Getting Into Translanguaging
During my undergraduate career, a few of my classes addressed how bilingualism can be supported in the classroom and the unique challenges that bilingual education has faced in the US. The passing of the Bilingual Education Act (Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968, 2015) intended to champion the cause of providing educational opportunities to emergent bilingual students that not only supported academic success in English but also the maintenance of the home language of the student. This was faced by opposition from people who believed that teaching languages other than English went against American values of assimilation, and as a result many students continued to go without English education resources. Now schools are required by U.S. law to ensure that children have access to English education that allows them a meaningful school experience (Lau v Nichols, 1974), and bilingual education remains a hotly-debated solution to the issue of providing meaningful English education to emergent bilingual students. Translanguaging takes an approach that would have made opponents of the Bilingual Education Act curl their toes; the idea of Translanguaging is to utilize a student’s entire range of linguistic resources in order to help them grow as scholars, languagers, and in their own identities.
There are many ways in which Translanguaging can be incorporated into a lesson in order to support students’ linguistic development. The first and perhaps most important of these ways is for the teacher to allow students to use languages other than English in their classroom. To some teachers this seems counterproductive, as we are so often told to focus on having students acquire standard English academic vocabulary and allowing students to practice language skills outside of this seems to take away from the time they could spend developing academic English (I had a debate with a peer in math teaching just the other day about this, actually). But according to authors Garcia and Wei (2014), who write extensively about Translanguaging in their book of the same title, the use of a student’s entire range of linguistic resources actually helps to support their learning of content across all academic disciplines because it allows them the opportunity to negotiate meaning, using the home language as a tool to build their understanding of academic concepts while at the same time giving them continued experience using their home language as a valid and useful educational tool. Translanguaging practices could be adopted in a lesson by encouraging students to attempt to explain a concept in both English and their home language, by allowing students with similar language backgrounds to work collaboratively on assignments, or by connecting concepts taught in English with cultural or linguistic practices, norms, and ideologies from a student’s home culture.
Difficulty with translanguaging can occur when it is implemented in a classroom setting where students come from varied linguistic backgrounds. It would be relatively simple if all of your students spoke the same first language and were attempting to learn the same new language. In a room full of Spanish-speaking students, a teacher could develop pedagogical practices that encouraged the connected use of English and Spanish for learning fairly quickly. But when you have a classroom featuring students who come from four, five, six different language backgrounds, it becomes harder to incorporate these practices because it's more difficult to find ways for all of the languages to be utilized and understood by all of the other students. It would take a very artful teaching practice to be able to execute an activity that incorporated all of the students' languages in a meaningful way. By attempting to group students of similar language backgrounds together, and by encouraging all students to learn a few key phrases from each other’s languages throughout your time in the class, these challenges can be navigated to allow a translanguaging approach to continue.
The other challenge presented by Translanguaging that is discussed in the reading is the idea that a translanguaging approach to education will not be rigorous enough to prepare students for standardized tests and exams that rely on their successful acquisition of English (NALDIC, 2015). Indeed, it’s easy to see how a translanguaging pedagogy could lend itself to too much freedom and not enough intentional acquisition of English. Educators can combat this by making sure that they structure their class in a way such that students are being encouraged to utilize their entire linguistic wheelhouses in pushing their knowledge forward across the board. Instructional protocols like SIOP can be helpful in guiding teachers to create the necessary structure to encourage appropriately paced and directional growth while still allowing students to employ translanguaging strategies and the continued development of their home language to help them acquire content knowledge and English language skills.
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As an educator, Abigail Johnson reflects on several relevant topics impacting today's students in mainstream classroom settings.