The Transformative Potential of Translanguaging

My good friend and collaborator Kate Seltzer also had the opportunity to respond to Jim Cummins’ keynote at the 2021 CCERBAL conference. Her comments speak powerfully to the practical implications of translanguaging in dismantling oppressive language ideologies in classrooms and the broader society. She generously agreed to allow me to share her commentary on my blog. Her recorded commentary can be found here with the written comments included below.

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What I’m going to talk about builds on Nelson’s powerful historicizing of some of the concepts that lie beneath Jim Cummins’s critique of translanguaging and raciolinguistic ideologies. Nelson ended with some examples of how deficit framings have portrayed students as lacking everyday thinking practices like making inferences or as being so “behind” in both English and their home languages that they need remedial pedagogical approaches, and I could add many more examples to his. But in my own work with teachers I can tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways of both empowering teachers to question and disrupt monoglossic, raciolinguistic ideologies and equipping them with tools to create meaningful, effective language and literacy instruction.

I want to begin by sharing a classroom reality that comes from my research with an English Language Arts teacher, Ms. Winter, in New York City. Ms. Winter teaches in a school where some of the classic deficit narratives and framings of students are most common: the school serves students who come from “low SES” backgrounds; test scores and attendance rates can be very low; and many students have or have had some kind of label placed on them, including ELL or LTELL or Special Education. And Ms. Winter is tasked with preparing students for a high-stakes standardized exam that is necessary for students to graduate.

The Regents Exam in English Language Arts is an assessment that all students in New York State have to take, and as has been documented by Kate Menken and others, it is particularly difficult for students labeled English Language Learners to pass. But rather than typical approaches to preparing students for this test – rote, remedial instruction that teaches to the test – Ms. Winter teaches with the perspective that these students – both bilingual students and racialized English-speaking students, like African American students – are already engaged in and go far beyond the kind of language and literacy practices expected of them on this test. So she designs instructional opportunities for students to explore their own language and literacy practices, to read the work of writers who engage in translanguaging, to write in ways that challenge existing language norms and in ways that align with those norms, like in the style of the test. And as they engage in this exciting English Language Arts class, as they talk about language itself, what also comes up are their experiences as language minoritized people. They talk about linguistic prejudice, about times they sensed their language practices were judged, about interactions with authority figures like teachers and police where their ways of languaging were linked with being threatening, disruptive, insubordinate. And the teacher, Ms. Winter, listens. She, a white, English-speaking woman, learns from them. And, during the year we worked together, she shifted her instruction so that students’ experiences and sophisticated understandings of the links between language, identity, and power became the curriculum. The results were striking. Students wrote powerful poetry, acted out provocative role plays, engaged in deep, critical analysis of texts, and both critiqued and prepared for the standardized exam they were expected to take. And which, in the end, they scored higher on than any other year Ms. Winter taught 11th grade.

So in my work with teachers like Ms. Winter, both as a researcher and a university teacher educator, I invite teachers to walk a line: to teach the language and literacy practices expected of students by schools AND to learn alongside their students about the intersections of language and power. For many teachers – particularly those who are white and monolingual – it means un-learning ideologies about language and its links to racialization and coloniality. We talk about the normative communicative practices of bi-/multilingual communities. We talk about how solid, well-scaffolded, culturally sustaining, engaging instruction and curriculum can bring students’ translanguaging and understandings about language to the surface. And how we, as teachers, can both question ideas about what counts as “academic language” and teach students to integrate new practices to their repertoire that, as they explore them, can become a part of who they are and how they language – or not. To paraphrase Nelson, we give them the opportunity to explore language; we don’t police it. 

Jim Cummins says there are no pedagogical differences between different conceptualizations of translanguaging, but with that I disagree. Translanguaging absolutely invites bilingual instructional strategies and ways of leveraging students’ language practices for their learning. But it also invites something different: it invites a collaborative disruption of those ideologies that have marginalized language minoritized students in school and beyond. By collectively grappling with questions like “is there such a thing as academic language?” or “how can language open and close doors to us?” – in addition to drawing on all of students’ linguistic repertoire and adding new practices to it – teachers have a decolonial, anti-racist framework for educating language minoritized students and an empowering pedagogical approach that can hone teacher practice and improve students’ educational experiences. 

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