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.