Translanguaging Pedagogy in the Language Classroom: A New Mindset?

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

As is most likely clear from previous posts on nation-state ideologies of language and the multilingual turn, I find the latter a more appealing ideology for my language classroom, especially when combined with functional approaches to linguistics, that emphasize what learners do with language in actual contexts.  Yet, as usual, the challenge for combining theory and practice is in the implementation—the theory sounds good, but what does it look like?

In this post, I’m going to focus on language use in the classroom that I think in fact looks the same from the outside, but where the mindset shift from the inside makes all of the difference.  I think when U.S. language teachers in particular first hear about translanguaging pedagogy there is a sense of resistance, because we think didn’t we just convince everyone that we should use the target language in the classroom? And now you’re talking about using English as a resource too? How will my students learn the target language if I don’t use it, especially given the power of English as a global language? 

This is a completely legitimate concern, and I think part of the confusion stems from the diverse contexts in which translanguaging pedagogies are used.  For example, a lot of the pioneering work with this has been with the learning of academic content in multilingual education settings.  In these settings, researchers such as Ofelia García have argued that if we want to accurately measure a child’s math ability for example, they need to be able to deploy all of their linguistic resources to demonstrate their ability, rather than being limited to those that correspond to a particular language such as English.  Yet in the language classroom, the goal is learning a particular language*, so how is it helpful to allow other ones? Isn’t this a return to the unsuccessful grammar-translation method?

My argument is no, an intentional translanguaging pedagogy** in the language classroom would deliberately employ all of the linguistic resources available to engage in learning that language.  In fact, I think this often already happens, we just don’t realize it! Here are some examples:

1) Teacher talk in the target language: Research on teacher talk in the language classroom shows that teachers do stay predominantly in the target language.  In my view, this fits with translanguaging pedagogy because the teachers have the linguistic resources to stay in the target language.  Therefore, using translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom is not a reason for teachers to stop using the target language.  

2) Teacher use of cognates or mixed language: However, teachers are also able to use their linguistic resources in English, or other shared languages, to support the learning of the target language.  For example, if a teacher says “ashrab laban” this means nothing unless you know Arabic (or possibly a related language).  Yet if the teacher says “ashrab coca-cola”, you can probably guess that “ashrab” has to do with drinking.  Drawing upon cognates to create comprehensible input is a strategy used by many teachers already.  Yet rather than framing this as “falling back on English”, or “failing to use only Arabic” translanguaging pedagogy would look at this example as a strategic deployment of the available linguistic resources in the goal of learning Arabic.*

3) Student switches to English: As in the teacher example above, if a student is unable to come up with a particular word in Arabic, they might insert a word in English, and this would also be framed as a failure, or a deficit in their vocabulary.  Yet given that the classroom is at least a bilingual setting where everyone also speaks English, if they accomplish their communicative goal, is this a failure? Or is it a deployment of all linguistic resources to accomplish the communicative goal in a bilingual setting? Taking it even further, using that one English word may have allowed the student to continue with even more Arabic words, supporting their language learning goal, rather than breaking off communication to chide themselves for forgetting or asking the teacher how to say it.  Again, students switching to English is a common occurrence in the language classroom, but translanguaging pedagogy looks at this as an opportunity to employ all linguistic resources to learn the target language, rather than a failure or deficit of the student.  At least for me, this means I get to see my students doing cool things with language when they communicate, rather than failing to be monolingual Arabic speakers.  

4) Processing in English to produce in the target language: A second common example of when students use English in the language classroom is when they are working on preparing a monolingual project, such as a writing assignment or presentation.  As they put it together, it’s common to hear them using both English and the target language. If the expectation is that the classroom should be monolingual, this is again a failure.  Yet from the perspective of translanguaging pedagogy, it makes sense to use all linguistic resources to produce the best monolingual product possible, so this is not a failure, but a way to learn.   

These are just four examples that come to mind of things that already happen in the language classroom with a pedagogy of monolingual immersion that would still happen with translanguaging pedagogy.  If the practices are the same, a reasonable question to ask is why does it matter if the mindset is different? From my perspective, I would argue that it is important because it allows me to see my students as successful with the linguistic resources they have, and my role as the teacher being one of helping them invest these resources to gain more, rather than focusing on all of the things they can’t do yet (know all the vocabulary, do all the grammar, etc.).  This is a more pleasant classroom for me to participate in than one that is always failing to be monolingual.  But perhaps more importantly, focusing on how students are using their linguistic resources, rather than what language they are using allows us to deploy these resources more wisely in learning the target language.  For example, intentionally using a cognate, or a few words in English to allow students to understand or produce a longer text in the target language in fact leads to more use of this language.  Speaking English because it’s easier will not necessarily have the same effect.  Again, it is clear that students and teachers already translanguage in the classroom, but are we thinking about the ways in which this best supports language learning? If you’re a teacher or student, what do you think? How can you use all of your linguistic resources to learn more languages?

 

*It’s worth noting here that García also distinguishes between collections of linguistic elements in an individual’s repertoire and the “named languages” they correspond to, with the “named languages” being a social, rather than a linguistic construct.  This is an important distinction, but I’m not going to discuss it here.  

**There are probably differences between what I am calling translanguaging pedagogy and what previous researchers such as García or Li Wei consider it.  This is a result of me trying to figure out what it means in my context, and is not intended to be a critique or misrepresentation of what they advocate.