Translanguaging as a learning skill?

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At a recent ELLSA workshop where EAL teachers across Kuala Lumpur were discussing translanguaging, I picked up on lots of comments that we were making about trying to find the tipping point when translanguaging becomes a crutch and therefore, should be discouraged. I’m not criticising anyone for thinking that, I have, too. But during that particular conversation, I knew I didn’t believe that anymore. Considering this, I made an interesting self-discovery. I realised that as a bilingual adult, I actually use translanguaging quite a bit, intuitively and automatically. I’ve never stopped, not even when my English became fluent enough not to have to do it. On reflection, I had to also realise that I translanguage in unexpected ways – or at least in ways I never knew I did.

Young woman and man in headphones learning different languages communicating translanguaging

My two languages, Hungarian (L1) and English (L2), are both highly developed in terms of fluency and accuracy. However, there are certain topics that I simply find easier to talk about in one language than the other. Unsurprisingly, anything related to my work is easier to convey in English. I work in a predominantly English language environment, and although there are many other languages around me (Mandarin, Cantonese, Bahasa Malaysia, Korean, etc.) I don’t speak any of them to the extent that I’d be using them for everyday communication. Other aspects of life, such as parenting or talking about emotions, make me activate my Hungarian language skills much more.

My husband and my children are multilinguals. Malaysia is a fascinating context where most people are multilinguals – they have a home language which they use to communicate with family members (in my family that’s Cantonese), an L1 that’s used for the majority of communication and schooling (for us that’s English), and other languages that are used to communicate socially or for specific purposes (such as Mandarin and Bahasa Malaysia). My children also have Hungarian as one of their mother tongues, of course.

I often hear my husband on work calls where he seamlessly moves between languages for effective communication. For instance, meet and greet in Cantonese, business related chat in English, sprinkle in some Bahasa for social banter. None of the languages seem to be crutches – they all have their place in each conversation and they each serve a purpose. They might let speakers relate to each other, express emotions, be more professional or crack a joke, none of which would have the same effect if done in one language.

I translanguage when I

Setting the language on the new mobile phone, settings screen close-up photo translanguaging
  1. … want to communicate more effectively. When I am talking about my work with Hungarian speakers who I know understand English, I frequently use English words in conversation as a quick way of conveying the message. This feels more efficient as I don’t “waste” time looking for the words in the other language. On the other hand, telling my monolingual parents anything about work can be tricky, especially when I’m tired. It’s not that I can’t, it’s just that it requires a bigger mental effort.
  2. … need quick access to information. For instance, trying to understand legal terminology is much easier in Hungarian than in English. This is possibly because when I use my L1, I get to activate my Funds of Knowledge (FOK) from my social studies classes in school. Since that knowledge is all stored in Hungarian, even though I can decipher legal texts (on my better days at least!) in English, it’s just easier in Hungarian.
  3. … want to engage with people socially. Sharing a language with somebody can give people a lot of comfort. So when I meet other Hungarians here in KL, we tend to translanguage. If it’s just us, we mostly speak Hungarian, but when other people are present (e.g. spouses who aren’t fluent in it), we mix the two languages. The conversations are fluent even though there is a lot of ‘code switching’ happening.
  4. … need to convey something specific or essential. As a friend of mine has recently pointed it out, when you are parenting multilingual children, you can’t avoid translanguaging with them. At times, you simply have to ensure that the information you are conveying gets heard and understood. Since multilingual children’s languages are rarely at the same level of fluency, translanguaging becomes an important skill.

Translanguaging as a learning skill?

Research tells us that home languages are immensely helpful for learning other languages and translanguaging has many benefits. Pete Clements and I talk about this in our upcoming book too. But what does this all mean for our learners then? If we look at translanguaging as a set of skills that can be learned and developed, what is it that we need to teach our learners to do?

Select language. Learning, translate languages or audio guide co
  1. Maintain your home language skills. At that workshop, we also discussed the difficulties of working with EAL learners whose home languages aren’t developed enough to help them in their studies. For instance, we see transient families that move so frequently that the children haven’t had the chance to learn to read and write in their home language. Or as a result of the Covid lockdowns, children’s education was so disrupted that they simply didn’t spend enough time in school to be able to develop these skills to age-appropriate levels. But for learners who are able to use their home languages to their advantage, maintaining those skills is essential for successful second language acquisition, activation of FOK, etc.
  2. Value all of your languages. Only if learners see all of their languages as useful and important will they be able to use translanguaging as a skill that supports them in communication. This needs to be modelled for them as they might think that their home languages are less important because they might be seen as less prestigious.
  3. Don’t be afraid to switch between languages. It might just be me, but at times I’ve felt that speaking my home language might give people the impression that my English isn’t fluent enough and that somehow that would make me seem less credible. I don’t believe that anymore. I know that being a bilingual makes me a better communicator most of the time. Being able to move between languages helps me in all the ways listed above.
  4. Find the most effective way to use your language repertoire to help you. This might be very personal so I’m not sure how I would teach this. Maybe exposing learners to different ways to do this is a good way to start so they can figure this out for themselves. In my case, researching certain topics in Hungarian speeds up the process of understanding way more than using a dictionary.

What’s next?

This is not a complete list, more like a springboard for further consideration and discussion. As step 1, I will start highlighting the underlying skills my learners are using when they translanguage in my lessons.

I’d be interested in your thoughts! Send me an email or message me on LinkedIn.

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