Translanguaging: the answer to the multilingual classroom?

Yuting Zhao:

“In a multilingual classroom, students not only bring their different languages to the classroom, but they bring their families as well”. After the class, these words have continued to resonate in my mind. I have a feeling that this sentence is meaningful in education but I was a little confused why students can bring their family to the classroom. Now I have an answer. I think the sentence means that students’ knowledge are shaped by their families, community, and cultural histories. Teachers are supposed to build on students’ diverse family-shaped knowledge (including language) to conduct their teaching practice. This understanding makes me realize that translanguaging may be a better answer to a multilingual classroom. To support this idea, I also want to share my former experience both as a teacher and a student.

Translanguaging: from a teachers perspective

Last summer, I taught writing in an English-immersion program. I had asked all the students in my class—where instruction was in English—to choose a story and translate it into their native language. This class comprised one of the most linguistically diverse groups I had ever taught. For most of my students, English was their second or third language and yet they used it beautifully.So I was surprised to discover that this assignment requiring them to write in the language they had first spoken was especially difficult. Like Frank, many students found it nearly impossible to complete.

Frank is one of the students who was greatly struggling with his assignment. He had already chosen an adult story, involving a little violence. He was in my office every week, but unable to make any progress. Finally, I asked him to find what the root of his problem was. He thought for a moment and then lit up.

“The problem,” he explained, “is that this is a very dark story and Chinese is just not that kind of language.”

I asked him what he meant.

“You see,” he replied. “Chinese is a very sweet and bright language.”

I smiled. Actually it’s not the language that was sweet and beautiful. It was the 10-year-old boy who stopped using it when he learned a new one. It was me who as a believer of immersion pedagogy, never allow my students to communicate by their L1 in the classroom. From that moment, I began to aware that maybe translanguaging is not an indication of poor proficiency of L2, but a strategy which scaffolds students’ L2 learning and more importantly, enables them to know the intersection and interaction among languages.

Translanguaging: from a student’s perspective

My belief that translanguaging is better than immersion is strengthened during the time I learned French. I registered for a French-immersion course. Teacher and students are only obligated to speak French in the school. Even if I try desperately to participate more in the classroom, I still found that most of time I was saying “Oui and “Pardon”. Students in the class sometimes even keep silent. We just listened to the teacher’s talking and didn’t know when and how to respond. The class is fairly teacher-oriented.

After that, I was transferred to another program where the teacher is a Chinese and she taught us both in English, French and Chinese. I don’t know how to express my feeling in this class in contrast to the former one. It is a mixed feeling of a sense of security, equality, encouraging. I communicated more with the teacher and classmates and even found I’m more confident in learning French. A classroom of translanguaging is more student-centered.

My question:

With the increasing experience I had in a multilingual classroom, my attitudes changed greatly towards the translanguaging. On my part, translanguaging is more beneficial for both students and teachers in a multilingual settings. My question is if monolingual teachers can adopt translanguaging strategy in their classroom. I remember my classmate said teachers don’t need to speak all the languages of their students. I agree on this statement and I suddenly come up with an extreme situation. If a teacher can only speak one language, can he or she use translanguaging pedagogy?


4 thoughts on “Translanguaging: the answer to the multilingual classroom?”

  1. Hi Yuting,
    I definitely think a teacher who speaks one language, or who doesn’t speak the language(s) of the learners, can embrace or encourage some translanguaging in the class. I think an important question is: what is the role of the teacher? Does the teacher need to know everything in order to teach? I think that students will always know things that teachers don’t know (and this is true across all subjects). Or, does the teacher need to be able to set up learning opportunities for students and guide students towards learning goals. Another question: who does the doing of pedagogy? Is it always the teacher? I don’t think so – students can learn from each other, too. I’ve said this before, but for me translanguaging pedagogy is a lot about fostering a particular ethos in the classroom where learners feel legitimate and legitimized. There are many ways for this to play out in actual practice. I shared a story from my ESL teacher days in a comment on Sophia’s post that I think is relevant to your discussion here too.


  2. Cheryl Lingjaun Yan (Comment#5)
    Hi Yuting, thank you for sharing your story with us!
    I agree with Alison. It’s possible for teachers who speak only one language to embrace translanguaging pedagogy. As I read through your post, I do feel you. Perhaps using an immersion program is an effective method and can facilitate students’ learning to some extent indeed, but as far as I am concerned, all these assumptions are based on one precondition–students involved should have already had a good foundation of vocabulary concerning the target language. Without a solid foundation of that, it is relatively hard to be fully inclusive in a classroom of an immersion program.


  3. Ethan:
    Hi Yu-ting. I think you raised a very practical question in language teaching. My experience is that the language you use as a teacher depends on the material you’re teaching. I found it useful to explain some of the complex grammar structures to students at first. Then you can try to aviod using their L1. Just some of my thoughts for you cosideration.


  4. Hsinhua
    The one language policy in ESL and EFL classes is common because it can encourage students to use the language in question more often. I agree to let students use their first language in ESL class under some conditions, for example when they want to explain grammar rules and some abstract words to a classmate. However, I am wondering if there is a one language policy in regular classes in Quebec, and if students are allowed to speak English in a French school. In response to your first paragraph: nowadays, teachers need to know their students as much as they can, such as their 1st language, culture, family, learning difficulties, learning styles, etc., to be able to help them reach their potential. Moreover, family involvement is important now in education because parents play vital roles in their learning, teachers won’t be able to communicate with students’ family efficiently without having some knowledge of parents’ culture. In this case, teachers don’t need to be able to speak students’ first language because they can ask students to be a medium between school and family, encouraging students to promote their own culture and language in class or in school by arranging some international activities. For example, they can choose a theme for December like “what is the festival in December in your country?”, then name it in their language, and teach everyone else one tradition you need to do on that festival. Teachers are also suggested to collect some information of different language communities for themselves, students and the parents.


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