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Breaking Down Barriers

It is “almost impossible for anyone working in the field of language teaching to have avoided encountering the term translanguaging” (Brooks, 2022, p. 129). As more research is done and more books and articles are published (including those in Language Magazine), “translanguaging” is entering into teachers’ collective vocabulary internationally. The benefits and importance of translanguaging are becoming more widely known and accepted in classrooms around the world; in a variety of contexts in numerous countries, educational leaders and teachers are working out ways of putting research into practice to implement translanguaging pedagogies that leverage students’ full linguistic repertoires as resources for learning. However, as teachers seek to bring about the shifts in pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment (Huckle, 2021) necessary to enable translanguaging and to embrace the multilingual turn more generally (May, 2014; Conteh and Meier, 2014), they must be prepared to overcome hurdles to implementation. Knowing more about the barriers they will likely face will better equip them to break down those barriers on encountering them. This article will outline some potential barriers in the domains of policy, practice, and personal belief and end with a call for critical self-reflection on the part of advocates of translanguaging to ensure that we ourselves don’t get in the way of realizing its full transformative power.

A school’s policies and practices and the personal beliefs of its various stakeholders have the potential to open up or close down translanguaging spaces. In other words, they can create the conditions in which translanguaging is allowed, then encouraged, and ultimately enabled (Smith et al., 2017, p. 17), or they can become barriers—forces that disallow, discourage, or prevent students from translanguaging. A teacher who tries to develop a more culturally and linguistically inclusive classroom through translanguaging practices might need to find ways to resist and challenge school policies that demand monolingualism, for example. Leaders seeking to redesign policies to promote translanguaging might need to confront parents’, students’, or faculty’s misunderstandings about the realities of multilingualism.

Probably the most powerful force that acts to close down translanguaging spaces in schools lies in the domain of personal beliefs. Our education systems are, in so many ways, built upon assumptions rooted in a powerful ideology of monolingualism (Fuller, 2018; Alisaari et al., 2019; Przymus and Huddleston, 2021; Chang-Bacon, 2021). This is a bias that views monolingualism as normal and conceives of a multilingual individual as just two or more monolinguals in one body. Languages are seen as segregated, bounded systems that can be switched on and off at will or left at the classroom door. A multilingual’s languages are imagined to be “two [or more] solitudes that should be kept rigidly separate” (Cummins, 2008, p. 65). Rather than seeing the potential assets that lie in enabling multilingual students to draw upon their complete linguistic repertoires, the monolingual bias leads many teachers to see multilingualism as a problem that needs to be fixed.

The persistence of this monolingual bias is a barrier to the implementation of translanguaging in schools. Whatever changes we make in the policy and practice domains, it—as Cenoz and Santos (2020) say—“is still difficult for teachers to accept translanguaging because of the strong tradition of language separation ideologies” (p. 3). These ideologies manifest in various ways. We see them behind the belief held by some teachers—despite evidence to the contrary—that use of other languages in the classroom might confuse students or hinder their learning of the language of instruction (usually English), as if it were an either/or rather than an and/with situation. The monolingual bias similarly explains the feeling of discomfort some students and teachers have when others around them are using languages they don’t understand: “not only students, but also teachers may feel isolated when confronted with other languages” (Ticheloven et al., 2021, p. 500).

It is clear that, as Yip and García (2015) write, “there continue to be numerous fallacies about language learning and development among educators, and these misconceptions can get in the way of teachers seeing the opportunities for translanguaging practices in their classrooms.” For those of us seeking to lead change in our schools, we need to do more than transform policies and practices, as those efforts are likely to be unsuccessful if we don’t also seek to change hearts and minds. We need to shine the light of evidence on teaches’ shadowy misunderstandings and assumptions; we need to help each other become educators who can interrogate how our own positionalities and prejudices shape the way we conceive of language(s); we need to build monolingual teachers’ empathy for the lived realities of their multilingual students and the potentially harmful impact of our beliefs and blind spots.

Shifting hearts and minds is not enough on its own, of course. To implement translanguaging approaches, a school needs to scrutinize its policies to identify where they directly or indirectly restrict translanguaging, or where they could do more to enable it. “English only” policies persist in some schools, for example, and even where it’s not official policy, teachers might “be instructed by school administrators to prohibit children from using and learning in their own languages” (Yip and García, 2015). Such policies need to be challenged and redesigned with proper respect for diversity, equity, and inclusion; we need policies that, rather than banning use of particular languages, actually prohibit controlling and exclusionary practices that discriminate against multilinguals’ natural ways of languaging. Policies should explicitly state why translanguaging is important, what it looks like in that context, and how it will be enabled.

Research into teachers’ concerns about translanguaging approaches reveals that they worry about time pressures: they think “translanguaging strategies may slow the lesson down” (Ticheloven et al., 2021, p. 507) or “cut into the curriculum” (Galante, 2020, p. 7) or are “reluctant to give up instructional time to focus on metalinguistic awareness” (Yip and García, 2015). If our teaching practices are leaving us without the time to embrace our students’ full linguistic identities, we need to question those practices and ask ourselves whether teaching practices that require students to leave a large part of who they are outside of the classroom, and only access part of their communicative resources, could ever be effective.

Teachers sometimes also feel uncomfortable at the perceived loss of control that comes from translanguaging in the classroom; in Ticheloven et al.’s (2021) study, a teacher “argued that other languages in the classroom prevent teachers from keeping track of what students are doing” and “some teachers described feelings of discomfort when they do not know what students are discussing in class time” (p. 500). In these cases, when “the organizational stress and risk of losing control” is viewed “as more significant than the principle of linguistic inclusion” (Ticheloven et al., 2021, p. 500), we need to question the priorities that underpin our practices. We need to find ways of creating classroom environments in which we feel equipped and confident to hand over control of languaging to the students themselves and to build student agency so we can prioritize linguistic inclusion over our own feelings of discomfort or loss of control.

Another powerful force that gets in the way of translanguaging in schools is assessment. Most assessment practices in most schools, especially when tied to standardized tests, are monolingual (Slaughter and Cross, 2021; García, 2009). Therein lies a contradiction that those of us implementing translanguaging pedagogies in our classrooms will sooner or later have to grapple with; as Galante (2020) writes, “the issue with translanguaging pedagogy and assessment is that the former requires the use of students’ entire linguistic repertoire while the latter mandates English only” (p. 7). Assessment practices, therefore, can undermine attempts to promote translanguaging pedagogies and can have a negative washback effect on teaching practices. We should push back against this and join calls for assessment reform in the direction of inclusion and equity; at the same time, for those of us who cannot control standardized testing regimes, we can seek out ways to innovate within the limited assessment paradigm we are required to operate in and implement multilingual assessments within our spheres of control (see, for example, Gottlieb, 2021).

As well as the policies, practices, and personal beliefs outlined above that might get in the way of translanguaging, we also need to beware that our own approaches to translanguaging do not prevent us from realizing its full potential. Translanguaging is frequently approached in a tokenistic way; it is reduced to a “strategy” or a “tool” that teachers might decide to use every now and then to “support” learners. Translanguaging is not a tool. It’s not a support strategy. If we think about it in this way, we stunt its potential for transformation. We need to be wary of translanguaging becoming just a “fashionable trend” (Erdocia, 2020, p. 10) or “buzzword” (Flores, 2014) that will pass when other strategies or tools come along. We should fight against the appropriation and neutralization of translanguaging that “detatche[s it] from any connotation of resistance and transformation” (Erdocia, 2020, p. 10). As Nelson Flores (2014) notes, translanguaging is “a political act”; it is “part of a larger political struggle of linguistic self-determination for language-minoritized populations.” Similarly, for Li Wei (2022), translanguaging “is more than a pedagogic or theoretical perspective; it is a political stance, a decolonizing stance” (p. 1). When we approach it from such a stance, translanguaging can, in the words of Cioè-Peña and Snell (2015), create “a space within schools where the practice of social justice can thrive… By creating translanguaging spaces, we create spaces that students experience as empowering, adaptable, relevant, and reflective of their own life experiences.”

So, as we attempt to open up translanguaging spaces in our classrooms and schools, we need to be prepared to break down the policy, practice, and personal belief barriers that might get in our way; we also need to self-critically reflect on the way we conceptualize translanguaging to ensure we fully realize its position as part of broader sociopolitical struggles for social justice and its transformative power.

Jacob Huckle is an international school teacher and EdD research student. He is British but has been based in China for the last ten years, where he teaches English to multilingual learners in an international school. His EdD research is focused on multilingualism and interculturality in international schools.

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