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.
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?