What is translanguaging as “critical pedagogy” or “decolonizing research”?

Sah and Kubota situate their article in the context of English-medium instruction in South Asia (i.e., teaching academic subjects like science and math in English which would normally be taught in students’ first languages, in countries where English is a foreign language). This is the result of market forces (Mohanty, 2019; Shin & Park, 2016), even in countries like Nepal where English had no colonial history, unlike in India and Pakistan. 

Singh and Bangay (2014) provide an account of private low-fee schooling in India, showing there is a tremendous rise in the number of such schools in rural parts and many of them are even unauthorized. In turn, government schools are moving into the EMI program as a publicity strategy in order to convince parents that they are committed to providing quality education (Sah, 2022a). In the case of Nepal, for example, since 2015, when the local governments (i.e. municipalities) were given the authority to operate schools up to the secondary level, many municipalities have been rapidly switching to EMI from Nepali-medium instruction (Sah, 2021).

Similarly, even if the national-level policies do not support EMI in some counties, local governments sometimes develop their policies for EMI. For example, the Karnataka State of India developed the policy for EMI in 2016 and directed most Kannada and Urdu-medium public schools to switch to EMI. Similarly, in 2009, the Punjab School Education Department in Pakistan decided to convert all of their Urdu-medium schools into EMI, although the policy was reverted in 2020. Therefore, as stated in Sah’s (2022a) review of EMI policies and practices in Nepal, India, and Pakistan, ‘the practice of language policy does not always correspond to the provisions made in the policy documents but communicates more with the sociopolitical and socioeconomic dynamics of the society, leading to the de facto EMI policy’ (p. 750). 

The drivers of such social forces are not just top-down; they are bottom-up, driven by individuals’ and families’ desire to access the global economy and become competitive in international job markets. Vaish (2008) powerfully illustrated that urban disadvantaged students at an EMI girls’ school in India believed English would lead to getting well-paid jobs and an attractive, successful personality. She found that EMI was associated with “an egalitarian policy of redistributing the linguistic capital of English more evenly across the diverse social classes” (as cited in Sah & Kubota, 2022, p. 135).

What does EMI have to do with translanguaging?

The emergence of translanguaging and EMI as major research topics in language education at around the same time is telling. Just because translanguaging is more accepted in learning languages, particularly in EMI, and is even a popular research topic in EMI, this does not cancel the fact that people around the world are having to be educated in English when they might be educated in their own languages (but they can’t now, because it’s all about EMI). This draws attention to the need to continue naming and recognizing named languages like English, Nepali, or Gurung… as Sah and Kubota repeatedly argue, because only then can we see how unequal they are in education and society.

As stated earlier, South Asian countries have multiple levels of linguistic hierarchies, and so “naming languages plays a crucial role in accounting for issues such as linguistic hierarchies and maintenance of minority languages and linguistic rights” (p. 137). Especially in such multilingual EMI contexts, we need to account for which languages are used more, resisted more, accommodated more in schools (Sah & Li, 2022), and Sah and Kubota draw on MacSwan’s (2017) multilingual approach to translanguaging—recognizing named languages—to “account for issues of… power dynamics in/across languages” (see also Flores, 2013; Kubota, 2016).

There is not much research on translanguaging in many regions like South Asia (and Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia) despite their many layers of multilingualism, and even if there is, it usually exists at the university level (regardless of what it’s called, e.g., use of L1/mother tongue, translation, code-switching, bilingualism, biliteracy, etc.) rather than K-12. This has partly to do with the easier access to university populations (who have already met the English proficiency benchmarks to get into university)… but think about what researchers have to get through to access K-12 populations. EMI in K-12 is bleak, and many teachers don’t want researchers in their classrooms, documenting how both they and their students lack English proficiency and struggle to teach and learn academic subjects in English. Sah and Kubota state:

Although such language inadequacies should not be viewed from a deficit ideology, it becomes important to discuss unplanned consequences, be they pedagogic or sociolinguistic, that arise through teachers’ and students’ lack of abilities to deliver and receive English-only instruction. It takes us to the UNESCO (2016) question of how children would learn if they did not understand the instruction. We would also add a question: how would teachers deliver the lessons in a language that they do not use comfortably? (p. 138)

The reason this is decolonial is that as long as students aren’t learning, translanguaging won’t be transformative for them, and one major reason students don’t learn well is that translanguaging is allowed in national languages but not their languages: it’s allowed in Hindi and English or Nepali and English—but not between English and tribal languages like Newari, Gurung, or Limbu (Yaakthung). Sah and Kubota (2022) call translanguaging between the dominant national language and English only “elite translanguaging” because this perpetuates that notion that certain languages are not appropriate at school. They call attention to research in India that shows translanguaging in EMI between Hindi and English but not using Bhojpuri and Bajjika (Erling, Adinolfi, Hultgren, Buckler, & Mukorera, 2017), research in Nepal that does not allow translanguaging between English and Bhojpuri (Sah, 2022b), and research in Pakistan in which 35% of stakeholders preferred Urdu-English code-mixing but only 6% favoured English plus mother tongue (other than Urdu) instruction (Manan, Dumanig, & David, 2017). “Hence, only allowing a politically constructed national language alongside English does not necessarily provide complete pedagogic translanguaging opportunities for linguistically minoritized students” (p. 142). 

What is “critical” translanguaging in classrooms, then?

Teachers cannot decolonize the education system unless they re-evaluate their view of stigmatized dialects of the national language, and tribal, Indigenous, regional, and ethnic minority languages. As long as they are hampered by “pedagogical inadequacies and sociopolitical uncriticality” (Sah & Kubota, 2022, p. 142), they cannot effectively teach. In South Asia, translanguaging goes beyond Nepali in Nepal, Hindi in India, Urdu in Pakistan, and Dhivehi in the Maldives (and Mandarin in Mainland China; Cantonese in Hong Kong; Mandarin + Taiwanese Min in Taiwan; Filipino/Tagalog + Cebuano in the Philippines, etc. etc.). 

Although some stakeholders hold positive attitudes toward the use of such dominant languages to complement English-only instruction, they are reluctant to support the use of minoritized languages. Therefore, the use of elite bilingualism (English plus national dominant language) forms what we call liberal translanguaging, which may become a dominating medium of instruction rather than an emancipatory tool. In liberal translanguaging, the choice for a supplementary language in EMI classrooms, for example, can be the result of a need to cope with the English language demand, rather than acknowledging the fullest linguistic repertoire of students. On the contrary, what we call critical translanguaging, in line with the argument Kubota (2016) puts forward, should resist nationalist and neoliberal ideologies that position languages and their users unequally, and instead protect the language, culture, and identity of those who have historically received marginalization. (Sah & Kubota, 2022, p. 143)

Creating a critical translanguaging space in the EMI classroom should develop the notion of “linguistic human rights” (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1994) that provides a rightful space for students’ mother tongues for pedagogical and academic purposes even when they are not endowed with legitimacy at school. Teachers need to exercise what agency they can to bring these other languages to bear on learning, but all parties—including students—need to have “critical consciousness and ideological clarities” (p. 143) to actually do so (i.e., the students cannot refuse when the teacher invites, and the principal should not scold the teacher if she walks by and hears these languages used, and the parents should not complain if they are used). Finally, Sah and Kubota conclude: “we concur with the argument that languages should be named to account for such sociolinguistic inequalities, or there is a risk that language hierarchies would be perpetuated in the name of translanguaging” (p. 143).

Since I am blogging about Phyak’s paper, I can present the information in a different order than beginning to end, so I’ll start by giving away the end. At the end, Phyak, from the Yaakthung tribe in Nepal, reveals:

Same as the youths in this study, I never had opportunities to learn/use the Yaakthung language, literacy, values and knowledge in school. As I had to learn Nepali and English, the two mandatory subjects in Nepal’s national curriculum, I gradually started using these languages dominantly in the public sphere. As I was losing the knowledge of Yaakthung, I felt disconnected from the Yaakthung community. (p. 5)

My early research experiences tell me that the community members did not feel comfortable responding to questionnaires and participating in unstructured interviews. When I first designed research for my doctoral dissertation, I focused on using observation (both participant and non-participant), interviews, and field notes as ethnographic methods of data collection. I had designed the project in advance to record the conversations between Yaakthung youths and the elders. But my plans did not work well; the youths did not feel comfortable using Yaakthung and sharing their experiences in the school space. Although their language practices were fluid and dynamic (speaking both Nepali and Yaakthung) in the community, they hid their translingual identities in school. Most often, they showed discomfort and reluctance to speak about their experiences related to Yaakthung. The school space was not their space, as they were never encouraged to use Yaakthung. More strikingly, the community elders were also reluctant to share their stories with me. Most of them would say “aangaa themaa aang melesung-ing lo” (I do not know anything). I wanted to collect language practices in intergenerational interactions, but I did not find a space where I could observe and participate in open interactions with Yaakthung youths and the elders. The community members worried about how Yaakthung youths are not speaking Yaakthung and interacting with the elders. Although I was doing research in my own community, the community members positioned me, as a researcher, as an outsider. I was often described as ‘padhelekheko ma:mi’ (an educated person [in Yaakthung]) and ‘jaanne bujhne maanche’ (a knowledgeable person [in Nepali]) to justify their discomfort to share their stories with me. (p. 2)

When his mother died of a long and painful illness, followed by his father, he attended his parents’ tangsing, which I understand as being somewhat like funerals or celebrations of life, but more than that. From what I can understand from the article, the community comes together to enact a ritual that they believe re-establishes the natural order that has been destabilized by the tragedy of the people passing. By observing the translanguaging in the tangsing of his mother, Phyak attempted to video/audio-record interactions of people in the tangsing of his father, and take a few photographs—and people were fully willing to let him do so—though it was probably impolite to formally re-play recordings and interview people about them, or administer questionnaires, which is why his study cannot fit the norms of Western research, and appears as a commentary. He also found both youth and elders yielding the data he needed when he wasn’t interrogating them about their language practices: youth were translanguaging when they had previously been shy to speak Yaakthung, and elders were talking about what they knew about Yaakthung culture.

Now I turn back to the first page of the 5-page article. Phyak writes:

My thesis is simple: if translanguaging is “critical” and “transformative” (García & Wei, 2014), the research methodologies to investigate translanguaging should not only push linguistic boundaries but also, and more importantly, question the “positional superiority” (Said, 1995, p. 7) of Western/colonial research practices that create the environment of linguistic insecurity and epistemic inequality for Indigenous and racialized/ethnic minority communities (see also Ndhlovu, 2018). … I argue that translanguaging methodologies should not just pay attention to “collecting” language practices, they should also be concerned with “data generation” (Prior, 2018) and, more importantly, visibilizing the epistemologies and epistemic positionalities of the people that translanguage… (p. 1).

Basically, Phyak poses three questions: 

  1. What motivations, values, and assumptions underlie research on/with Indigenous peoples, or other marginalized groups? (see Tuhiwai Smith, 1999) 
  2. Does such research represent participants’ worldviews and knowledge? 
  3. Does it represent their social, historical, and political circumstances?

In the case of the Yaakthungs, also called the Limbu, the Gorkha state (now Nepal) agreed to respect the Yaakthungs’ sovereignty and self-autonomy in the Gorkha-Limbuwan Treaty of 1774, but we see all the usual culprits of nationalistic assimilation: the state appropriates Indigenous lands, bans Indigenous languages and culture in schooling and the public sphere (Lawoti, 2007), and perpetuates a “deficit ideology” (Gorski, 2011) that makes Indigenous youth ashamed of their language and culture, and speak/act like “mainstream” children in school and university. The state has promoted Nepali as the national language (Phyak and Sharma, 2021), and more recently EMI, in schools and society. This affects Indigenous’ youths’ enthusiasm to interact with elders and participate in community and cultural activities.

When Phyak’s parents passed away in the span of one year (2014-15) in his village home in the eastern hills of Nepal, he explained:

the entire community mourns and participates in the collective rituals when someone dies in the community. We were shattered and in deep grief. But the tangsing (coming together/collective act) of the villagers, of all age groups, in sharing the grief and restoring our mangenaa [dignity and courage] helped me understand how doing research in and with Indigenous communities is more about finding a safe space, not just collecting data, where each participant feels free to interact by using their multilingual repertoire. (p. 2)

Phyak observed the ritual re-establishing family and community unity, as well as cho:tlung—“the imagined world of knowledge, peace, progress, justice, and equality” (Limbu, 2020; Subba, 1995).

Phyak (2022), p. 3

The villagers came to his family’s home with food, rice, and liquor to share with one another. After cleaning the house, they brought different objects to create tangsing thaan (tangsing place) to symbolize the earth, ancestors, living and dead members of the community, ecology, and cosmology. The bamboo tent with seven cross-beams represents the stages of human life and the sticks represent both dead and living community members. Fresh rice, knives, bronze plates, liquor, fresh water in bronze glasses, and green titepaati (mugwort) are arranged around the bamboo pole. The yebaa/saambaa (those knowers who perform the ritual) ask the tumyaang (elders) for permission to begin the ritual and invite them to witness it. They perform Mundhum of mikwaa saakmaa (block the tears), mangenaa (well-being), and si:laam saakmaa (block the path of death). In each stage, they dance by beating bronze plates and the dhyaangro (drum). While the saambaas lead the performance, the villagers respond to their questions and follow the narration after them. The youth, immersed in these dialogical interactions, narratives, and dances, “listen to the saambaas narrating Yaakthung worldviews about life, death, cosmology, and ancestry” (p. 3). Phyak observed that throughout the tangsing, youth asked questions to their elders to better understand what was going on.

Phyak (20220, p. 3
Phyak (2022), p. 4

There may be some aspects of the ritual that may seem superstitious to Westerners; for example: “The final performance of tangsing was sendaanglaaheekhaaraa kaakmaa. In this performance, all the villagers crossed a symbolic line (created by saambaas), that is believed to represent misfortunes/evil events (see photo) to get rid of the future curses and tragic events” (p. 4). The saambaas cautioned the people gathered “that we should not irritate taambhungnaa (the god of forest) and him saamaang (the god of the home” (p. 4). But this spiritual caution is no stranger than the Christian references in American community gatherings—they are alternative views of the world and cosmos and what “makes things right.”

Phyak explains that tangsing is a research methodology, as well as a cultural, spiritual, and performative space for generations to feel safe to interact through translanguaging. The youths documented the entire tangsing with a pocket video camera and mobile phones. Thus, Phyak was able to “engage the youths in analyzing language practices and epistemologies in tangsing, after the ritual was over” (p. 4). This did not necessarily take the form of standard interviews—but I am sure he found a way that worked for them. Thus, tangsing was not just a way to collect data about multilingual intergenerational interactions but a means to engage Yaakthung youths in learning their culture’s epistemologies and spirituality, which were the stakes for them.

In sum, translanguaging as a decolonizing act goes beyond communication and creates spaces for people to maintain their traditions in the face of wider cultural onslaught. Since the youth Phyak did research with had experienced so much negativity in the school system, translanguaging just HAD to occur in their own setting and on their own terms. There is no other space for people to feel so free to embrace their culture and learn from one another, and documenting the multilingual practices in such a space also required changing epistemological practices and what counted as rigorous research or empirical knowledge (i.e., tangsing rituals as NOT superstition but another form of empiricism, documenting how saambaas re-right the natural world after death or tragedy). To do translanguaging research in such a decolonizing way “offers researchers a space not only to ask the ‘right questions’ (Lee, 2022, p. 5) but to interact with the right people in the right place and for the right purpose” (p. 5).


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Sah, P. K. (2022b). Language ideologies, symbolic power, and social stratification: An ethnographic exploration of English medium instruction policy in Nepal’s public schools. In L. Adinolfi, U. Bhattacharya, & P. Phyak (Eds.), Multilingual education in South Asia: At the intersection between policy and practice (pp. 50–68). New York: NY: Routledge.

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Published by annamend

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

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