Plurilingual and Translanguaging Approaches in the Intermediate Arabic Classroom

I presented with my colleague Heather Sweetser on our attempts to implement plurilingual and translanguaging approaches in our Intermediate Arabic classroom, and will summarize this presentation in this post.

Origins of Monolingual Language Ideologies

The easiest place to start is with monolingual ideologies, because these are the ideologies that U.S. language teaching (and elsewhere, but I’ll stick with contexts I know) is most firmly rooted in, and which plurilingual and translanguaging approaches seek to resist. I’ve written about monolingual language ideologies elsewhere on this blog, but as a quick review, they are beliefs about language that originate with the European nation-state, where language and national boundaries were imagined as distinct and mutually reinforcing (e.g. in France people speak French). Monolingual language ideologies have been exported beyond Europe, primarily through colonialism and especially in educational settings. As such, they are the ideologies that inform much research and practice in the field of second language acquisition, applied linguistics, and teaching. While these ideologies have been critiqued in some contexts, most notably TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and bi/multilingual education, this critique is notably absent in my part of these fields, which I sometimes like to refer to as the “Other TESOL—teaching English speakers other languages), and which is still, regrettably, often referred to as “foreign” language education.

Components of Monolingual Language Ideologies

So, what are monolingual language ideologies? Essentially, they view languages as distinct, bounded objects, as illustrated in the picture below. When pressed, most people will admit that language boundaries are fuzzy, but still conceptualize languages as separate. Under these language ideologies, monolingual native speakers represent “ideal” linguistic behavior for learners to emulate, previous linguistic knowledge is often seen as irrelevant or possibly detrimental (e.g. negative transfer), and monolingual immersion (or classrooms) are the ideal learning environment. Sound familiar 😀?


Plurilingualism is an approach that originates with language policy discussions in the Council of Europe, and resists monolingual language ideologies. Plurilingual approaches emphasize the linguistic repertoires of individuals, and how these shift with time and lived experience. Rather than examining separate languages, a plurilingual approach looks at how individuals draw from their linguistic repertoires to communicate in specific contexts. In this approach, translanguaging is a practice used by plurilingual speakers where their linguistic choices do not necessarily correspond to socially recognized language boundaries. (The term translanguaging originally developed in bilingual education settings in Wales. It’s been further developed since then as described above and below).


Translanguaging has also been developed as both a theory and a practice, primarily in bilingual and heritage language educational settings. Here, it has a strong social justice orientation as it calls for recognizing the need to allow individuals to access their full linguistic repertoires in order to learn, something that language minoritized learners are rarely permitted to do in educational settings . Again, there is a focus on the linguistic repertoires of individuals, and how they draw from them in contextually specific ways (including to learn language and educational content). The resulting linguistic practices may not correspond to the boundaries of socially “named” languages, and can also transcend the meaning-making opportunities available in contexts limited to these social boundaries.

Plurilingual and Translanguaging Pedagogies

While plurilingual and translanguaging approaches have their differences and critiques of each other, in our curriculum development we are primarily interested in what they share, specifically the following points:

  • Recognizing and using the full linguistic repertoire to learn content and language
  • Encouraging intentional and strategic use of the linguistic repertoire to expand it
  • Translanguaging as a skill (which multilingual and/or language minoritized college students have already developed to some degree)

As in the illustration below, we are interested in starting with overlaps between individual linguistic repertoires and named languages with fuzzy, socially-determined boundaries in order to expand the individual repertoire.

Curriculum Development

Lesson Example

In this presentation, we drew from our social media unit last Spring in our fourth semester Arabic class, focusing in particular on the example of a lesson where our Can-Do Statement was “I can follow a hashtag on social media”.

In class, students worked in groups to ask questions about the text (meaning). Then, the teacher led them in pointing out examples of translanguaging in the posts, where (as is common in social media) the creators were using linguistic features associated with multiple Arabic varieties, languages, and emojis. The students then looked for other examples in the homework texts, and discussed why people might make these particular choices. Then, they opened Twitter and searched for the same hashtag.

Following this, they posted in Google Drive as if they were posting on Twitter, using the same hashtag but describing local restaurants and commenting on each others posts. (We originally chose Google Drive for privacy concerns, but by student request actually had them make class Twitter accounts the next time around).


Analyzing the classwork, assessments, reflection notes (teachers and students), and student interviews showed several successes in this approach. In their reflections and interviews, students emphasized that they thought social media was highly relevant to their lives and allowed them to learn more cultural content. Perhaps most exciting from my perspective as a teacher was the number of students who mentioned that they had started following and/or interacting with Arabic speakers on social media beyond the requirements of the unit, meaning that they were using Arabic outside of the classroom, or at the very least aware of the potential to do this through the internet.

In terms of using their full linguistic repertoires, in student posts we could also identify how students were developing their abilities to strategically draw from their repertoires to make compelling posts, including repurposing some of the features they analyzed. For example, some students chose to draw from parts of their repertoire associated with Arabic to write the majority of the post, but put culturally specific restaurant or food names (e.g. Sushi Freak, blue corn crust) in the script associated with English. Others chose to write words like sushi in Arabic script, revealing that students can make different choices. Notably, something like “blue corn crust” while technically possible to translate into Arabic, would really only make sense to an Arabic speaker familiar with the U.S. Southwest or other places blue corn crust exists. Choosing to write this in English, in a post otherwise drawing from Arabic resources, can mark it as culturally specific information.

In another post, a student wrote in Arabic, but put an English translation of a word he was unsure of in parentheses (The Bold). In this case, the word he chose in Arabic (الغامق) means bold as in bold script not bold as in the personality trait. While a more monolingual approach might just see this as a failure of the student and Google Translate, taking a multilingual approach shows us how this actually helps expand the student’s linguistic repertoire. By including a translation of a word he was uncertain of, the word he wants becomes clear to his intended audience (classmates and teachers) which provides the opportunity to share with him the word he actually wants, without impeding his ability to contribute to the hashtag.

Students also mentioned in their interviews and reflections that they appreciated the focus on helping them analyze the various ways in which the posters drew from their full linguistic repertoires because their knowledge of Arabic varieties and Arabizi helped them use Arabic outside of class, including while interacting on social media. Notably, this was not a comprehensive overview of all Arabic varieties or Arabizi, just a focus on what was used in our example texts and texts the students found.


Of course, there were also challenges! Notably, as I’ve mentioned before, setting up our curriculum like this is extremely time-consuming. We have to find example texts, prepare homework and class activities, and try to make the unit holistic with only two people and no additional financial or time resources. In addition, the scarcity of multilingual models in U.S. language classrooms, particularly at the lower levels, means we are figuring it out as we go.

Another challenge is the continued prevalence of monolingual ideologies among teachers (yes, ourselves) and students. While we incorporate an explicit presentation about translanguaging into our classes, students and teachers still tend to think of Arabic and English as separate systems (where using Arabic is good and English is bad or lazy), without focusing on why these linguistic choices are being made or how this relates to expanding our linguistic repertoires.

Finally, we discovered in the reflections sessions (one reason these are so important!) that students were not necessarily aware of our pedagogy, or why we were making this choices. For example, although it was quite obvious to us that we had a Can-Do Statement every day and the example texts were examples of people doing this Can-Do Statement, some students explained they just ignored the Can-Do Statement on the schedule and clicked on the homework, resulting in a series of seemingly unrelated texts.

Future Directions

Both these successes and challenges give us valuable information as we continue to develop our curriculum (slowly and gradually due to limited resources, but nevertheless consistently). In particular, we intend to incorporate even more and more explicit training of students and teachers in language ideologies and pedagogical approaches so it is clear to everyone why we do what we do. Stay tuned on this blog for more information!


Interested in more information? Here are some academic books to look for in your library:

García, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging.

Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (Eds.) (2015). Mutlilingual education: Between language learning and translanguaging

May, S. (Ed.) (2014). The Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL, and Bilingual Education

Anya, U. (2017). Racialized identities in second language learning: Speaking blackness in Brazil.

Mazak, C. M., & Carroll, K. S. (2017). Translanguaging in Higher Education: Beyond Monolingual Ideologies





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