The Habits of Bilinguals: Why Have I Never Heard of ‘Translanguaging’?

Untitled-2-copy-2-294x300I’ll admit it: four years of high-school Spanish plus multiple years of grade-school Spanish have made me only passably able to understand and speak the language. This is partly my own fault, because I lost interest in learning the language late in high school, but it is partly the fault of my academic institutions. In her article about translanguaging, Ofelia García states, “…new language practices only emerge in interrelationship with old language practices” (3). Instead of using only Spanish to teach Spanish, my teachers should have let me draw from my own English repertoire in order to tie the two language practices together. García points out that practicing languages together allows students to “explicitly notice language features” (3).

The concept of translanguaging, which is the idea that bilingual people speak in “one linguistic repertoire”” rather than two separate languages (1). Even though I know several people who speak more than one language, I never realized that bilinguals do not separate the two languages in their minds. They can have both English and Spanish happening around them, like typing English into Google and having Spanish music playing. They can switch between the languages smoothly and even within one sentence, and they can navigate between the structures of each language.

While reading García’s article, I found myself getting embarrassed that I never saw bilinguals as “one person with complex language and cultural practices that are fluid and changing depending on the particular situation and the local practice” (3). When my friend Nithali switched into and Indian accent and kept speaking English, I never knew how to react–laugh? pretend nothing happened? What I didn’t know was that this must have been a regular part of her language habits; both of her parents have thick accents and she often visits family in India.

Then I realized that the embarrassment could be a learning opportunity. García mentions the idea of “dynamic bilingualism.” “It is not enough to maintain the static languages of the past” (García 4). Single languages are always changing, and as the world becomes more interconnected, more and more people will learn second or third languages. I needed this reminder, as I’m sure many do, that we need to “bring these practices into a bilingual future” (García 4).

García talks about using translanguaging in the classroom to help multilingual students take charge of their academic work. By recognizing the wide range of language practices students bring to the classroom, professors and students alike are more able to respect and understand different cultures. All of us are learning languages; no single language is the dominant or more important language.

After all, we are all still learning the ins and outs of the language(s) we already know. I would consider myself proficient in the English language, yet I always learn at least one new word when I pick up a book and new grammar rules attack me out of nowhere. This is coming from someone who wants to be a copy editor in the future (i.e. I LOVE the English language).

García does not go into detail about what types of teaching skills one should use with multilingual students; she just states that it is important to mix the two languages rather than keep them separate.

Although I only speak one language fluently, I would have loved more instruction on how to interact with multilingual writers in the writing center. I am fairly comfortable interacting with their texts, as I have already spoken with many multilingual writers, but I still have trouble interacting with the writers themselves. How do I link their own language practices to English practices? How do I recognize different rhetorics? How do I explain English rules that I only understand by intuition? And how much do I know when to focus on grammar and when tmultilingualo focus on organization?

All of these questions become a thousand times louder in my mind when I am speaking with a multilingual writer.

However, Jennifer E. Staben and Kathryn Dempsey Nordhaus’s article “Looking at the Whole Text” gives advice on how to interact with these students. Their ideas of taking about the text before diving into it, being “direct, not directive,” usingmodels, giving feedback on ideas, and writing down spoken ideas are all wonderful and helpful, yet I almost feel that learning how to interact with multilingual writers is one that will only come with experience (Staben, et. al 81-86).

The best advice for working with multilingual writers comes from Paul Kei Matsuda and Michelle Cox, which is to regard “them as peers rather than as uninformed learners of the English language and the U.S. culture” (46). This creates “an atmosphere of mutual respect,” which is the most important thing to cultivate in a consultation.

Being nonjudgmental and respectful of my fellow humans has always been one of my main goals in life; I value diversity and people’s differences, so why shouldn’t I accept differences in language? Why shouldn’t I look past a text’s grammar issues even though they seem to demand all my attention?

Multilingual writers and speakers deserve my respect. They have done something I have never in my life done–immersed themselves in a new culture to learn a new language. And I can learn from them. Always.

This post was a little disjointed, because it was an attempt to formulate my own thoughts about my personal interactions with multilingual people. These articles have changed the way I think about my conversations and consultations with these people, and I am pretty sure my thoughts have changed for the better (even if they are a little all over the place).

To finish off, here is a funny video about things bilingual people do (which gives some examples of translanguaging!).


Works Cited

García, Ofelia. “Theorizing Translanguaging for Education.” A political history of Spanish: The making of a language, pp.1-6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Staben, Jennifer E. and Kathryn Dempsey Nordhaus. “Looking at the Whole Text.” pp. 79-89.

Matsuda, Paul Kei and Michelle Cox. “Reading an ESL Writer’s Text.” pp. 39-47.


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