Imagine being a student in a new country where you only speak a few words in the new language. You go to school, and your teacher is teaching about the water cycle. Even though you don’t understand the teacher, you know what the topic is because of the labeled diagram on the board, so you use what you already know about the water cycle, information you learned in your home language, to make sense of the instruction in the new language.
Definition of Translanguaging
What you are doing is translanguaging (García & Wei, 2014; Creese & Blackledge, 2010). You are using all your linguistic and cognitive resources to make sense of the academic content being delivered in a language you are just starting to learn. You are what is now called an emergent bilingual (García, 2009). You are becoming bilingual. As you learn a new language, you are not forgetting what you already learned in your home language; rather, you are leveraging it to learn the target language. And if your home language and the new language are related, you might even recognize some words, especially academic words with a Latin base like precipitation and evaporation.
Translanguaging is a normal practice in bilingual communities, and educators are beginning to realize that it should also be a strategy teachers can use to help students draw on all their linguistic resources as they read, write, and discuss academic subjects in a new language. A student’s home language can serve as a scaffold in the process of acquiring additional languages and a scaffold for learning academic content in the new language.
But Isn’t Translanguaging Just Code Switching?
Linguists have used the term code switching to describe the process of moving from one language (or linguistic code) to another. Code switching was often seen as a weakness, a lack of proficiency in a language. As a result, educators were encouraged to limit all classroom communication to English, because the commonly held belief was that more English instruction would lead to more rapid English acquisition.
However, research in sociolinguistics and neurolinguistics has shown that bilinguals do not have two separate languages (Grosjean, 2010; Bialystok, 2011). Instead, they have what is now referred to as one linguistic repertoire that consists of features of the languages they speak. Bilinguals are not simply two monolinguals in one person. Rather, they are individuals whose language includes features (phonological, morphological, syntactic, and pragmatic) of all the languages they speak. Effective instruction involves using strategies to draw on all the language resources every student has.
The term translanguaging comes from a holistic view of bilinguals. This view recognizes that bilinguals have just one language system, not two or more, and that effective instruction involves finding ways to help students draw on all their linguistic resources, their full repertoire, to learn academic content in a new language. While students do need solid and extended instruction in English to acquire English, strategic use of their home language can accelerate both their acquisition of English and their understanding of math, science, social studies, and language arts being taught in the new language.
What Are Some Effective Translanguaging Strategies?
Some educators have thought that translanguaging is like translating. In some classes, bilingual teachers have tried to help their emergent bilingual students learn academic subjects by translating everything they say. This concurrent translation, however, does not help students. There simply isn’t time to translate everything that should be taught, and even if there was enough time, students would tune out the English and just wait for the translation into their new language. They wouldn’t acquire much English, and they wouldn’t learn much academic content either.
Effective translanguaging strategies draw on emergent bilinguals’ home languages without direct translation of the content. Research has shown how good teachers, whether they are bilingual teachers, English as a second language (ESL) teachers, or mainstream teachers with emergent bilinguals in their classes, find ways to help all their students use their full linguistic resources as they read, write, and discuss academic subjects (García et al., 2013; García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017).
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