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Learning together: crossing the language barrier with bilingual pupils

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 September 2015

Li Wei
“What do I do when all my pupils speak different languages that I don’t understand myself, even though I speak several languages already?” This is a question I was once asked by an experienced teacher who was getting ready for a trip to Sierra Leone as a volunteer teacher. She taught history and geography in an inner London school and spoke English, fluent French, and had a good knowledge of German and Spanish. We talked about the possibilities of having many different languages and dialects amongst the children she would be teaching, and the purpose and objective of her trip. She concluded that the only feasible way was to allow the children to use whatever language or dialect they felt most comfortable in and to ‘co-construct’ knowledge with her. So rather than teaching them directly, she would learn as much from the pupils as they would from her. They would be learning together.
This is the idea behind ‘Translanguaging’, a dynamic process of knowledge building and meaning making that employs multiple cognitive, linguistic, semiotic and symbolic resources.
The term Translanguaging was first coined by Cen Williams in his 1994 doctoral thesis in Welsh. He used trawsieithu to describe a phenomenon he observed in schools in Wales: a pedagogical practice where one receives information through the medium of one language (e.g. English) and gives information through the medium of a different language (e.g. Welsh). It can be practised by both the student and the teacher. And Cen Williams argued that it helps to maximise pupils’ ability to learn in both languages.
Colin Baker, a professor of education at Bangor University later translated the concept into English as Translanguaging. From the very beginning, Williams emphasised the importance of focusing on the process of knowledge construction by maximizing the learner’s (and the teacher’s) linguistic and cultural resources. It has since captured the imagination of practitioners and researchers in language education. Ofelia Garcia in her 2009 book Bilingual Education in the 21st Century, for example, talks about Translanguaging as the process of making meaning, shaping experience, gaining understanding and knowledge through the use of multiple languages. Both languages are used in a dynamic and functionally integrated manner to organise and mediate mental processes in understanding, speaking, reading, writing and not least learning.
In our recent book Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education, which has just won the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) 2015 Book Prize, Garcia and I have expanded the concept, highlighting its transformative potential in knowledge construction and knowledge mobilisation. For us, Translanguaging creates a space for the multilingual user to bring together different dimensions of their personal history, experience, and environment, their attitude, belief and ideology, their cognitive and physical capacity into one coordinated and meaningful performance; a space where subjectivities and ideologies are constituted and re-constructed. Using examples from various contexts in the UK and the US, we demonstrate how Translanguaging empowers the teacher and the learner through a process in which individuals make full use of their own linguistic resources without alienating any member of the group. We show that even the monolingual teacher needn’t be to be frightened by not knowing the pupils’ languages and use Translanguaging as an effective pedagogical and communicative strategy in supporting the pupils’ as well as their own learning.
This extract provides one example of how translanguaging works in practice
In a school for recently arrived Latino immigrants, a teacher of Indian background speaks five languages, even though Spanish is not one of them. In interacting with her Spanish-speaking students, she has acquired some vocabulary and phrases in Spanish. She translates key terms of the day into Spanish to scaffold learning and build on students’ prior knowledge. She does so by asking another student for the term or using Google Translate. The following exchange is typical: 
Teacher: To write a comparison between Julio and myself. Can someone say it in Spanish?
Student: Que tiene que comparar ellos.
Student: Algo que ellos tienen en común.
The teacher recognises what the students know and asks for their help in translating for others, in that way making it comprehensible for all. The teacher continues:
Teacher: What is different? Diferente?
Student: Different? Tamaño.
Teacher: Tamaño. Size.
Student: Your skin, different colour.
The fact that this teacher risked saying words in Spanish means that students can also risk saying more in English. She repeats their words in Spanish (tamaño), in the same way the students repeat her words in English (different). And this trust and open exchange of different language practices enable students to bring up the difficult topic of skin colour and racial differences.
Read more about this example in Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education pp. 110-112). For an example of Translanguaging in a Mandarin class in a Cantonese school in London see pp. 112-115)
Photo by Jenny Levine https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode
Caption: Scholars used the Rosetta Stone to translate an unknown language through one they knew

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