Why is one famous critical applied linguist not impressed by most translanguaging research?

The article that I summarize in this post is David Block’s “The political economy of language education research (or lack thereof): Nancy Fraser and the case of translanguaging.” Not a particularly accessible title… a lot of people, even those who know what translanguaging is and take an interest in it, would just go “What?” and read something else. But I do think the argument made in this paper by Prof. Block—who is perhaps the leading researcher in the world on language learning + social class—should be discussed more widely.

Block, D. (2018). The political economy of language education research (or the lack thereof): Nancy Fraser and the case of translanguaging. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies15(4), 237-257. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427587.2018.1466300

Let’s begin by unpacking the title. “Political economy” is not a term I’m familiar with, but upon Googling it, it seems to be the idea that economics cannot be separated from politics—ideology, tradition/innovation, religion, values, beliefs, attitudes, fashion, etc. in society. So I take “the political economy of language education research (or lack thereof)” to mean that one of these things, politics or economics, is missing from language education research, even though they are inseparable.

In the 21st century, an international class of professionals—businesspeople, academics, politicians, lawyers—dominate the world. They are quite multilingual (the same as many people in many non-English-dominant countries) but their multilingualism is not oppressed. Their notion of the ideal society is one that is linguistically and culturally diverse, largely because every aspect of their multicultural selves has been embraced because of who they are, their status. Not so with the Spanish-English bilingual migrant working on a farm in the U.S. or Canada, the Urdu-Cantonese-English trilingual delivering food in Hong Kong, or the Arabic- and Berber-speaking person who has learned French, English, Russian, and Japanese from his buddies on a cargo freighter ship that delivers what you last ordered from Amazon.

Now let’s see who Nancy Fraser was. As Block explains in the first part of his article, this American feminist philosopher wrote an article in 1995 that went down in history and made a lot of people angry. The article was titled: “From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a ‘postsocialist age'” (Fraser, 1995).

Fraser contrasted these two R’s—recognition and redistribution—by pointing out that recognition is something like:

  • “Let’s have an international culture fair at the university this weekend!” or
  • “Let’s celebrate Black History Month!”

whereas redistribution is more like:

Redistribution relates to how material resources are produced, distributed, acquired and used in society. The 21st century “international class” citizens feel good when recognition events take place or there are discussions about recognition in the classroom, but they are not very comfortable talking about redistribution or thinking about how society can be restructured in ways that might give them less… so that others can have enough.

(In contrast, especially in the U.S., working-class white people who have a strong national identity but a weak international identity are very interested in redistribution, and maybe even retribution/vengeance, but they don’t like to talk about cultural recognition because they think that “people of color” are stealing their jobs and rights—they fail to differentiate between international class and working-class immigrants, unfortunately.)

Anyway, in the past 20 years (see Block, 2014, for a review), there has been a movement in humanities and social sciences philosophy in the West towards something called poststructuralism. For example, in the field of applied linguistics, we had the Multi/Plural Turn. Basically, poststructuralism states that people cannot be neatly categorized as male/female, upper/lower class, Black/White/Asian, coming from this or that country, etc. “Post-” means “after,” so it’s like, “we live in an age where structures are no longer relevant.” This means we live in an age of global capitalism: remember, people in the international class grow up and attend school in different countries, have friends from around the world, enjoy all sorts of international food and music, form life philosophies by borrowing from many cultures and religious faiths, etc. I’m not really into economics but I LOVE culture, mixing languages in ways that are natural to me and blending cultural influences as I please… and whatever I come up with, society just has to accept due to recognizing my individual uniqueness. What… you say it’s because of my economic position??

Block writes: “And in the midst of framing reality in this way [i.e., the poststructuralist philosophy of nationally and internationally privileged people], there has been a tendency to marginalise and even erase social class as a key way to capture a great deal of what constitutes being in the world” (p. 3). And that leads to a problem when international elites conceptualize social justice. Sometimes this has to do with valuing the group cultural identity (e.g., “non-native English speakers unite!” “Female language teachers unite!” “isiZulu/Nepali/Persian/Tagalog/Vietnamese speakers unite!”) and erasing any class differences. A female L2 English professor at a top U.K./U.S. university, or even a leading university in her country, cannot possibly be compared to the multilingual lady of the same ethnicity selling chickens in the marketplace in terms of habitus (Bourdieu, 1977).

This is not to say that said professor does not experience racism and sexism; it only goes to say that when she is critical of these things, she should not only consider those who oppress her, but the ways in which she is privileged, when considering what is wrong with the way things are. In other words, does it matter if there is more diversity—more people of color, from a wider variety of countries, and a range of genders and sexual orientations, presenting and talking about critical topics—in the list of attendees or awardees at a top applied linguistics conference, when the very act of “conferencing” is a privilege that entails hundreds of people flying halfway around the world, to be served fancy food and cleaned up after by servers and housekeepers at the conference hotel? Block reminds us that Fraser is concerned with three things:

  • Exploitation: having the fruits of one’s labour appropriated for the benefits of others [e.g., if the clothes we wear or the laptops/phones we bring to the conference were made in sweatshops, which they unavoidably were];
  • Economic marginalization: being confined to undesirable or poorly paid work or being denied access to income-generating labour altogether [e.g., as some of the workers who serve us at conferences unavoidably are];
  • Deprivation: being denied an adequate material standard of living [as are some of the people whom we supposedly represent when we say our presentation is about “the South African/Nepali/Iranian/Philippine/Vietnamese context”]. (Fraser, 1995, pp. 70-71, as cited in Block, 2018, p. 5)

This is why “affirmative action,” such as letting more women into top PhD programs in science, or hiring more working-class, non-Caucasian people at Fortune 500 companies, cannot do much for social justice… it still leaves other people in those oppressed groups exploited, economically marginalized, or deprived. The “bean counting” (e.g., “How many non-Caucasians do we have in our department? How many women? How many LGBTQ people?”, etc.) still does not answer the question of what to do with/for people outside of the university or company who do not enjoy the lifestyle we have that is supported by the university or company.

So what does this have to do with translanguaging? Block comes to this in the second half of his article, with the sub-title: “An example to examine: Translanguaging research.”

Nancy Fraser’s theory applied to translanguaging research

I’m going to quote Block at length here, in his own words:

After careful consideration, I have decided to focus on research carried out under the heading of translanguaging. However, before beginning my examination of this research, three caveats are in order. First, what follows will necessarily be a very partial representation of translanguaging research even if I have made every effort to make it a fair one. In effect, one cannot possibly cover the entirety of a field of research that has expanded rapidly over the past decade, but one can try to be fair in one’s portrayal of it. Second, and related to the first point, I need to explain that I am primarily interested in translanguaging research that is embedded in ongoing education practices (what we may call the sociolinguistics of education). … The third caveat is to make clear that I have nothing against translanguaging research, although it is true that I see some problems and gaps in the conceptual edifice that undergirds it, not least the wholesale jettisoning [throwing away] of many of the traditional staples of multilingualism research such as codeswitching, as too beholding to the “antiquated” notion that discrete languages exist (for an interesting critique of translanguaging, see MacSwan, 2017). Above all, I have chosen translanguaging because there is by now a rich and varied literature that is becoming progressively more influential every day in sociolinguistics of education circles. (pp. 11-12).

Block agrees with certain conceptual underpinnings of translanguaging: (1) that multilingual speakers have an integrated system of language knowledge, which Cook (1996) called multicompetence and that other people call plurilingualism or translanguaging; (2) that this competence is brought out in communication in a dynamic and creative processes; (3) that it reflects “the individual’s cognitive processes as inextricably interwoven with their experiences in the physical and social world” (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008, p. 155, as cited in Block, 2018, p. 12), (4) that we have repertoires of linguistic and semiotic resources which can be drawn on at any time in communication, and (5) that some contemporary social settings are very complex in terms of linguistic and cultural diversity. All of this is true.

Translanguaging theory has also led to some positive developments in education, for example in terms of the Latinx students in the U.S. studied by Ofelia García, Kate Seltzer, and others (e.g., García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2016):

[Translanguaging] provides respect for individuals and collectives whose multilingual communicative practices have historically been denigrated [looked on as wrong] by educational institutions and society at large. The case of Spanish-speaking Latinos in the United States is a good example, as they have found themselves caught within a three-way pincer movement involving (a) those who push them toward competence in Standard American English, (b) those who push them toward competence in a standard Spanish, and (c) those who push them toward competence in both. And through all of this, they are told by far too many individuals and collectives in American society that they are “semilingual” speakers of “Spanglish.” In addition, the majority of children… are also racialized users of language, suffering multiple discriminations (Flores, 2016; Urciuoli, 1996) (p. 14)

At the same time, Block says he finds it unclear how this theory would change larger social structures such as lower wages for Latinx people in the U.S., their being stuck in lower-class jobs, the linguistic and racial discrimination they face in schools, hospitals, courts, and other government services, or “the capitalist system that condemns so many children to lives of poverty or relative poverty, as class hierarchies are continually reproduced across a range of institutions and day-to-day practices” (p. 15).

Moreover, the Latinx researchers who study these Latinx students are not like the students themselves: they are not first-generation immigrants; they are “university-educated professionals” and tend to be fairer-skinned and come from professional class backgrounds (p. 16). Some of them are colleagues I very much like, and I can relate, as an East Asian-looking university-educated Filipina-Canadian scholar. I can write about my research participants, but can I represent them? Even if they wanted me to represent them—even if they wanted this “standard” English speaker and writer to represent them, to show white academics that “we” are not intellectually inferior—could I represent them? As Block states:

Indeed, in the United States and worldwide, we need to be wary of lumping all forms of translanguaging together. Sandhu and Higgins (2016) discuss research in India, where translanguaging is a strategy in the advertising of upmarket products directed at those who can afford such products. The focus here is on a middle/upper class-inflected translanguaging that has certain prestige in society. By contrast, translanguaging from below in India, that is translanguaging at the lower end of the class hierarchy in India, may be seen by local elites as a case of not having a sufficient command of English. Elsewhere, Wei and Hua (2013) examined the translanguaging practices of highly privileged university students in London, who claim a common Chinese identity despite coming from different countries and speaking different varieties of English and Chinese. These students show a high degree of ambivalence [mixed feelings]: they seem to want to claim an individual identity and not a Chinese identity, while wanting to claim a Chinese identity as opposed to, for example, a British identity. Highly educated, and highly empowered, they translanguage as a ludic [playful] activity which contributes to their ongoing construction of what may be termed identities of affinity [i.e., multicultural stuff that you happen to like] and identities of difference. … Nevertheless, this identity ambivalence, and the translanguaging practices that these students engage in, are not likely to have negative consequences in their lives, as they already are a part of, and in all likelihood will remain a part of, the cosmopolitan (upper) middle class that lives in isolation from the kinds of issues faced by the students that García and others (e.g., Sayer, 2013) are concerned with.

There is also translanguaging research that focuses on how students learn another language effectively by drawing on their first, e.g., how L1 English speakers in Canada translanguage to learn French, or how L1 Mandarin speakers translanguage to learn English for academic purposes. But these students are also (upper) middle class people learning (upper) middle class skills that will be relevant to their future (upper) middle class careers. For that reason, Block says: “This type of approach is fine as far as it goes” (p. 17). After all, it recognizes the integrated language repertoire of bi/multilinguals, rather than misrecognizing it as two or more separate language systems (Taylor, 1994). Also, it does affirm what the language learners already know and builds on it. But where is the research that defends the English of working-class youth as no better or worse than the middle-class varieties in formal education (Snell, 2013)?

[Blogger’s note: Or what about translanguaging that is only between the national language and English—so that working-class or rural students who speak indigenous/minority languages at home are doubly oppressed by the English-medium program design that, for example, lets them use Nepali, but not Nepal Bhasha, Gurung, or Limbu, to access the academic content in English (Sah & Li, 2020)? Of course, this does not mean that letting them translanguage in all these languages in an English-medium instruction class is enough; why do they need to be learning academic subjects in English to begin with? Is the goal to give them equal opportunity to become like the international class people… or to implement a curriculum that is needs-based and place-based, let them choose their own paths, and ensure that in doing so, they are not exploited, economically marginalized, or deprived as a sort of punishment for not conforming?]

When translanguaging research is “transformative,” it focuses on correcting such injustice and inequality from a political economy perspective, not just focusing on the social and cultural realm with “little to say about redistribution and even less to say about transformative redistribution” (pp. 17-18). Of course, if we are concerned with redistribution, working in the education realm is not enough—we have to change how economies are organized, and that cannot be solely brought about through pedagogy.


Block, D. (2014). Social class in applied linguistics. London, UK: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice (trans. R. Nice). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, V. (1996). Competence and multi-competence. In G. Brown, K. Malmkjaer, & J. Williams (Eds.), Performance and competence in second language acquisition (pp. 57-69). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Flores, N. (2016). A tale of two visions: Hegemonic whiteness and bilingual education. Educational Policy30(1), 13-38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904815616482

Fraser, N. (1995). From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a “post-socialist” age. New Left Review, 212, 68-93. https://newleftreview.org/issues/i212

García, O., Ibarra Johnson, S., & Seltzer, K. (2017). The translanguaging classroom: Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008). Complex systems and applied linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

MacSwan, J. (2017). A multilingual perspective on translanguaging. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 167-201. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831216683935

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2020.1849011

Sandhu, P., & Higgins, C. (2016). Identity in postcolonial contexts. In S. Preece (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of language and identity (pp. 179-194). London, UK: Routledge.

Sayer, P. (2013). Translanguaging, TexMex, and bilingual pedagogy: Emergent bilinguals learning through the vernacular. TESOL Quarterly47(1), 63-88. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.53

Snell, J. (2013). Dialect, interaction and class positioning at school: From deficit to difference to repertoire. Language and Education27(2), 110-128. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2012.760584

Taylor, C. (1994). The politics of recognition. In A. Gutman (Ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the politics of recognition (pp. 25-73). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Urciuoli, B. (1996). Exploring prejudice: Puerto Rican experiences of language, race, and class. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Wei, L., & Hua, Z. (2013). Translanguaging identities: Creating transnational space through flexible multilingual practices amongst Chinese university students in the UK. Applied Linguistics, 34(5), 516-535. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amt022

Published by annamend

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

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