Researching translanguaging QUALITATIVELY… with GENERALIZABLE findings?

In this week’s post, I summarize a paper that I co-authored with my doctoral student, Jiaen (Cheryl) Ou, in the journal System. We demonstrate that it is possible to research translanguaging qualitatively, with generalizable findings, and a positivist epistemology, while adhering to the principles of critical pedagogy. First, we developed a COMPREHENSIVEassessment-as-learning” instrument for TEACHERS to reflect on different kinds of bi/multilingual practices when they teach academic subjects in English, anywhere in the world, to students for whom English is an additional language—variously called English-medium instruction (EMI), Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), sheltered instruction for English Language Learners (ELLs), etc. We believe that when teachers are their OWN assessors of what goes on in their classes, they experience changes in how they perceive and act on different situations, from student language demographics to school language policy. In this paper, we describe how this instrument was created, then how it was used in in-depth interviews with 16 EMI teachers in Hong Kong SAR and Mainland China. We show that systematic deductive and inductive coding can yield unexpected AND generalizable findings beyond this geographic context.

Mendoza, A., & Ou, J. (2022). CACTI: Use of a survey instrument as a semistructured interview protocol to facilitate teacher retrospection on bi/multilingual practices in EMI. System, 1-13.

In another post, I summarized a literature review in which Hall and Cook (2012) discussed the theoretical underpinnings and practical implementation of teaching a language using students’ own language(s) as an important resource. Classroom language policy aside, the bi/multilingual communication of teachers and students naturally flows in a class regardless of school language policy, and teachers seem to be aware that this bi/multilingual language use serves a variety of purposes related to teaching and learning, classroom management, and creating an inclusive space (see Rajendram, 2021, for an overview of them).

However, teachers can misperceive these practices as only being appropriate until students are proficient enough in English. Or, they can see the value of these practices even for students who are academically fluent in English—bi/multilingual research or communication with group members helps students achieve better products—and yet not see the sociopolitical purpose of the practices for equity or social justice. In an English-dominant country like Canada or Australia, teachers may agree with the practices in principle, but doubt the feasibility of them when their students speak many different languages.

Our aim in this research is to help teachers develop complete understandings and “can do” attitudes to maximize the chances that they will fully deploy bi/multilingual strategies relevant to their teaching contexts. To this end, we developed a survey called the CACTI (Classroom Approaches to CLIL and Translanguaging Inventory). “CLIL” stands for Content Language Integrated Learning, learning an academic subject through the medium of English. Translanguaging refers to class members’ bi/multilingual practices. “Inventory” means we take stock of all potential practices to assess which ones are relevant. The survey can also be used to gather data on the most controversial bi/multilingual practices in English-medium instruction (EMI), and information about how teachers make decisions on them, resulting in more targeted professional development.

In this paper using CACTI data, my colleague and I asked:

1. To what extent do in-service teachers report implementing different kinds of bi/multilingual practices in EMI, categorized based on several literature reviews (Cenoz & Gorter, 2020; Lin, 2013; Martin-Jones, 1995; Poza, 2017) into (i) learning purposes, (ii) interactional processes, (iii) classroom language policies/ideologies, and (iv) modality directions? (Before you go further, click here for a gentle introduction to translanguaging versus code-switching and these four important issues.)

2. How do teachers justify drawing on different bi/multilingual practices according to contextual factors, such as subject taught, students’ age, class linguistic composition, school language policy, etc.?


The CACTI was designed as a survey—with expert review, construct-checking, and pilot-testing—which you can see the article for details about. However, what I will deal with in this post is the way it was used as a semistructured interview protocol, or simply a list of interview questions to ask teachers. “Semistructured” means that there is a given list of questions, but the conversation can wander before moving on to the next question.

Slide from AAAL 2022 presentation

My doctoral student Jiaen (Cheryl) Ou, and I administered the survey as an interview protocol to 16 of her colleagues, a snowball sample, who were generous enough to chat with us on Zoom for an hour or two regarding the bi/multilingual practices in one class they were teaching or had taught in the past academic year. Cheryl, who hails from Mainland China, is an experienced primary teacher and teacher educator who taught in a socioeconomically and linguistically diverse Hong Kong public school for four years. Our instructions to the teachers to “keep in mind only one class: a particular group of students you taught recently” was an important aspect of the study: it concretized the teachers’ responses, as they had to explain their answers based on that particular situation.

After completing Part 1 (demographic information about their group of students, the course, the school language policy, school type, and location), we had the teachers go through the inventory of 30 bi/multilingual practices. This was Part 2 (the survey itself). They explained their answers as they went through the inventory. For each practice, they had to rate whether they found it 5/Very Important, 4/Important, 3/Moderately Important, 2/Slightly Important, 1/Not Important, or 0/Not Applicable (+ why).

Question 3 of 30

Below is the full inventory of bi/multilingual classroom practices in English-medium instruction… it will make sense if you read this post.

While we are aware of the limitations of data collection that did not take place in the classroom, the interviews offered insights into teachers’ assessment of what it was like to teach academic subjects in English to bi/multilingual students in a range of contexts, which can be incredibly diverse even in a sample of 16 within the same country (see the table introducing our research participants and their teaching contexts). The teachers explained their situations, their decision-making, and the rationales behind this decision-making. When they reached the end of the survey, they could download their answers as well as a guide to interpreting them.

Jiaen (Cheryl) and I recorded all 16 teacher’s numerical responses to the 30 questions on notepads and analyzed them in an Excel file. We also gathered the 16 Zoom recordings and transcribed them using transcription software and manual transcription for the parts in Mandarin or Cantonese (which Jiaen did, as I don’t know Chinese).

How did we “systematically” analyze this qualitative data to get our “generalizable” findings? First, there was deductive coding (starting with pre-given codes/labels). For this, we tabled the data for individual participants by question.

Next, we investigated which practices received low, medium and high ratings. The majority of practices received medium ratings (n=24), one received high ratings, and five received low ratings. Those practices that received low ratings were worth inductive coding, because these are obviously the controversial ones. We looked at what teachers said for those questions in the interview transcripts.

We then compared our deductive and inductive findings to the extant body of literature to illustrate generalizability (see findings below). Recall that our research questions aimed to find out (1) how teachers responded to the different categories and items that we found in the literature, and (2) what contextual factors were involved in their decision-making. Ultimately, the answers to both these research questions had to be connected to pre-/in-service teacher development and critical pedagogy. I now explain how this was done.

Finding 1: The vast majority of practices were liked to a moderate degree, and this is neither surprising nor problematic

Since there were 16 teachers and each practice could be rated 5 points maximum, the maximum sum for any question was 80 points. The sum of teachers’ responses to 24 out of 30 practices was between 40 and 60 points—indeed, every teacher (or almost all the teachers) found translanguaging beneficial to some extent when it came to these items.

One might think this finding surprising given the “English only” policies in EMI, but when you ask teachers about what they really do with a particular group of students, you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher who would tell you they ALWAYS use English. On the other hand, you’d also be hard pressed to find a teacher who would tell you they use other languages without restraint. We write:

The finding that teachers think bi/multilingual practices, in general, are moderately important in teaching English corroborates Hall and Cook’s (2013) large-scale study for the British Council, about use of students’ own language(s) in English teaching from the primary to the adult level, involving 2785 teachers from 111 countries. Their main findings were as follows: (1) An overwhelming majority of teachers agreed with the statements “I allow own-language use only at certain points of a lesson”; (2) For the statement “I feel guilty if other languages are used,” many more teachers put “Often/Sometimes/Rarely” rather than “Always/Never”; (3) For the statement “own-language use helps learners express their cultural and linguistic identity more easily,” the majority of teachers said “often” or “sometimes,” and relatively few responded “Always” or “Rarely/Never.” These regular “in moderation” responses corroborate Jaspers’ (2020) qualitative research on teachers in Belgium, which found that in their daily practice, teachers balance between competing imperatives like target language immersion and bi/multilingual mediation (p. 6).

In another article by Hall and Cook (2012), who are two of the most underrated scholars in the area of using students’ own languages as a resource in language teaching, and who are very concerned about the dominance of English as a global language—these two have published so much work on the topic, in such prestigious venues, but are almost never cited in translanguaging research—it is clear that key to bi/multilingual approaches to language teaching is to balance enough target language IMMERSION/PRACTICE with enough L1 MEDIATION to help students understand and learn better. Related to this point, many of the 24 practices teachers moderately liked were related to pedagogical scaffolding in EMI, which I’ve blogged about here and here. As far as meeting learning outcomes go, they are not controversial.

Finding 2: “Multimodal translanguaging” was the least controversial

The least controversial item, which got 69/80 points, was Item 28: “Draw on multiple languages and modalities (e.g., images, gestures) simultaneously in a given lesson.” It is really a double-barreled question, which survey experts like my collaborator Andrew tell researchers to avoid, because teachers can answer YES if (1) they draw on multiple languages but not multiple modalities, (2) they draw on multiple modalities but not multiple languages, or (3) they draw on both multilingualism and multimodality. Most teachers would answer #3, but even those “English-only” sticklers could rate this question “Very Important.” In fact, being an English stickler might even cause a teacher to rate this question highly because they resist multilingual translanguaging—rendering multimodal translanguaging the only strategy for conveying meaning, and all the more important due to lack of multilingual resources.

This is why I really take issue with operationalizing multilingual and multimodal translanguaging together, under the label “translanguaging,” because then who wouldn’t be a pro-translanguaging teacher? Similarly, who wouldn’t identify as a teacher who supported multimodal learning? (What could be controversial, though, is whether multimodality is seen as a form of academic literacy in its own right, or simply as a scaffold for traditional print literacy.)

Finding 3: The five most controversial practices required deliberate teacher intervention… for the teacher to lead, not merely to follow, what students did

These practices were:

  •  15. Bi/multilingually explore the reasoning behind certain word choices or sentence structures in English (35/ 80)
  • 27. Invent ‘new’ academic language by combining two languages (28/80)
  • 25. Implement bi/multilingual learning strategies for students who are linguistic minorities in the class (26/80)
  • 23. Discuss how languages are presented in the media and in public spaces to achieve social purposes (26/80)
  • 29. Help students to examine the inequality of languages in society (how proficiency in some languages is more valued than proficiency in others) (32/80)

For Q15, it is possible that the low ratings have less to do with bi/multilingualism itself than with the rest of the question: “explore the reasoning behind certain word choices or sentence structures.” This is called a systemic functional approach to grammar, and it could be rare regardless of whether it happens bi/multilingually or not. Teachers gave various reasons for not doing this, ranging from the school language policy to students being unable to handle the analysis, but in the end, the reason may lie with the teacher—and I say that as someone who tries to avoid teacher-blaming. Teachers may lack training in cultivating students’ metalinguistic awareness with regard to the students’ own writing as opposed to models. While it is important for students to learn the language conventions of subjects, teachers should not just teach for correctness and appropriateness, but also for agency—encouraging students to deliberate about what language choices they want to make and the extent to which they want to flout rules in order to claim their own voices as individuals and collectives (Canagarajah, 2011; Seltzer, 2019). On the other hand, students are unlikely to realize they are learning to write for agency, rather than just appropriateness, unless teachers point this out.

For Q27, language borrowing is common in postcolonial contexts, in which the word in one language (typically the colonial one) is cast in the morphology of another (typically the colonized one), for example, “iathom” for atom (isiXhosa; McKinney & Tyler, 2019) and “pambubully” for bullying (Filipino; Mendoza & Parba, 2019). People who grow up bilingual are able to do such transformations intuivitvely. As endangered or local languages can lose vitality in academic and professional settings, this is one way to maintain their vitality in these settings, as well as to increase access to professional knowledge. Some teachers seemed totally bemused by this question; for example, a teacher named Hannah said: “That sounds like fun, but I’ve never done it. … It never came up as something connected to what I was teaching.” Others came up with examples, but these were English-centered. Rona, who rated this practice a 5, said that her secondary students made up the term “Rona-ize” to describe Rona making something her own. This suggests their rapport with her, and she said it shows her they learned something about English (i.e., English prefixes and suffixes). There is still a lot of work to do to legitimize what is seen as a mix of two languages in academic meaning-making: not just in playful talk in the social conversations students have on the side. This means teachers have to USE words like “iathom” in science and “pambubully” in social studies—if teachers don’t use them, students will not likely think they are legitimate.

For Q25, “Implement bi/multilingual learning strategies for students who are linguistic minorities in the class,” something interesting happened. Although all the classes had linguistic or dialectal minorities (see above table with class demographics), one teacher rated Q25 not important and 10 teachers rated it not applicable. Cheryl realized that this had to do with how teachers defined linguistic minorities in the class: (1) as those who have limited English proficiency AND whose home language/dialect is not well represented in the class (e.g., an Urdu L1 boy with basic English proficiency in a mostly Chinese group), or (2) as those who have a home language not well represented in the class, but are anyways fluent in English (e.g., an Urdu L1 boy with advanced English proficiency in a mostly Chinese group).

The 11 participants who rated the practice not important or not applicable—note that 10/11 saw it as not applicable!—described situations in which the class as a whole was Mandarin-speaking (Rona, Nana, Lucy, Maggie), Cantonese-speaking (Lily, Amy, Candice, Kylie), or English-advanced (Yvette, Priya, Vincent). In these cases, the teachers did not seem to perceive their situation as involving minority students because the whole class had a shared working language. That is, even if some students spoke linguistically minoritized languages at home like Putian Hua, Lei Zhou Min, Hangzhou Hua, Yantai Hua, Shunde Hua and Chongqing Hua, they were not perceived as linguistic minorities if they were fluent in Cantonese or Mandarin, or in English for their age.

My colleague Beiler (2021) pointed out this issue—whether multilinguals who are proficient in the societally dominant language cease to be considered multilingual because “multilingual” is only a code-word for lack of proficiency in the dominant language. However, if teachers reported encountering a situation where there was a minority student (or minority students) who struggled with English AND did not share the same home language as others (i.e., the Chinese majority… or if there was a wide range of languages in the class, like Noor’s), teachers no longer claimed that they had no “minority” students, and rated the question of rendering assistance to “linguistic minorities” Very Important (Noor, Nancy, Charity, Hannah, Sin).

This showed us that teachers have to first recognize linguistic minorities, and then create an inviting space for linguistically minoritized languages to prevent many people “passing” as majority language speakers (Sah & Li, 2020).

The last two questions with lower ratings, Q23 and Q29, were related to critical language awareness: “Discuss how languages are presented in the media and in public spaces to achieve social purposes” and “29. Help students to examine the inequality of languages in society (how proficiency in some languages is more valued than proficiency in others).” The most common reasons given for not doing these things had to do with wider structural constraints. Three Hong Kong teachers, Charity, Amy, and Vincent, all used the exact phrase “schedule is (very) tight” where this question was concerned, and Hannah, who taught a reading support pull-out class at an international school, said, “I have limited time available” with “very specific goals.” Candice said, “They [students] don’t ask that kind of questions… we don’t have any chance.”

Many of the elementary teachers felt that their students were too young to understand (Hannah, Amy, Priya, Lucy, and Candice). This is a logical conclusion, but it is not supported by some sociolinguistic research on young children; for example, Hamman’s (2018) study of young children in an English-Spanish dual language program showed that kindergarten through second grade students are already well aware of language inequalities and can exercise linguistic domination/subordination, as she documented how English L1 speakers were often confident to use English during “Spanish time” while Spanish L1 speakers kept to the rules during “English time” to demonstrate being competent English speakers. In other words, it is a matter of using examples of linguistic inequality young children would recognize in their lives. Yvette, a grade 3 Math teacher, rated Q29 as Important, as the question reminded her that once, when teaching about “Arabic numbers,” she explained that the numbers actually came from India, but were incorrectly known worldwide as Arabic numbers because it was Arabs who taught them to Europeans who conquered the world.

Others, such as Priya, Nancy, and Maggie, seemed to be considering Q23 (discussions about language use in the media and/or linguistic landscape exploration activities) for the first time. Maggie said, “Even for me, I’m not aware of this question … so far, [until] I was given this question.” Vincent said, “No one asked me these questions. Maybe they [students] get used to it.” He compared language hierarchies in society to Chinese New Year traditions; no one asks why because they are a way of life. To illustrate, he said rhetorically, “Why visit relatives on Chinese New Year?” and “Why learn English?”

It would be very different if students asked these unconventional or difficult questions, compared to the teacher. If a student or students posed the challenge, which the teacher rejected or ignored, it would sow tension or discord in class, and nobody wants that. But if the teacher did so, and invited students to do so as well… you might instead get transformative pedagogy.

Generalizable implications?

Students cannot lead the class in re-instituting these alternative forms of organization that run counter to what is expected; only the teacher, with a teacher’s authority, can explicitly and implicitly indicate that this is the way the class community will run. Otherwise, it will be assumed to run in default ways.

— Mendoza (forthcoming)

García and Sylvan (2011) argue that effective bilingual classrooms do not impose rigid external language policies but, rather encourage ‘plurilingualism from the students up’ (397). … I also contend there is value in the intentional design of focused and flexible language spaces (both from the top-down and the bottom-up).

— Hamman (2018)

These alternative forms of social organization, which teachers must deliberately lead so that students feel allowed to follow suit, include:

  • learning to express oneself as a K-12 student using academic language while exercising agency and not just appropriateness (Seltzer, 2019),
  • language-mixing in academic discourse (McKinney & Tyler, 2019),
  • validating minoritized as well as majoritized forms of translanguaging in the classroom community (Beiler, 2021); e.g., not just Norwegian and English in Norway or Chinese and English in Hong Kong, but in all languages students speak at home or affiliate with, and
  • cultivating critical language awareness (Clark, Fairclough, Ivanič, & Martin-Jones, 1990)—weaving critical topics into the curriculum when one can, instead of assuming that because they are not there, well that’s just the way things are.

I conclude with Cheryl (an experienced and caring Hong Kong primary teacher from Mainland China):

It is a truism that teachers make decisions based on many contextual factors, but this is not the full story. As our teachers’ explanations for their language practices show, there is often no direct causal link between the reported context/situation and the reported action. Rather, teacher actions are grounded in the teacher’s assessment of the context/situation, blurring the line between teacher attitudes and practices. These can involve teachers’ noticing of students’ lack of metalinguistic awareness, and whether it means that students are unready for metalinguistic discussions, or whether that is all the more reason to have them; teachers’ assessment of what counts or doesn’t count as academic language (e.g., hybrid coined terms); whether they are teaching for appropriacy or also agency when asking their students to discuss what language forms they are choosing to put down; whether their class is linguistically homogeneous (e.g., whether those who are proficient in the class majority language still count as linguistic minorities); whether linguistic majorities and minorities should engage in one- or two-way adaptation; how much time they have to do certain activities, and whether these even exist; whether the school language policy is ideal, and if not, whether it is floutable; whether their students are old enough to understand discussions about linguistic inequality in society, and if so, whether such discussions can be recast in language children can understand, and whether it is the teacher’s role to do so; whether language hierarchies that are so normalized as to be invisible should thus continue to be received as normal or whether that is all the more reason to question why we normalize them; and whether teachers should wait for critical topics to explicitly appear in the curriculum or search for relevant connections between the curriculum and critical topics. (p. 11)

This suggests that teacher professional development and teacher empowerment should directly target controversial areas where the most misconceptions and least awareness exist. Teachers need to become aware of, and have the time and freedom to teach:

  • Topics related to language ideologies and linguistic inequality in society (Hélot & Young, 2002), 
  • Translanguaging strategies for linguistically minoritized and not just linguistically majoritized bi/multilingual students (Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2019; Beiler, 2021; see also my critique of De Angelis, 2021), and 
  • Critical examination of whether students’ language and literacy practices are considered as legitimate for academic activity (Hornberger & Link, 2012; MacSwan, 2000).

Why others should try out the CACTI… what would they get?

Cheryl and I conclude (pp. 11-12):

We end with a discussion of what the CACTI is best used for, following our demonstration. It cannot capture actual classroom practices as ethnography can do, as it is a self-report instrument. Participants can give different ratings regarding the same practices. In this study, teachers who thought their students were too young to discuss language inequalities rated the practice 0/NA, 1/Not important, or 2/Slightly important—a range that covers half the scale. Rona rated coining “new” academic words a 5 and gave the“Rona-ize” example to illustrate the pedagogical purpose of having her students show her they had learned suffixes in English, while others expressed the same English-centered understanding of the practice and discouraged language blending, rating it 0 or 1.

On the other hand, the CACTI was created using the same validation measures as a survey to better ensure that the items adequately captured the constructs (expert review) and that the items were internally consistent and clear to participants (pilot testing). These qualities are enough to make it a promising tool for individual and collaborative reflection in pre-/in-service teacher courses, school staff meetings, professional development workshops, and academic conferences to make people question what they believe about their specific classroom situations and ultimately, to change their practices for the better. To our knowledge, no research on translanguaging or bi/multilingualism in EMI—whether ethnographic or action-based, in EFL or ESL contexts—has yet developed such a comprehensive “assessment as learning” instrument for primary and secondary EMI teachers anywhere to reflect on their bi/multilingual practices.

As a final caveat, we do not recommend always opting for bi/multilingual practices over input and immersion in the target language, which can be problematic for certain language learning situations (e.g., language revitalization, protected time/spaces for Spanish in an English-Spanish dual language program, or when students have little access to English outside of class). Instead, we argue—and here is our theoretical contribution—that it is more important for teachers to “go all the way” towards transforming social relations (Cummins, 2000; Menken & García, 2010) rather than to stop halfway in their bi/multilingual practices and any other practices where language is concerned (e.g., teaching language forms for appropriateness or also for speaker/writer agency; teaching standard English or also legitimating World Englishes, English according to lingua franca norms, and linguistic hybridity in academic meaning-making). What is often needed in these cases are heuristic changes [Harklau, 2000] in teachers’ thinking about “what needs to be done” based on the literal aspects of the teaching situation. The CACTI presents a useful aid in this regard.

This research was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee, University of Hong Kong, Project No. EA200204. The research was supported by RGCAS Grant No. 202009185059, University of Hong Kong.

We thank our collaborators on the Classroom Approaches to CLIL and Translanguaging Inventory (CACTI), Shakina Rajendram and Andrew Coombs, for their input in all stages of the project and continued collaboration. We also thank the peer reviewers and System Co-Editor Yongyan Zheng for their constructive feedback and the opportunity to publish our work.


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Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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