“Majoritized” and “Minoritized” Translanguaging: What they are and why they matter

This 2021 study by Ingrid Beiler examined three secondary classes in Norway taught by the same teacher: (1) a regular gr. 11 English class, (2) an accelerated class for gr. 10 students undertaking the gr. 11 English curriculum, and (3) a sheltered class for gr. 11 English repeaters (aged gr. 12/13), many of whom spoke other languages at home apart from English or Norwegian. Through a linguistic ethnography including field notes, video and audio recordings, artifact study, language portraits, and teacher and student interviews, Beiler presents two types of translanguaging: bilingual practices drawing on English and Norwegian, and multilingual practices drawing on other languages, i.e., majoritized and minoritized translanguaging. She analyzed both types of translanguaging with regard to markedness, which she defined as the extent to which translanguaging was noticed, and if so, how it was evaluated.

Beiler, I. R. (2021). Marked or unmarked translanguaging in accelerated, mainstream, and sheltered English classrooms. Multilingua, 4o(1), 107-138. https://doi.org/10.1515/multi-2020-0022

Translanguaging, or use of the whole language repertoire to teach and learn, is a useful thing; however, if translanguaging supporters do not consider factors like language majority and minority groups in a particular class, what people think of different languages in that setting, and “translanguaging in relation to participants, contexts, and resources” (p. 108), they might end up celebrating linguistic hybridity divorced from social justice (Jaspers, 2018; Kubota, 2016). To avoid this, Beiler argues that we need to distinguish socially marked and unmarked language practices.

Unmarked language practices are so taken-for-granted that they go unnoticed. For example, we might not often notice translanguaging between racialized or working-class dialects of English as translanguaging (Flores & Rosa, 2015; Rosiers, Van Lancker, & Delarue, 2018). If you are doing a study on translanguaging—in which case, you are 99.9% likely to be a supporter of translanguaging—you tend to focus on what is so obviously mixing of two or more languages as evidence of translanguaging’s positive effects. In contrast, marked language practices go noticed, and they prompt “renegotiation of identities and relationships” (p. 111). Such noticing is evident in people’s remarks, gestures, and prosodic features of their speech (tone, pace), which give clues about discourses, beliefs, and attitudes about language use in that setting.

Flores and Rosa (2015) explain that marked language practices often point to racial and class inequalities, which position certain languages/dialects as not for public use or belonging in the home, even if they are not devalued outright. In Norway, as in anywhere else, immigrant languages like Hebrew, racialized national minority languages like Roma, or indigenous languages like Sami tend to be positioned in this way. In contrast, while English has no official legal status, it is so widely used in academic and professional domains that Norway is becoming more like an ESL rather than an EFL setting (p. 113).

If you are an immigrant student in Norway, there are two languages for you to learn: Norwegian and English. Moreover, EFL teaching often takes place through the medium of Norwegian, so while this leads to plenty of opportunities for bidirectional learning between English and the national language, neither the national curriculum nor your teachers are under any obligation to draw on the other language(s) in your repertoire. This finding was confirmed by Beiler’s (2020) study of two introductory English classes, where the teacher taught bilingually and any multilingual translanguaging appeared in small group interactions and individual writing practices. Although the reason is likely that Norwegian is the language all classroom participants understood to some degree, these practices clearly privilege speakers of Norwegian as a first language (L1).

In this study, a linguistic ethnography, Beiler collected data for several months in three classes taught by the same teacher to see how interaction patterns differed across each class: (1) a regular gr. 11 English class, (2) an accelerated class for gr. 10 students being taught the gr. 11 English curriculum, and (3) a sheltered class for gr. 11 English repeaters (aged gr. 12/13), many of whom spoke other languages at home apart from English or Norwegian.


Table 1 shows the class demographics. Note that the sheltered class had the largest proportion (5 out of 6 students) who spoke languages other than Norwegian and English at home, but it also enrolled a visually impaired student who had completed all his other courses and was taking the sheltered EFL class as a way to have more individualized instruction. In the accelerated and mainstream classes, which had 23–25 students, a smaller percentage (17% and 20% of students) were linguistically minoritized. Beiler points out that in the mainstream and accelerated classes, there were also many students not classified as minority language speakers who also spoke minority languages at home, presumably because they were fluent in Norwegian (see Shirin later in this blog post); in other words, “minority language speaker” ends up being a coded term for recent immigrants, rather than an indication of proficiency in a minority language.

Beiler (2021), p. 114

Immigrant students came from a variety of countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Some students spoke the indigenous language Sami. Some had taken foreign languages like French, German, or Spanish. “A wide variety of languages were thus represented in all three classes, involving both elite and minoritized multilingualism (Ortega, 2019)” (p. 115). Lars, the teacher of all three classes, spoke Norwegian as L1, was fluent in English, and had studied German at school. Beiler self-describes as a former English teacher and current English teacher educator, “usually perceived as a white bilingual ‘native speaker’ of both English and Norwegian” (p. 116). However, she had moved countries as a teenager and had studied Arabic and French, facts that she foregrounded when interacting with these research participants (p. 116), presumably to identify as an immigrant with a positive attitude towards all types of multilingualism.

From August to December 2017, she visited the school 2–4 times per week and collected field notes, video- and audio-recordings of classroom interaction, course texts, student and teacher feedback, photographs of student work, and “language portraits” [see Dressler, 2014, for an example of the language portrait activity]. She also interviewed Lars and his students, both in terms of “stimulated recall” (to remember and explain what went on during a recorded interaction) and to talk about language use more broadly. For the recordings and interviews, 17 student participants were chosen as focus students across the three classes, and they represented a variety of linguistic backgrounds.

As a linguistic ethnographer, Beiler was interested in identifying patterns of language use and “rare events.” In this study, she analyzed how translanguaging differed across students and across classes—in terms of what people did linguistically, and how they perceived what they did.

Summary of Findings

Beiler put forward two main findings (p. 118) as patterns of translanguaging:

(1) English-Norwegian translanguaging was marked (negatively) in accelerated and mainstream classes; i.e., “Don’t do it!” but unmarked and far more permissible in the sheltered class, where (a) the teacher wanted the students to learn Norwegian, and (b) there were somewhat more “relaxed expectations” (of course this is a double-edged sword, with both benefits and drawbacks, in terms of learning quality and social positioning).

(2) Across all three classes, translanguaging using other, minoritized languages was rarer than translanguaging between English and Norwegian, suggesting that this was seen as less socially acceptable, but when it happened, it was very marked, and often evaluated negatively.

BUT: Lars was a well-liked, kind teacher. Beiler does not blame him, but larger societal ideologies and the whole classroom community in general, for such findings in the three classes, which I now explain in detail.

Findings Re: Majoritized Translanguaging

The monolingual norm (“speak English only”) was imposed most strictly in the accelerated English 11 class that enrolled gr. 10 students, who were assumed to be the most proficient in English out of the three groups. [Side note: In personal communication, Beiler stated there was no indication that the accelerated class had higher socioeconomic status (SES) students.] When translanguaging did occur in that class, it was of a very subtle kind:

Beiler (2021), p. 120

As can be seen in this dialogue, (almost) all of the interaction is in English. There is subtle translanguaging in terms of a key term that Lars writes on the board as an illustration, but notice that Lars encouraged students to try to find English circumlocutions for the Norwegian word as a preferred rule (i.e., it is discouraged to translanguage in speech in an advanced English-medium class, as if there is an invisible recorder monitoring whether you do so). Another Norwegian term appears when Lars says “sensor” (examiner in the Norwegian educational tradition), but I believe this may simply be an untranslatable word, as in “She plays the koto” or “Let’s bake samosas.”

In spite of teaching in English in all three classes, and promoting “English only” whole-class interactions in the accelerated class, Lars did allow small-group translanguaging in all of the classes. (This implicit interaction rule of “students can translanguage in a class with one official language of instruction, but the teacher should not” was also documented in Rajendram, 2018; similarly, in Hamman, 2018, the teacher in a dual language program taught in the language of the period while allowing students to translanguage flexibly.)

Interestingly, while Lars pretended not to hear English-Norwegian translanguaging in small group work in the accelerated and mainstream classes, he explicitly encouraged it in the sheltered class:

Beiler (2021), p. 122

Such encouragement during small group work in the sheltered class is in contrast to his directions to the accelerated class (see the first dialogue) not to speak Norwegian. When Beiler pointed this out to Lars, he responded that translanguaging was necessary to support understanding and engagement for students in the mainstream and sheltered classes. However, he did not tell students in the sheltered class to use non-Norwegian languages, perhaps due to “the broader institutional emphasis on developing immigrant students’ Norwegian proficiency” (p. 122).

Beiler next examines the language practices of the students. Here, there was lots of variation between individuals, as well as variation within the same individual across contexts. For example, a student named Sara in the sheltered class explained: “…I know that I can say it in Norwegian, so it’s a little easier for me, or I feel much better that I know I have that possibility, instead of not having it and being quiet” (p. 123; Beiler’s translation). At the same time, Sara reported that she liked how Lars largely conducted the class in English, unlike her EFL class in Poland. Thus, Sara appeared to be against the teacher’s spoken translanguaging yet in favour of students’ spoken translanguaging (in English and Norwegian). In private work, Sara and other students in the sheltered class drew on other languages apart from Norwegian, but these were not seen in the same way as English-Norwegian translanguaging. This brings us to minoritized translanguaging.

Findings Re: Minoritized Translanguaging

As in other studies, minoritized translanguaging in this study was found to be used less often for academic work—presumably it appeared more in extracurricular settings, language play, and personal conversations. In some cases, such language use could even be seen as antisocial during class because not all classmates spoke languages apart from Norwegian and English:

Beiler (2021), p. 124

In this example, Rachelle locked gaze with Beiler, “the researcher who could understand and legitimate [her] departure from majoritized languages as being task-related” (p. 125). While students acknowledged in interviews that use of languages other than Norwegian and English could be helpful for their peers, they also saw it as problematic to speak languages that not everybody knew. Aware of how their language use might be interpreted by others, these gr. 11 students generally avoided speaking minoritized languages to avoid seeming exclusive and gossipy.

Lars, too, rarely drew on minoritized languages, except on one occasion when the language was a cognate of Norwegian (even though he didn’t speak it). That language was Dutch.

Beiler (2021), p. 125

In this dialogue, Lars wanted to check if the student knew the English word “debt.” If the student produced the word in Dutch and it was similar to the Norwegian word, Lars could confirm the student’s understanding. As seen in the above dialogue, the strategy worked. Interestingly, however, Lars relied on another student (Frida) to be the interpreter who confirmed the word across the three languages. Thus, the strategy could also have worked if the language was Arabic or Kurdish or anything else; there is no reason why it should be limited to Dutch. Lars also asks Bob to repeat the word in Dutch even after he confirms the Bob’s understanding (l. 12), which is an extra legitimation of a non-Norwegian, non-English word during the interaction, as the Dutch word is not really relevant to the course (though Dutch is another national language in the European Union).

On the other hand, Lars was hesitant to initiate such cross-linguistic word searches in languages he identified as not knowing, including immigrant languages that were societally seen in negative ways, since he felt this would make students uncomfortable (i.e., their ethnic identities would be highlighted), and he wouldn’t know whether the word was correct (“it requires a fair bit of knowledge… on my part, about both their culture and about the language,” p. 126).

Beiler (2021), pp. 126-127

In this response, Lars thinks it may be silly, somewhat tokenizing, to ask “what is the word for coffee?” in Russian (or another immigrant language that doesn’t have a positive societal value in Norway), putting the student on the spot as a native speaker of that language. This points to the fact that simply inviting translanguaging in these languages, without forethought or what Lars refers to as “just on a whim,” without being “clarified beforehand,” can result in threats to face for both teacher and student: (1) the student has their ethnic identity highlighted when the space may not be safe, and (2) the teacher, from a dominant ethnic and cultural group, can look like they are prying into the knowledge of the oppressed, knowledge that they will never fully understand. Lars has a point here: drawing on minoritized languages is a serious interpersonal challenge, and translanguaging supporters need to address these if they want to address teachers’ real concerns. However, where Lars would not be right is in assuming that because it is an interpersonal challenge, it cannot feasibly be done. Researchers have shown that teachers can draw on all students’ languages, including minoritized ones, with a range of academic and socioemotional benefits, and a positive classroom atmosphere (see Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2017 and Woodley & Brown, 2016), but this research tends to be at the elementary level. It seems the older people get and the more aware they are of group tensions in the wider society, the harder they (as teenagers or adults) will have to work to navigate threats to face to enjoy the full benefits of translanguaging.

While Lars drew more on Norwegian than other non-English languages in teaching and learning, so did students; even those students in the accelerated and mainstream classes who spoke other languages at home did not seem to think of them much as learning resources, and in the sheltered class, Sara (see above) spoke to Beiler about Norwegian-English translanguaging while valuing a teacher who “taught in English,” unlike her EFL teacher in Poland. Nevertheless, Beiler highlights that in all classes there was “a comfortable classroom atmosphere and good relationships among the students and teacher; especially students in the sheltered and accelerated classes commented to this effect” (p. 128). Thus, people following “regimes” or “hierarchies” of language—while they had a fairly successful classroom experience—was really an internalization of “normal” majoritized/minoritized language practices that they were used to by late secondary school (i.e., adulthood). They had been socialized into these unmarked language practices for years, as only Halima had ever been asked by a previous teacher to draw on her L1, and other students recalled being told not to speak Sami or Farsi at school.

In the whole study, only one student, Shirin, expressed opinions against regimes and hierarchies of language. Not surprisingly, she was in the accelerated class and academically proficient in Norwegian and English. She was also a lover of many languages, as seen in her language portrait (in which she included languages she disliked, “New Norwegian” and “French”… as well as the languages she knew or liked, including some she wanted to learn more of, e.g., Korean).

Beiler (2021), p. 129

Shirin was proud of her home language, Kurdish, and questioned linguistic racism (see interview on pp. 129-130), but she did so from a position of relative cultural privilege. It begs the question of whether there are students who resist language hierarchies who do NOT already have the “standard” academic and linguistic capital that Shirin has. Can these students resist school’s raciolinguistic ideologies by being confident in class, not just by skipping school? Seltzer & García (2020) explain how a teacher can build a classroom community with critical language awareness, empowering the group as a whole to renegotiate what counts as cultural and linguistic capital.

Discussion and Conclusions

In many other studies, translanguaging has been conceptualized mainly as being for or against bi/multilingualism. However (and this is especially true in a country where the national language is not English), bi/multilingualism does not challenge language hierarchies in itself because majoritized translanguaging is not racialized like minoritized translanguaging. While Lars regulated Norwegian use in class—note that speaking Norwegian was otherwise “normal” for every academic and social purpose outside of English class—to give students enough exposure to English, he also drew on Norwegian as a resource for learning English. This highlights the unmarked, elite multilingualism that is the “officially sanctioned plurilingualism for linguistically majoritized white students in Europe” (p. 132); see also Garcia & Otheguy, 2020). Lars also increased or decreased Norwegian support due to perceived English proficiency and academic ability across groups of students, a double-edged sword when it comes to learning outcomes and social positioning.

In contrast, non-Norwegian languages were less often legitimized as belonging to the domain of school (by either teacher or students), due to “the discourse of inclusion through conformity to majority language practices” (p. 132), i.e., “Speak Norwegian because everyone understands” in Norway is like “Speak English because everyone understands” in Australia or anglophone Canada. But we know this is not really equitable, as people understand the dominant national language to different degrees. Beiler concludes that we need to examine translanguaging in its local context to understand the specific ideologies that it challenges or transcends, and whether these are indeed socially just or emancipatory. Such examination can reconcile the competing arguments of “those [scholars] who have questioned the inherently counter-hegemonic impact of translanguaging… and those who have sought to clarify translanguaging as more than mere fluid language use” (p. 133). Beiler also states:

Translanguaging may indeed be transformative… but perhaps only to the extent that it challenges a hegemonic discourse that is in operation locally (see also Allard 2017) and connects to broader movements for social justice (Flores and Chaparro 2018; Flores et al. 2018). (p. 134)

The other takeaway, which is pedagogical rather than theoretical, is to hold students accountable for what goes on in a linguistically diverse class, not only teachers. Is it only students like Shirin who have the power to resist raciolinguistic ideologies because of pre-existing cultural capital? Can teachers deliberately create spaces for all linguistically minoritized students to do so?, as “Lars indicated that such training might help him to draw on students’ multilingual resources in more than a superficial manner” (p. 133)? It is important to recognize, from this study, that students engage in self- and peer- policing, e.g., using Norwegian but not their home languages to translanguage, and discouraging peers from using languages other than Norwegian because not everybody understood. We must recognize

the need for not only teachers, but also students, to interrogate the language ideologies that push them to perceive majoritized language practices as appropriate in school and minoritized translanguaging—their own and others’—as antisocial, suspicious, or perhaps valuable only for communication within linguistically minoritized homes and social arenas. (Beiler, 2021, p. 133; my bold)

Of course, to have linguistic justice in society, we need to change not only schools but racism more broadly, socioeconomic inequality, and disparities in political representation (Block, 2018; Flores & Rosa, 2015; Jaspers, 2018). But what can school do? How can it give students the tools to “participate in these larger democratic struggles by providing opportunities to critically examine hegemonic language ideologies” (p. 134)?

The Social Contract

I believe that somehow or other, teachers need to promote a certain “linguistic social contract” in classes with one official language of instruction. How they do this depends on a gazillion factors in their particular classroom context—there is no single way. But three points need to come across to students, and a fourth if the language of instruction is not the same as the majoritized language in that location:

1. We will push ourselves to get enough practice in the language of instruction. For example, the teacher will provide enough input, and we will all try the language out in interaction and negotiation of meaning, encouraging each other all the way.

2. We will use other languages to learn this language, for example, in whole class discussions, small group work, notes to self, self-study, completing homework with family members, or after-school study with friends. This is beneficial because… [the teacher may get students to brainstorm the benefits, so they can realize these for themselves].

3. In our multilingual teaching and learning practices, we will: (a) Use [insert majoritized language, whether or not it is the same as the language of instruction] to be inclusive, as this is a language we all understand; (b) Use other languages too, even if some or most people don’t understand them, because it wouldn’t be fair if we only used [majoritized language]; in that case, only some class members would be allowed to use their first language as a resource to learn.

4. [For contexts where the language of instruction is not the majoritized language:] We look up to [target language] speakers. But we look up to [majoritized language]-[target language] speakers even more, because they are becoming bilingual. And we look up to multilingual speakers the most, because they have to learn at least two additional languages so quickly to thrive in our society.

For minoritized and majoritized languages to stand on the same ground within the class if not in the wider society, there must be a socially negotiated “small culture” that is counter to societal norms (the wider culture), so that use of minoritized languages in context would signal something different from what it normally does. I think this is what Lars means in Excerpt 5 (the interview in which he must explain why he doesn’t draw on minoritized languages); the excerpt title is a quote from him: “It has to be clarified beforehand” (pp. 126-127). The “it” is the meaning of the minoritized language(s) in the context of the small culture. Everyone has a responsibility to build and maintain this small culture, so that they can learn interpersonal strategies for building the same kind of culture in new contexts, such as other classes and future workplaces.


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Published by annamend

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

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