Like many in the US, I studied Spanish in high school as part of my graduation requirement. While in college, however, my motivation for continuing with the language became decidedly more personal. I met my current partner, whose family was from Mexico and whose parents and grandparents spoke Spanish and very little English. Given that I, in turn, spoke English and very little Spanish, my ability to communicate with them was extremely limited, so I doubled down on my studies and eventually switched my major to Spanish.
As my courses became more advanced, the complexity of the work I was asked to produce increased, from a few carefully structured sentences on homework assignments to short compositions to five-paragraph essays and, eventually, to longer research papers, all in Spanish. Or, at least, all in Spanish on the finished versions that I handed in for a grade. My working documents told a very different story: If I needed to make an outline before writing an essay, I’d usually write the outline in English since it was much easier and faster to plan in my native language. If I was drafting a research paper and didn’t know how to express an idea in Spanish, I’d write it in English so I wouldn’t lose the thought, then figure out how to say it in Spanish for the final draft.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing what researchers such as Ricardo Otheguy, Ofelia García, and Wallis Reid refer to as “translanguaging.” Rather than limiting myself to using a language I was still working on learning, I was operating sin restricciones lingüísticas—without linguistic restrictions—and drawing upon my entire linguistic repertoire of both my second language (Spanish) and my native language (English) to analyze content and articulate my interpretation of it. As my confidence in Spanish increased, I used less and less English during the planning and drafting process, eventually getting to the point where I could comfortably plan and write papers entirely in Spanish.
Our students are at their best when they’re encouraged to access all the linguistic tools they have at their disposal.
Now, as a professional trained in both Spanish linguistics and second language acquisition, I’m able to fully appreciate just how vital my ability to draw upon and make comparisons with my native language was to my journey toward fluency in Spanish and my comprehension of the topics I studied, and I’m also able to use my experience as a relevant, personal example of why emergent bilingual students should be not only allowed but also encouraged to translanguage in the classroom and as part of the writing process.
Translanguaging as a way to enhance learning and writing
The term “translanguaging” has been around for a while now, ever since it was coined by Welsh researcher Cen Williams in the 1980s. Since then, multiple scholars (e.g., García and Wei, 2018; Hornberger, 2005; Lewis, Jones, and Baker, 2012; Otheguy, García, and Reid, 2015; Velasco and García, 2014) have investigated the role of translanguaging in student learning. The overwhelming consensus, as Hornberger writes, is that “bi/multilinguals’ learning is maximized when they are allowed and enabled to draw from across all their existing language skills (in two+ languages), rather than being constrained and inhibited from doing so by monolingual instructional assumptions and practices.” Similarly, NWEA stances on writing assert that “Instead of being restricted to composing in only one language, dialect, or register, students should be empowered to engage in translanguaging—using their entire language repertoire—to express themselves fully during the drafting process.”
To further illustrate why this is important, let’s pretend I asked you to write a brief composition about your favorite hobby. You probably know quite a bit about the hobby and how to talk about it with enthusiasm, so you likely already have some ideas about what you might include in your composition and could probably write it fairly quickly without a great deal of effort. Assuming you were writing in your main or most-fluent language, that is. Imagine, though, if I told you to write it in a language that you’ve studied but that you’re nowhere near fluent in and that while planning or drafting, you can only use the other language and that your main language, the one in which you can most easily express yourself, the one in which you likely learned how to write in the first place, is off limits. Your task just got a whole lot harder!
Now imagine instead that I kept the “write the final draft in your other language” rule but said that during the planning and drafting process, you could do as I did when I was learning to write in Spanish; that is, you could use your main or most-fluent language to make notes, ask questions, solicit feedback, and generally figure out what you wanted to say before you worried about how to say it. Writing the final composition in your other language would likely still be challenging, but your ability to use your main language as part of the process leading up to the final draft would probably help you feel more confident that the final draft more accurately reflected your intended message.
When we encourage students to draw upon their entire linguistic repertoire, we’re empowering them to use their fullest, most authentic voice.
This is precisely why translanguaging is such a valuable, potentially vital part of the writing process for multilingual students: because it facilitates critical thinking by allowing them to bring their whole selves and the entirety of what they know to a given writing task.
Translanguaging and the classroom: Strategies for implementation
Particularly for educators with little knowledge of multilingual students’ languages, incorporating translanguaging into the classroom writing process might seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. My colleague Teresa Krastel has a blog post titled “Valuing funds of knowledge and translanguaging in emergent bilingual students,” which ends with five suggested practices for supporting multilingual students more broadly. When it comes to writing instruction, consider strategies such as:
- Choosing tasks that are relevant to students’ interests and inclusive of their unique cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
- Providing multiple clear examples of what high-quality writing in English looks like across a variety of genres and encouraging students to make comparisons with similar texts written in their home language.
- Explicitly teaching elements such as transition words and different types of rhetorical devices (e.g., alliteration, repetition) and encouraging students to come up with examples in both English and their home language.
- Allowing students to outline or draft in multiple languages.
- When relevant, encouraging students to consider the purpose of translanguaging in a final draft. For example, if the intended audience of a written text are members of the student’s home language community, the intentional choice to use translanguaging in the final product can enhance both the writer’s message and readers’ understanding of it.
- Pairing students who speak the same languages in peer feedback groups and encouraging them to give verbal or written feedback in the language in which they and the person receiving the feedback are most comfortable.
- Making sure your classroom library includes multilingual dictionaries reflective of the languages your students speak, or allowing students to use apps or the internet to quickly look up new words.
- Reiterating to your students that writing is a recursive, collaborative process between a writer and their audience: the first draft is very rarely the final draft, and that’s okay.
For additional guidance on translanguaging and supporting multilingual students throughout the writing process, check out this guide from CUNY, which includes a variety of activities as well as reflection questions on pages 12–19 for teachers of multiple grade levels.
Honoring students’ linguistic toolkits
In the words of researchers Velasco and García: “Writing is a highly complex and demanding task. The writer must negotiate the rules and mechanics of writing while maintaining a focus on factors such as organization, form and features, purposes and goals, as well as audience needs and perspectives. Self-regulation of the writing process is critical. The writer must be goal oriented, resourceful, and reflective. Skilled writers are able to use powerful strategies to support them in accomplishing specific writing goals. In emergent bilinguals, translanguaging is one such strategy.”
Rather than conceptualizing languages as separate, non-overlapping entities, think instead of all the words, grammatical structures, and other linguistic features you know in any language or dialect and imagine them as tools in a single, large toolkit that’s available to you at all times. Depending on the context of any given interaction or problem that you’re trying to solve, you might use one or more tools from your native language or dialect, or you might use tools from an additional language or dialect you know, or you might realize that this is a particularly complex job and that you need multiple tools from multiple languages or dialects to resolve it effectively.
Just as a skilled craftsperson knows they’re at their best when they can access their entire toolkit, our students are at their best when they’re encouraged to access all the linguistic tools they have at their disposal. When we encourage students to draw upon their entire linguistic repertoire, we’re empowering them to use their fullest, most authentic voice. We’re teaching them the value of communication and collaboration by allowing them to use what they know to figure out where they need additional support, and we’re reaffirming that writing is both a product and a process and that there’s just as much (if not more) value in the latter as there is in the former. We’re recognizing that writers at different levels of fluency in English and at different stages of learning require different types of support and that the type of support a given writer needs will change over time as they continue to hone their craft and discover their voice. We are, in short, reaffirming that writing is a skill, one at which students—all students, and not just those who are native English speakers—can excel if their funds of linguistic knowledge are recognized and celebrated as part of the writing process.