Translingualism: Linguistic Multiplicity as Asset Rather than Deficit

Sometimes teachers—myself included— fail to value or even acknowledge the variety of Englishes that our students bring into our classrooms, and when this happens I would argue that we miss an opportunity to engage with and teach our students more effectively. Instructors who begin to familiarize themselves with global, multilingual contexts of English are better able to draw upon their own linguistic practices and identities to validate their students’ Englishes while developing their students’ multilingual competence. Translingualism (to oversimplify) merely means operating between different languages, and in the context of encountering varied Englishes in an academic context, instructors who view linguistic and cultural multiplicities as assets rather than deficits will, I think, improve their teaching. But a translingual approach also focuses on the ideological status of language in writing—emphasizing that writing in standard English is never neutral, for example— it foregrounds and complicates issues of power in communication. We as teachers should acknowledge and validate the range of Englishes and translinguistic identities present in our classrooms, and engage with our students’ languages as they engage with ours.

Between full-time PhD coursework and a full-time job, as well as tending to a little 3-year old miracle named Eloise (she attends the GC daycare a few doors away from our classroom), I currently just don’t have time to teach. However, when I was still able to teach first-year writing a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to teach several sections of a first-year composition course for multilingual students. As those of you who have taught at CUNY know well, anyone who teaches in the CUNY system also has this opportunity, to engage with students from a wide array of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Having read the works of Paul Kei Matsuda, Min-Zhan Lu, Suresh Canagarajah, Bruce Horner and others, I attempted to create a curriculum that held linguistic diversity as the norm, creating numerous opportunities for linguistic negotiation and giving students the opportunity to play with format, style, language, and mode of reading and writing. In class, we explored the idea that deployment of language is always contextual and situated. Creating space for “code-switching,” for instance, allowing students to deploy language practices in the classroom that are normally considered inappropriate (or simply not acknowledged) encouraged discussion about the mutable linguistic undercurrents of power which depend upon setting and audience. For example, students read texts that directly confronted code-switching, code-meshing, and non-standard forms of English. Students analyzed hip-hop music (and the corresponding music videos) in multilingual groups, where language diversity created natural information gaps students needed to negotiate in collaborative writing assignments. Students wrote traditional academic research papers, with an invitation to conduct some research using non-English texts. We interrogated daily practices (names and nicknames, text messaging, etc.) and academic practices. And finally, as a class we examined the concept of translingualism. Juan Guerra writes that “we also need to teach a translingual/transcultural approach very explicitly if we want to demystify the various ideological approaches to language and cultural difference and to encourage them to develop–as many of them are already in the process of doing–the metacognitive, metalinguistic, and rhetorical dexterity that we value as proponents of such an approach.”

I realize that for our class this week, by way of an introductory text I should have included “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” by Horner et al. If you have time, read this short (manifesto?) opinion piece before or in addition to reading the other passages, as it will provide some contextual background to current translingual discourse/debate in the rhetoric/composition field. I will bring printed copies for everyone too, just as an optional “FYI” reading.

Being sensitive to the linguistic range and diversity that students bring to the classroom goes against the grain of numerous assumptions of both educators across disciplines (including composition specialists) and dominant culture. With a shift in thinking, though, the idea of building upon, honoring and celebrating difference in language can and should replace attempts to outsource, quarantine and/or eradicate language difference in student writing.




  • As a former undergrad CUNY student who attended BMCC first and then MEC afterwards I agree with you Josh how the CUNY schools community is comprised of a multilingual community. And I am sue you noticed it is not just the students but many professors as well. When my son was in elementary school we parents overall tried hard to convince the principal and school admins the needs and necessities of having our sons enrolled in foreign languages. I wish I would have had the video back then as part of our presentation. Hence when my son finally in high school took his first Spanish class he felt out of place amongst the other students even though the class was a beginners/intro. now in his third year of Spanish he is quite fluent and earns A versus the B he receives in hos English/language arts class (go figure). On a serious note though it goes without saying that what we saw in the videos about our brains and the benefits of being bilingual or able to speak and write in different languages and the complexity can help decrease the gray matter in our brains. Most of the Spanish I took back in high school over x amount of years ago has been depleted but there are still some things I remember (besides the cuss words) and I try to keep it afloat in brief conversations with my friends. Sign language should also be considered as a second language for hearing people since for many non-hearing people signing is considered a first language. And trust me it is not such an easy language to remember if you do not continue to practice with it.
    I attended the Teach@Cuny day and had the opportunity t talk and listen and meet various people from different backgrounds and academia levels and careers. And though I was probably one of the few people in attendance who was not a teacher or a professor (as yet), the insights I gained from the workshops and conversations definitely supports what you said in the beginning of your post Josh that to teach and be successful, engaging and effective I would need to acknowledge, be aware and create my lesson plans and assignments and class discussions in a manner that reflects my “sensitivity to the linguistic range and diversity” of the students enrolled in my courses.

  • This week’s readings were so interesting. The term “translingual” is new to me, but I found myself relating to it as it parallels the idea of queerness – a concept meant to catch all of the identities and ways of being that fall between or outside of traditional binaries. The gray areas. Or the areas that are neither black, white, nor gray. I especially enjoyed the positioning of the Atkinson and Canagarajah pieces around the disagreements that arise between the L2 and translingual teaching communities. Both hold some very valid points. In an age that attempts to embrace inclusivity, how do teachers create a learning space that doesn’t “contain” ESL/ELL students, but also addresses their unique set of needs?

    This issue has come up in my classrooms quite a bit this past semester. In two sections of my English composition course, I have a number of ESL/ELL students, most of whom are extremely quiet in class. The distinction has been so noticeable that I decided to meet with every student for 20-minutes each in the middle of the semester (60 students between those two classes) in order to learn more about each of them and to work together to figure out how to comfortably engage them more during class. I’m not sure how successful this was. But students were definitely honest. Almost every non-native speaker I met with told me that don’t like speaking in class because they’re embarrassed of their English compared to their classmates. To make a case for the “containment” method, I have wondered (even before this semester) whether it would be more useful for ESL/ELL students to have the option of enrolling in designated composition classes where they could potentially feel more comfortable speaking, reading, and writing with other language learners. However, I can also see how this is problematic in a “separate but equal” kind of way (which, of course, we know cannot truly exist).

    I think one of the biggest disservices at CUNY to L2 students is the requirement that they pass the CATW alongside their L1 peers to test out of remedial. They are given the exact same amount of time (90 minutes) to hand-write a well-organize essay in response to an article that may or may not be on a topic they are culturally familiar with. It’s a lot. I wonder what the pass rate is for ESL 095 versus ENG 095?

    I also have to admit, I’m guilty of doing both thing that the Matsuda article points out about composition instructors: 1) I make a few corrections, then tell the student to “further revise” their grammar, and 2) send them to supplemental tutoring to revise their grammar. I have to admit, I’m not sure what else to do.

    • Erica,

      There’s nothing wrong with referring your students to supplemental tutoring, although not necessarily to “revise their grammar;” we remind students and faculty that we are not a proof-reading/editing service, but rather we engage with student writing to find patterns and help students clarify their ideas in their essays. As for correcting, I think pointing out to students language areas they need to work on is good, and attempting to find practice exercises that are not just de-contextualized grammar drills is much more generative (e.g. include passages that model grammar in context and then ask the student to write a paragraph including the grammar structure[s]).
      It is interesting to view “translingual” through a queer theory lens, and to consider identity and ways of being that cannot be categorized within normative, “appropriate” binaries. I also like that the idea of “movement” is built into the trans- prefix. Back and forth, between, simultaneous, etc. Some of this is just a matter of semantics, but hardcore translingual theorists (this is all relatively new scholarship/discourse) are critical of the hierarchical aspect of terms/acronyms like “ESL (English as a SECOND Language)” or “L2″…

  • I found all of the reading so stimulating and they challenged me a lot as an ELA educator at the middle school level. I have a constant inner battle of what is appropriate to accept from my multi-lingual students, their sentence structure, grammar, etc. I always find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place of holding up “high expectations” and honoring that fact they are traslingual learners. Many of the tacts that you employed, using hip-hop, texts, etc. I found myself using in my Texas high school classroom that had a higher population of Spanish speaking students than my students here. In reflection, I always assumed I was lowering my expectations because they weren’t capable, but this makes me wonder if in fact I was doing something right. If I was meeting them where they were at for a better understanding. In this fast paced NYC mindset, many of my prior strategies seems inadequate, but they were just different, serving what I assumed to be a different population when in fact I have many translingual learners in my classroom now, but more from African countries speaking French.

    I found the video to be an awesome resource that I think any educator who teachers a bilingual population to take a few minutes to watch just to get a little bit more clear understanding of what the terms mean. It was a riveting and informative video that gave some very useful information.

  • I am finding the reading so stimulating–and that reading, for me, includes ALL of your comments, the blog and the responses. I’m learning so much. I did not know the concept of translingual learners before nor did I know about “second language writing” and I had no idea that CUNY required a CATW and I don’t know what L1 and ELA and ELL and other acronyms mean unless I look them up or think about them.

    In short, I am your student on this one. And I’m learning a lot.

    There is an old, international joke at America’s expense that goes:
    Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
    A: Trilingual
    Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
    A: Bilingual
    Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
    A: American

    That is not meant as a compliment. We could change that but, instead, we do what Carmina Mankar called “backlash pedagogy” by teaching as if bilingualism is “the problem” to be addressed rather than the asset to be appreciated, cultivated, mined, used, understood, and built upon in order that the individual student can achieve the desired learning goals. Making the student monolingual should not be the desired learning goal.

    Thank you so much. I look forward to class today with great eagerness!

  • Lisa Hirschfield

    The term “translingual” was new to me as well – and a fascinating way to think about language for anyone who communicates in any language, especially in a city like New York. Although I don’t teach (anymore), I do work and live in a bilingual/multilingual environment and this concept presents a new way of thinking about what I hear around me every day.

    Being a former literature student, this is also an interesting way to look back at a fascinating time in the development of English and tension over the fluid nature of the English language in 18th century England. There were so many efforts to define, contain, and fix words in place for perpetuity. Of course, this had political dimensions as well, in regard to England’s complicated history with France, as well as Ireland, Scotland, and its colonies.

    When I was teaching composition at NYU in the late 90s, the arrangement wasn’t that different as now at CUNY — which really surprises me, given that 20 years have passed, as well as CUNY’s international, multilingual student body (something colleges like Lehman, where I work, tout as a recruiting tool). Students with marked difficulties writing in English were placed in ESL classes, and those with minor issues were put into the standard courses. I had one or two of those students, who were incredibly bright but seemed to have more difficulty understanding what I was asking them to do with their writing (revisions, etc.) than the writing itself. Perhaps the revision process takes place on a different level of language learning?

    One thing that has stuck with me from that experience — which a peer who taught ESL composition pointed out in the teaching practicum I took — is that in the places where communication gets messy are usually the places where the most interesting ideas are brewing. In a piece of writing, those are the places where the writer is trying to work through the idea. This may be more evident in work by students who are not native English speakers, but I think it holds true for most people. It is certainly true for myself — in writing, but most often in oral communication. That’s why I prize the revision process, which also gives writing an advantage over speaking.

  • Like Erica, I find papers my students have written in nonstandard English, and I frequently make a handful of corrections and advise the students to visit the writing lab. Of course, students don’t–quite understandably. Through no fault of the writing lab, it is understaffed and cannot provide enough time slots for all the students who need help. While I’m sure it’s not true everywhere, Matsuda also suggests that some writing centers just aren’t staffed to seriously help some ESL learners. The more I think about this problem, the more I think I should simply teach grammar and mechanics in my class.

    Having to talked to some of my colleagues at the GC, I get the impression that this strategy is frowned upon. There’s an idea that teaching standard written English conventions is imperialistic and colonial. I understand this impulse. When we teach standard English in the classroom, we make the make the implicit argument that it is better than other forms of English. It sends the message that other types of English or other languages should be subsumed under standard English. But I don’t think it has to be that way.

    I think it could be a strong move to teach both standard English and nonstandard, world Englishes. For example, major assignments could focus on argument, logic, and evidence–while I could assign smaller worksheet type exercises to teach comma splices, subject / verb agreement, and how to cut down on redundancy. By having two tracks of assignments (one focused on standard English and one focused on ideas) I could teach students that the two skills are not the same. And I could also prepare students to write cover letters and job applications.

    I have long shied away from teaching grammar and mechanics for fear of seeming imperialistic. I’ve told myself that it’s unfair to privilege one English over another, and–besides–the important thing is that students make strong, logical arguments, whatever the mechanics are. But I think that strategy–ignoring the lack of familiarity many of my students have with standard English–is unfair in itself. The students I’ve encountered want to learn mechanics. They think it’ll give them a better shot at finding a white collar job, and they’re probably right. If students want to learn a skill, why should I stop them?

    I think by clearly explaining that standard English doesn’t equal strong writing, and yet still teaching it, I can give my students a tool they seem to want that will probably help them land the kind of job they want. To use a clunky analogy–the situation reminds me of a time when I was a child taking guitar lessons and my teacher wanted me to practice a speed exercise. I told him I didn’t want to because I didn’t aspire to play quick notes. He told me that’s a fine choice and that he didn’t like overly speedy playing as well, but I should reject that style because I didn’t like it, not because I couldn’t do it. That advice stuck with me, and it’s something I want to start applying to my teaching. Teach students to use standard grammar and mechanics, and if they reject it, it will be a brave and conscientious choice. If I teach it, then it will be a choice. But if I don’t teach it, my students loose the right to choose.

  • The readings and videos for this week have definitely challenged me to think about how I approach teaching composition to ELL/ESL and multilingual students, but I feel that, at the end of the day, my job as an instructor of freshman composition–the gateway to academic writing, as the English department conceives of it–is to police the lines of acceptable discourse, i.e. to encourage writing that conforms to the dictates of so-called standard English. In other words, I do everything in my power to bring this standardizing operation to the attention of my students, and I structure all of my readings and discussions around challenging nefarious norms and standards by looking at how they are constructed and perpetuated, but when it comes to the task of grading student papers (which is 75% of the course grade) I have no choice but to maintain the same structures of standardization that are expected both inside and outside the academy. In fact, I would be doing my students a disservice if I failed to instill in them a sense of how important it is to be able to compose “standard” English sentences, as it is clearly in their best interest to be able to represent themselves as conventionally “proficient” when employing their writing in professional contexts. So, I guess the issue for me (and I admit that I am still coming to terms with this situation in all its complexity) is that however much I want to respect the transligual impulses of students, I see it as my role as a teacher of Freshman Comp to operate in the old mode of monoligual standardization. How does respect for multilingualism and non-standard dialects in the classroom help students if the culture at large is not also able to see this as a value?

  • The term “translingual” was also new to me, but the idea behind it is not. I grew up in a diverse community with both acceptance and condescension of differences, but this was never covered in class. We all adhered to SWE and it seemed like content mattered less than sentence structure. I love that you explored language and style distinctions in your classroom. I’m curious to hear more about it– did the students produce “better” work as a result? How did you assess assignments?

    (Am I the only old fool thinking of the Jive talk scenes in the movie Airplane?)

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