English language teaching throughout the world has suffered from a monoglossic bias; that is, the view that English could only be taught in isolation and separated from the languages spoken by students. This was, of course, the pedagogical tradition that emerged from the West, and especially from North American and British scholars in particular, who saw the teaching of the English language as a monolingual imperialist enterprise. But in the 21st century, English teaching has gone global, no longer in the hands of colonial masters, but taught throughout the world by many who share language and culture with students. And yet, our pedagogies have remained as monolingual as ever, robbing students of opportunities to use their home languages to make sense of the complex use of English that is demanded in the world today.
I argue here that we need to adopt a translanguaging lens, a lens which allows us to think about language, bilingualism and learning from the perspective of emergent bilingual students themselves. I start by considering the concept of translanguaging. Using the translanguaging lens, I then provide counterarguments to some of the constructions about English language speakers, English language acquisition and learning, bilingualism, and language education that have been responsible for much failure in the teaching of English to students throughout the world.
The term translanguaging was coined in Welsh (trawsieithu) by Cen Williams. In its original use, it referred to a pedagogical practice where students are asked to alternate languages for receptive or productive use; for example, students might be asked to read in English and write in Welsh and vice-versa. Since then, the term has been extended by many scholars (e.g. Blackledge & Creese 2010, Canagarajah 2011, García 2009; García & Sylvan 2011, Hornberger & Link 2012). I have used the term to refer to the flexible use of linguistic resources by bilinguals in order to make sense of their worlds, and I have applied it mostly to classrooms because of its potential in liberating the voices of language minoritized students.
I use translanguaging here to refer not to the use of two separate languages or even the shift of one language or code to the other (for simple Questions and Answers on translanguaging for educators see my introduction to Celic and Seltzer, 2012). Rather, translanguaging is rooted on the principle that emergent bilingual students select language features from a repertoire and “soft assemble” their language practices in ways that fit their communicative situations. Translanguaging in education can be defined as a process by which students and teachers engage in complex discursive practices that include ALL the language practices of students in order to develop new language practices and sustain old ones, communicate and appropriate knowledge, and give voice to new sociopolitical realities by interrogating linguistic inequality. In today’s globalized world what is needed is the ability to engage in fluid language practices and to soft-assemble features that can “travel” across geographic spaces so as to enable us to participate fully as global citizens.
Counter-narratives about English, its speakers, learning English, bilingualism, and teaching English
The education of emergent bilinguals suffers from five major misconstructions about English, its speakers, the learning of English, bilingualism, and the teaching of English that can be counter-narrated through a translanguaging lens as follows:
- English is not a system of structures.
- “Native” English speakers are neither the norm nor objective fact.
- Learning English is not linear.
- Bilinguals are not simply speakers of a first and a second language.
- The teaching of English cannot be enacted in total separation from other language practices.
I will develop these counter-narratives to deconstruct some of the myths with which we have been operating in educating emergent bilinguals.
English is not a system of structures
English forms and meaning are not auto-sufficient, but arise in and through social practice, as linguistic practices get used repeatedly in local contexts for meaning-making. Language is a series of social practices and actions that are embedded in a web of social relations and that orient and manipulate social domains of interactions. Pennycook (2010: 9) explains:
A focus on language practices moves the focus from language as an autonomous system that preexists its use, and competence as an internal capacity that accounts for language production, towards an understanding of language as a product of the embodied social practices that bring it about (my italics).
English is not a system of language structures; rather, languaging through what is called English is practicing a new way of being in the world. This understanding of what English is and is not has enormous implications for our conceptualization of English speakers, the next counter-narrative that I propose.
“Native” English speakers are neither the norm nor objective fact
It is important to recognize that monolinguals are not the norm in the world. Although estimates are difficult to make, well over half of the world’s population is bilingual or monolingual. In the second language acquisition literature, the “native” speaker is always held as the ideal. But the notion of who is a “native” speaker has been questioned in the fluidity of today’s global world. Often “native” has become indexical of being white. The ideology of the existence of a monolithic “native” English creates an order of indexicality (Blommaert, 2010) that favors the language practices of white prestigious monolingual speakers. Thus, the other “native” practices are reduced to being “corrupted,” “stigmatized,” “deficient,” “needing remediation.” As many have argued, there is no “native English standard.” Being a “native English speaker” is not simply being monolingual or speaking a certain way. At the same time, learning English does not happen in a vacuum, and is not linear. This is the misconstruction addressed by the counter-narrative in the next section.
Learning English does not proceed from scratch, is not linear
The learning of English has often focused on an end point, the ultimate attainment of a “native English standard.” When students haven’t achieved this, they are said to have a “fossilized interlanguage”; that is, their language system is said to be permanently deficient. Rarely has the learning of English paid attention to the resources students bring and to the dynamic process through which language practices emerge. But students are much more than just blank slates that are subsequently filled with English structures. They bring to classrooms knowledge, imagination, and sophisticated language practices. In addition, they do not forget what they know in order to take up English. These students are emergent bilinguals with full capacities. Their new language practices do not surface from scratch, but emerge in interrelationship with old language practices.
If the English language is not, as we have seen, simply a system of structures, then it follows that it is not possible just to add up structures in linear fashion in order to learn. Instead, English learning emerges as a flexible continuum, as students take up practices in interrelationship with others. The result is never an end point at which students “have” English. Rather, emergent bilinguals “do” language, languaging in ways that include practices identified as “English” in order to negotiate communicative situations and meet academic expectations. Emergent bilinguals are not simply in a stage of “incomplete acquisition.” The next section questions the misconstructions about bilingualism held by schools that have served to alienate the complex language practices of emergent bilingual students from English learning and provides an alternative narrative.
Bilinguals are not simply speakers of a first and a second language
Bilingualism in schools is often understood as being additive. Additive bilingualism refers to the idea that a “second language” can be added to a “first language,” resulting in a person who is a balanced bilingual. The views about languaging that I have been developing here lead us to reject the idea of “first” and “second” language, as well as balanced bilingualism.
Although most bilinguals may be able to identify which language they learned “first” and which language they learned “second,” the assignment of a “first” and “second” language to bilinguals is as much a theoretical impossibility as is the concept of being a balanced bilingual. New language practices emerge in interrelationship with old ones, and these language practices are always dynamically enacted.
I have argued that bilingualism can be better seen as dynamic. In contrasting dynamic bilingualism to an additive perspective, I go beyond simply the perspective of language systems and refer to the multiple and complex way in which the language practices of bilinguals interact and form a complex language repertoire. I have used the image of a banyan tree to suggest that language practices emerge and develop in intertwined ways.
As bilingualism emerges, the identification of language practices belonging to one or another “language” has to be questioned. Bilinguals translanguage, disrupting conventional ideas of what languages are or of the languages that bilinguals have. Bilinguals are clearly not two monolinguals in one. They use their complex language repertoire to fulfill the communicative needs that emerge from the different landscapes and speakers through which they shuttle back and forth. I have used the image of the All Terrain Vehicle to suggest that bilinguals use their complex language practices selectively as they adapt to the ridges and craters of communication in different languagescapes.
Traditionally, bilingual use has been understood as following a diglossic compartmentalization, with one language spoken at home, another one in school. But the translanguaging lens we have adopted makes clear that the language practices of bilinguals are transglossic, and that their full repertoire of practices is used in homes, and often “invisibly” in schools. The structures of language and education programs and their pedagogies have to respond to greater fluidity. This is the misconstruction addressed in the next counter-narrative.
The teaching of English cannot be enacted in total separation from other language practices
Traditionally, the teaching of English has taken place in English only. But as the complex translanguaging practices of bilinguals are made more evident, structures and pedagogies that separate languages artificially have to be abandoned. The language separation approach that is often used has to be abandoned.
All teachers must adopt translanguaging strategies in teaching. It would be important for English teachers to leverage the children’s entire language repertoire in making meaning and to develop the children’s metacognition and sense of self-regulation as they translanguage.
Oral discussions that include all students’ language practices enable their class participation, deep and reflexive thinking, and rigorous cognitive engagement with texts. The reading of difficult text is facilitated when students can access background material about the content of the text in other languages. Engagement with writing English texts is also facilitated when students can discuss, read and write first drafts that may include other language practices besides those that are in English. Translanguaging is an important tool.
A translanguaging lens enables us to understand the teaching of English to emergent bilinguals in new ways. Focusing on translanguaging practices enables us to shed notions of system structures that can be linearly taught, of the proper usage of natives, of the value of monolingualism, of bilingualism as simply double monolingualism, of the teaching of English without considering the entire language and semiotic repertoire of students.
Blackledge, A. and Creese, A. (2010) .Multilingualism. London: Continuum.
Blommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Canagarajah, A.S. (2011). Codemeshing in academic writing: Identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. The Modern Language Journal 95(iii), 401-417.
Celic, C. and Seltzer, K. (2012). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB Guide for Educators. New York: CUNY-NYSIEB. Online document: http://www.nysieb.ws.gc.cuny.edu/publicationsresources/
García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st Century: A Global perspective. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell.
García, O. and Sylvan, C. (2011). Pedagogies and practices in multilingual classrooms: Singularities in Pluralities. Modern Language Journal 95(iii), 385-400.
Hornberger, N. and H. Link. (2012). Translanguaging and transnational literacies in multilingual classrooms: A bilingual lens. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 15(3): 261-278.
Pennycook, A. (2010). Language as a local practice. London and New York: Routledge.
*Ofelia García is Professor in the Ph.D. program of Urban Education and of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has published many book chapters, articles, and books. She is the Associate General Editor of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language.