At recent conferences I’ve attended, first for the American Council on Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), and then for the Arabic Language Conference at AUC, I’ve been having conversations with language teachers (mostly Arabic ones) about translanguaging in the classroom, and why I think it’s so important that we take this perspective. Or why, even if you don’t want to take a translanguaging perspective, it’s important to realize that you are taking a perspective (probably a monolingual one), and this upholds certain types of language ideologies. Mostly, I think we need to ask ourselves different questions about our teaching, a point I’ll return to after revisiting the concept of translanguaging.
What is translanguaging?
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, translanguaging is a perspective that emphasizes the fluid and socially constructed nature of language boundaries. While this in itself is not something that most modern linguists would contest, it’s something we often forget as language teachers, since our classes are neatly divided up by language (Arabic, Spanish, French, etc.).
A translanguaging perspective also focuses on the linguistic repertoires of individuals, how they shift with time and experience, and how languagers deploy them in communicative contexts in ways that do not necessarily conform to social language boundaries. This is also highly relevant to language classes (in fact you could argue the main goal is to expand one’s linguistic repertoire) but we often ignore how these repertoires are deployed because we are so focused on what language the result belongs to—is it target language? English?
Finally, a translanguaging perspective points out the ways in which our commitment to language boundaries results in social injustices. For example, if we want to assess an individual’s knowledge of educational content (math, history, etc.), and they aren’t given access to their full linguistic repertoire (because you limit them to presenting this in say English or Spanish), we cannot make an accurate assessment of their knowledge. Yet all too often, this is how we assess knowledge—even bilinguals are expected to present it in one language or the other, but not both. This of course has a disproportionately negative effect on the education of bilingual children, especially when they also face racial and class discrimination. Limiting educational materials to one language can also make it harder to learn both language and content—research on multilingual education contexts around the world shows that when we learn information in multiple languages it expands both our linguistic repertoires and content knowledge. It’s only our commitment to thinking of languages as separate and bounded that makes us think this might be confusing. Finally, the ability to name and separate languages comes from holding political power, not the particular linguistic elements in one’s repertoire. This means that those of us in more privileged positions will be able to fit nicely into this language boundary (which often still corresponds with a national boundary), while marginalizing people whose linguistic practices don’t conform to the boundaries we’ve made, and often relegating them to a space between linguistic/national borders.
How are we upholding nationalism in our language classes?
This commitment to separate and bounded languages is a result of monolingual language ideologies solidified during the development of European nationalism, when language, political, and ethnic/racial boundaries were used to mutually reinforce each other, as you can see in this great video. This conception of language lead to numerous beliefs about language learning that we reinforce in our language classes today, including the belief that 100% target language immersion is the best learning environment, that languages interfere with each other, and that monolingual native speakers are the model for language learners. We may not think we are upholding nationalism when we implement these beliefs, but that is in fact what we are doing by using a perspective on language so closely linked to the creation of nationalism.
So, what would a translanguaging perspective look like in a classroom teaching English speakers other languages?
As I’ve mentioned before, I think it consists of both reframing existing practice and creating transformative ones. In this case, I want to focus on how we can ask ourselves different questions to achieve our goal of expanding our linguistic repertoires without upholding harmful and exclusionary perspectives on language.
What percentage of my class is in the target language?
How are my students and I using our linguistic repertoires to expand them towards what we call Arabic/Spanish/any other language name*?
In terms of reframing existing practices, this could mean shifting our view of the teacher who is good because they are providing 100% comprehensible target language input to one where the same teacher, producing the same linguistic utterances, is good because they are strategically drawing from the overlap between their linguistic repertoire and their students’ repertoires to expand them. This is a subtle, but important difference, as it emphasizes how teachers can draw on fuzzy linguistic boundaries and prior linguistic knowledge (e.g. cognates) to expand their students’ linguistic repertoires, rather than focusing on separating languages into percentages of use that are good or bad.
Why are my students using so much English in group work?
Why are they making these linguistic choices? Are they expanding their linguistic repertoires?
Similarly, when we look at student small group work, we tend to feel frustrated and shame either ourselves or the students for using too much English. Crucially though, the answer to the last question is not always yes if it’s Arabic, and no if it’s English. For example, if students are planning a presentation, skit, or other monolingual product, doing the planning talk in English (we can start by/no I think it would be better if it went this way/etc.) while mixing in the actual sentences of the final product in Arabic can be a more effective way of producing the final product in Arabic than forcing it all into Arabic, and effectively raising the task level to not only the product, but also planning and managing interpersonal relationships. Speaking of interpersonal relationships, if students are “goofing off” in English, asking why they are making this choice, instead of focusing on how much English they are using, can be insightful. Do they know how to develop interpersonal relationships with their classmates using more Arabic? Should we focus on this more than learning to be a tourist (since we can be tourists in English)?
Am I providing an environment of monolingual immersion so my students are ready for experiences outside of the classroom? Am I preparing my students to be able to expand their linguistic repertoires in multilingual environments?
Related to the imagined use of the target language outside of the classroom, as I’ve studied extensively and written about here, for English speakers in particular, language learning opportunities outside of the classroom (including study abroad!) are likely to be multilingual, rather than monolingual environments. Expecting this, and learning to navigate it in ways that allow us to maintain personal relationships and expand our linguistic repertories, rather than feeling forced to make friends or speak Arabic, is crucial.
Am I developing my students’ target language skills? Am I also recognizing and developing their translanguaging skills?
This takes us to the idea of translanguaging skills, in addition to a translanguaging perspective on what language is. After all, languages do not draw from their linguistic repertoires randomly, but to achieve particular communicative goals (including shutting down communication, we are not always friendly to each other :-). Here is where we can start to see an overlap with the emphasis on social justice in translanguaging perspectives, because translanguaging skills for learning are likely to be most developed in students who have to transcend socially named language boundaries in their everyday lives, for example if they speak another language or a minoritized dialect of English at home and so-called “standard” English as school. Because of the prevalence of monolingual ideologies in our educational system, these students may not be able to name these skills, but certainly have them and we should recognize their value in learning new linguistic repertoires. Recognizing these skills can also help us develop them in our students, including ones whose more privileged social positions may mean that their translanguaging skills are relatively underdeveloped. Part of developing and recognizing translanguaging skills is explicitly explaining language ideologies to students—after all the prevalence of monolingual ideologies in our society means that our students often come to class with beliefs about language rooted in these ideologies as well. Even if they choose to prefer monolingual language ideologies over multilingual ones, I think it’s important for students to also have an explicit understanding that this is a choice with particular implications, not simply the way language is.
Is this utterance correct in the target language? Is this utterance effective in this communicative situation?
Related to the point above, focusing on correctness automatically aligns us with socially determined boundaries without naming the role of power. Asking instead about the contextual effectiveness critiques the monolingual native speaker of a prestige variety (ahem educated native speaker ya asaatidha) as the model for language learners, recognizes the contextual nature of communication (including the role of other people who may or may not be good listeners), and yet also avoids a common misperception of translanguaging, which is that it means “anything goes”. While this particular topic is enough for a future post, here I want to emphasize that our focus should be more on the particular communicative situation than conforming to idealized versions of the language.
Related to the point above, focusing on correctness automatically aligns us with socially determined boundaries without naming the role of power. Asking instead about the contextual effectiveness critiques the monolingual native speaker of a prestige variety (ahem educated native speaker ya asaatidha) as the model for language learners, recognizes the contextual nature of communication (including the role of other people who may or may not be good listeners), and yet also avoids a common misperception of translanguaging, which is that it means “anything goes”. While this particular topic is enough for a future post, here I want to emphasize that our focus should be more on the particular communicative situation than conforming to idealized versions of the language associated with the socially powerful.
Overall, recognizing the ways in which our perspectives on language inform our teaching, and ensuring that these perspectives are consistent with our values, is crucial and I think too often ignored in language teaching, especially teaching English speakers other languages. Reframing our questions to focus on how are we using language to expand our linguistic repertoires certainly requires more thought and nuance than priding ourselves and our students on target language use and shaming English use, but without this, we cannot truly question the power relations that uphold these language boundaries.
So, can you think of other questions we should be revising to reframe our teaching from a translanguaging perspective? Or has this post left you with even more questions? If so, you may be able to guess from this post that I love hard questions about language, so ask away in the comments!
*You’ll notice that even in this post critiquing naming languages I’m still using language names—this concept is so rooted in the way we think about language and the English I know that it’s difficult to get away from!
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