How do elementary teachers perceive DYNAMIC translanguaging in storybooks?

This important study by al-Bataineh and Gallagher (2018) investigated elementary teachers’ attitudes towards dynamic translanguaging in print. (Read about the definition and historical development of dynamic translanguaging here.) This study fills a research gap because (1) teachers are relatively tolerant of dynamic translanguaging in oral speech, but not in print literacy, and (2) when translanguaging happens in curricular materials, we often see separation of languages, for example, parallel translation. For example, a child’s storybook will have a picture on every spread, but on the left side the caption will be in Language A and on the right side the translation will be in Language B. This is not dynamic translanguaging, in which two or more languages mix and you need to know all the words to make sense of the story. In this study, al-Bataineh and Gallagher had a class of 22 female pre-service teachers in the United Arab Emirates write bilingual storybooks for their pupils using dynamic translanguaging, and studied the teachers’ reactions at different stages of the project using individual interviews, a focus group, and class discussion posts. The findings are revealing with regard to 3 languages: the local dialect of the national language, the standard version of the national language, and English, and may have implications for translanguaging between these in other places. At the end, I provide my own commentary, arguing why this study should be replicated in different elementary school settings around the world with different teacher populations.

Al-Bataineh, A., & Gallagher, K. (2018). Attitudes towards translanguaging: How future teachers perceive the meshing of Arabic and English in children’s storybooks. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism24(3), 386-400. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2018.1471039

In the United Arab Emirates, standard Arabic is the medium of instruction in primary and secondary education while English is the medium of instruction in higher education. However, Emirati Arabic is the language of widespread use in daily life. How does this affect elementary teachers’ attitudes towards dynamic translanguaging in storybooks that they make for their students? While the characters in the storybooks are dynamically translanguaging like people do in daily life, the print materials do not fit standard definitions of monolingual literacy in formal educational settings. The cognitive dissonance teachers experienced while doing this activity was the focus of this fascinating study.

The teachers were 22 women in an elementary teacher preparation program in Abu Dhabi. All were Emiratis and native speakers of Arabic. They had all undergone an Arabic-medium primary and secondary education and were being educated in English-medium higher education. Interestingly, the study authors (who were the course professors) estimated the teachers’ Arabic to be around B1 (intermediate level), so they must have translanguaged extensively in their own university classes and to deal with their university coursework.

In a university course for teachers about Children’s Literature, the researchers had the pre-service teachers write and illustrate bilingual picture books about a fictional character’s experience, “intended to be read aloud by a bilingual adult to bilingual children between the age of 4-8 years” (p. 2). They were expected not to do parallel translation but instead encouraged to mesh languages as necessary, which can be tricky because Arabic is written from right to left and English from left to right, but they could fulfill the task in any manner they saw fit: “Students were specifically instructed not to make the story accessible in a single code, so that children would need to draw on both Arabic and English to comprehend the entire story” (p. 2).

Why would the researchers do this? They wanted to apply a naturally occurring phenomenon, dynamic translanguaging (Orellana & Garcia, 2014), in teacher education, through storybooks that “replicate[d] the natural tendency of bilingual speakers” (p. 3). Their research question was: How do future teachers, as bilingual native speakers of Arabic, perceive Arabic/English translanguaging when it is explicitly encouraged, taught and practised in a storybook writing assignment within a Children’s Literature course? (p. 4).

Methods

The teacher candidates were divided into six “author groups” of 3-4, each group creating a storybook. Three sources of data were collected: interviews with each author group, a focus group of nine class volunteers, and online discussion board postings. (This is an excellent example of a research study that is undertaken as part of a course, but results in minimal disruption to the course, and in fact adds to the value of the course.) The author groups were interviewed twice, after the production of the first draft and the submission of the final product. The focus group took place once and lasted for 1 hour and 10 minutes. The discussion board postings concerned two prompts:

(1) Do you think Arabic and English can be integrated on the same page of the storybook to encourage bilingual competency? Justify your answer by providing some advantages and disadvantages of linguistic integration. (start of project)

(2) Please identify the three most challenging issues you are facing while developing the bilingual storybook. You may answer in Arabic or English. (just before submission of the first draft)

Interestingly, the researchers/professors reported: “Since all participants opted for the use of Arabic in the author groups interviews and focus group discussions, the data were translated into English and double checked through back translation” (p. 4). I come to this point at the end when I offer my own commentary on the teachers’ domains of language acquisition and why this study needs to be replicated around the world with different populations of teachers.

Results

Overall, the results were as follows:

  • The group answered in largely the same way. (uniformity)
  • The group’s views were inconsistent from beginning to end of the course. That is, inconsistent at the beginning, inconsistent in the middle, and inconsistent in the end. Therefore, there were no trends across timepoints. Rather, the group’s views were consistently inconsistent.

The authors put it in their own words thus, at the beginning of their Results section:

[T]he study found that participants’ attitudes towards writing translingual stories for bilingual children are highly inconsistent, ambivalent and relatively uniform. They are inconsistent, in the sense that while some participants view translanguaging positively in a given context and for a particular reason, they regard it negatively in another context and for a different motive. They are ambivalent because, at one point, translanguaging is commended for the educational benefits it can generate, yet it is rejected, at another point, for its devastating effects on language and identity. They are uniform in that they reflect a shared ideology with regards to language, identity, and linguistic behavior. (p. 6; my bold)

The group’s attitudes, moreover, reflected three shared considerations:

  1. WHO is the audience of the translanguaging? The authors themselves, the children, or the wider Emirati community?
  2. WHAT is the modality? Oral or textual?
  3. WHAT CODES are under consideration? Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), Emirati Arabic, or English?

So what did the group as a whole believe in, resulting in similar contradictions in most respondents’ beliefs? This is, I think, what we need to look at, as researchers, in (1) honoring teachers’ real and legitimate concerns about translanguaging, and (2) pinpointing, at the same time, exactly where the professional development interventions need to happen.

Bilingual and biliteracy development

Teachers wanted the two-for-one: for students to develop BOTH Arabic and English. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Two is better than one. Teachers said in the online discussions that this would make the books “more interesting… than reading the original books that contain only one language” and “give the child larger vocabulary in both languages.”

On the other hand, they feared that 1+1 would instead become 0.5+0.5: that is, students would not develop adequate proficiency in either language if allowed to translanguage. They feared that “if biliteracy is enhanced, it would be superficial and minimal, leaving both languages underdeveloped” (p. 6). A teacher in a focus group said, “I feel that meshing the two languages together will cause the learner to be incompetent in both languages” (p. 6).

[Side note: This is fascinating for me because the same has been said for Content Language Integrated Learning—i.e., if academic subject matter + an additional language are taught together, will it be 1+1 or 0.5+0.5 (Bruton, 2013)? Some have called this “additive” versus “subtractive” bilingualism: in socioeconomically well-off schools that enroll students from the dominant groups in society, you tend to get 1+1 when you implement a grand idea, and 0.5+0.5 if you try to do the same in a disadvantaged setting, unless you devote a lot of time planning, considering, and adapting the grand idea to the setting.]

Tensions between Modern Standard Arabic, Emirati Arabic, and English

Recall that teachers were mostly schooled in MSA. Their attitudes towards translanguaging between MSA and Emirati Arabic in the books were that it would result in improper academic language: “Do you plan in the future to teach kids in the local dialect? … What’s the goal behind using the local dialect instead of using MSA and why is that idea itself being considered in the first place?” (Teacher in Group 5)

I will not discuss translanguaging between Emirati Arabic and English (and neither did the authors) because I doubt these languages had much contact, whereas MSA had contact with EA and English.

The teachers’ attitudes towards meshing MSA and English had more to do with technical and logistical difficulties, since (1) they had largely been exposed to these separately, and (2) one language was far more developed. In the focus group, one teacher said, “I feel that writing a story in Arabic is more artistic, I mean that you find more words and vocabulary. I feel that I could not find as many words in English as I know in Arabic to construct sentences” (p. 7).

There was a a linguistic distance between Arabic and English which, even though it can be bridged in various arts, was something this group of people had never tried in their educational history. One student stated that “Arabic and English are totally different languages” in the discussion board, while another asked which side of the page the reader should start reading from? [Of course, they could consider writing a story/poem that could be read both ways depending on the direction, but this is linguistically challenging and requires the writer to be proficient enough in each language, on its own.] The authors remarked that they had seen, on an everyday basis, these teachers translanguaging extensively for everyday communicative purposes: “how bilinguals behave in real communicative situations” (p. 7), but this was evidently not the case for artistic or literary purposes. On the other hand, “as members of a globalized and multilinguistic UAE society, [they] engage[d] freely in translanguaging during peer-to-per conversation in class, as well as in informal written domains such as texting” (p. 12).

Language norms, roles, and functions

Two participants viewed translanguaging more favorably than the others, realizing that it had to do with some real-world communication. In a focus group discussion, one of these teachers said, “I feel like it is purposeful and addresses our contemporary reality. I feel that there are no drawbacks because the storybooks which include Arabic and English show the learner that he should speak Arabic with Arabic speakers and English with English speakers. This way we reinforce the Arabic language and Arab identity, and at the same time, we reinforce the English language and whom to use it with” (p. 8). Interestingly, this participant is not really talking about dynamic translanguaging, but instead refers to shuttling between two distinct language communities. The same with the other participant who favored translanguaging, who wrote in a discussion post that translanguaging “establish[es] in the child’s mind that s/he should learn both of them [Arabic and English] because each language should be thought of for several reasons; Arabic should be learned because it is the mother language, however, English should be learned because it is the global language” (p. 8).

At the same time, the participants felt that translanguaging would have various negative interpretations in their society. First, it might suggest that you are linguistically deficient in both languages, as already discussed. Second and more seriously, mixing Arabic and English—the colonizer’s language—could be seen as haughty and a cultural betrayal.

[Side note: Robert Phillipson (1992), in a book titled Linguistic Imperialism, and Sarah Benesch (2001), in a book titled Critical English for Academic Purposes, wrote about the international movement during the Cold War, specifically the 1970s, when the U.S. and U.K. went to great lengths to make English the global lingua franca. It was not the global lingua franca (there was NO global lingua franca) before this point in history. Nor was it a natural phenomenon: it was part of a successful campaign to establish English-medium universities and international corporations around the world to extract its natural resources, particularly oil, for the benefit of the Western democracies, and the movement started in Arab countries.]

One participant said, “[I]n conversation with people, they [children] will say one word in English and the rest in Arabic. This is not a good way to speak if you are Arabic” (p. 8).

[Here is another interesting side fact to interrupt my summary… we call this “postcolonial elite” or “I’m trying to be better than you” behavior, and there are bad names for people like this in many postcolonial societies around the world, which Reyes (2017) compiled, including “‘Kong girl’ in Hong Kong (Kang and Chen 2014), ‘Peter’ in India (Nakassis 2016), ‘burger’ in Pakistan (Durrani 2016), ‘Model C’ in South Africa (Wale 2010), ‘D4’ in Ireland (Moore 2011a), and ‘fresa’ in Mexico (Chapparo 2016)” (p. 213) in her study of this negative stereotype, called “conyo” in the Philippines. Additionally, Sandhu (2015) published a study in which someone told a narrative about encountering this kind of behavior at a wedding in India and how unpleasant it was.]

The term given to this kind of talk, in Arabic, is “Arabizi” (as “English” in Arabic is “Inglizi”). “Arabizi” also refers to Arabic text written in the Latin script, like Chinese characters written as pinyin. Now, it was not that the teachers didn’t recognize this as normal behavior for bilingual speakers, but they also saw written Arabic “as a custodian of identity and a preserver of Emirati traditions” (p. 8), believed that their own country’s language should be learned first, and feared that translanguaging “would change our traditional speaking” (participant in online discussion; p. 8). One teacher quoted Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, on the discussion board, paraphrasing his statement that “people with no past will not have a future which means if we did not know our own language we will be lost” (p. 9).

Moreover, teachers felt that adult audiences of their picture books would raise their eyebrows. “If someone reads the book, s/he will say that this is shameful. Do people talk this way in their home? … One should speak the language of his home and the language of his people” (focus group participant; p. 9). This participant pointed out that in the UAE, there was already a language that people spoke fluently, often rendering English use with other Emiratis unnecessary.

Linguistic and cultural diversity

At the same time, participants saw the value in letting students explore diversity and learn to respect other cultures, as well as learn new languages. What they struggled with in the storybook writing was to identify communicative events in which Arabic and English speakers were likely to interact translingually. Indeed, there seemed to be a dearth of such situations in their own life experiences. However, one group (p. 9) came up with a situation in which the child who was English-educated heard her family members talk to her in Arabic but spoke back in English. At the same time, this kind of interaction order was strongly criticized by the majority of participants. One pointed out:

Honestly, I noticed this behavior but because I am not from these enlightened families, it is absolutely forbidden, totally forbidden, that I speak to my family in English. It is considered an insult or a condescending attitude or something negative in my family. My brother is a university graduate, and he speaks English, but he insists that I speak to him in Arabic. (p. 9)

In other words, by modeling dynamic translanguaging in the storybook to the greatest extent they could (and it wasn’t even that dynamic; each character spoke in his/her own “code”), this group modeled what was widely seen as inappropriate behavior among children and youth.

Discussion

The researchers found teachers’ reactions to translanguaging in general, and dynamic translanguaging in particular, as contradictory, but on the whole negative, and in fact the teachers never seemed to transcend an understanding of languages as distinct codes, which contradicts the whole premise of dynamic translanguaging (García & Li, 2014). Their own experiences with dynamic translanguaging were rather limited compared to, say, Chinese youth in the U.K. studied by Li or Latinx youth in the U.S. studied by García, and what little experiences they had with this type of translanguaging in their daily lives were not positive. Thus, they saw no reason to “incentivize, recognize, and reward the socially unappealing habits of speaking some Arabic alongside some English” (p. 10)—having themselves acquired functional divisions between languages in daily communication, official communication and formal education.

While the languages could theoretically mix dynamically, in both everyday and artistic communication, in their lives they had never done so, which made writing the picture books difficult. The authors astutely noted that teachers made frequent reference to monolingual concepts like “contact zone, interference, mother tongue, linguistic competence, deviation and mixing” and not to “domains, modalities, discourses and communication competence” (p. 10). Despite their extensive translanguaging in university coursework, the teachers did not want English-Arabic translanguaging nor MSA-Emirati translanguaging to be “the new normal,” and did not want to pass this on to the next generation. In short, “The participants seem unaware that language norms are fluid, heterogeneous and negotiable, and that confronting the demands to conform to a static standard is one of the goals of translanguaging” (p. 11).

Despite the hesitancy of the teachers, the authors suggest that reading the translingual picture books would in fact yield pedagogical benefits to the elementary school students… and writing the books may also have yielded pedagogical benefits for the teachers, whether or not these were recognized by the teachers themselves (p. 11). For example, they had to consider the relative roles of different languages/dialects in society, and “engage in considerations of bilingualism and biliteracy that are not usually afforded by the standard teacher education curriculum” (p. 11). Also, they had to reflect on domains of language use, and (non-)uses of translanguaging in their daily lives, and were given an opportunity to experiment creatively with written translanguaging—for perhaps the first time in their educational careers—finding solutions to challenges and picturing characters who potentially did not have language backgrounds like theirs.

Finally, the authors explain that these university students had more negative views than most participants in an international wealth of literature on translanguaging in tertiary education from Japan, South Korea, Canada, South Africa, and North and South America (pp. 11-12), which they reviewed in their literature review (pp. 4-6). What is important to note, however, about all these other locations is their political alignment with Western capitalism. In this study in the UAE, “while translanguaging is a common linguistic behaviour in the participants’ daily oral conversations, their socially structured language ideology seems to reject translanguaging in writing, and especially so in texts intended for children” (p. 13). On the other hand, an endnote states that two of the books were read aloud to a group of young learners, who were observed by the researchers to receive them positively: “The responses of the children to these storybooks and their interaction with the text and the teacher will be analysed in a separate paper” (pp. 12-13).

Commentary: What was critical about this study? Why do I wish for this study to be replicated with other populations?

al-Bataineh and Gallagher described their research participants as a relatively homogeneous group, which, if you read both explicit and implicit clues, seems to be:

  • Female, with a sense of internalized responsibility for child-educating
  • Native Arabic speakers (Emirati Arabic as home dialect, but schooled in MSA)
  • Relatively young—not that much professional experience yet
  • From relatively conservative, middle-class but not elite families (as one participant put it sarcastically, “enlightened” because those families speak English at home)

The 22 study participants raised some valid points:

  • Do we have the resources to implement 1+1 instead of 0.5+0.5? (e.g., their own English proficiency was B1, intermediate)
  • We are not used to translanguaging artistically in writing. What is the purpose of this activity, for us or for our students? [The activity had value, but that value needed to be made explicit.]
  • Many people in our society see “peppering” Arabic with English as highfalutin’ due to very serious historical circumstances and injustices.

They also held some questionable and incorrect ideologies:

  • Emirati Arabic should not be encouraged in the academic practices of Emirati children.
  • We don’t translanguage here (but the researchers noticed that they did a lot, in their daily informal communication).

There was also one ideology that was half-right:

  • We (as a group) speak English with English speakers and Arabic with Arabic speakers. That is: “We do not know anyone or any situation in which we would translanguage/code-switch so dynamically between English and Arabic!!” (Or, more broadly, between L1 and L2.) But then, other people do! For example, people in the Arabic-speaking diaspora, people who grow up with two languages in their everyday lives beyond school, etc.

In my view, what made this study critical was not the dissolving of language boundaries to the farthest extent. That is a discourse of postmodern capitalism and globetrotting elites (which coincidentally aligns with the valuable discourse of language rights for Latinx students in the U.S.) that runs up against the discourses of monolingual nationhood, and no wonder that teachers whose social networks seem to be mostly national are largely against it. What is CRITICAL about a translanguaging intervention like this is the fact that teacher educators make teachers realize that the language repertoires and practices they take for granted because of what they grew up with—monolingual, bilingual, multilingual, or translingual (and there are different kinds of translingual, as I discuss at the end of this other post)—are NOT universal and reflect their OWN worldviews and experiences, not necessarily those of others. This is what teachers, especially young pre-service teachers, need… more than the message that language boundaries are fluid. The message that language boundaries are fluid was valuable insofar as they were offered a glimpse into the world of other bi/multilinguals.

And that is why I hope this study can be replicated in many contexts internationally, (1) in societies with more or less linguistic diversity, (2) among teachers who, as a university class, have more or less linguistic and socioeconomic diversity, (3) for students in schools they will serve, who have more or less linguistic and socioeconomic diversity. The consistency among al-Bataineh and Gallagher’s participants in terms of answers as a group (despite the inconsistency of the answers themselves) could be explained by their relative homogeneity. In a group of teachers with more linguistic and socioeconomic diversity, there might be more longitudinal development over the course of the class, as a collision of worldviews might compel participants to learn from one another.

References

Benesch, S. (2001). Critical English for academic purposes: Theory, politics, and practice. Routledge.

Bruton, A. (2013). CLIL: Some of the reasons why… and why not. System41(3), 587-597. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2013.07.001

García, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. Palgrave Macmillan.

Orellana, M. F., & García, O. (2014). Language brokering and translanguaging in school. Language Arts91(5), 386-392.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Reyes, A. (2017). Inventing postcolonial elites: Race, language, mix, excess. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology27(2), 210-231. https://doi.org/10.1111/jola.12156

Sandhu, P. (2015). Stylizing voices, stances, and identities related to medium of education in India. Multilingua34(2), 211-235. https://doi.org/10.1515/multi-2014-1012

Published by annamend

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

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