Once again, what are “translanguaging” and “code-switching” (within and beyond the classroom)?

The purpose of this definition post is to explain (1) the difference between translanguaging and code-switching as sociolinguistic phenomena, or phenomena observed by sociolinguists (people who study language use in interaction), and (2) how translanguaging/code-switching are understood in classroom pedagogy, which is different from how they are understood as sociolinguistic phenomena. The first question is important for researchers of translanguaging and bi/multilingualism, and the second question is important for teachers.

The difference between code-switching and translanguaging as sociolinguistic phenomena

I’ve blogged about this elsewhere on this blog, but will summarize this distinction here with a few clear examples. Code-switching is a perceived shift in code that signals a “gear-switch” or change in addressee (person you’re speaking to), topic, tone, phase in the conversation, etc. We can think of examples from our personal experience. When I was in graduate school, I (and my friends Koyuki and Shuyu) went every Sunday afternoon to do writers group at my friend Yuhan’s. Yuhan and her Canadian-born husband Dan are from Taiwan. Whenever they addressed each other regarding an aspect of hosting (e.g., check the ice machine), they would use Mandarin. Shifting into Mandarin signalled to us guests/friends that whatever they were saying did not concern us, whether or not we spoke Mandarin ourselves.

Code-switching is a pragmatic phenomenon; it organizes social interaction. Is it political? Sometimes, if more privileged codes are used for the “official” teaching/learning and less privileged ones are used in the classroom underlife. Critical applied linguists who research code-switching in the classroom have illustrated how this happens (Asker & Martin-Jones, 2013; Martin-Jones & Saxena, 1996). Others have researched how code-switching can be a useful scaffolding tool to explain information, because the perceived contrast between two codes can separate two sets of instructions (both relevant for academic learning); see Jacobson and Faltis (1990).

  1. Conceptual reinforcement/elaboration. Read what it says in the text, then switch to other code (students’ familiar language) to elaborate, adding background details or interesting trivia.
  2. Review. Read what it says in the text, then switch to other code to summarize the text in brief. Ask students questions to check for their understanding, then get students to translate the summary to L2.
  3. Vocabulary. Use one code to discuss meaning and/or nuances of key words in another code.
  4. Metacognition. Use students’ familiar code (Code A) to prompt students to think about the author’s language choices in the text (Code B), and how they suit the genre and audience. Cover all levels of the Genre Egg (Lin, 2016), from text structure to particular word choices. (Generally, we get students to notice things at the larger level before the smaller level, as micro level details like vocabulary and sentence patterns are linked to already-known macro-level social factors like genre, text type, and audience.)

Sociolinguistically speaking, translanguaging integrates codes to create the whole message. Any distinctions between codes would be meaningless. Below is an example from the research of well-known translanguaging scholars Creese and Blackledge (2011, pp. 11-12). In the following example, the principal of a Gujarati heritage language school in the U.K. is giving announcements during an assembly:

They tabulate what was said in Gujarati and English:

…and conclude that both languages are needed simultaneously to convey information; the message meaning is not clear without both languages. In other words, each language does not have separate functions, unlike in the example with Yuhan, Dan, and the ice machine above. In this school, children and parents have varying proficiencies in each language, and the principal’s use of both includes everyone to some degree. Overall, this choice is meant “to include as many of the audience as possible” (p. 13) (even though some would be more included comprehension-wise if one language were used, and others would be more included comprehension-wise if the other language were used). I think what “inclusion” means here is that both languages are valued and so is everyone’s repertoire, regardless of your proficiency in each. 

How are translanguaging and code-switching understood as classroom phenomena?

Teachers do not make generally make sociolinguistic distinctions between translanguaging (TL) and code-switching (CS). They are both generally understood as bi/multilingual practices used to teach and learn. However, this is not more simple but in fact more complicated, because such bi/multilingual practices come in a wide variety. To sort them out, at least four issues can be considered: translanguaging purposes, translanguaging processes, classroom language policies, and modality directions.

My colleagues Shakina Rajendram, Andrew Coombs and I developed a survey of these practices that we presented at the American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL) conference in March 2022, the time this blog post was written. Shakina is a translanguaging researcher and Assistant Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto; Andrew is a postdoctoral scholar and educational assessment specialist at Memorial University in St. Johns, Newfoundland. The purpose of the survey is to operationalize constructs clearly when we talk about translanguaging pedagogy in classrooms, and to give teachers an overview of the full range of such practices when they take the survey. Now I’ll share with you a few of the slides I presented about our research.

The first issue is TL purposes. What learning aims are we seeking to achieve through TL pedagogy? When we TL in English-medium instruction (EMI), whether that’s an EFL or ESL context (in EFL contexts, it’s generally called Content Language Integrated Learning in Europe or EMI in Asia; in the ESL context of the U.S., it’s called “sheltered instruction”—a subject area course like English Language Arts 9 or Geography 8 taught in English with only ELL-designated students enrolled), there are two main aims: content learning aims and language learning aims specific to an academic discipline. This is captured by the first two constructs above: bi-directional content transfer and genre awareness. People who have done work here include Jim Cummins (almost his whole body of work, especially the Common Underlying Proficiency, which suggests that a foundation in academic literacies underlies all the languages a student speaks, and so knowledge of academic language/literacy in one language helps to develop language/literacy knowledge in another; see Baker & Hornberger, 2001, for an introductory reader to Cummins’ writings). A textbook we use to train MEd CLIL teachers at the University of Hong Kong is Lin (2016), in the references list of the post.

Metalinguistic awareness is similar to genre awareness, but the language points to be learned/discussed through TL are not discipline-specific but regarding the grammar of languages, and so more suitable for language classrooms rather than subject content classrooms in a language such as English. This is often the case where multiple languages are taught at the same time with the aim of building bi/multilingual proficiency. This is associated with the work of Jasone Cenoz and Durk Gorter, who have pioneered how to develop general language and literacy skills simultaneously across a regional/minority/indigenous language, a national language, and global English (e.g., Cenoz, Leonet, & Gorter, 2021; Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter, 2020).

None of this is inherently linked to critical pedagogy yet: raising awareness about language issues, language ideologies, and language inequalities in society. That is the work of people like Christine Hélot, Diane Dagenais, and others (e.g., Dagenais, Moore, Sabatier, Lamarre, & Armand; Hélot & Young, 2002). This work doesn’t happen in a vacuum: usually, what happens is that teachers prompt students to examine languages in the linguistic landscape of the school or neighbourhood, or in their online communities, to see what ideologies and inequalities can be documented.

We now come to translanguaging processes.

Does the teacher lead students to learn across languages to build proficiency in weaker languages, called “pedagogical translanguaging” (Cenoz & Gorter, 2020), as was envisioned in the earliest work using the term translanguaging/trawsieithu by Cen Williams (Williams, 1996)? Or does it mean letting students use languages freely in class, like they would do outside of class, mirroring authentic languaging practices in society, as in the well-known work of Ofelia García (García, 2009), which is known as “dynamic translanguaging” and is associated with a dynamic current of bi/multilingual practices called la corriente/the current (Johnson, García, & Seltzer, 2019)? I outline the differences between these two types of TL in this other blog post.

Now we come to the classroom language policy. Some people conceptualize translanguaging as just between the national languages (e.g., French-English in Canada, Cantonese-English in Hong Kong, etc.). This can be pedagogically useful (because these are the languages all class members tend to share to some degree), but also problematic, because other aspects of students’ bi/multilingualism, such as proficiency in immigrant/regional/indigenous/tribal languages, is not recognized at all. For example, Shakina and I have a colleague named Pramod Sah who noticed that in Nepali EMI classrooms, students and teacher used Nepali-English TL to teach and learn, but not Gurung, Limbu, etc. (Sah & Li, 2020). In contrast, work by García’s former student Heather Woodley and by my colleague Elaine Allard has investigated how teachers and students can draw on all language resources they bring to teach and learn (Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2019; Woodley & Brown, 2016). And our colleague Ingrid Beiler has examined the ideologies that prevent this more inclusive form of TL from happening (Beiler, 2021).

Finally, we come to the issue of what happens if there is a formal assessment in the target language only. This is where translanguaging meets task-based language teaching (Seals, Newton, Ash, & Nguyen, 2020).

We hope that this taxonomy of 10 terms divided between 4 categories/issues can clarify what is meant by “translanguaging” when we research it in bi/multilingual classrooms.


Allard, E. C., Apt, S., & Sacks, I. (2019). Language policy and practice in almost-bilingual classrooms. International Multilingual Research Journal, 13(2), 73-87. https://doi.org/10.1080/19313152.2018.1563425

Asker, A., & Martin-Jones, M. (2013). ‘A classroom is not a classroom if students are talking to me in Berber’: Language ideologies and multilingual resources in secondary school English classes in Libya. Language and Education27(4), 343-355. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2013.788189

Baker, C., & Hornberger, N. (2001). An introductory reader to the writings of Jim Cummins. Multilingual Matters.

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

Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2020). Teaching English through pedagogical translanguaging. World Englishes39(2), 300-311. https://doi.org/10.1111/weng.12462

Cenoz, J., Leonet, O., & Gorter, D. (2021). Developing cognate awareness through pedagogical translanguaging. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2021.1961675

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). Multilingual Matters.

Dagenais, D., Moore, D., Sabatier, C., Lamarre, P., & Armand, F. (2008). Linguistic landscape and language awareness. In Linguistic Landscape (pp. 293-309). Routledge.

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

Johnson, S. I., García, O., & Seltzer, K. (2019). Biliteracy and translanguaging in dual-language bilingual education. In Dual language education: Teaching and leading in two languages(pp. 119-132). Springer, Cham.

Leonet, O., Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2020). Developing morphological awareness across languages: Translanguaging pedagogies in third language acquisition. Language Awareness29(1), 41-59. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658416.2019.1688338

Hélot, C., & Young, A. (2002). Bilingualism and language education in French primary schools: Why and how should migrant languages be valued? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism5(2), 96-112. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050208667749

Lin, A. (2016). Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice. Springer.

Martin-Jones, M., & Saxena, M. (1996). Turn-taking, power asymmetries, and the positioning of bilingual participants in classroom discourse. Linguistics and Education8(1), 105-123. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0898-5898(96)90008-X

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

Seals, C. A., Newton, J., Ash, M., & Nguyen, B. T. T. (2020). Translanguaging and Task Based Language Teaching: Crossovers and challenges. In Z. Tian, L. Aghai, P. Sayer, & J. L. Schissel (Eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives (pp. 275-292). Springer. 

Williams, C. (1994). Arfarniad o Ddulliau Dysgu ac Addysgu yng Nghyd-destun Addysg Uwchradd Ddwyieithog [An evaluation of teaching and learning methods in the context of bilingual secondary education]. PhD dissertation. University of Wales, Bangor.

Woodley, H., & Brown, A. (2016). Balancing windows and mirrors: Translanguaging in a multilingual classroom. In O. García & T. Kleyn (Eds.), Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments (pp. 83-99). Routledge.

Published by annamend

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

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