Book Review

Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism, and Education

Ofelia García & Li Wei, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 176pp. ISBN 978-1-1373-8575-8, £47.00 / $70.00

Kate Seltzer
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

In Ofelia García and Li Wei’s book, the authors clarify and expand the concept of translanguaging and its relationship to both language and education. Though the term was developed twenty years ago, coined first by Cen Williams in Welsh and later translated by Colin Baker, it has become a significant term in the field only recently, stemming from García’s (2009) use of the term in her essential book, Bilingualism in the 21st Century. Though numerous scholars have since taken it up, translanguaging is still very much a developing concept. It has also generated a fair bit of criticism and – relatedly – misunderstanding. Perhaps in response, García and Li Wei have written a small but powerful book that manages both to ground readers’ understanding of the concept in the realities of education today and push us towards new and radical possibilities, as Jean Anyon (2005) referred to them.

The book is separated into two parts. Part I, entitled “Language and Translanguaging,” provides important context for the emergence of the term translanguaging and details the history and epistemological shift that May (2013) called “the multilingual turn.” Part II, “Education and Translanguaging,” builds on Part I’s development of a theoretical background on language to illustrate how education – and specifically bilingual education – has (or has not) aligned with these theoretical understandings of students’ language practices, and what potential translanguaging holds for rethinking the education of all students.

In the first chapter of Part I, the authors trace the different conceptualizations of language, outlining contributions of the structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure and the mentalist Noam Chomsky, as well as the work of those post-structuralists who began to challenge the idea that language, as a system, existed apart from speakers and social life. It is this post-structural approach, put forth by Mikhail Bakhtin among others, that views language as inherently social rather than neutral and bounded, and has led to a shift in terminology from the noun “language” to the gerund of the verb “languaging.” Discussing Becker’s (1995) research on translation, García and Li Wei summarize, “language can never be accomplished; and thus languaging is a better term to capture an ongoing process that is always being created as we interact with the world lingually” (p.8). Also inherent in this shift in terminology is a shift in the focus of study: rather than a focus on “languages,” the focus is on “the speaker’s creative and critical use of linguistic resources to mediate cognitively complex activities” (p.10). A highly important – and provocative – piece of this chapter is the authors’ challenge to traditional conceptions of terms like “bilingual,” “multilingual” and “plurilingual”. These terms refer to an enumeration of nationally recognized, separate “languages” rather than actual speakers’ creative and critical language practices. As the authors argue throughout this volume, translanguaging – rather than bi/multi/plurilingualism – is a way of “capturing the expanded complex practices of speakers who could not avoid having had languages inscribed in their bodies, and yet live between different societal and semiotic contexts as they interact with a complex array of speakers” (p.18).

Chapter 2, “The Translanguaging Turn and its Impact,” traces the concept from its inception as a pedagogical practice in Wales to its many extensions, interpretations, and related terms in current scholarship. Importantly, the authors put forth a powerful definition of translanguaging, which refers not to

two separate languages nor to a synthesis of different language practices nor to a hybrid mixture. Rather translanguaging refers to new language practices that make visible the complexity of language exchanges among people with different histories, and releases histories and understandings that have been buried within fixed language identities constrained by nation-states. (p.21)

In defining translanguaging this way, García and Li Wei address the common misconception that translanguaging is just a new-fangled term for code-switching. The authors make clear that while code-switching refers to “a shift or shuttle between two languages,” translanguaging encompasses “the speakers’ construction and use of original and complex interrelated discursive practices that cannot be easily assigned to one or another traditional definition of a language” (p.22). In short, while code-switching is grounded in the idea of separate languages, translanguaging takes as its starting point that all speakers, but especially those we refer to as bi/multilingual, have one complex linguistic repertoire from which we select features in ways that can both conform to societal norms and, as in the case with writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Junot Díaz, transform them.

Part II transitions readers from theorizing translanguaging itself to illustrating its role in education. Chapter 3 focuses more broadly on the treatment of bi/multilingualism in schools. Reflecting monoglossic understandings of language, schools have often approached bi/multilingual speakers as two monolinguals in one, separating students’ languages in ways that do not reflect their realities or their actual language practices. Moreover, it is not just “traditional” programs that ignore the heteroglossic realities of students; bilingual programs too are often organized around what the authors refer to as “parallel monolingualisms,” an approach that separates students’ languages into what Jim Cummins has called “the two solitudes.” Quoting Lemke (2002), the authors pose a question about all language education that highlights the importance of a new approach: “Could it be that all our current pedagogical methods in fact make multilingual development more difficult than it need be, simply because we bow to dominant political and ideological pressures to keep ‘languages’ pure and separate?” (p.85, as cited on p. 58). It is this question the authors address in the subsequent chapters of the book.

The major claim in Chapter 4 is made in an early sub-heading of the chapter: that we need translanguaging, and not just bilingualism in education. The authors convincingly argue that,

Beyond bilingualism in education, which sees the two languages as separately performed, translanguaging in education encourages bilingual performances that in so doing enable students to move simultaneously along the continuum of two socially constructed languages according to standards of the community and the home, as well as those of school. (p.69)

Thus, rather than draw on old dualities like L1/L2 or home/school, translanguaging brings together all of students’ linguistic resources in the service of meaning-making. In this way, the authors emphasize the trans nature of translanguaging, focusing on its potential to transcend existing approaches to education (both “monolingual” and “bilingual”), resulting in “deep cognitive engagement and…development and expansion of new language practices, including standard ones used for academic purposes” (p.71). The authors emphasize that even within those programs that wish to “protect” the minority language by separating it from the majority language, it is important to create “translanguaging spaces…[where] children are given agency to act linguistically by being both creative and critical, and where teachers encourage those actions” (p.74).

Chapters 5 and 6 explore these translanguaging spaces, illustrating what it looks like to use translanguaging both to learn (Chapter 5) and to teach (Chapter 6). Chapter 5 explores the importance of translanguaging to “mediate students’ identities, but also complex cognitive activities” (p.79). The chapter provides several examples of classroom learning that illustrate the ways in which bilingual students – both those who are what the authors call “experienced” bilinguals and those who are more “emergent” – draw on all of their linguistic resources in tasks that range from kindergarteners’ simple expression of their thoughts and feelings to older students’ meaning-making of complex texts and personal writing. It is noteworthy that Chapter 6, on teaching, comes after the chapter on learning. Though learning is often seen as the result of good teaching, García and Li Wei turn this equation on its head. Instead, they write, citing Canagarajah (2011), “it is important that we develop our pedagogies ground up, from the practices we see multilingual students adopting” (p.415, as cited on p.91). Not only must the teacher develop her pedagogy from the students up, she must also engage in what the authors call “co-learning,” or “developing strategies to allow equitable participation for all in the classroom” (p.112).

For those educators intrigued by the concept of translanguaging, but still unclear about how it would look in practice in the classroom, Chapter 6 provides five case studies of U.S. teachers who use translanguaging to teach Math, Social Studies, Science, and English Language Arts at the secondary level and English as a Second Language at the primary level. Each of the powerful examples illustrates the potential of translanguaging both to assist students as they encounter complex content and to advocate for them in ways that promote social justice. For example, García and Li Wei introduce Ms. Rojas, a high school Social Studies teacher, and her lesson on the history of race and intermarriage in the U.S. Because few readings on the topic exist in Spanish, Ms. Rojas’s students’ home language, she provides an article from a teen magazine in English. However, the language of the text does not limit students. They annotate the English text with comments and questions in Spanish, English, or both. They have a whole-class discussion of the reading using both languages. Students then move on to a free-write on the question, “How big a role does race play in your life? How does it affect your views of yourself and your place in the world?” (p.98). Students write their responses in English, Spanish, or both, using all their linguistic resources to express their ideas and opinions on this deep question. The linguistic flexibility that Ms. Rojas embraces in her pedagogy not only provides all students with access to complex content; it enables them to engage in deep, critical thinking in ways that develop their critical consciousness.

Chapter 7 addresses the principles, implications, and challenges of bringing translanguaging into education. In a useful table, the authors outline how translanguaging can be used to meet seven different goals: (1) to differentiate among students’ levels and adapt instruction; (2) to build background knowledge; (3) to deepen understandings and sociopolitical engagement; (4) for cross-linguistic metalinguistic awareness; (5) for cross-linguistic flexibility; (6) for identity investment and positionality; and (7) to interrogate linguistic inequality (p.121). The authors also include a series of possible translanguaging strategies, emphasizing their adaptability to any educational program and to all students, which could be used to accomplish these goals. The chapter also addresses the importance of taking up a translanguaging approach in teacher education programs, which have often viewed students’ bi/multilingualism as an “afterthought” and where “teachers learn little about the children’s complex and dynamic language practices” (p.123). As I discuss in more detail below, the chapter also acknowledges the challenges of bringing translanguaging into education and poses important questions for moving forward. The book’s Conclusion powerfully synthesizes the important arguments in the book, reminding readers “what a translanguaging approach means for language, on the one hand, and for education on the other” (p.137) and the power of translanguaging to “imagine new ways of being and languaging so that we can begin to act differently upon the world” (p.138).

Though the book comes at an economic 165 pages and is highly accessible for a wide audience, readers should prepare themselves to be challenged and pushed. García and Li Wei’s provocative take on both the history and present state of bilingual education, as well as topics such as bilingualism, multilingualism, language maintenance, and pedagogy, are bound to push certain readers’ buttons. For example, the authors question those practices that are often seen as protecting language – i.e.: separating the minority from the majority language and creating programs for language maintenance – and argue, instead, for a more flexible approach that protects not a “language” but speakers. This necessitates a move away from a “maintenance” approach to one that sustains language practices in ways that respond to an ever-changing social context. As García (2011) writes,

the concept of sustainability is dynamic and future-oriented, rather than static and past-oriented…the sustainability of languaging is a new copy of the past, a dynamic relocalization in space and time, a fertile performative mimesis that brings us to a creative emergence, a new and generative becoming. (p.7, as cited on p.72)

The authors argue that languages are not fossilized relics of the past that can be passed down, wholesale, to new generations of speakers. Speakers have always appropriated language in ways that meet their needs and their lives. For this reason, to take up translanguaging is to put speakers, not “languages,” at the center of the conversation. This has profound implications for education. For example, rather than define people as “bilingual” or “monolingual” based on how many named languages they have, schools must start with the idea that all students have linguistic repertoires that contain a vast array of features, some of which can be “assigned” to one language or another. In addition, rather than organize instruction around teaching students one or another “language,” schools must leverage students’ existing language practices and find ways to help them integrate new linguistic features (those often associated with the “academic” realm) into their repertoires.

This reorientation around speakers’ languaging vs. “languages” will most certainly be a hard sell for most (if not all) schools, and García and Li Wei end their book outlining these challenges. The authors go to great lengths to explain that far from being a simple scaffold or a liminal space between “proficient” and “non-proficient,” translanguaging is a legitimate practice that is the norm and even the goal of speakers in a diverse, mobile, global society. This is at odds with the stance of the nation-state, which enforces the separation and hierarchization of languages in order to maintain existing systems of power. For schools, so heavily influenced by the nation-state, to truly take up translanguaging would require a total restructuring of teaching and learning, one that emphasizes and fosters the fluidity – rather than the separateness – of students’ languages. In short, for schools to adopt a translanguaging approach would not only mean that “monolingual education would cease to exist” (p.71), a tough enough concept to understand and accept, but would also mean that all approaches to education – “monolingual” and “bilingual” alike – would need to be reimagined. Though some readers may question the viability of this idea, others, myself included, may find themselves inspired to act.

What makes Ofelia García and Li Wei’s book vitally important is its willingness to push boundaries, challenge long-held ideologies, and emphasize the transgressive and transformative potential of translanguaging. It is an important read for a number of different audiences: teachers and school leaders, academics from a variety of disciplines, and graduate students interested in the intersections of language and education. For those who have struggled to understand the concept of translanguaging, this book will clarify its meanings with powerful examples from real classrooms. For those who are already acquainted with the idea, this book will push your thinking and challenge you with new questions. Overall, García and Li Wei have made a huge contribution to the field, one that will no doubt catalyze future research and thinking.


García, O. & Li Wei (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism, and education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.