In this week’s post, I aim to answer the question, “What does it mean when translanguaging is said to be a ‘critical pedagogy’ or ‘decolonizing research approach’?” This question is answered in recent commentaries by Pramod K. Sah (in collaboration with critical English language teaching scholar Ryuko Kubota) and Prem Phyak. According to Sah, to teach critically with translanguaging, teachers have to first care about pedagogical effectiveness. Second, implementing the necessary equity/inclusion practices that will help ALL students learn effectively are inevitably political, because every society has majoritized and minoritized forms of bi/multilingualism (which I have previously blogged about here, here, and here). On the other hand, in an out-of-school setting, Prem Phyak highlights, first, the need for translanguaging researchers to represent Indigenous and non-Western epistemologies, knowledge, and worldviews to decolonize the field. Second, researchers should never fail to disclose participants’ sociohistorical and political circumstances.
Sah, P. K., & Kubota, R. (2022). Towards critical translanguaging: A review of literature on English as a medium of instruction in South Asia’s school education. Asian Englishes, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13488678.2022.2056796
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.
We know that children who are not educated in languages they understand have a difficult time learning, especially ethnic minority students living in poverty (UNESCO, 2016). South Asian classrooms are not like North American classrooms, because even if there IS a national language, there are dominant state languages, and dominant languages in regions within each state, and indigenous tribal/languages that are marginalized by the regional, state, and national language in addition to English. So when you introduce EMI into this setting, similar to Chinese-English bilingual education in China or CLIL in Europe, you find a lot more linguistic diversity.
Hall and Cook (2013) explain that even with the increased legitimation of translanguaging in language education worldwide, this has gone hand-in-hand with the “major extension of English into classrooms and subject areas where students’ own languages previously held sway” (p. 298). There is something ironic about this, and perhaps not accidental. Dearden (2015) found in a survey of 55 countries that 52.7% and 87.3% of public and private primary schools, and 87.3% and 70.9% of private and public secondary schools, respectively, had adopted EMI (as cited in Sah & Kubota, 2022, p. 134). While in the colonial era, EMI was a privilege in India, now it’s common among “lower socioeconomic status, caste, and ethnic groups” (ibid, p. 134), because of market forces. Basically, low-fee private schools promise to offer EMI to families who cannot afford elite schools, and the public school sector has to adapt so it doesn’t lose its students. They explain on pp. 134-135:
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)
Much of Sah’s research has shown that translanguaging is an unsystematic coping strategy in EMI, “coping” because teachers and students lack English proficiency, and “unsystematic” because teachers have not been trained to use translanguaging in ways that scaffold learning. In other cases, however, teachers and students translanguage freely across all domains of life—so it would be impossible not to mix the languages (but I think this is the case with Indian and Pakistani, Hong Kong and Philippine elites, not the lower socioeconomic classes). Sometimes, teachers are English proficient, but students are not, so teachers teach in English (which students understand), but students reply back in their own language, lacking productive English proficiency (Boruah, 2017). (There’s work by Angel Lin and Yuen Yi Lo in Hong Kong that addresses how to save such a problem: Chapters 5 and 6 in this book.) Sah and Kubota argue that translanguaging has to be strategic; for example, if translation is used, it shouldn’t just be to make sense of the material but to point out which vocabulary or grammar is introduced and should be learned (Bhattacharya, 2013). Moreover, students should be engaged in productive L2 use. This could be in negotiation-of-meaning as they work on tasks, but if their L2 productive proficiency is limited or still emergent, they could translanguage to get to the final product in English instead.
Likewise, code-switching should be educational. For example, teachers can switch to students’ L1 to explain why mistakes are wrong (Hornberger & Vaish, 2009) or analyze the sentences in a paragraph one by one, showing what each is accomplishing. I illustrate these strategies at the end of this post and give an overview of pedagogical code-switching here. Teachers should also be aware of what students have learned in each language so they know what to work on. For example, Phyak (2018) observed that students didn’t say anything (didn’t seem to understand) “What time do you go to bed?” but when the teacher said it in their language, they responded in English. This suggests they know numbers and time phrases in English (perhaps 1 to 12 + “o’clock”), but need the phrase “What time do you…?” translated into their language(s), plus various verbs in base form that they might substitute, e.g., “arrive at school,” “have lunch,” “do your homework,” or “go to bed.” When translanguaging pedagogy is used, students should know what they are supposed to learn.
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?
Similar to Cummins (2021), who advocates similar pedagogical interventions, Sah and Kubota argue that the point of critical pedagogy is to make visible—and useful—students’ marginalized and minoritized language and literacy practices in academic spaces, so that they can inform learning.
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).
Phyak, P. (2022). Decolonizing translanguaging research methodologies: A commentary and self-reflection. Research Methods in Applied Linguistics, 1(3), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rmal.2022.100032
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)
Phyak did his undergraduate degree at one of the leading universities in Nepal, Tribhuvan University, his MA TESOL at University College London under Prof. David Block, and his PhD in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. A former PhD classmate of mine, he is open about the fact that both his parents passed away during the toughest time of his PhD completion. The one good thing about this terrible experience was that he had to attend what was the equivalent of their funerals in Yaakthung culture—Tangsing—which gave him a new understanding of how to do applied linguistics research. His PhD data collection was not going well. He was trying to document Yaakthung youths’ bi/multilingual practices, but explains that they were excluding him even though he had worked with them since 2010:
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:
- What motivations, values, and assumptions underlie research on/with Indigenous peoples, or other marginalized groups? (see Tuhiwai Smith, 1999)
- Does such research represent participants’ worldviews and knowledge?
- 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).
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.
Although the youth had been reluctant to talk about their language experiences at school, they were open to translanguaging with tumyaangs during the tangsing. In the excerpt above, two youths and an elder (Baaje) translanguaged between Yaakthung and Nepali as Baaje explained how mainaam, a piece of cloth, represents a person who cannot attend the ritual. Notably, “[t]he youths were never taught about such epistemologies encoded in the Yaakthung language at school” (p. 3). The tangsing is a “translanguaging space” (Wei, 2011), but that term has particular meaning here—it is not just that translanguaging is happening, but what it is for. Even if translanguaging spaces are created in school, the youth wouldn’t be learning what they are learning here. Translanguaging and translanguaging spaces need to involve the literacies and knowledge of Indigenous people and other educationally marginalized groups, not just the staples of language classrooms, not just touristy foreign language material, not just EAP material about academic subjects from a Western perspective, but Indigenous epistemologies.
Through this translanguaging, the youths learned not about English in academic disciplines, but about Yaakthung spirituality and beliefs from tumyaangs and saambaas, in “an authentic and safe space to deploy their translanguaging repertoires, which they could not do in school” (p. 4). Through translanguaging, they learned about mangenaa and cho:tlung, as well as everyday Yaakthung words. They learned the literacies of their culture [here’s a post explaining the difference between language and literacy], including dance, drama, performance, and symbols. They were invested in learning and understanding this knowledge, imbued with a sense of belonging in their culture.
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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