Curriculum Development Part 3: Introducing Intentional Translanguaging Pedagogy

In my last post, I talked about why it is so important to be aware of language ideologies in the language classroom.  One major reason is the class in expectations that can occur between students, teachers, and textbooks when there are ideological mismatches, as there is no ideology free classroom (despite what we sometimes pretend with “neutral” language and so on).  This past week, we embarked on our first unit (housing) without the textbook (though keeping some texts from the textbook).  As an introduction, I held a discussion of intentional translanguaging pedagogy with my students, as I feel like being explicit about the language ideologies informing how I design my classes is important.  I wasn’t sure how this would go, as at least initially, I think translanguaging often flies in the face of what people imagine to be the “ideal” language classroom (all Arabic, all the time).  While some students were certainly more interested than others, most of them seemed to like turning the lense on their language use, and to really think about it in a less restrictive way than is this Arabic (great!) or not (bad!).  So, I though I would share the actual process I used in case it might be helpful in other classrooms.  

First, I asked if anyone had every heard of translanguaging.  No one had.  I then asked if anyone had heard of code-switching, and several students immediately perked up.  So, I presented the following example (taken from my data on study abroad in Jordan) of an language partner explaining why he was participating in the program (I’m presenting all these examples as screenshots of my slides as apparently I was not smart enough to pick a website platform that supports rtl languages and translanguaging: 

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I then showed the following slide, explaining that looking at this utterance from a code-switching perspective would focus on the two codes (Arabic and English) and how the speaker was switching between them to speak.  

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I then showed this next slide, explaining that from a translanguaging perspective, this utterance came from the speaker’s unique linguistic repertoire, which overlaps what we call certain languages.  I also pointed out that it is contextually based—since the speaker was talking to me, he drew from parts of his repertoire that overlap with Arabic and English, but not Russian for example.  

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Then, I asked the students to discuss this idea in small groups, and in five minutes each group had to ask me at least one question about this idea.  They had some great questions, which also allowed us to get into ideas like the fuzzy and liquid nature of linguistic borders, psycholinguistic representations of language, and so on.  

Next, I had the students reflect upon their own linguistic repertoires, emphasizing that this was not just limited to “languages” but also included dialects.  I was inspired to use Scottish Highland Dance theory as an example of how my linguistic repertoire does not overlap theirs entirely, even though we all “speak English”.*

Then, I introduced what I like to call intentional** translanguaging pedagogy with this slide, and assured students we were about to get to some actual examples:

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Then, we went through the following three examples, with students discussing in small groups how these could be examples of intentional translanguaging pedagogy, and then sharing their discussions with the class.  These are all made up examples, but if you teach a language class, I think you will recognize their patterns.  

The first example is an exchange between a student and a teacher:

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Here, we discussed how when the student runs into words they don’t know in Arabic, they simply say them in English, because in a bilingual environment like the Arabic language classroom, they know their peers and teacher will understand.  This allows the student to actual use more Arabic than if they had stopped to look up or ask for these words, so it is an example of translanguaging to expand their linguistic repertoire to use more Arabic.  When the teacher responds, they have the linguistic repertoire to say “health insurance” in Arabic, so they are also drawing from their full linguistic repertoire to help the student learn Arabic (by understanding the English and speaking the Arabic).  This is only possible because they are bilingual, and differs from if they had simply responded to the student with the Arabic words for “health insurance” and “ceramics”, correcting them.  Overall, the message is taking advantage of the bilingual environment to expand one’s linguistic repertoire, rather than looking at the use of English as a failure.  

The next example is between students, in the context of students translanguaging to prepare a skit to perform in front of the class and then performing the actual skit monolingually.

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Here, we discussed how students translanguaged in process to present a monolingual product.  Students noted that when planning, using English could save time and help them organize their thoughts, but it was useful to use Arabic so they were sure they knew how to say what they were planning to say and it helped them get ready.  So again, this is an example of drawing from the full linguistic repertoire to expand it to more Arabic.  

The challenge with the examples presented thus far is that of course they present translanguaging as a scaffold to monolingualism, and while it certainly can be a scaffold, it’s important to keep in mind that monolingualism is not necessarily the goal.  To present the idea of a creative translanguaging space that transcends monolingualism, I presented the following slide with bilingual jokes.  Unfortunately, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to really emphasize this point, but at least I included it.  

The final example was one from outside of the classroom, as something that is coming up more and more in my own research is how a classroom focused on a monolingual, Arabic only ideal, doesn’t necessarily prepare students to interact outside of the classroom in multilingual situations, where multilingual people will, for example, not always speak only in Arabic with them.  So, the final example was from a discussion between an Arabic speaker (not a teacher) and an Arabic student.  

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This example led to a lot of interesting discussions.  Students noted that in this exchange, both parties got to use a language they might want to practice, and the student got not only language information, but cultural content information (something also of interest to students!).  We discussed how this allowed both speakers to identify as speakers of both languages, something that is generally important when you’ve invested a lot of effort in learning a language! Students suggested that perhaps the Arabic speaker repeated themselves in English to ensure that the student got the language and the information, and we discussed how this could be especially important in an Islamophobic context, where speakers are concerned about misrepresentations of their culture and religion.  I also pointed out that sometimes bilingual English and Arabic speakers use English for emphasis in an Arabic conversation, and this could also be an example of this practice.  So, lots to think about! 

I concluded with this slide, which asks what I think is a common question when we discuss translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom, especially in the context of English speakers learning other languages:

Happily, at this point in the discussion, students were able to offer a resounding NO! I then proposed the following question as an important one to ask that is more nuanced than am I speaking Arabic or not.

This was my first attempt at introducing translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom, and I’m sure it could be improved, particularly in terms of helping students realize that translanguaging isn’t simply a scaffold to monolingualism.  However, I was impressed overall with the topics we were able to discuss in such as short period of time (about 50 minutes!).  Do you have favorite strategies for teaching about translanguaing pedagogy in the language classroom? If so, let me know in the comments!

*I’m not sure transpassioning is a term, but I am always super excited when I get to use Arabic and Highland Dancing in the same context!

**In reality, translanguaging pedagogy is always intentional, but I think we are especially likely to forget this when we think about English speakers learning other languages so I put it in the term as a reminder.

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


Picture by qimono on pixabay

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

Translanguaging Pedagogy: Recognizing social practices in the classroom


Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

In my last post, I discussed some practices where I think translanguaging pedagogy simply gives us a new mindset on practices that already occur in the language classroom  (or at least in my classroom).  In this post, I want to focus on an area of the language classroom where I think we could be more intentional about the use of translanguaging, namely social practices in the classroom.  

In my classroom experience, there is a correspondence between language and social function, where students will use Arabic for classroom tasks, such as skit, or presentation, or discussion, and English for “off-topic” tasks such as phone use or chatting with their friends in class.  Yes, there are exceptions, such as students discussing their process in a mix of English and Arabic before making a monolingual product, or the student who decided to joke with his (non-Arabic speaking) friend by texting him an insult in Arabic, but in general this is a pretty clear pattern. 

Usually, this use of English is dismissed as indicative of a lack of skill in Arabic (they’re not able to have a full discussion of their process in Arabic yet) or students not paying attention (they’re on their phones!).  However, I think it’s actually interesting to take a closer look at these processes, and how translanguaging pedagogy could disrupt these patterns to encourage more language learning.  

When students engage in off-task behavior, why do they tend to use English? After all, they are engaging in this behavior with other students who also know Arabic, so why not use Arabic? Or a mix? I think there are several reasons.  

1) Proficiency—sometimes, students just don’t know how to say these things in Arabic.  This is an obvious explanation, but also one that I think bears a little more attention.  Sure, sometimes they don’t know how to do this in Arabic, but a lot of social talk is pretty basic—we cover where do you live, where did you go, what are you doing this weekend in first year, so in second year students theoretically could do this in Arabic.  So proficiency is not the only reason.  Translanguaging pedagogy could take this even further, by encouraging students to say ask much as they can in Arabic, resorting to English for particularly vocabulary items rather than an entire sentence.  

2) Identity—Arabic is for Arabs (or maybe my Arabic teacher) and English is for my American friends.  This relates back to the nation-state ideology of language of course, and persists in the classroom when students see using Arabic with each other as “inauthentic” or “fake” compared to using it with Arabs.  Of course, since many of the Arabs they are likely to meet at home or abroad also speak English, this leads to future disappointment, when interlocutors with whom the students assume it is natural to speak Arabic want to also use English.  Does this mean that the way students talk to each other in Arabic mimics the behavior of Arabs talking to each other? Probably not, but is being exactly like a native speaker the goal anyway? Translanguaging pedagogy, which emphasizes the resources learners have in Arabic rather than those they do not, would encourage learners to use these resources with each other to the extent possible, rather than holding out for an “authentic” experience.  

3) Sociolinguistic variation and pragmatics: Social relationships, by definition, involve the negotiation of social distance, stance, and emotion.  In language, we accomplish these tasks through sociolinguistic variation and pragmatics.  For example, we use more informal language with our friends, pragmatic markers such as well or um, and emotional expressions such as OMG or swearing.  In my experience, the language of social relationships is rarely taught in lower level language classes, we instead tend to focus on transactional language (e.g. buying something) or decontextualized language (e.g. writing a description just to describe something).  Even in advanced classes, we tend to move on to advanced topics, such as politics or literature, rather than social relationships.  Although we claim to be doing “communicative” language teaching, we are focused on communicating information, rather than social relationships.  One reason is our tradition of drawing from formal theories of language for language teaching, which treat this language as “extra”, making it the subject of the advanced language classroom.  Another reason is that teaching this type of language is much harder than teaching colors or verb conjugations—there is little translation correspondence, and correct usage depends entirely on the context.  Yet translanguaging pedagogy (and functional theories of linguistics) which view language as inseparable from social context, would require us to address these parts of language in the classroom from the beginning, and in more meaningful ways than designating certain forms as categorically formal or informal. In the case of Arabic, this is, of course, a compelling argument for dealing with diglossia and integrating the teaching of Modern Standard Arabic and dialect from the beginning.  Sure, you can accomplish any transaction in MSA that you can in dialect (and arguably you could do this in English as well), but can you establish the same relationships? I think it is the latter that is in fact important to students.  

So perhaps students socialize in English in Arabic class because they are goofing off, and want to be off topic.  Students on study abroad are often criticized for just hanging out with co-nationals, or using too much English.  Yet what would happen if we focused on developing students’ language to establish and maintain social relationships in lower level classes, in addition to following a path from service transactions to discussing academic topics? 

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.