Translanguaging: Practice Briefs for Educators

Joanna Yip & Ofelia García, Ph.D.
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Introduction

In the Spring of 2015, a group of doctoral students at the CUNY Graduate Center spent a semester in Ofelia’s course on multilingualism grappling with the ideas of translanguaging and what it means to work toward a world in which multiple languages are valued, particularly for the purposes of education. The graduate students challenged their existing understandings of language, of how language is used (and not used) in education, and searched for ways to bring the theory to life in academic settings. They recognized that much work had to be done in teacher education and that the theory had to be converted into usable knowledge that provided practitioners with concrete guidance on how to incorporate a variety of language practices into classroom teaching.

As a result of these conversations, the students wrote a number of practice briefs intended for an audience of practitioners with the goal of showing how the theory and concepts behind translanguaging could be implemented in concrete terms in schools to foster linguistic diversity. While academic papers provide empirical or theoretical analyses that have implications for policy and practice, these practice briefs speak directly to those who can use translanguaging practices in their immediate contexts, in classrooms on the ground.

To provide context for these practice briefs, we begin by outlining the challenges faced by language-minoritized children in educational settings. We provide an introduction to translanguaging and why it is essential for classrooms that support children who are learning and using multiple languages. We then describe the challenges in professional learning and how practice briefs can facilitate understanding for practitioners of how to create multilingual learning environments for language-minoritized children.

Linguistic Minorities in Educational Contexts

Language-minoritized children throughout the world are being excluded from a meaningful education. As more and more children are displaced as a result of war and poverty, racial and linguistic diversity in schools is on the rise. Instead of embracing this increased diversity, school systems around the world have reacted by passing measures that effectively keep out racially and linguistically different students from a meaningful education, guaranteeing access to education only for children of the dominant group. Although both race and language are imbricated in this form of exclusion, schools play a crucial role in marginalizing students because the process of education is a deeply linguistic one. In schools, language often functions as the most important instrument of exclusion, castigating children for speaking the “wrong” language or using the “wrong” language features.

While the overt discourse of educational authorities is about how best to educate “second language learners,” they are also busy passing measures that restrict the access of these raciolinguistically different children (Flores & Rosa, 2015) to better schools and higher education. It is always language, in the form of standardized tests and other summative means of evaluation, which acts as the sorting mechanism determining who can and cannot access better educational programs.

In the United States, the movement toward greater accountability espoused by No Child Left Behind (2001) and the testing that accompanied the adoption of the Common Core State Standards have to be seen in relation to the neglect and disappearance of bilingualism in its schools. While students in U.S. classrooms today are multilingual, English monolingualism is enthroned, and raciolinguistically different students are asked to perform as if they were monolingual, creating alienation, self-deprecation, and insecurity among bilingual students. The results are significant differences in educational outcome between bilingual and monolingual students.

It is into this subtractive educational context (Valenzuela, 1999) for language-minoritized students that translanguaging theory has entered to disrupt “the view from above” of the bilingual students’ language capacities and performances. Bilingual children’s language performances are usually described by school authorities from what is seen as a superior perspective, from an external dominant monolingual perspective that sees them as possessing two separate language systems. That is, for school authorities, bilingual children have two languages contained in two separate structures, and most of the time, these containers are considered empty or lacking substance. Children whose “English” container is not considered full are designated as “Limited English proficient” or “English language learners.” Rarely do schools look into the other supposed container to see what is there. This external perspective sees bilingual children simply as two monolinguals in one (Grosjean, 1982; Heller, 1999).

Translanguaging disrupts this view from above by proposing that we look at bilingual children’s linguistic performances from their own internal perspective, from the child’s use of language. From this perspective, bilingual children do not simply have two external containers with two named languages that schools can fill up or deplete. Instead, bilingual children are recognized as having one language repertoire, one language system, with language features that interact to propel their linguistic and cognitive performances.

What is translanguaging?

Translanguaging refers to the internal viewpoint that sees the language performances of bilingual children not simply as being in named languages –– English, Spanish, Chinese, etc. –– but as leveraging their full language repertoire (García, 2009; García & Li Wei, 2014). Describing translanguaging from the perspective of the science of linguistics, Otheguy, García and Reid (2015) have offered the following definition of translanguaging: “the deployment of a speakers full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages” (p. 283). Taking up translanguaging theory in education refers to leveraging the students’ full linguistic repertoire, while also teaching students to suppress certain features when asked to perform overtly according to the norms of a named language, whether that language is English or a language other than English.

It is important not to confuse translanguaging with the simple shifting of named languages, what linguists call code-switching. Code-switching refers to the alternation of named languages, the external definition of what languages are given by political states and school systems. Translanguaging refers to the internal perspective of what speakers do with language that is simply their own. For example, when Ofelia speaks at home she talks about the grandchildren, la comida, the son-in-law, la hija, dormirse, have breakfast, etc. For Ofelia these are not simply words from Spanish and words from English. They are her words, her repertoire to make meaning. Of course, Ofelia knows when to use which words to speak to different people. When speaking to her son-in-law, she uses words that some would call from English. When speaking to her husband’s mother, her suegra, she uses words that some would call from Spanish. But when she speaks in her bilingual home, she uses her full repertoire because no one is monitoring or hierarchizing her language practices. She simply uses all of the features she has at her disposal. This is a common pattern of using language in all bilingual communities.

Schools, however, never acknowledge the ways in which bilingual speakers use language, and thus constantly delegitimize bilingual practices, as corrupted. English Only signs are posted in many schools. Even bilingual education classrooms are full of rules of when one language or another is spoken. For example, “aquí no se habla inglés” is often heard in Spanish-English bilingual classrooms that want to protect what is considered a minority language, Spanish. Alienating bilingual students even further from their own bilingual voice, many of these same bilingual classrooms are full of “así no se dice” rules, telling bilingual children that the way they speak is “incorrect.”

Of course, spaces must be constructed where bilingual children are given opportunities to perform in one language or another. But educators must always keep in mind two factors even when they are asking student to use only some of the features of their linguistic repertoire –– 1) the active presence of the child’s full semiotic repertoire in learning, 2) the injustice of having students assessed using less than half of their linguistic repertoire. The first factor has implications for instruction, the second one for assessment.

Translanguaging in instruction

When language-minoritized children are asked to speak one language or the other, they are still internally leveraging their entire language repertoire. That is, as bilingual students overtly suppress some of their language features, the other features of their repertoire are always activated. Thus, educators must acknowledge the students’ full linguistic repertoire as a resource for learning, and not as a problem.

Even in English-medium classrooms, teachers who recognize the power of the children’s fluid language practices should leverage the children’s full language repertoire. Many strategies for doing so have been suggested (see, for example, Celic & Seltzer, 2012; García, Johnson, & Seltzer, forthcoming). Bilingual children will have fuller comprehension of reading texts rendered in English, if they are allowed to discuss ideas deeply using language in the ways that they prefer, regardless of whether it is the same language as the text. Bilingual students are better writers if they are allowed to pre-write with all the language features they can use. Bilingual students are better thinkers if encouraged to research topics in any language. A translanguaging pedagogy, regardless of the official language of a classroom, would go a long way toward giving these language-minoritized children the education they need.

García, Johnson and Seltzer (forthcoming) identify three strands of a translanguaging pedagogy –– 1) the teacher’s stance, 2) the instructional and assessment design, 3) the shifts. The teachers’ stance, their philosophical belief about the value of bilingualism in the life of a language-minoritized child, is most important. Unless the teacher has a critical stance of the subtractive linguistic practices taking place in schools, s/he will not look for translanguaging spaces in her instruction. Unless the teacher sees herself as a co-learner, able to learn from the children about their language and cultural practices and their understandings of the world, a translanguaging space cannot be created. But much more is needed than simply a stance, since translanguaging is always strategic and purposeful.

A translanguaging design for instruction must also be developed. This includes having appropriate multilingual material for students to learn through, setting up the classroom as a multilingual space, and grouping students sometimes according to home language so that they could assist each other and deepen the meaning of learning. This also means designing lessons with purposeful language, content, and translanguaging objectives. A translanguaging lesson and unit design cannot be an after-thought, but must be made integral to the lesson.

Finally, teachers in translanguaging classrooms must be ready for the shifts in lesson design that must take place to respond to the translanguaging corriente caused by individual children or groups of children as they use their full language repertoire. That is, teachers in translanguaging classrooms must be vigilant and observe children deeply so that they know when their lesson course has to deviate and change in order to make the lesson meaningful for children who are at all points of the bilingual continuum. What is important for teachers in translanguaging classrooms is to develop the voice of the children because learning only occurs when we have voice.

Students go to school to acquire content understandings, but also ways of using language, and ways of using the dominant language. Bilingual students can only acquire new linguistic features in interrelationship with the ones that they can already access. It is when students can reflect on all their language practices that language development takes place.

Translanguaging in assessment

It is important for teachers to recognize that monolingual assessment is simply not an accurate measure of bilingual children’s linguistic or academic performances. Although monolingual children are allowed to use most of the linguistic features in their repertoire to show what they know, bilingual children are told that they must use only less than half of their features. Clearly, linguistic bias is inherently built into monolingual assessment as a result.

Teachers in translanguaging classrooms must be sure to observe the child carefully performing different tasks with their entire repertoire, as well as when using only certain language features. They must be sure to separate the child’s ability to provide text-based evidence, make inferences, identify main ideas and recognize texts’ craft and structure –– all important in the Common Core State Standards –– from their ability to use certain language conventions in English. One can be a speaker of English and not be able to perform these tasks. One can be a so-called “English language learner” and be able to do this well with language features other than those we know as English. Teachers in translanguaging classrooms never confuse the ability to use a named language with the features legitimated in school from the ability to use language for academic tasks. Translanguaging enables us to see clearly the difference between a named standardized language, enshrined as such to give advantage to its speakers, and the ability to “do” language, to use it with different interlocutors for various tasks and purposes, including those of school. It is that information that will allow educators to give honest and true measures of what a bilingual child can do.

What kind of classroom is translanguaging for?

We have been suggesting that translanguaging goes beyond types of classrooms or teachers or even students. We are used to categorizing classrooms as monolingual or bilingual. Translanguaging disrupts those structural realities by promoting a multilingual context in all educational settings. We are also used to calling teachers bilingual or monolingual. Translanguaging is an educational approach that can be utilized by all teachers. All that is needed is a bit of risk-taking and a stance as a co-learner. Much can be learned from students who have been minoritized through language.

A translanguaging pedagogy is also applicable for all students, not just for those who are emergent bilinguals, but also for experienced bilinguals, and for those considered monolingual. It is applicable for students with learning disabilities and those who have had an incomplete or interrupted education in their countries of origin, or a poor education in the United States. All can learn from a translanguaging approach since it levels the playing field and puts students with different profiles in contact with each other. Translanguaging can help develop the critical language awareness that is necessary for all communities today.

The need for professional learning

Yet, we find in classrooms everywhere a real struggle when practitioners try to utilize translanguaging in classroom instruction and continued resistance to translanguaging pedagogy. Even where we find educators who are eager and willing to celebrate and leverage multilingual diversity in their classrooms, we find an utter lack of support and lack of ongoing training for those classroom teachers to do so. The practice briefs in this issue come out of a search for ways to translate the theory of translanguaging into dynamic classroom practices. For that leap from theory to practice to take place, we need to consider the ways in which teachers develop their understanding of translanguaging. What new learning do teachers have to engage with in order to shift their practice to incorporate translanguaging? What will it take to equip and to support teachers in using translanguaging as a powerful form of instruction? What kind of organizational change is necessary for translanguaging pedagogy to take hold in schools? These questions point to the urgent need to advance professional learning for practitioners in order to develop translanguaging classrooms.

One major barrier to the meaningful use of translanguaging pedagogy in K-12 classrooms in the United States is that there is insufficient professional development and teacher training in instructional design and assessment using translanguaging. Most educators have not had this training, so it is missing knowledge in the profession. There continue to be numerous fallacies about language learning and development among educators, and these misconceptions can get in the way of teachers seeing the opportunities for translanguaging practices in their classrooms.

Even in professional learning communities where there is a focus on supporting emergent bilinguals, the expertise in translanguaging instruction is not widespread. The knowledge of translanguaging pedagogy needs to be generalized so that educators in all contexts have it as a part of their basic understanding of teaching and learning. Often in schools, the professional knowledge in language education exists in silos among a few expert pedagogues, resulting in fewer contexts in which emergent bilinguals have the opportunity to strengthen their linguistic repertoire. Ideally, all teachers would benefit from increasing their understanding of language development and would receive some training to develop their understanding of translanguaging pedagogy, whether they are explicitly language teachers or not. This would move us toward an educational system that values translanguaging in all contexts, not just for bilingual children, and not just in classrooms where a dominant language like English is being taught as a new language.

Classroom teachers are often confronted by constraints that deter them from using translanguaging with their students. Teachers may feel reluctant to give up instructional time to focus on metalinguistic awareness, or they may be unsure of how to utilize home language resources in a meaningful way. Teachers face practical obstacles that come in the way of creating multilingual learning environments, and they need support and guidance to work around these limitations.

In fact, teachers may even be instructed by school administrators to prohibit children from using and learning in their own languages because they incorrectly assume that home language use stymies language development in English. In these situations, while teachers may feel passionately about protecting their students’ linguistic diversity, they may also feel that their hands are tied when school administrators fail to understand the purpose and meaning behind translanguaging pedagogy. Hence, school leaders also need to develop an understanding of translanguaging in order to foster multilingual diversity in their schools. When administrators take the lead, teachers feel supported in using translanguaging practices in their classroom.

The field of education needs to continue building capacity on all levels, from paraprofessionals to district administrators, in how to use translanguaging practices in classroom settings. To do this, we need to rethink teacher training and professional learning for practitioners. Sites of professional learning for educators are also sites of struggle for translanguaging pedagogy because it is in those spaces where teachers challenge their own misconceptions about language learning, where they fight to carve out time in their instruction to support growth in multiple languages, and where practitioners can begin to shift their thinking around language education.

Why practice briefs?

In this spirit of advancing professional learning, Theory, Research, and Action in Urban Education has published the practice briefs in this issue to bridge the theory and practice divide and to sustain a theoretical and a practical conversation around how to transform pedagogy using translanguaging. The briefs were written with an underlying belief in mind: if we talk about how to operationalize translanguaging in educational practice, we will begin to see translanguaging take hold in classroom teaching.

In these practice briefs, the authors have provided concrete ideas for how to design instruction and to shift school culture in ways that incorporate translanguaging. These briefs make the ideas behind translanguaging accessible to practitioners who may not necessarily have had professional training in language education. The authors address the misconceptions and constraints that deter practitioners from using translanguaging and point to tangible translanguaging opportunities and methods.

The practice briefs alone will not lead to instructional change. Researchers and teacher educators need to effectively communicate the theory in such a way that is usable for practitioners and schools. They must find effective ways of changing teacher practice through professional learning that is tied directly to classroom instruction. We hope that these briefs will inspire deep reflection, conversation, and ultimately, action in changing teacher training. In this way, educators can transform instruction for emergent bilinguals in particular, and language education for children in all contexts.

As you read these practice briefs, there may be different ways you want to respond, such as:

  • Share one of the practice briefs in this issue with colleagues in your context and discuss how translanguaging can be used with the students you work with.
  • Write a short practice brief for the teachers and practitioners you work with that includes a concept or bit of theory related to supporting linguistic diversity. Provide concrete examples from your own context of how that can be done in classroom teaching, and coach your colleagues in how they can design instruction using translanguaging.
  • Publish your own practice brief and share it, modeling how the genre can be used to move and change teacher practice.
  • Utilize the concepts of translanguaging in the professional learning activities you facilitate with teachers. Use a variety of languages as the medium of instruction when you facilitate professional learning activities for teachers to simulate a multilingual learning environment.
  • Start a dialogue about translanguaging with a school administrator who leads a school that is addressing the academic and linguistic needs of emergent bilinguals, and discuss how the school can create an inclusive culture that celebrates linguistic diversity.
  • Petition your school district for more teacher training in how to support development in multiple languages, or demand an increase in educational materials and resources in multiple languages.

Conclusion

Even when educational policies dictate the privileging of English in U.S. schools, or even when broader social structures work to marginalize children through language, translanguaging offers a form of subversion. Students and teachers alike can speak truth to power when they utilize languages that are targeted for extinction, when students advocate for their right to use their home language at school, and when teachers support them in doing so. They can disrupt normal social conventions and assume that the use of multiple languages is valuable, even when it may be uncomfortable for those who are accustomed to using a dominant language such as English. At a time when multilingual skills are considered prized competencies in a global economy, it is up to critical educators to articulate a clear and just multilingual vision for schools, and most of all, to take responsibility for creating translanguaging spaces in service of language-minoritized students.

References

Celic, C. & Seltzer K. (2012/2013). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators. New York: CUNY-NYSIEB, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. Retrieved from: http://www.nysieb.ws.gc.cuny.edu/files/2013/03/Translanguaging-Guide-March-2013.pdf

Flores, N. & Rosa, J (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review 85(2): 149-171.

García, O., Johnson, S. & Seltzer, K. (forthcoming). The Translanguaging Classroom. Philadelphia: Caslon.

García, O., & Li Wei (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. London, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan Pivot.

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA and Oxford, United Kingdom: Wiley/Blackwell.

Grosjean, F. (1982) Life with Two Languages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Heller, M. (1999) Linguistic Minorities and Modernity: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography (London: Longman).

Heller, M. (2007) ‘Bilingualism as Ideology and Practice’ in M. Heller (ed.) Bilingualism: A Social Approach (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 1-22.

Otheguy, R., García, O. & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review 6(3): 281-307.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S. Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.