Translanguaging: q&a

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel










The concept of translanguaging was mentioned at a friend’s Ph.D dissertation defense the other day. Here’s some information about it.


Q: What an ugly word. Was it really necessary to turn language into a verb?

A: Not really. But you know what English is like: infinitely flexible.


What is translanguaging?

The phenomenon of people using more than one language in conversation, adding phrases from their other languages.


Isn’t that code-switching?

Kind of. Some people use the terms interchangeably. But there are differences.


What are the differences?

Code switching is a part of translanguaging, but translanguaging goes further. It is used naturally by students to help one another understand concepts and to make meaning. Translanguaging also involves deliberate pedagogical strategies to get students using all of their languages, their whole linguistic repertoire.



Why do that?

It strengthens both languages. And it values and affirms the first language instead of demoting it to a secondary status, behind English.


Where did the idea come from?

From a Welsh teacher/scholar called Cen Williams. He devised a special methodology to make sure Welsh children developed their Welsh language skills as well as English. The input would be in one language and the output in the other. For example, his students read a text in Welsh and wrote about it in English.


What’s the premise behind translanguaging?

Bilinguals don’t have a separate L1 and L2; they have a fluid linguistic repertoire. One’s language identity is dynamic. At different times of life, your L1 may become weaker than your L2. There’s a continuum of bilingualism that defies the categories we place people into: ‘monolingual,’ ‘bilingual,’ ‘English Language Learner.’


But why call it translanguaging?

What we’re doing here is seeing language as action – as something we do – which is why it becomes a verb, rather than a series of discrete structures to be learned in linear fashion. The prefix trans means move across. Bilinguals and language students are ‘moving across languages.’


Who ‘does’ translanguaging?

Everyone who uses more than one language in their daily life. In fact, a majority of the world’s population uses more than one language for work or social purposes. They move back and forth in their different languages. Watch these videos:




Isn’t code-switching employed when people don’t know enough vocabulary in their second language?
It’s not only a lack of vocabulary that prompts code-switching. When people code-switch, they do so systematically and for many purposes. For example: emphasizing a point; establishing membership of a multilingual community; expressing a concept that has no equivalent in the other language or is better expressed in one language.


Can you give me an example of a concept that has no equivalent in the other language?  

Sure. I’ll give you three. The German word Schadenfreude refers to pleasure at witnessing another person’s misfortune. Wabi-sabi describes a Japanese worldview based on acceptance that nothing lasts forever and nothing is perfect. The Portuguese word saudades implies a feeling of longing that goes beyond missing something or someone. None of these words has a direct English translation.


Can you give an example of a concept that is better expressed in one language than another?

Sometimes it’s just a practical consideration. The Spanish word consuegra means your son-in-law’s mother. It’s far easier to say consuegra than the whole phrase in English.


Why might teachers introduce translanguaging to their classrooms?

If, say, a new student enters your classroom with a very low level of English, you want to involve that student and not leave them in a corner doing nothing. Finding ways to use their first language can help. It’s about adapting instruction to include everyone. Translanguaging also helps to raise metalinguistic awareness (knowledge of how language works) and highlights cross-linguistic similarities. The idea is to use all the linguistic resources possessed by the students.











How can translanguaging be practiced in a bilingual classroom?

Lots of ways. The teacher uses systematic methods to combine languages. Read a text in one language and write about it in another. Listen to a text in one language and discuss questions in another. There’s a school in the U.S. that puts on an end-of-term theater production using the different languages spoken by the students.


Any other examples?

A teacher called Camilla Leyba has a Rap Monday. She plays rap songs in English and Spanish and gets the students to translate the lyrics both ways using Google Translate, ipads, dictionaries, and any other resources they can find, including one another. Then they compare and contrast the songs. Later, they either write an essay or give a presentation in English, which they subsequently re-do in Spanish.


And if I want to find out more?

Look at the work of Dr.s Ofelia García and Li Wei. They’re the leading lights of translanguaging. Garcia has talks and articles on the web.


Thank you. You’ve been most helpful.

You’re welcome!

9 Comments on “Translanguaging: q&a”

  1. George Raptopoulos says:


  2. nickdaw says:

    When bilingual brothers or sisters are visiting their different grandparents or cousins, they may be able to function well in their second language, but will sometimes switch to their home language in order to communicate with each other. If they know that a grandparent or cousin has some knowledge of their home language, they will use the home language to explain difficult ideas. Often we are only confident doing arithmetic in our home language and will use the home language for calculation and then translate the result. In Turkey and Estonia, I have heard shoe shine boys offering their services and explaining their prices in a currency appropriate to the customer. When currencies change (e.g. decimalization of the pound) the young entrepreneurs are very swift to adapt!
    Here’s an amusing challenge: Count to 20 as fast as you can with odd numbers in your home language and even numbers in English! It’s a great workout for the brain!
    The telephone video is a very typical context for translanguaging. My Armenian sister-in-law was talking with her sister. They were both brought up in Lebanon but at the time were both living in Rome. They were planning a time and place to meet. The interaction switched from Armenian to Arabic with a few added phrases in Italian.
    The important message for our students is that translanguaging is acceptable, if it lubricates communication.

    • JJ Wilson says:

      More interesting points here, Nick. I did that counting challenge in a Spanish class once. We went round the room with each student saying a number. If you hesitated or made a mistake you were ‘out’. The Armenian sisters story is lovely – and very typical of expats translanguaging!

  3. nickdaw says:

    In the language classroom, translation is often tested in school examinations. Teach translation as a group activity with each group member contributing to polishing the translation. Google Translate and other computer-based translation services will generate accurate, but awkward translations. Students will enjoy polishing these into more fluent language. Start with translations from English into L1. When students have understood the procedure and purpose, start to use translations from L1 into English.
    For beginners, write simple comprehension questions in English from a reading/listening text in L1. Later, use more difficult comprehension questions in L1 which refer to a text in English.
    Show a video or TV sequence in L1 and ask students to prepare a brief summary in English which explains what has happened to the English visitor.
    Should the language of the answer always be the same as the question? If you vary the answer language, students will be constantly code switching.
    Remember that we are trying to create bilingual students, not students who are monolingual in English!

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Great suggestions, Nick. It’s that idea of getting students to move across languages so that it becomes second nature. And no – I don’t think the language of the answer need always be the same as the language of the question.

  4. Dr. Akbar Ali says:

    An interesting topic has been very nicely discussed here by some excellent teachers. I would like to use this term in my classes in order to get every student participate in class activities. Sometimes people translanguage in order to add some spice to their conversation because the words in L2 don’t always carry the same meaning as the speakers intend. Generally, people translanguage when they are in a hurry or they feel difficulty in finding an appropriate word in L2. Great work indeed!

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