What You Should Know About Translanguaging: Part 1

Translanguaging, first and foremost, is a theoretical lens through which language and the learner are viewed; it is an alternative way of considering bilingualism and multilingualism and is underpinned by a commitment to equity and diversity.

“It’s a bit of an odd term”

Well, the term ‘translanguaging’ itself embodies the notion of language as a practice and therefore a verb.  In the traditional framework, language is considered to be a linguistic object i.e. it is treated as if it exists independently of people and society.  This is evident in the focus on structures and discrete skills in the typical English language classroom; most course books make a distinction between grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, reading, writing, listening and speaking tasks which serves to reinforce the belief that language is an external object of study.  Translanguaging, on the other hand, focuses on language as a social construct and highlights the importance of meaning-making strategies. 


“I still don’t get what it means…”

According to Otheguy, García & Reid (2015), translanguaging is ‘…the deployment of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named… languages.’ (p.281)  In other words, we ought to acknowledge and validate the various languages our learners bring to the classroom. 


“How is it different from code-switching?”

When we talk about code-switching, there is an underlying assumption that the bilingual (or multilingual) brain stores each language neatly in its own little box and the speaker draws from one or more of these boxes during the course of a conversation.  However, from a translanguaging perspective, we all draw from one pool of linguistic resources and there are no clear-cut distinctions between languages in our brains: named languages are considered to be a way of communicating that is shared between groups of people, rather than an external reality. 

“So it just means we should be flexible with the languages used in class?”

That’s a big part of it, but translanguaging also encourages us to reconsider what is meant by ‘communicative competence’.  In the now traditional Communicative Approach to language learning, speech acts are considered to be vocalizations produced in different situations and communicative competence is achieved when the learner uses language appropriate to the given context.  Those who advocate translanguaging, however, consider that material aspects such as the body, surrounding objects and technology are all integral to speech acts and not merely peripheral.  In this way, communicative competence through a translanguaging lens involves navigating multiple modes of communication, since non-linguistic forms are deeply embedded in our way of communicating.


“My school has an English-only policy”

This is problematic from a translanguaging perspective.  First of all, when languages other than English are effectively banned, the message is that English is the only language that is valued; this in turn reinforces the superiority of the so-called ‘native’ speaker, leading to all sorts of questions about power dynamics.  The policing of languages may not just stunt the creativity and expression of the learner – who is not allowed to draw from their full linguistic repertoire – but can also be considered an exclusionary practice. 


“So what does all this mean in practice?”

In Part 2 we shall take a look at how translanguaging pedagogy can be applied in the EFL/ESOL classroom, with some practical ideas.  In the meantime, here are some questions for reflection:

  • How can you acknowledge and validate the other languages your learners bring to the classroom?
  • How does native English speaker privilege play out in your classroom/school?
  • How might you incorporate multilingualism into your classroom practice?

This article was written by English teacher at St George International English School, running OFQUAL accredited Level 5 and Level 7 TEFL courses leading to the internationally recognised Trinity College London TESOL qualifications.

S.L.L., SGI Teacher Trainer



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