Translanguaging - should we all be doing it?

January 23, 2018

Translanguaging is becoming a hot topic in education, especially in international schools, where linguistically diverse classes are the norm. However, the topic also generates confusion and concern for many educators, due to the fluid nature of the definition and conflicting/concurrent definitions such as code-switching, code-meshing, interlingual teaching and so on. From my perspective, translanguaging both includes and transcends these other terms, by the nature of its scope and applicability. There has also been a move towards exploring translanguaging from sociolinguistic and neurolinguistic perspectives, but my focus in this post is on pedagogical translanguaging

Pedagogical translanguaging is an approach to planning for languages in the classroom. It involves consideration of the linguistic resources of your students, the learning objectives and materials in any given lesson and in units or modules, and aims to create balance between language needs, language objectives, and learning. In its simplest form, the Welsh cohort defined it as "the planned and systematic use of two languages inside the same lesson by specifying and varying languages of input and output" (Lewis, Jones & Baker, 2013, p. 110). This definition reflects the development of translanguaging in the bilingual Welsh context, where two languages are the focus. In international school contexts the number of languages would be greater, although it would be expected that most students would be learning through only two languages: the school language and their home language/dominant language. For examples of translanguaging pedagogy you can view the video I produced last year.

One of the big questions regarding translanguaging is when and where it is useful, and when and where it would not be useful. This is obviously a question with many different answers, but they are all connected to one central question: "How will our language choices impact this student's learning goals?". When we consider impact we need to consider linguistic impact, academic impact, and last but not least, socio-emotional impact. In most international school classrooms, students' learning can generally be enhanced through the use of carefully planned translanguaging.

For students who are still learning English (or the main school language) it is useful for them to access content knowledge in their stronger language, to ensure full understanding of the concepts, and build the new English onto that. It also allows for a student's full competence, including prior knowledge, to be accessed in the classroom. This is the most clear cut situation in which translanguaging can provide a better learning experience linguistically, socially, and academically. 

When considering students who have become comfortable and confident learning in English, it can be tempting to think that there is no reason for them to use their own languages in the classroom. This is not at all the case, as they still can benefit cognitively and linguistically from the process of learning and processing across languages. It can also be very interesting, pedagogically speaking, to have students working from sources in their own languages and then collaborating in cross-language groups to compare their learning. A final benefit for bilingual students is that if they continue accessing academic content in their own languages, they are likely to develop a high level of proficiency in both/all languages, rather than becoming English dominant. 

Where things become less clear is when considering the use of the dominant language in language classes (commonly called Modern Foreign Languages) and in immersion programmes. In these contexts, there some justifiable concern for the limiting effects of allowing the dominant language (generally English) into the classroom. If students are in an immersion programme, the curriculum and pedagogy should be suited to language learners (which is not the case in state and international schools). They are also not in danger of losing their dominant language, and they are not marginalised for being language learners, as the whole class is composed of language learners. These factors create a very different environment for the students, and one could argue that translanguaging in these settings is not necessary, and may be detrimental to their learning of the new language, based on the principle that any time taken away from the target language limits their potential learning. The caveat is of course that translanguaging comes from the Welsh education system, where they have been using it for some time (Welsh/English) with no noticeable detrimental effect on the students' progress is Welsh. 

This same principle could be applied to language classes; increasing the amount of the dominant language reduces the amount of target language use. On the other hand, we know that translation can be used effectively in MFL classes, especially through contrastive awareness between languages to help students grasp the differences between their own language and the target language. 

The bottom line is that no pedagogical strategy is one-size fits all. Any new approach needs to be considered in terms of the school context, classroom context, student needs and learning needs. At the moment, with applied research on pedagogical translanguaging being scare, the most effective strategy for teachers is to know their students' language profiles, and to try a variety of translanguaging strategies and see what seems to produce the most positive effects for their students in terms of socio-emotional development, linguistic development, and academic development. 

(Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2013). 100 Bilingual Lessons: Distributing Two Languages in Classrooms. In C. Abello-Contesse, P. Chandler, M. Lopez-Jiminez, & R. Chacon-Beltran (Eds.), Bilingual and Multilingual Education in the 21st Century: Building on experience (pp. 107-135). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.)

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