home language in a way that native Spanish speakers did not—or perhaps could not [given their possible lack of development of Spanish for more academic purposes]” (p. 33). Here is an example from an English-dominant student, Hannah, answering as the teacher asks people to give examples of plants that grow “higher and higher”:

Hamman (2018), p.33

As we can see, after MG affirms one of Hannah’s answers, beans, in Spanish, Hannah says, “Squash does too!” which means that Hannah probably understood MG’s affirmation (it included beans but not squash) but continues to talk back in English (which is receptive bilingualism: understanding what the teacher says in Spanish but talking back in English). MG next affirms the other answer, calabaza (squash/pumpkin), and at this point Hannah simply nods, rather than repeating calabaza herself. This suggests that Hannah feels no need to say “calabaza,” even though pumpkins do seem to be discussed at length in the lesson. Hamman-Ortiz explains:

Not only does Hannah make no effort to translate her idea into Spanish, she also actively interrupts the conversation—twice—to ensure that her idea is heard. On the other hand, when English was the language of instruction, it was rare for Spanish-dominant students to assert ideas in their home language. In fact, students who were struggling to express their thoughts in English often had to be invited to use Spanish when it was not the language of instruction. (p. 33).

This could be seen in the case of a Spanish-dominant student, Mónica, who hesitates to use Spanish during a sharing activity in English.

Hamman (2018), p. 34

Derrick, perhaps sensing Mónica’s struggles to express herself in English, suggests that she pass. MG gives the turn to several others, but circles back to Mónica after Mónica has had some time to think. Mónica still does not respond, so MG gives one more student a turn, then tells Mónica, “Just one thing you did. You want to tell us in Spanish and we’ll help you?” This seems to work: Mónica gives her answer in Spanish. MG then asks the class who can translate it into English, and Derrick does (in African American English, “my cousin house”), which Mónica echoes, and MG accepts the answer but recasts it in White American English (“my cousin’s house”). As helpful and encouraging as this is for Mónica on the one hand, it also positions her as less English-proficient. Therefore, even in a supportive classroom community, language hierarchies still emerge: no one was asked to translate for Hannah how to say her thoughts about beans and squash in Spanish during Spanish time, and MG still feels a need to say, “Your cousin’s house? Oh, fun!” instead of letting the construction in AAE pass (that is, it is not fully legitimized as model English in the dual immersion class).

Tallying the times that English and Spanish were used by students during the times when the other language was the official language of instruction, Hamman-Ortiz noticed 3 words in Spanish during a 10-minute sample of an English-medium lesson and 42 words in English in a 10-minute sample of a Spanish-medium lesson. She states that these “were not isolated incidents” (p. 35); moreover, the Spanish words during the English lesson referenced terms from previous Spanish lessons, so they were perhaps untranslatable chunks that didn’t really count. In contrast, uses of English involved content expertise and brainstorming, as in Hannah’s and Derrick’s translanguaging to fully express themselves by drawing on their L1s to reflect on what happens when plants burn or on types of vine plants, which means that students were using English to think in ways that they were not using Spanish for. In addition, “the English utterances allowed [all] students to display expertise and to delve more deeply into the content learning, while the Spanish utterances were used to make straightforward connections between new and prior learning” (p. 37).

In sum, students in the class were translanguaging for social and academic purposes, and also developing their awareness of the grammars of both languages. Certainly there existed a corriente (García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017), a linguistic current that allowed people to make meaning with dynamic language flows. However, translanguaging was not equal across students or across languages, “particularly in relation to their academic and linguistic expertise, and generated a more English-centered classroom” (p. 37), even when there was more instructional time in Spanish. “English-dominant students were more easily able to position themselves as content experts when learning in their second language than their Spanish-dominant peers” (p. 37). Maestra Gabriela noted this herself, as she felt English L1 speakers didn’t see their classmates, only her, as linguistic resources: “I think there is sometimes this underlying hint of classism” (p. 37), she said,—i.e., prejudice based on class.

What, then, is a critical translanguaging space, building on Li’s (2011) theory of translanguaging space? Hamman-Ortiz calls for a critical examination of the adoption of flexible language policies, “one that considers the possibilities and ramifications of translanguaging pedagogies in a space already complicated with inequitable access to resources and ideologies of language that privilege English and English speakers” (p. 39). In critical translanguaging spaces, teachers need to encourage students to draw on their whole linguistic and multimodal repertoire to learn, all right, but they also need to prioritize the minoritized language(s) and their speakers. That is, it is not enough to reject static notions of language and bilingualism, but to recognize language hierarchies within particular classrooms and to intentionally focus language practices in those classrooms towards minority language use and development:

García and Sylvan (2011) argue that effective bilingual classrooms do not impose rigid external language policies but, rather encourage ‘plurilingualism from the students up’ (397). … I also contend there is value in the intentional design of focused and flexible language spaces (both from the top-down and the bottom-up). (Hamman, 2018, p. 38)

Teachers need to foster critical translanguaging spaces by thinking about classroom power dynamics and deliberately restructuring the learning space to ensure that all students are positioned as experts and have equal opportunity to think aloud and share what they know. To do this, Hamman-Ortiz makes several recommendations (pp. 38-39). And as she lists these, I add some resources that I know of.

First, teachers must keep track of which students are sharing more and less frequently in whole class conversations and use strategies to create more equitable participation dynamics by consulting colleagues, communities of practice, readings, or professional development resources. Sometimes this phenomenon is due to linguistic and cultural inequity; for a teacher-friendly study by a leading applied linguist, the President of American Association of Applied Linguistics, that documents how it happens and what can be done about it, see Duff (2002).

A second, related issue to who shares more often is the presence/absence of students’ funds of knowledge (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2006)—linguistic, academic, and cultural—in the print and multimodal texts studied in class, in the examples generated by students and the teacher, etc. Therefore, teachers must make more of an effort to bring linguistically and culturally minoritized students’ funds of knowledge to bear on the class. For example, if young students create bilingual picture books (Marshall & Toohey, 2010), it will be apparent that the bilingual students have more resources for doing so and must be consulted by their more monolingual peers. Younger students can draw language portraits (Dressler, 2015), while older ones can write language learning/acquisition autobiographies or do studies of the linguistic landscape of the neighborhood, analyzing multilingual signs (Burwell & Lenters, 2015). Even in English-medium courses that are more textbook-focused (e.g., science), students should be encouraged to talk about subject content multilingually and take bi/multilingual notes even if others don’t understand and English-dominant students need to be included in group work through the use of English. As critical pedagogy educator Hilary Janks (2004) explained, the purpose is to make desire run in both directions, to make students who are English-dominant appreciate and even envy the language resources that others have. Hamman-Ortiz concludes: “Finally, and most importantly, for a critical translanguaging space to be successful, it is vital that students be included in conversations about the explicit design of language spaces and the nature of bilingualism” (p. 39). Only then can they take responsibility for shaping classroom language practices and for how they position themselves and others.

When it comes to future translanguaging research, Hamman-Ortiz argues that “we must remain committed to the creation of strategic and critical translanguaging spaces, with attention to who is translanguaging and for what purposes. More research is needed to explore what a critical translanguaging space would look like in practice and how it would be implemented—within particular sociolinguistic contexts” (p. 39), as each context will have its own challenges to linguistic equity, at the level of the classroom, the community, and the wider society.


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Sah, P. K., & Li, G. (2020). Translanguaging or unequal languaging? Unfolding the plurilingual discourse of English medium instruction policy in Nepal’s public schools. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 1-20. Early view.

Published by annamend

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

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