Learning from African examples of translanguaging as a pedagogical and social practice


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Translanguaging as a concept and translanguaging as a pedagogical practice are hot topics in the field of Applied Linguistics these days (or at least the circles I’m in).  As I’ve written earlier on this blog, I find translanguaging pedagogy a compelling approach for language classrooms, including Teaching English Speakers Other Languages (my version of TESOL :-)).  However, while translanguaging pedagogy is certainly a new mindset for those of us raised with and trained in monolingual ideologies of language, it is worth emphasizing that these practices, including their pedagogical applications, are not new at all.  In this post I’m going to highlight work on translanguaging in a few different African contexts.  I think these are examples from which those of us who are less familiar with translanguaging can learn about translanguaging as a social and pedagogical practice and begin to adapt these practices to our own classrooms.  

Translanguaging as a way of being

For those of us who grew up in monolingual environments*, and experienced language learning as learning a separate and distinct language, ideally in a monolingual environment, the idea of participating in social environments where multiple languages are used at the same time, by speakers who are not necessarily “fluent” in all of them seems impossible.  After all, how can you have a conversation if people are using a language you don’t understand? And how do you respond?

As it turns out, this is not only possible, but entirely commonplace in different African contexts (as well as other parts of the world).  In her book, Racialized Identities in Second Language Learning: Speaking Blackness in Brazil**, Uju Anya describes the language practices she experienced growing up in Nigeria as follows:

As a child in my multinational home, I remember relatives and domestic staff communicating across language and cultural boundaries fluidly in conversations throughout the home, speaking in northern and southern varieties of Igbo and British, Caribbean, Nigerian, and pidgin Englishes. 

Although we could all  understand them, none of us spoke every one of these languages.  Some just spoke two or three very well, some also spoke entirely different languages elsewhere with other people, and some like me were still young and emerging in expertise.  But we all contributed and participated according to individual ability, using whatever resources were available to make ourselves understood and to follow along with others.  This was who were were and how we did language based on what needed to be said to whom anyhow best, most easily, stylishly, appropriately, and comprehensibly it could all be achieved.  

While Anya is an applied linguist and translanguaging expert, I would not expect comedian Trevor Noah to spend a lot of time reading the academic translanguaging literature (but maybe he does). However, he gives an excellent description of this practice in his memoir, Born a Crime:

You'll be at a party with a dozen people where bits of conversation are flying by in two or three different languages.  You'll miss part of it, someone might translate on the fly to give you the gist, you pick up the rest from the context, and you just figure it out.  The crazy thing is that, somehow, it works.  Society functions.  Except when it doesn’t.

Also in South Africa, Leketi Makalela describes training student teachers from Johannesburg townships to use translanguaging pedagogy.  In contrast to a setting like the language classroom in the United States, the student teachers were not surprised at the idea of translanguaging to communicate or to learn new languages.  In fact, they referred to translanguaging as “the way we talk ko kasi [in the location]”***.  That is, it was their standard way of communicating.  Their surprise came from the acceptability of this way of being in a academic setting, which until then they had experienced as preferring monolingualism, or a monolingual view of multilingualism with separate and distinct languages.  

Translanguaging Pedagogy

In addition to helping us learn translanguaging as a way of being in the world, African contexts also provide examples of how we can use translanguaging pedagogy in our classrooms.  As described above, Makalela uses Ubuntu Translanguaging Pedagogy, rooted in concept of ubuntu, summarized as I am because you are, you are because we are. This pedagogy resists the monolingual ideology of “linguistic boxes”, and involves multilingual lexical contrasts in 3-5 languages, mixing language skills by reading or listening in one language and speaking or writing in another, and comparing and contrasting cultural constructs in multiple languages. Makalela emphasizes that he does not need to speak all the languages of his students, but rather facilitates their ability to explore and expand their own linguistic and cultural resources.  He also notes that the comparing and contrasting of vocabulary, linguistic structures, and cultural constructs differed from the monolingual grammar-translation approach by focusing on what students do with language, rather than languages as separate systems.  

Moving to East Africa, in a presentation at the American Association of Applied Linguistics Conference,  Jamie Thomas documented the translanguaging strategies of a Swahili teacher instructing learners from diverse language backgrounds in Tanzania.  For example, in teaching Swahili story-telling practices, the teacher first drew upon story-telling knowledge in students’ background languages, using them as resources for developing their Swahili knowledge.  When she realized that her Ghanaian Akan/Twi-speaking learners had a similar call and response pattern in their story-telling tradition, she encouraged them to present this pattern, aiding not only their language acquisition, but that of others in the classroom.  This is a good example of treating students’ existing linguistic resources as a way of building new ones.  

Translanguaging to engage during study abroad

Research on U.S. Students abroad in Africa is a context that brings us closer to the context of U.S. language learning. Mori and Sanuth describe the language learning experiences of three U.S. learners of Yoruba studying abroad in Nigeria.  Two of the learners expressed frustration with the lack of an immersion experience, having expected a monolingual Yoruba environment (likely a result of the dominance of monolingual ideologies of language in the United States generally and language teaching in particular).  This caused them to feel that they couldn’t integrate locally or that Yoruba was in need of preservation.  In contrast, the third learner, a heritage speaker of Yoruba familiar with transnational experiences, modified her expectations to meet the translanguaging practices of her location, and emphasized how using not just English or Yoruba, but also translanguaging practices involving elements of both, would help her career.   

Finally, I’ll focus on North Africa, and my own personal experience as a language learner and study abroad researcher in Egypt. Egypt is certainly a different context from South Africa, Tanzania, and Nigeria (and I’m sure there are also differences between those contexts that I miss not being familiar with them), but my experiences and observations there are I think one reason why I find translanguaging pedagogy so compelling.  Initially, like the students descried by Mori and Sanuth, I felt quite frustrated that Egypt was not a monolingual environment, and that there was so much English, which was of course preventing me from learning Arabic! Yet as I returned again and again, and long before I had ever heard of translanguaging as a concept, I began to realize that the key to developing relationships and using more Arabic was to actually use Arabic and English together, not just with Egyptians, but also with other study abroad students.  

While I still have a lot to learn about translanguaging as pedagogy and practice, it is clear to me that African contexts are among those where those of us who are less familiar with translanguaging pedagogy and practice can learn from those for whom this is simply a way of being and a natural pedagogical practice.  The work I’ve described here is not an exhaustive list, and if you have more recommendations, let me know so I can add them to my reading list!


*Or at least environments interpreted as monolingual—this is a post for another day, but I think the idea of a truly monolingual environment is questionable, we just categorize them as such, which is part of monolingual ideologies in the first place!  

**An amazing book on race and translanguaging and study abroad generally that I should also do a separate post on, but just read it in the meantime!

*** See Makalela's chapter in this book