Translanguaging in language immersion classrooms: To what extent can it be done?

In this week’s post, I summarize an article about the extent to which translanguaging/code-switching/first language (L1) use is appropriate for language immersion classrooms (Ballinger, Lyster, Sterzuk, & Genesee, 2017). The article is by Canadian scholars—as the early immersion research from French immersion in Canada is often cited today by proponents of other types of immersion, such as English-medium instruction in China. I divide my summary into five parts: (1) a discussion of what language immersion classrooms aim to do, (2) how they are different from English-medium (Content Language Integrated Learning) classrooms where TL/CS/L1 use to learn is recommended by evidence, (3) what kinds of pedagogical strategies Ballinger et al. argue are appropriate for immersion, (4) how these authors point to the importance of context in determining how to shape classroom language use, with one of the most important contextual factors being the unequal status of students’ languages in the wider society, and (5) some context-specific bi/multilingual teaching practices that have been shown to address such inequalities.

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Ballinger, S., Lyster, R., Sterzuk, A., & Genesee, F. (2017). Context-appropriate crosslinguistic pedagogy: Considering the role of language status in immersion education. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 5(1), 30-57. https://10.1075/jicb.5.1.02bal

What is language immersion?

The most fundamental aim of a language immersion program is to immerse students in a target language to the biggest extent possible, in order to facilitate language acquisition, when students have little opportunity to use that language outside of the classroom. There could be various reasons for this: the language may be a foreign language (e.g., English can be defined as a foreign language in countries where it is not the most dominantly used language for generative conversation in society, even though it has made inroads into society in many ways), or it could be spoken in that society, but not by the communities to which students belong (e.g., non-Francophone students in Canada; non-Hispanic students in a dual Spanish-English immersion program in the United States).

Since immersion students’ exposure to the language of instruction is limited outside of school, the classroom may be the space with the most opportunity for them to practice the language authentically. While classrooms are often criticized as being spaces where authentic language use is limited, we can turn this argument on its head—where else, apart from the language classroom, would students have a collective reason to speak or practice a language they have little reason to use outside of class?

How is immersion different from Content Language Integrated Learning (learning academic subjects through the medium of English), and why is translanguaging/code-switching/L1 use supported more in research on the latter?

This is not to say that translanguaging/code-switching/first language (L1) use is widely promoted in CLIL research, but that immersion classrooms tends to avoid TL/CS/L1 use, whereas in CLIL the attitudes are more favourable. I use the terms translanguaging, code-switching, and L1 use interchangeably in this post, even though elsewhere in this blog I have outlined the differences between them (see previous hyperlinks).

There are three main reasons why translanguaging is treated less favourably in immersion than CLIL, and this section of the post is my own commentary (departing from the summary) about why. This side commentary will eventually come together with Ballinger et al’s article.

Reason 1: CLIL students are generally older than immersion students; in fact CLIL usually starts in late elementary or secondary, whereas immersion tends to end in late elementary. Late elementary is a turning point in any K-12 student’s career, whether they are being instructed in their first language or in a bi/multilingual program. It’s the turning point at which they go beyond learning basic facts about the world (e.g., seasons, animals, how to share…) and start learning academic knowledge in various subjects. It’s where academic literacy development starts to be a goal beyond everyday language and conceptual development.

An interesting thing happens in immersion classrooms when students hit this age: they seem to start flouting, or no longer following, the target-language-only policy when talking with one another in the immersion classroom. This brings us to Reason 2: they have reached an age when they can question whether the language in the immersion class is going to be of any practical use—whether it’s a foreign language that is prestigious but not widely used in their society, or a heritage language that isn’t as valued as dominant languages and won’t be used at higher education levels. Reason 3 is also sociolinguistic and age-related: at this age, they know that they don’t speak some of their languages (e.g., heritage languages/HLs and additional languages/L2s) as well as L1/”native” speakers, and they know others may judge them for that, and they are further aware that they don’t speak their HLs/L2s in a “standard” way. Thus, they may feel dissatisfied with their proficiency in the language of instruction in the immersion class, and feel hesitant to use it, not seeing themselves as legitimate speakers (Macintyre, Burns, & Jessie, 2011). [As a Canadian, I might add that this is where French immersion in Canada could be less about “native speakers” and “standard dialects”—while some French L1 speakers are at fault for how immersion students feel, some French L2 speakers are awful for rejecting their Canadian hosts as French interlocutors, valuing Parisian over Quebecois French.]

But let’s go back to Reason 1, the fact that the academic content and language demands at that grade level become so complex that students have trouble doing the tasks in the target language only. This seems to co-occur with a “plateau,” or limit, to the students’ development in the language of instruction/immersion (Fortune & Tedick, 2015; Lapkin, Hart, & Swain, 1991), which we might generally term “intermediate conversational fluency” or what Jim Cummins has called BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills). It can be gained through immersion and social interaction in the target language only, as long as the topics of conversation are everyday conversational topics. To illustrate, here is a testimony by my colleague Ms. Lam, an English-medium teacher in Hong Kong (used with her permission):

Is it really because we teach in some L1 that’s why they are not competent English users? I studied in an EMI school too. It is true the amount of L1 used was very little. Notes were all in L2, our teachers never spoke to us in L1 (even though they are native Cantonese speakers. They spoke to me in English even when we bumped into each other on MTR).  I realize hobbies and entertainment create such differences. It is the reason why L1 is not needed.  Back then, we didn’t have smartphones or YouTube, so we spent a lot of time reading, listening to songs and watching dramas or movies. We read Harry Potter, Twilight Saga and we watched Mean Girls, High school musicals and Friends, and we listened to countless English songs.  It is the extensive reading and rich English environment that have helped us to get used to the language. Maybe there’s something more important than the EMI policy to help students to learn English. 

Note that everything Ms. Lam mentions above are immersion activities: they are based in the realm of concrete, everyday lived experience and familiar topics. They are also not academic literacies… in fact a lot of successful immersion concerns students’ out-of-school literacies, for good reason.

This is what differentiates immersion teaching practices from CLIL teaching practices: CLIL practices use the first language (L1), or translanguaged speech, to unpack and repack academic texts in the target language (Lin, 2016), as Ballinger et al. (2017) explain in their article:

Because the content to be learned is more complex in Grade 7 than it is in Grade 1, late immersion students must begin learning complex content material in French [or whatever immersion language] despite having rather low proficiency in that language. They therefore need substantial scaffolding, and recourse to English [or whatever L1] is most likely unavoidable during complex L2 interactions, for these students, given that academic objectives in these programs are the same as in English [or L1] classes at the same grade level. (p. 38)

In a study of a late French immersion program, Behan, Turnbull, and Spek (1997) found that topics discussed in English appeared in the final French product, and helped in task completion. Another study by Turnbull and colleagues (Turnbull, Cormier, & Bourque, 2011) found that when late immersion students worked on French writing, English turns and turns involving translanguaging resulted in more complex spoken statements than French-only turns, and also helped students to produce written products with fewer French errors (e.g., they could use English or translanguage to discuss what was grammatically right/wrong). These are, in fact, many of the strategies used in CLIL classrooms, but Ballinger et al. critique them in the rest of the article—partly because they are concerned with immersion rather than CLIL. So let’s return to immersion.

What kinds of pedagogical strategies are appropriate for immersion (vs CLIL)?

We know that immersion classrooms are effective to a point: they can help students reach fluent BICS (Cummins, 2008) IF the content is concrete, everyday, personal, and familiar. But for it to even get to this point—which Ballinger et al. describe as “high levels of functional proficiency in the L2—students require extended exposure to and use of the language” (p. 40). In addition, “to effectively learn content through their L2, immersion students need instruction that is adapted for L2 learners” (p. 40). Ballinger et al. outline some alternative strategies to translanguaging/code-switching/L1 use for this purpose. They are other parts of the language teacher’s toolkit, meaning TL/CS/L1 should not be considered the only tool.

Let’s elaborate on the first point, about extended exposure. Similar to Ms. Lam, Ballinger et al. state:

Achieving high levels of functional proficiency in a minority language is not something that can be achieved with only 30 or 60 minutes a day of classroom exposure. The purpose of French immersion programs in Canada has been to create classroom settings that maximize exposure to French in meaningful ways by creating opportunities to use it in schools located in communities that are otherwise predominantly English-speaking. Immersion programs have similarly been devised in other parts of the world to create learning environments in which students can be exposed to and use an additional language which is otherwise not widely used or supported at school. (p. 41)

[Side note: Problems occur when “immersion” and CLIL are conflated (thought to be the same thing), when students are expected to learn about highly abstract and not-that-relevant-to-their-daily-lives concepts (like “union set” in this terrible example) in a target-language-only classroom. But there is no reason why immersion cannot work for activities like those Ms. Lam describes above. The problem is that policymakers often want it both ways—academic mastery of concepts AND fluency in the target language. For immersion to work well with older students as well as younger ones, it should probably be related to concrete things in daily life, and make connections to many out-of-school literacies.]

Ballinger et al. go on to describe studies that have found positive effects of L1 use in French immersion, for example using L1 to discuss grammar concepts in L2 (Lyster & Sato, 2013) or using L1 to plan target language products in L2 (Swain & Lapkin, 2013). This is where CLIL and immersion have some overlap—if the task is complex, linguistically or conceptually, or there is a narrow target that must be hit in terms of output (e.g., final assessment with some very specific criteria), students naturally do L1 planning and metacognitive talk, which is entirely understandable.

The importance of context when trying to determine how to shape classroom language use

Having examined the cognitive scaffolding issue, we now come to some social or sociolinguistic considerations, which Ballinger et al. pay attention to as well. Recall Reason 2 for why immersion fails (students don’t see the practical use of L2 anymore and stop using it in immersion, ending up planning every final product in L1 or through translanguaging), and Reason 3 for why it fails (students don’t see themselves as competent speakers of the language). It is here that Ballinger et al. point out differences between two groups of learners:

1) L1 English speakers in an immersion classroom for a non-English language, or in a dual language classroom (e.g., Spanish-English)

2) Speakers of English as an additional language in an immersion classroom in English

Throughout their article, they cite studies suggesting that it is near impossible to get children and youth (K-12 students) in the first group taking immersion seriously past grade 4 or so. By implication, it is only adults who are serious about learning a non-English language despite their limited proficiency, due to having clear goals, who will try to learn through maximizing immersion and all the inconvenience and social discomfort that entails. A study I know that illustrates this point is MacIntyre, Baker, and Sparling’s (2017) study of Gaelic revitalization in Eastern Canada, and another example are missionaries going to preach abroad (Brown & Larson Hall, 2012). In contrast, it has been found that people in group 2, even if they are K-12 students, will attempt to do “English-only” to the best of their ability due to the global prestige of English and the desire to be seen as “good” English speakers (Blos Bolzan, 2016; Storch & Aldosari, 2010). In other words, “French immersion students’ preference to use English may be more related to its status as the majority global language than to its value as a cognitive tool” (Ballinger et al., 2017, p. 43). 

Similar results are found in dual Spanish-English immersion programs in the U.S.—students use more and more English and less and less Spanish as the years of elementary school go by, reflecting the high status and generally broad usage of English outside school (Potowski, 2007), and what often happens in the classroom is that English-dominant speakers will have limited Spanish, and Spanish speakers will accommodate these English-dominant speakers, to the point that there is less complexity to the Spanish learned in the class, and use of Spanish in intellectual inquiry is severely limited (Hamman, 2008). This also means that those children/youth who use Spanish more to think aloud and do intellectual work are less able to do so in the class. Over the years, because they exercise this less and less in their classes, even if they are dual immersion, their ability to do complex intellectual work in Spanish can fall behind their age.

If we want people to build enough BICS in a language that is not commonly spoken in the wider society, which they can theoretically use to build academic proficiency in that language (e.g., French/Spanish) by unpacking and repacking academic material in BICS that they have acquired through successful immersion, rather than their L1, then we need to consider what would make successful immersion programs. Ballinger et al. mention in their article that this is especially important for indigenous language revitalization of languages such as Welsh, where the earliest scholarship using the term translanguaging (“trawsieithu”) can be found (Williams, 1996). If we do not have successful immersion, such languages can be lost—or maybe they will be maintained, yet not used for academic and professional purposes, exacerbating linguistic inequalities in that society. Thus, Ballinger et al. conclude with a discussion of (1) what alternatives to translanguaging/code-switching/L1 use could be used to achieve pedagogical objectives in immersion programs, and (2) what TL/CS/L1 strategies would be appropriate for immersion programs.

How to determine what to do in context

First, two alternatives to explaining in L1 are “linguistic redundancy whereby teachers say more or less the same thing but in different ways by using self-repetition, paraphrases, synonyms, and multiple examples” and “non-linguistic support such as gestures and facial expressions, graphic organizers, visual and multimedia resources, and predictability of classroom routines” (p. 45, my bold). Ballinger et al. describe these as the “core of immersion pedagogy” (p. 45)—and they are also taught as strategies in our MEd CLIL program at the University of Hong Kong, along with pedagogical uses of translanguaging and code-switching. This is because they are good language teaching practices in general.

Second, we can consider what to do with TL/CS/L1. Let’s start with translation. Much research has shown that for translation to be pedagogical and facilitate second language acquisition, it often has to be done by the students in productive activities (speaking/writing), rather than the teacher for receptive activities (listening/reading), so that students learn new things in the target language instead of having things simply explained to them in their L1, which reduces the need to pay any attention to the L2 side of the translation (Ballinger et al., 2017, pp. 44-45). Teacher translations in the form of annotations/notes, however, can be useful—but not parallel translations of everything (Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2019). Pedagogical translanguaging (e.g., the original translanguaging work by Cen Williams and the current work of Jasone Cenoz and Durk Gorter) involves translation activities required by the teacher/course and performed by the students. When it comes to post-gr. 4 language acquisition, Ballinger et al. explain that

for immersion to reach its full potential for developing high levels of French [or any other language] proficiency, teachers need to plan systematic integration of language and content, rather than focusing only on content and relying on the expectation that students will simply “pick up” the language along the way. (p. 46, my bold)

There is no space to go into systematic integration of language and content in this post, but I blog about it here and here.

Next, Ballinger et al. consider what to do with the social or sociolinguistic issues beyond the pedagogical ones. A key point is that translanguaging should not give license for the majority language speakers (e.g., English speakers or L1 speakers of the national language) to exercise their right to speak their dominant language or L1 during instructional time dedicated to another language—because minority language speakers will not exercise the same right when the instructional time is dedicated to the dominant language (e.g., English or the national language). And if you are too lax about language use in an immersion program for a minority language, it sends the message that the language is not that important after all—the majority language being “the only language that holds authentic importance” (p. 47). Therefore, Ballinger et al. urge instructors to have a bias towards the minority language to establish greater equality between languages because immersion classrooms often aim to redress linguistic inequalities in the wider society (p. 47).

Three crosslinguistic classroom activities that frame majority and minority languages as equally important form the conclusion of Ballinger et al.’s article. These are (1) metalinguistic comparisons, (2) biliteracy activities, and (3) critical language awareness.

  • Metalinguistic comparisons involve discussing similarities and differences between languages through crosslinguistic activities such as cognate hunts, the study of word families, comparing morphology or syntax across languages, etc. This trains students to become independent analyzers of language grammars, and they can sometimes apply these skills to languages beyond the ones taught.
  • Biliteracy activities can involve creating bilingual storybooks in which the students make parallel translations; they write a story in class in English and go home to ask adults how to complete the translation in their heritage languages (Marshall & Toohey, 2010). Or students can do a reading series available in two languages and take turns doing the reading/analysis in language 1, then in language 2 (Lyster, Collins, & Ballinger, 2009; Lyster, Quiroga & Ballinger, 2013). This doesn’t involve reading every chapter twice, but Chapters 1-2 in language 1, Chapter 3 in language 2, etc. Same with output: they can write a literary analysis essay in Language 1, a piece of creative writing (imagined sequel) in Language 2, etc.
  • Language awareness (LA) can be regular LA or “critical” LA. In regular LA, students can explore aspects of different languages/cultures—proverbs, tongue twisters, differences in written scripts, how different languages express emotions differently, etc. In “critical” LA (Fairclough, 1992), they talk about the inequality of languages in society. They examine language ideologies, language standardization, how different languages or varieties of language and their speakers are viewed in society, etc. (C)LA is particularly powerful because it can include all the languages students speak, including ones the teacher does not know. Both LA and CLA have the potential to build students’ appreciation for the diversity of languages in their community, and CLA raises awareness of linguistic inequalities and injustices (Dagenais, Walsh, Armand, & Maraillet, 2008).

In conclusion, the authors state that bi/multilingual pedagogy “should not be seen as a one-size fits-all affair; rather, it should be adapted to fit the context in which students are learning” and researchers must “enable educators to choose from the array of crosslinguistic pedagogical approaches, strategies, and activities based on their students’ language learning needs and abilities, their program’s goals, and, importantly, the status of the languages of instruction” (p. 50).

Coda: Why did I blog about this topic this week? Next week I’m off to AAAL 2022 (the annual American Association of Applied Linguistics conference) despite COVID-19 sanctions—I honestly didn’t think I could make it, but a generous dean’s permission changed that! I have organized a colloquium with Shakina Rajendram, Laura Hamman-Ortiz, and Elaine Allard, with Zhongfeng Tian as discussant, titled Negotiation of (Conflicting) Repertoires and Stances in K-12 Translanguaging Spaces. One of the presentations is the introduction of a survey instrument with a comprehensive inventory of different types of bi/multilingual pedagogical strategies—from translanguaging research and other crosslinguistic language and literacy research—that helps K-12 teachers “think through” the above decision-making for their contexts!


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Published by annamend

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

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