Is translanguaging compatible with indigenous language revitalization?

Translanguaging, code-switching/mixing/meshing, etc., versus a “target language only” zone: which is preferable for indigenous language revitalization? I think the answer depends on societal factors, which I illustrate in this post by contrasting two successful but very different cases of indigenous language teaching. The extent and nature of translanguaging (and other kinds of language-mixing) should be considered alongside at least two factors: (1) the vitality of the indigenous language in society (i.e., is it widely used, albeit mixed with other languages, or endangered?) and (2) the extent to which implementation of the revitalization movement is elitist or grassroots.

Zavala, V. (2015). “It will emerge if they grow fond of it”: Translanguaging and power in Quechua teaching. Linguistics and Education32, 16-26.

Virginia Zavala is a widely published professor of translanguaging in Latin America. This case study (Zavala, 2015) is about an elementary school teacher named Silvia in Peru’s Apurímac region. While 70% of Apurimenians speak Quechua, the language has historically had a negative association; that is, it is associated with uneducatedness and a rural way of life. However, since about 2000, the discourse about Quechua started to shift, and it began to be endowed with more cultural capital. This is because migration from rural to urban areas led to people from the countryside, some of them born into privilege, others “working their way up” socioeconomically… ending up working in prestigious jobs in the public service or elected leadership (e.g., mayors, municipal employees). Thus, Quechua has become more visible in public life in Peru, and people are less ashamed of speaking it. Teachers also punish students less for using it in class, and parents are less ashamed of passing it on to their children.

While Zavala welcomes these developments, she has a problem with the “Quechua experts.” In her rather scathing but relatable words:

They hold a diverse range of degrees in Linguistics or Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE). In addition, they work in NGOs [Nongovernment Organizations, such as the U.N.] as teacher trainers about Quechua topics, in the local office of the Ministry of Education as IBE specialists, or in universities as Quechua teachers. Most were born in rural communities and were socialized in Quechua during their early childhood but now live in cities and speak mostly in Spanish … They favor traditional and grammaticalized methods for language teaching; reproduce a representation of the ideal bilingual speaker as two “perfect” monolinguals in one body; and enact reductionist language theories based on monolingual and purist perspectives, which sanction linguistic transference, borrowing and code switching. … According to this defensive positioning, Quechua should be used only to talk about “Quechua topics” or about ancestral cultural practices from high-altitude peasant communities, and should not be taught by “foreigners” who do not inhabit an authentic “Andean worldview” (Zavala, 2014). (pp. 2-3)

In contrast to these “experts,” let’s now look at child learners of Quechua in the urban schools in Peru where Zavala did her ethnographies. They came from blue- and white-collar homes, and were Spanish-dominant. While their grandparents spoke Quechua fluently, these children had lots of individual variation in receptive and productive skills in Quechua; however, they all had ancestral connections with Andean cultural practices. They might thus be called “heritage speakers” of Quechua (Van Deusen-Scholl, 2003) or “emergent bilinguals” (Garcia, 2009).

Then there were the students who actually spoke Quechua fluently as a first language (L1), who were the minority in such classrooms. They were conceived as more “indigenous,” but in a negative way. While their urban classmates’ parents wanted to make sure their children had the best Quechua teachers, the rural children who spoke Quechua fluently were sometimes “kept apart in separate classrooms with less favourable teachers” (p. 3), and Zavala found they were often too ashamed to speak Quechua to their Spanish-dominant peers! Thus, these children were not granted a legitimate voice within the local ecology, with its own specific language regime (Blommaert, Collins, & Slembrouck, 2005) that did not value their “nonstandard” Quechua.

Thus, discourses of elite, parallel bilingualism positioned both groups of students as deficient, either as learners of Quechua who would never be as knowledgeable or authentic as the Quechua experts, and native speakers whose Quechua knowledge had no currency in the language revitalization movement. It is also important to note that both groups of students had some proficiency in both languages, a lot of which went unrecognized because of discourses about standardization, purity, and parallel monolingualism. For example, when Zavala went from classroom to classroom asking whose parents spoke Quechua, only 1-2 out of 35-40 students would keep their hands down (p. 3), meaning that virtually all the students were already bilingual, even if they were not positioned as such by official discourses.

Enter Silvia, the exemplary teacher in this case study. She was one of three teachers Zavala studied in 2011/12, two of whom were typical “experts,” but Silvia was different. Thus, Zavala revisited her again in 2014, and documented how she had changed over three years of professional development. In this study, Zavala adopted a critical, situated approach to language policy, arguing that it is less important what official documents say and more important how teachers implement language policy in their classroom teaching (Menken & García, 2010). She also used ethnographic and discourse analytic methods to study people’s orientations to languages as both fluid and distinct (Saxena & Martin-Jones, 2013). Finally, she used the construct of “critical language awareness” (Clark & Ivanic, 1997) in two ways: (1) explicit class discussions about language inequalities in society, e.g., “What did Spanish colonizers do to speakers of Quechua?” and (2) implicit overturning of language hierarchies through subtle classroom dialogues/interactions that disrupted the “natural” sociolinguistic order of things (p. 4). Both of these critical teaching strategies, she argues, are very important.

Before she gives illustrations of Silvia’s teaching practices, she tells us some important information about her. Silvia grew up in an urban area, but was of Quechua heritage. Her parents did not encourage her to learn Quechua because of how stigmatized it was, but she had spoken to her grandmother in Quechua… and when the revitalization movement started, she seized the opportunity to improve her Quechua and become a Quechua teacher. However, when working at an NGO with Quechua experts, she had unpleasant experiences that made her feel like she did not know Quechua. She told Zavala (perhaps in Spanish, which Zavala translated into English): “I really thought I could speak. When I used to go to the rural communities I spoke with the mayor, with the women, I was even the intermediary. But there, (the Quechua experts) conducted a great assembly, without any Spanish. It was then when I felt undervalued and unconfident” (p. 5). In fact, several people told her she was not a legitimate Quechua teacher because she was from the city and did not know “proper” grammar and writing conventions. This galvanized Silvia to improve her grammar and writing skills, but eventually, she came to doubt what the experts were telling her. Her doubt increased with every year, as she became increasingly experienced as a Quechua teacher.

In the early days, she tried to teach classes entirely in Quechua, and would tell her students things like: “We have to respect the one who speaks Quechua and the one who speaks Spanish. To the one who speaks Quechua we have to teach in Quechua and to the one who speaks Spanish we have to teach in Spanish. In equal conditions. That means respecting their right to use the language, okay?” (p. 6). However, as time passed, she realized that all her students spoke both Quechua and Spanish, albeit in different domains and to different degrees, and her job as a teacher was to (1) cultivate a classroom community where ALL students were positioned as legitimate speakers of BOTH languages, and (2) one in which Quechua was prioritized over Spanish in terms of acquisition, with the societally less dominant Quechua L1 speakers as models.

Of course, it was important to have direct, explicit discussions about what the Spaniards did to Quechua speakers in the colonial times, e.g., “Quechua has been stolen from us, but it is ours” (p. 6); children were not allowed to speak it in school, and were even beaten for doing so. In these discussions, Silvia’s students made comments (mostly in Spanish) such as: “Now we preserve it [Quechua],” “It will never die,” “Now we speak both languages with pride,” “It’s our native language,” and “It is immortal” (p. 6). 

At the same time, Zavala points out that it is equally important—even more so—to dismantle language hierarchies subtly, in everyday interactions and classroom practices. For example, instead of focusing on grammar and formal conventions of reading and writing, Silvia was “more concerned that the children become fond and affectionate with the [Quechua] language, enjoy interacting with it and not be insecure or ashamed when speaking it” (p. 6; see the title of the article, “It will emerge if they grow fond of it”). Silvia remembered how she was devalued as a Quechua user, and Zavala often documented her saying things to her students like, “You already know many words in Quechua,” ““He knows Quechua, the one who knows Spanish, also knows Quechua,” “Let’s listen to her because she can do it,” and “With a little more practice, it will emerge quicker” (p. 6). Whenever children played down or said negative things about their Quechua abilities or those of their classmates, she would immediately intervene to assert that everyone in the class was able to speak the language.

At the same time, she knew that if she did not “push” students to use Quechua, they would not learn it. Thus, in many classroom interactions, she would acknowledge correct answers in Spanish, but then request that they be translated into Quechua, asking Quechua-proficient students to do so as models for their classmates (see example dialogues on pp. 7-9). In this way, she legitimized students with high proficiency in Quechua who did not typically have academic authority in urban schools. Their translations would often be accompanied with her evaluations, such as “Listen eh!”, “She is saying it well,” and “You are saying it correctly.” However if a student answered in Spanish, she would also give similar remarks, such as “Stand up stand up, let others listen to you,” and at times, even if the students’ grammar in Quechua was slightly incorrect (e.g., wrong pronoun/article), she would let it pass—for example, touching the student fondly on the head with a “Muy bien!” (“Very good!”)—before asking if someone could give the same answer in Quechua. On one occasion, she pushed for the translation four times (p. 9). Eventually, Quechua L1 students volunteered answers by themselves, and students with less Quechua proficiency started to talk about their classmates in positive terms, imbuing these peers with strong academic identities that they would hopefully take with them into future contexts, even less favourable ones. 

When Zavala interviewed the Spanish-dominant students, they told her that they loved Silvia’s class, saying things like, “she asks us questions with fondness, explains to us with patience and understands us. When we can’t speak well she explains it to us and helps us” (p. 9). Zavala noted that they were constantly realizing that they knew more than they originally thought, and they reported that they now understood more of what their parents and grandparents said in Quechua—and that their elders were addressing them more in Quechua. 

Reflecting on her teaching philosophy, Silvia said that she could not exclude less proficient Quechua speakers any more than the system had excluded highly proficient Quechua speakers. Of translanguaging, she said, “I am now convinced that this is the only possible strategy because this way everybody participates” (p. 9). The use of both languages oiled classroom interactions to increase inclusion, participation, motivation and understanding of pupils “in a ‘safe’ learning environment of mutual respect where everyone [can] feel part of a community of legitimate Quechua speakers and become more aware of the language” (p. 9). Translanguaging went from being “a last resort” to “a conscious strategy to include and involve her whole audience” (p. 10); see similar findings in Creese & Blackledge’s (2011) study of a Punjabi heritage language school in the United Kingdom. Silvia concluded that if she taught Quechua in the ways promoted by the experts, “they [students] will develop anger toward the language and it will appear difficult to them” (p. 10).

Zavala—who reminds us of “a regional macro order favouring bilingualism, which functions within a macro order at the national level that tends toward [Spanish] monolingualism and the eradication of indigenous languages” (p. 10), which in turn can be subsumed by an (inter)national macro order among Peruvians that favours Spanish-English bilingualism—ends her article by quoting Street (1996), who argued: “for educationalists concerned with power, the question is not ‘how can a few gain access to existing power,’ [i.e., the middle and upper classes] nor ‘how can existing power structures be resisted’ [i.e., for the lower classes], but rather how power can be transformed” (p. 10). Power is transformed when we grant agency and voice to actors with less valued languages and literacy practices (Hornberger & Skilton-Sylvester, 2000), while positioning everyone as a legitimate user of all the languages and literacy practices.

Teachers like Silvia take as their starting points (1) the need to address inequality between groups, and (2) the need to position every student in the classroom in a positive way—not the promotion of any particular language or way of using language(s). Such critical language awareness does not only involve explicit discussions about power, but re-structuring of relationships of power in everyday ways, creating different interpersonal relations and social dynamics than those that usually exist in schools and society. In short, these educators “resocialise the children into new emancipatory ways of being in the world” (p. 10).

Koran, M. (2021). ‘Race against the clock’: the school fighting to save the Ojibwe language before its elders pass away. The Guardian.

In Zavala’s study, we saw an indigenous language revitalization movement that was top-down and promoted parallel monolingualism according to middle-class ways of using Quechua and Spanish. In this other case, I present a language revitalization movement that is grassroots, based in practical life skills important to a community, and requires the creation of a safe space for the indigenous language not to be encroached on by the dominant societal language (Cenoz & Gorter, 2021).

The case study is from a news article about an immersion school called Waadookodaading in Wisconsin ( Waadookodaading means “a place where people help each other” in Ojibwe, an indigenous language in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States. Guardian reporter Mario Koran reports that in this school, “the forest is the children’s classroom. Harvesting maple sap and wild rice turn into math lessons on calculating volume. They learn biology from the fish they catch, clean and eat.” Even before COVID-19, teachers were racing against the clock to revitalize the Objibwe language before their elders passed away. According to Michael Migizi Sullivan, a teacher and the school’s resident linguist: “With coronavirus spreading like wildfire… it’s impacted everything we do. Our gatherings, our ceremonies—all of the stuff we rely on for our mental health and spiritual survival has pretty much come to a halt.”

However, since the early days of the pandemic, Waadookodaading tribal leaders locked down reservations, imposed mask orders and curfews, and limited gatherings to protect their elders—the only fluent speakers of Ojibwe, of which there are fewer than 100 in the U.S. and a few thousand in Canada—”at all costs.” Even when surrounding school districts went back to in-person instruction in fall 2021, Waadookodaading remained virtual. This was not without its drawbacks, even though it was the right thing to do. The academic learning at Waadookodaading, from kindergarten to eighth grade, is so student-centred and enriched that it puts many “regular” schools to shame, and that is why virtual learning felt like such a deprivation:

In a typical year, every school day begins at the tobacco pole outside the classroom. Each morning a new student opens the day with a talk in Ojibwe, a kind of prayer, and an offering of tobacco. As students get older and progress through the program, the prayers become more elaborate and eloquent.

“For our students, every day is a ceremony,” said Niiyogaabawiikwe, the school’s director. “The offering is an acknowledgement that we’re not alone, and we need help today to focus on what we’re doing.” 

The school’s curriculum hits state and federal content standards, but the school approaches them in their own way. Harvesting wild rice each fall lends itself to lessons on calculating volume. It also contains historical teachings: it was the search for wild rice that first pushed the Ojibwe people from their lands on the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes region of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, where most members live today.

Snowshoe lessons begin in kindergarten. By third grade, students know how to identify animal tracks, preparation for the rite of passage of snaring a snowshoe hare—a traditional source of meat in the winter that carries symbolic meaning: now that the child has become a hunter, they are providers for the tribal members who can’t hunt themselves.In winter, ice fishing trips to the frozen lakes give kids the chance to learn anatomy from the fish they catch, debone, and eat. In keeping with Ojibwe custom, students learn to be good stewards of the natural world.

“Each fish has a life. And we respect that life and give thanks for it,” Niiyogaabawiikwe said.

All of these experiences transferred imperfectly to an online environment. Most students don’t speak Ojibwe at home, which means they missed the immersive language experience that best builds fluency. Internet access remains spotty in the remote reaches of the northwoods. Two students transferred out of Waadookodaading early in the year because they couldn’t access the Internet from their homes. And YouTube is a poor substitute for the learning that happens in the forests or on the water.

The teachers perceived the language attrition caused by the shift online, as students’ proficiency in Ojibwe decreased. The teachers’ language also needed maintenance, even though 23 out of 25 were Ojibwe. When they finally returned to in-person learning, not all students were able to physically come back. “Everybody is doing the best they can, but it’s a big hit for language acquisition,” said fifth grade teacher Behzig Hunter to reporter M. Koran. The next day, on her trip to the woods, Hunter held her cell phone high, so students who couldn’t make the trip could at least take part on Zoom. “It might take a minute, but the language will come back and it will stay with them… One thing Ojibwe know how to do is survive. And that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

The unique education offered to Ojibwe children at Waadookodaading allows them the opportunity to explore their cultural heritage as it is inextricably linked to language. “When people know who they really are, and have a chance to heal from their historical and contemporary traumas, then you see some major changes across society,” said Anton Treuer, Professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. Remarkably, not a single student has dropped out of this school, where elders play an important role. Lee Obizaan Staples, 75, assists in the classroom, sometimes correcting teachers’ Ojibwe or coining new words when a modern concept needs to be expressed in Ojibwe. He is also the community’s master of ceremonies. When Staples was growing up, all he saw on T.V. were the awful caricatures of Native Americans. Both societal hostility and a feeling of invisibility drove him to excel.

M. Koran, the journalist, concludes with some knowledge from Professor Treuer: “Language can be saved. Thirty years ago, it was illegal to use the Native Hawaiian language in public schools. At one point, fewer than 1,000 speakers existed, and half of them lived in one isolated island community of Ni’ihau… Today, thanks to revitalization efforts, there are roughly 22,000 speakers of native Hawaiian, including about 3,000 who speak the language at home. Twenty-two schools teach in the language. It’s now one of the state’s official languages. Other indigenous groups, like the Māori of New Zealand and Blackfeet tribe of Montana, have established successful language programs.” [I have also blogged about another—Myaamia—and explain in this other post why preserving a language “exactly as people used to speak it” is NOT the point, whereas preserving the community and its cultural practices is.]

Due in large part to Waadookodaading, which has added 100 highly proficient speakers to the community, Lac Courte Oreilles tribal members no longer worry the language will die off locally. “We’ve turned a corner. The question now is how to best accelerate the growth of Ojibwe,” said the teacher and linguist Michael Migizi Sullivan. And in the county market on the reservation, the products are labeled in Ojibwe to increase access and visibility of the language, normalizing it and promoting the development of young literate speakers.

“It’s a good feeling to know there are people who can carry on these ceremonies without me,” Elder Staples said.


What can we learn by comparing these two cases? Why was Silvia’s dynamic translanguaging pedagogy able to achieve similar social justice aims as Waadookodaading’s language immersion? Critical language awareness educators are aware that it is people, not language ideologies, that come first. How are people already using the languages? What do people need in terms of expanding their repertoires, or creating more equitable language use in communities and in the wider society?

One factor to consider is the vitality of the indigenous language—i.e., is it widely spoken, albeit mixed with another language or languages, like Quechua, or endangered? As Silvia noted, Quechua was already widely spoken in Apurímac, though experts recognized only a narrow definition of Quechua proficiency. She therefore used dynamic translanguaging to legitimize everyone in her class as a competent Quechua user despite their varying levels of proficiency, while holding up as models Quechua-proficient students who were devalued as models of Quechua. In contrast, if students in the Great Lakes of North America do not get Ojibwe immersion, they (and even teachers) start to lose Ojibwe. The social movement led by Waadookodaading is succeeding, but it is not yet at a point at which Ojibwe can maintain itself.

Another factor is the extent to which implementation of the revitalization movement is elitist or grassroots. While this is not a black-and-white matter, it is clear that the students of Waadookodaading love being in that educational environment. They are positioned as legitimate peripheral participants in a community of practice who will someday be the experts (Lave & Wenger, 1991), with the responsibility to pass the on the language and cultural knowledge they are acquiring, not as perpetual learners and half-outsiders. In Zavala’s ethnography, it appeared that the experts would always continue to exclude the people they were educating in Quechua from their community of practice. This has massive implications for how people, young and old, will feel when they are in an immersion setting—it makes the difference between “I’d better learn this” versus “I will never learn this.”

In sum, whether translanguaging is compatible with indigenous language revitalization hinges on its ability to be implemented in ways that assert the language rights of the whole community against societally dominant social structures, while ensuring that individuals take responsibility for positioning each other in equitable ways.


Blommaert, J., Collins, J., & Slembrouck, S. (2005). Spaces of multilingualism. Language and Communication, 25, 197–216.

Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2021, Jan. 28). Pedagogical translanguaging in the context of multilingual education. Montréal, Canada: Plurilingual Lab Speaker Series.

Clark, R., & Ivanic, R. (1997). The politics of writing. London, UK: Routledge.

Creese, A., & Blackledge, A. (2011). Ideologies and interactions in multilingual education: What can an ecological approach tell us about bilingual pedagogy? In C. Hélot & M. Ó Laoire (Eds.), Language policy for the multilingual classroom: Pedagogy of the possible (pp. 3-21). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century. A global perspective. New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hornberger, N., & Skilton-Sylvester, E. (2000). Revisiting the continua of biliteracy: International and critical perspectives. Language and Education, 14(2), 96–122.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Menken, K., & García, O. (Eds.). (2010). Negotiating language policies in schools. Educators as policy makers. London, UK: Routledge.

Saxena, M., & Martin-Jones, M. (2013). Introduction: Multilingual resources in classroom interaction. Ethnographic and discourse analytic perspectives. Language and Education, 27(4), 285–297.

Street, B. (1996). Literacy and power? – Paper originally written for an International Seminar on ‘Literacy and Power?’ held in Harare, Zimbabwe, August, 1995. Open Letter: Australian Journal for Adult Literacy Research and Practice, 6(2), 7–16.

Van Deusen-Scholl, N. (2003). Toward a definition of heritage language: Sociopolitical and pedagogical considerations. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2(3), 211–230.

Zavala, V. (2014). An ancestral language to speak with the “other”: Closing down ideological spaces of a language policy in the Peruvian Andes. Language Policy, 13(1), 1–20.

Published by annamend

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

%d bloggers like this: