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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Unpacking Translanguaging

An emerging instructional theory encourages educators to rethink their understanding of bilingualism.

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Instructional Strategies

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In recent years, translanguaging has become a widely used conceptual framework for understanding bilingualism. Popularized by bilingual-education scholar Ofelia García (2009), translanguaging is a sociocognitive theory that counters traditional "monoglossic" understandings of bilingualism that view the different languages used or acquired by a student as distinct skill sets. Instead, translanguaging reframes bilingualism as a flexible linguistic activity that is intimately tied to contexts of use.
Translanguaging is both a theory of the bilingual mind and a theory of bilingual practice. As a theory of the mind, translanguaging posits that the bilingual brain is not comprised of two separate language systems; rather, it sees the inner linguistic system as a holistic repertoire containing a range of communicative tools that can be deployed as needed for different audiences and contexts (Otheguy, García, & Reid, 2015). For example, a 2nd grade student in a bilingual classroom playing a math card game might ask his peers, "¿Quien quiere shuffle this deck?" ("Who wants to shuffle this deck?") (Hamman, 2018). From a translanguaging perspective, this student is not switching from the "Spanish" side of his brain to the "English" side. He is drawing upon his full linguistic range to make meaning. He's also demonstrating a clear understanding of audience, as his peers are also bilingual. A translanguaging perspective recognizes that bilinguals can perform monolingually, but when communicating with other bilinguals, they often communicate bilingually since their internal language system is not separated into "two solitudes" (Cummins, 2008).
As a theory of practice, translanguaging represents the dynamic, flexible linguistic practices that are typical within bilingual communities. That is, bilinguals are translanguaging when they transcend isolated societal languages (like English and Spanish) to communicate. From a translanguaging lens, the student speaking bilingually during math class is not linguistically confused or demonstrating "bad" Spanish or English. Rather, he is leveraging his full linguistic repertoire to communicate. Translanguaging theory is less concerned with identifying why students shift between societal languages and more with acknowledging that this "mixing" is an authentic practice, the everyday way that bilingual individuals communicate with their families, friends, and communities.
While translanguaging theory has been widely adopted in educational research, there is still some resistance to embracing it in pedagogy. Teachers in mainstream (English-only) classrooms may worry that students who are translanguaging may be doing so to the detriment of developing their English. However, it is well established that the knowledge a student acquires in their home language can transfer to a new language (Cummins, 1981). Thus, enabling or facilitating students' translanguaging for meaning making can in fact help support their acquisition of new terms and concepts.
There is also some hesitation to encourage translanguaging even in bilingual programs, especially when the two languages of instruction do not hold equal societal status (like English and Spanish in the United States). In these learning environments, spaces devoted to developing the minority language are often heavily guarded against the use of the majority language—and not without good reason. In my research on two-way immersion classrooms, I found that translanguaging can be a powerful tool to support student learning, but when not implemented strategically, it can also contribute to more English use in the classroom and, consequently, a tendency for English home-language students to dominate classroom discussions (Hamman, 2018). That said, if we take translanguaging theory to be true, we are obligated to rethink language-separatist practices, which deny students the opportunity to do bilingualism and ignore their lived communicative experiences. In my research, I argue that bilingual classrooms should pursue a "both/and" approach to language pedagogy, incorporating both focused spaces for targeted language practice and flexible spaces that are intentionally designed for students to leverage their full linguistic repertoires for making meaning.

Creating Flexible Language Spaces

Flexible language spaces can be fostered, for example, by having students compose bilingual books. This activity requires students to think meta-linguistically about how to effectively communicate meaning across two languages. Alternatively, teachers can engage students in translanguaging read-aloud activities with a wordless picture book, prompting students to co-construct the narrative by drawing upon their full linguistic knowledge (Hamman, Beck, & Donaldson, 2018). Countless additional examples and resources for translanguaging pedagogies are available through the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals.
In sum, translanguaging theory pushes us to rethink our understanding of bilingualism and to reimagine the "bilingual" in bilingual classrooms. All educators know the importance of accessing students' prior knowledge, yet we often fail to acknowledge linguistic knowledge as a component of what students know and bring. No student should be asked to leave his or her linguistic resources at the door. Instead, classrooms should serve as dynamic spaces for linguistic expression and learning. Where do your students have opportunities to use language bilingually?
References

Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In California State Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3–49). Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, California State University.

Cummins, J. (2008). Teaching for transfer: Challenging the two solitudes assumption in bilingual education. In J. Cummins & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of language and education: Vol. 5. Bilingual education (2nd ed., pp. 65–75). Boston, MA: Springer Science+Business Media.

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.

Hamman, L. (2018). Translanguaging and positioning in dual language immersion: A case for criticality. Language and Education, 32(1), 21–42.

Hamman, L., Beck, E., & Donaldson, A. (2018, August). A pedagogy of translanguaging. Language Magazine, 36–39.

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

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