Translanguaging: Are we getting confused?

January 28, 2019

 

From being a word almost unheard outside Wales in the early 2000s (and almost unheard except in the original Welsh trawsiethu) to a word with a powerful Twitter hashtag and a growing army of supporters, translanguaging is the new darling of international education. While I am a strong proponent of translanguaging myself, I think there is room to clarify terms and consider what we know and what we don't know. 

1. Translanguaging is many things to many people which isn't helpful when trying to determine a research agenda. 

From the socio-political implications of the term (mainly in the US) to the philosophical debate about if languages really exist, it can be hard to situate translanguaging as a pedagogy and a practice. If everyone is talking about different things, how do we have any constructive conversations, never mind set a research agenda to investigate its potential? Despite all of the more recent writing, I still find the original Welsh definition (thank you to Cen Williams, Colin Baker, Bryn Lewis, etc.) of "alternating the language of input and output" to be the most helpful. I add in "processing", because I think this is a key element of the learning cycle. Using this definition brings a clarity to the practice of pedagogical translanguaging, and the potential for research investigation. 

2. We don't actually know yet in any conclusive way what the impact of translanguaging is in classroom situations. I'm not saying we don't know anything, but we certainly don't know enough to declare it a panacea for helping multilingual learners in mainstream classrooms. The bottom line is that many, many educators can speak eloquently about the impact of introducing translanguaging on their students well-being and progress. But this is all anecdotal evidence, not empirical. And while I think that educators' perceptions are generally very valuable and insightful, we need to move to the next level of describing and researching a clear pedagogy. We need to conduct research to determine how translanguaging works best, and make it accessible as a clear, research-informed pedagogy. This is not to say that educators should stop doing what they are doing (and doing very well!), but that we need to also investigate our practice rather than just presume it's working. There is so much to still be understood about translanguaging - what is the best balance between L1 and L2? What pedagogical structures have the most impact? Does it improve academic learning,? L2 learning? L1? Answering these questions would be an important step in developing a consistent pedagogy rather than a collections of activities that we like (and our students like!) 

3. And this leads me to my final point - the view of translanguaging as seen on Twitter and other social media platforms. While sharing practice is important, and I am always amazed at what I can learn from other educators on Twitter, there is a growing trend to present translanguaging as simple translation. There are two broad types of translanguaging in terms of the classroom. The first is serendipitous. This is the kind of moment-to-moment meaning making that often presents as translation. This type of practice is possible because of a translanguaging stance in the classroom, which includes and encourages students to use all of their linguistic resources for learning. The second type of translanguaging is planned. This is the type of language alteration described by the original Welsh definition, where the purpose goes beyond support in the moment to a connection to key language and learning outcomes. It is obviously much easier to show serendipitous translanguaging on social media - pictures of word lists with translations, pictures of multilingual displays, etc. All of this is potentially valuable for learning, and it's certainly valuable for inclusion. There is a risk, however, that this presents translanguaging in a shallow way for educators who are new to the idea, and will take on board this limited view of translanguaging as being the whole practice. 

 

So, what can we do now? Firstly, I think it's important to discuss translanguaging in clear terms of potential rather than fact, and to educate ourselves about what current research is saying. And when we can't find the answers we are looking for from current research, then we should find ways to investigate our own practice, and contribute to the body of knowledge about translanguaging as pedagogy. This means educators and researchers need to work together to determine realistic projects with the potential for real answers - which is hugely challenging when dealing with languages in the classroom. Secondly, I think it's important for educators who are currently using translanguaging to start documenting the extent of their pedagogy, rather than only the surface features. All of the great photos on Twitter are inspiring and informative, but often (too busy) educators are not contextualising those into the greater underlying pedagogy, which is potentially more important than the surface-level examples. 280 characters isn't much but use them well to show intent rather than just translation! 

 

If there is one clear benefit we can claim from the increase in interest in translanguaging pedagogy, it is that educators are, en masse, overcoming the traditional monolingual habitus of the classroom and making their learning spaces inclusive not only of culture, but of language as well. That is a huge step forward, but the next steps will be harder; determining how translanguaging can best supoort the social, academic and olinguitic jounreys our studnts are on. 

 

 

 

 

 

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