What is language? The Multilingual Turn and Translanguaging Pedagogy

The “Multilingual Turn” is a term used to critique the monolingual ideologies originating in the nation-state that have dominated research in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition in the U.S.  Although multilingual ideologies of language have long existed in highly multilingual contexts, they have recently gained traction in critiques of the fields of Second Language Acquisition, Multilingual education, and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). However, there is certainly a gap in bringing this ideology to the U.S. language classroom where English speakers are learning other languages. These are my thoughts on the implications of a few key tenets of the multilingual turn for the language classroom.  

1) Multilingualism is not multiple monolingualism.  That is, multilinguals do not simply repeat the behavior of monolinguals across multiple separate linguistic contexts.  Their use of their languages varies by social function and does not always match the linguistic behavior of the monolingual speaker of a language.  For the language classroom, this means that the goal of language learning is not to mimic the exact linguistic behavior of a monolingual speaker of that language by “passing” as native or getting a “perfect” accent.  The goal is to use one’s linguistic resources to perform and negotiate social functions, a view that also fits in well with functional theories of linguistics.  

2) Language (and dialect boundaries) are fluid. While the nation-state required distinct language boundaries and geographic borders to invent itself, and thus there was pressure for linguistic behavior to conform to a national standard, multilingual ideologies point out that these boundaries are arbitrary and imagined, and that mixing between what the nation state imagined as distinct languages is the norm among multilingual speakers.  In the language classroom, which is an inherently multilingual situation, this means that mixed language is the norm, and enforcing a monolingual “target language only” environment is potentially upholding the nation state and missing opportunities for learning (see point 4 below).  

3) Language is a resource to perform and negotiate social functions.  As stated above, performing and negotiating social functions is the goal of using language, rather than mimicking the behavior of a monolingual speaker.  So rather than focusing on whether a learner’s pronunciation is “nativelike” the emphasis is on whether the learner can perform desired social functions.  Crucially, the performance of these functions is also negotiated, which means that the language that may be successful in one context with one interlocutor may not be successful in another one, or with another interlocutor.  This is in fact true for all speakers of a language, even monolinguals, and why monolinguals may also be unsuccessful in performing social functions, whether with other monolinguals or multilinguals.   

4) All speakers have their own individual linguistic repertoire.   Because language boundaries are fluid, it makes more sense to look at linguistic behavior from the perspective of the speaker, rather than focusing on to what extent it conforms to that associated with what bilingual education researcher Ofelia Garcia calls “named languages.”   Individuals have a unique linguistic repertoire that contains elements across languages and dialects, and this becomes a resource they can use in adding to this repertoire or learning other information.  In contrast to the idea that languages “interfere” with each other when learning them, multilingual ideologies consider them resources. Related to the second point above, this also means that it is normal for learners to deploy all of these resources when learning, resulting in what García, Li Wei, and others have termed “translanguaging” behavior.  In the language classroom, this means that hearing learners moving between and mixing Arabic and English for example is not necessarily a failure (because they should only be using Arabic) but potentially an illustration of them deploying all of their linguistic resources to learn Arabic.  When teachers and students work together to use all of their resources for learning, this can become what is called “translanguaging pedagogy”.  

As I said at the beginning of this post, while multilingual ideologies and translanguaging pedagogy seem to be gaining ground in certain fields of language learning, they seem to be less prevalent in the language classroom where English speakers are learning other languages.  I have a lot of thoughts on the value and implementation of translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom, but that will need to wait for another post.  For now though, I think the key thing is to realize that so many of our current pedagogical practices (target language only, native speaker model, “neutral” varieties, and so on) stem from a nation-state ideology of language, and to ask ourselves if the nation-state is the ideology we want to uphold.  For me, it’s not, and this is the appeal of the multilingual turn and translanguaging pedagogy.  Stay tuned for my thoughts on implementation!