Translanguaging for Social Justice

Maria Cioè-Peña and Tom Snell
The Graduate Center, City University of New York


In speaking about newcomers who are identified as English language learners, teachers can at times be heard saying that these children come to school “with nothing.” What teachers mean by “nothing” can vary. The word can be used to express limited literacy or numeracy, as defined in the most orthodox fashion. However, more often this determination of something versus nothing is based on a student’s ability to communicate and produce work within the rigid standards of “academic English” and “grade-level.” It is for this reason that the use of translanguaging in all classrooms could be very beneficial to the way that teachers interact with their students and the way that student abilities are evaluated.

Translanguaging is the discursive practice, widely used among bilingual communities, in which linguistic features are adopted from fixed languages and combined into an integrated repertoire. Translanguaging, in an educational context, is situated within a constructivist and culturally responsive pedagogy that honors the richness, complexity, and fullness of students’ linguistic repertoires. Translanguaging creates a learning space for emergent bilinguals that more fully realizes the possibilities of social justice. It does this by shifting the discourse away from a deficit model of students with diverse languages, and creating translanguaging spaces that students experience as empowering, adaptable, relevant, and reflective of their own life experiences.


When people in bilingual communities use language, the linguistic features at their disposal are adapted across what are considered separate languages. These features are used freely, interchangeably, and in novel combinations, and combined into an integrated whole that exceeds traditional language boundaries. We call this discursive practice translanguaging. Translanguaging recognizes a formal equality among all languaging features and practices, because these features are situated as part of a complete system that is fully “owned” by its user. Like translanguaging, social justice education challenges us to expand traditional forms of thinking and use culturally responsive or culturally sustaining pedagogy to create greater equity in access and achievement for all learners. Translanguaging is an essential part of this approach.

Translanguaging is an organic response to a world in which objects, ideas, and actions can be described and captured in a multitude of varying language codes, styles and modes. Translanguaging in an educational context allows teachers and students to have access to the full range of their linguistic practices, as they share in the collaborative construction of knowledge. Because each person’s linguistic repertoire is unique, translanguaging brings all the potential of all those resources to bear as teachers and students co-create knowledge in the classroom. Thus translanguaging is firmly situated in the tradition of constructivist pedagogy, with its emphasis on learning through negotiation and social interaction, as students make their objects of study relevant to themselves. By honoring the richness, complexity, and fullness of students’ linguistic repertoires, translanguaging creates opportunities for deeper understanding, as learners produce new knowledge and claim ownership of their effort and its results.


The use of translanguaging in any classroom is itself a socially just act because it shifts the discourse from a deficit model to an additive model. What does this mean? For most multilingual students, school represents a place where they must go to acquire the English language. English is presented as the language of power and progress; as a result, their home language practices, which are meaningful to individuals, are placed in a position of weakness and degeneration. However, being multilingual is actually quite valuable. In the American education system the approach has been towards home language suppression and English language acquisition through a process of encouraging a functional monolingualism. Although this may be carried out with the best of intentions, it nonetheless results in a negative and unjust learning environment for children. These English-only environments can often result in feelings of failure and shame when students are unable to learn English quickly enough, or oppression if they are successful at acquiring English but suffer home language loss potentially losing their ability to communicate with their families and “native” community.

Translanguaging creates a space within schools where the practice of social justice can thrive. At the core of social justice work within education is the desire to transform the world through teacher action, collective student action, and the empowerment of individuals to create change that is meaningful and sustainable. One of the primary goals of social justice curricula is to highlight for students their ability and responsibility to enact change within their communities. By creating translanguaging spaces, we create spaces that students experience as empowering, adaptable, relevant, and reflective of their own life experiences. These spaces create real learning opportunities as students can immediately have a greater impact on their environment. Beyond that, students’ socio-emotional development is nurtured in translanguaging spaces because these spaces emphasize students’ rightful place in their community, as well as our interconnectedness. Through the recognition and support of linguistic variance, students gain an increased level of independence, a higher level of confidence in their abilities, and a greater degree of competence, engagement and productivity.

The incorporation of translanguaging spaces in the social justice classroom also creates an opportunity to reproduce in classrooms the inclusivity that students seek in their communities as they search for a safe space to construct their identities. Small-group work is a powerful tool for activating these spaces. It allows students to talk directly to each other without having their discourse constantly mediated by an instructor. It creates novel possibilities for authentic collaboration, and allows students to rehearse new skills in a lower-stakes setting. Small group work also has the potential to give students the tools they need to share their experiences in a safe space, dispelling stereotypes while developing confidence in their abilities.

By incorporating translanguaging spaces into their practice, teachers have the potential to change the discourse, the perceptions, and judgments that are placed on their students. Teachers enable students to recognize their own innate abilities and build on the strong foundation that exists by allowing students to use their home language to communicate and facilitate their learning. Additionally, students can then perceive their home language not as something that is hindering their progress but as a tool that can enhance it. A student who has limited English proficiency may remain silent in an English only classroom, inadvertently showing a lack of progress and comprehension simply because they lack the English language skills needed to express themselves. However, in a translanguaging space that same student would be able to use his or her home language skills to facilitate their learning and to communicate understanding, incorporating them more fully as a member of the learning community rather than just a silent observer. English-only spaces can be very lonely, so by opening up these translanguaging spaces teachers can introduce community and interconnectedness as well as exhibit an appreciation of diversity. Translanguaging is a sterling example of culturally responsive pedagogy in action, as students’ linguistic resources are valued and brought to bear on the learning process in all contexts.

Translanguaging spaces are enhanced by culturally and linguistically responsive practices. Texts that reflect learners’ experiences, culture, and language repertoires have a much greater likelihood of engaging them in authentic discussion and higher-order thinking. These texts activate students’ prior knowledge and lower the barriers to engagement. Teachers who make multilingual and/or multicultural texts available to their students let their students know that their experiences are valued while increasing their access to achievement. In this way, translanguaging goes beyond a simple recognition of diversity, but rather employs the diverse linguistic repertoires in the classroom as meaningful resources for learning.

While translanguaging may seem to be in conflict with traditional means of assessment, especially in an era of hyperaccountability, it has the potential to give teachers access to the full academic capacities of their students. This can be accomplished through the use of multilingual assessments, which can give both a broader and deeper picture of a student’s knowledge and skills. For example, if a student is asked to recall a list of details or a narrative, and is only allowed to use a small portion of her linguistic resources, she may produce a response that is reflective of linguistic capacity only, and not the full range of her awareness. Given the opportunity to use all her linguistic resources, she can demonstrate a more extensive understanding of the concepts being assessed.

Social justice in education is, at its core, the demonstration of a deeper reverence for humanity. When we honor the human spirit and all its potential in every single learner, we bring the project of social justice to the reality of our teaching practice. Translanguaging allows us to form deeper connections to each member of the learning community, by recognizing the unique linguistic repertoire of each person as a complete and integrated whole–while we challenge each learner to add features to their repertoire and expand the audience they can reach. Translanguaging also allow learners to explore their own experiences more deeply, by allowing them to construct an understanding of their own selves in a language that is deeply meaningful to them.


Translanguaging for social justice through education opens up a world of possibilities for emergent bilingual students. Translanguaging practices may include multilingual and culturally-responsive texts, small group collaborations, and performance-based assessments. The power of culturally-responsive texts can be accessed through resources as simple as a song, a website, a film or YouTube video, or a newspaper article. For example, teachers can introduce newspapers in a variety of languages which the students can use to assess multiple perspectives regarding a major event or social issue. These ideas can be discussed and explored in a small group, which could then be developed into a collaborative project such as a poster or presentation. In small groups, students share responsibility for a final project, develop leadership abilities and cooperative working skills, and create a product that is reflective of their collective voice. Finally, when students share their small group work with their peers, teacher create an opportunity for authentic, performance-based assessment. It is authentic because students feel a real investment in their work and the understanding they have created; it is performance-based because it is grounded in their actual linguistic abilities and lived experiences. Teachers who want to extend these possibilities can use multilingual assessments to grant their students a higher capacity to show what they know. These assessments could be papers written in a variety of languages, mixed-media projects, or multilingual presentations.

These are just a few examples of how translanguaging can be used to preview, develop and assess academic development. The key here is for teachers to constantly be thinking about how to make learning more accessible, by opening up the possibilities inherent in the multiple languages students can use. This can and should be done regardless of the teacher’s linguistic repertoire since the goals of translanguaging in this context are not grounded in the teacher’s ability to understand what students produce but rather to give students an opportunity to create. More broadly, translanguaging grants all students a space to feel successful and interact with the curriculum when they are able to engage with content using language features of the own choosing.


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