Critiques of Translanguaging Approaches

Over the past few years, translanguaging as a theoretical framework has risen in popularity (at least in my circles) and this means that critiques of it have also become more vocal, something I definitely noticed attending the recent AAAL Conference. Critique is a necessary part of academic work and theoretical development, so this is important. Personally, I’m always interested in critiques of ideas I feel strongly about (to the extent that I frequently google “critique of ________” just out of curiosity). However, I honestly haven’t found the critiques of translanguaging I’ve encountered compelling, so I thought I would discuss them here. 

First, it’s important to clarify what I mean by translanguaging, as I think the bulk of the critiques I’ve encountered are using a different definition, which makes it confusing to argue. My understanding of translanguaging theory is based primarily on the work of Ofelia García and her colleagues, who developed their theories mostly in the context of bilingual education settings in the United States. I work in a different context, and don’t want to claim that my views exactly match or represent García’s, as they may not, but her work is certainly the most influential on my thinking. 

To me, translanguaging is an ideological position, or a perspective on language itself, that shifts the focus from languages as the point of reference (which language am I using?) to the linguistic repertoires of individual speakers (how am I using the features in my linguistic repertoire to achieve my goal in this particular social context?). This perspective is a response to the socially dominant ideological position based in monolingual language ideologies, where linguistic, ethnic, and national boundaries are assumed to be mutually reinforcing. Monolingual language ideologies are frequently the perspective used to analyze multilingualism, and we see this in expectations of the “balanced bilingual” (two monolingual speakers in one!), the view that a monolingual environment is the best way to learn a language, and the expectation that crossing national borders (e.g. study abroad) will lead to monolingual immersion. 

Many of the critiques of translanguaging I’ve encountered seem to simply define it as using multiple languages at once, or using the L1 in the L2 classroom. I consider this a monolingual approach, not a translanguaging one, because the focus is still on which language is being used. Using a new term doesn’t automatically erase the old perspective. Similarly, I don’t think adopting a translanguaging approach changes all of our linguistic practices, it often just gives us new insights on ways we were already using language.

So, what are some of these critiques that I think are based on a definition of translanguaging that is still rooted in monolingual language ideologies?

Translanguaging lets students be lazy because they will just use their L1. 

From a perspective based in monolingual language ideologies, a monolingual classroom is always seen as the ideal, with L1 use permitted or excused or ignored in certain circumstances (to talk about grades, to ensure comprehension, to build rapport, etc.). From this point of view, translanguaging is simply seen as an excuse to use the L1 more, because the ideological position hasn’t actually changed. In contrast, a translanguaging perspective focuses on asking how students can draw from their full linguistic repertoires to expand them. Using linguistic features associated with the target language is clearly necessary to expand the linguistic repertoire to include them, but the rest of the repertoire is there as a resource too, whether we choose to see it or not. So why not figure out how to use it for our language learning goals?

Translanguaging lets students use language in inappropriate ways. 

Usually what this means is that students don’t sound like the monolingual speaker (from a socially dominant group) that the critiquer desires them to sound like.They could be mixing dialects, or mixing languages, or using stigmatized forms, or any number of things. Once more, I consider this a perspective based in monolingual language ideologies because a particular type of speaker is being held up as the standard, there are certainly other speakers that will sound different from them. A translanguaging perspective would take a more critical approach to the idea of sounding appropriate–does this word or verb conjugation sound inappropriate because it’s associated with a particular marginalized social group the student identifies with or because the student got confused? Understanding this difference is crucial to not upholding inequitable social structures. 

It glorifies partial acquisition and low proficiency. 

Once more, to have “partial” acquisition you have to be thinking of languages as separate objects that you could have part of, which is really a perspective based in monolingual language ideologies. From a translanguaging perspective, the more relevant question would be to ask how can we expand the linguistic repertoire to be able to engage in new social situations? After all, in a language class the goal is always to expand the linguistic repertoire, but this doesn’t mean we should ignore what’s already in it. We also need to recognize that expanding the linguistic repertoire takes time.

It does a disservice to students because it doesn’t prepare them for the real world.

Given the multilingual nature of the real world, I think what this critique usually means is that translanguaging doesn’t prepare students for situations where they will have to engage monolingually. Once more, this is based on the assumption that monolingual practices can only be a result of monolingual environments, and anyone who has ever seen students prepare a monolingual skit by engaging multilingual parts of their linguistic repertoires  will know this isn’t true. Again, a translanguaging perspective doesn’t prohibit monolingual production or products, it just focuses on how the full linguistic repertoire is being used in a particular social context–if we know someone doesn’t share particular linguistic resources we have, we don’t use them in that situation!  

It doesn’t prepare students for high stakes assessments in standardized languages.

Clearly, we need more critical approaches to these assessments, but I’m willing to set that point aside as most of us have little control over standardized tests. Students often do have to take tests based on standardized language forms, and it is not in their power to change them. Once more, the assumption that translanguaging will not prepare students for these tests is based on the idea that monolingual, standardized practices are the only thing that can prepare them. This is what a translanguaging perspective questions–while students may certainly need to expand their linguistic repertoires to include standardized forms in order to be able to produce them on a test, developing the meta-linguistic skills to understand the connections between linguistic resources and social contexts is also key to producing the expected forms. This has the further  benefit of allowing students to critically engage with standardized assessments, even if they can’t change their content or social significance (yet). 

Who gets to decide what is translanguaging? 

This is a recent critique I heard, where the question was whether the researcher or the interviewee gets to decide what is translanguaging and what is not. This assumes that translanguaging is using multiple languages at once, which is still a monolingual perspective. If I said I was “taking Paseo del Norte to the Bosque” no one in Albuquerque would consider this using multiple languages, although someone in my Southern Maryland hometown might. A translanguaging perspective doesn’t try to figure out if this is multiple languages or not, it would focus on how I’m using my full linguistic repertoire to accomplish a social goal (explaining where I’m going).

Translanguaging claims languages don’t exist.

This is the one critique I’ve heard that does engage with translanguaging as a theoretical shift. While I cannot speak for García and colleagues, my interpretation of their work around “named languages” is that they are trying to draw attention to the socially constructed nature of language boundaries, and the ways these align with power structures. The fact that something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a real impact on people’s lives; I think of this as akin to social constructs like race and gender, or even money, which impact our lives daily. This critique typically emphasizes that specific languages can be very important to individuals (particularly in cases of language revitalization or language rights) and claiming that they don’t exist undermines these positions. 

Personally, I feel like focusing on whether or not languages actually exist is beside the point, as regardless of our ideological position they are clearly a salient social category. It’s almost impossible to discuss language use and language learning without referring to specific languages, or monolingual and multilingual language use (I couldn’t even do it in this post!). For me, taking a translanguaging approach doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about specific languages, but it does require that we pay attention to how they are socially constructed, how these constructions intersect with other forms of power, and who is included or excluded in these constructions. These are important questions, and much more interesting than debating whether or not languages exist.   

So, these are the reasons that I haven’t found critiques of translanguaging theory compelling so far. If you have other critiques I’m missing here, let me know, I’d be happy to discuss those as well!  


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