For years, research into the best instructional approaches for students identified as English learners has pointed to the concept of translanguaging.
Identified by bilingual education researcher Ofelia García, it’s both a skill set and a total shift in the way language is thought of, used, and taught in K-12 classrooms where multiple languages are honored and addressed, even as English remains the dominant language of instruction, said Marybelle Marrero-Colon, the associate director of professional development for the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Researchers are looking into how it can be applied to formal assessments, such as state standardized tests on which English learners might struggle to demonstrate their academic proficiency because they are tested in an unfamiliar language.
Here’s a look at what translanguaging means in the context of classroom instruction and how all educators, including monolingual English-speaking teachers, can cultivate spaces for translanguaging to occur.
In translanguaging, students are able to think in multiple languages simultaneously and use their home language as a vehicle to learn academic English.
A student could be reading an article about the solar system in English, but in their brain, they are also thinking and making connections in Spanish. They might annotate in Spanish or first write down reading comprehension responses in Spanish and then figure out how to provide the responses in English, said Marrero-Colon.
It’s all about encouraging students to access their full linguistic repertoires, said Emily Phillips Galloway, an assistant professor at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University.
Translanguaging is also multimodal. More research is underway, for instance, on hearing impaired translanguaging by students who are part of families with American sign language, Spanish sign language, and signs families create for themselves, said Maria Cieslak, the professional development content manager at the Center for Applied Linguistics.
For example, two students could be assigned to solve a word problem, and one might be stuck on a word in English. The two students can then use an equivalent word in their home language to make sense of what the word problem is asking of them, Phillips Galloway said.
Or in group activities, students can be prompted to share with the rest of the class how something taught in English would make sense in Spanish by highlighting similar and different grammatical structures between the two languages, Marrero-Colon said.
“When you translate, you don’t have to do it word for word. You’re really trying to capture the feeling of that text,” Marrero-Colon said.
Once teachers start doing these activities, research has found that students who have not spoken before start speaking and students who were not as engaged in text-comprehension activities suddenly are, she added. That's occurring because they are being encouraged to use their home language in class to think about language use overall.
Although translation activities are a way to engage in translanguaging, it’s not word-for-word translation. It’s about a student using the words and thoughts they have in their home language to make sense of English and then be able to respond in English, said Kia Johnson, the director of PreK–12 language and literacy at the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Translanguaging requires students to think about language components such as the placement of adjectives, what cognates are in various languages, and more in multiple languages at once, Phillips Galloway said.
It does require teachers to be comfortable being a learner themselves as students teach them what they know about their own language. Some teachers may fear that students may engage in off-task behavior in languages the teachers don’t understand, but research has found that in such cases, teachers are still able to register what is going on and get students back on task, Phillips Galloway said.
She also said that teachers who work in states with laws requiring English-only instruction can and should still allow students to use other languages in the classroom to help them access academic content.
The key, Marrero-Colon said, is flexibility. For instance, a student may need to write an essay in English. They can instead start with building a PowerPoint primarily of images that convey a story or meaning. The teacher can then use the PowerPoint to help students come up with words and phrases, then move to sentences and paragraphs, and so on.
For instance, Black students may be fluent in African American Vernacular English and can use translanguaging activities to engage in academic classroom English, Johnson said.
An example of English-only translanguaging is asking students to turn William Shakespeare's sonnets into modern pop songs, because it is a use of language in different registers, or levels of formality, Phillips Galloway said.
Students are also more interested in acquiring more languages after hearing their peers use their home languages, which helps them succeed in an increasingly global society, she added.
“I think the mistake that we often make is that we don't help students to make the connections between the linguistic resources that they bring in languages other than English,” Phillips Galloway said. “And in the course of doing that, we take a whole set of resources that could be used for comprehending texts as they read in English, or learn to write text in English, we take those resources off the table.”
More research has found that allowing students to participate in translanguaging helps English learners eventually outperform their monolingual peers because they become more flexible in thinking about and using language in academic contexts, Marrero-Colon said.
Phillips Galloway is working with colleagues on a curriculum that better guides teachers in translanguaging activities since not all curricular materials recognize the concept.
Researchers at the Center for Applied Linguistics, including Cieslak, also work on professional development and policy discussions that help educators and policymakers alike understand how English learners bring with them linguistic assets that should be nurtured for overall academic success.
“It's about understanding cultural identity, and my language is part of my identity,” Cieslak said. “And I'm going to naturally translanguage, whether you tell me I can or cannot.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Is Translanguaging and How Is It Used in the Classroom?