What is translanguaging?

The Utopias project links to and builds on the TLANG research project (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tlang/index.aspx) which investigates linguistic and cultural transformations in superdiverse wards in four UK cities. The research project is described by Principal Investigator Professor Angela Creese:

‘The research will make a significant contribution to knowledge about the potential of multilingualism as a resource for communication, creativity, and civic participation’.

Therefore, mirroring this but also perhaps switching it round, we are exploring in the Utopias project what the potential of creativity is as a resource for communication. We can consider how research into multilingual practices might inform arts practice. We can also consider how arts practice might inform linguistic research into multilingualism. But also, and crucially, we can consider how multilingualism can be a resource for communication – in terms of how experiences of working with multilingual groups, the adaptation of workshops and consideration of ‘communication practices’ within these settings might feed into arts practice with community groups.

But where is translanguaging within this? And how do we explore translanguaging, and, for a public engagement project of this kind, explain translanguaging?

On the TLANG project website, we summarise translanguaging in the following way:

When people ‘translanguage’ they make meaning through linguistic signs accessed from diverse sources. Translanguaging leads us away from a focus on ‘languages’ as distinct codes to a focus on the agency of individuals engaged in creating, deploying, and interpreting signs for communication. Translanguaging includes the full range of linguistic performances of multilingual speakers, beyond the simple alternation between languages, or ‘code-switching’. A focus on translanguaging enables us to see how everyday practices and identities are rooted in the trajectories of the multiple communities to which individuals belong, and how they develop and transform.

Taking into account this description as being ‘the full range of linguistic performances’ we are applying translanguaging as a lens within arts workshops of this kind. How do people communicate with each other in a multilingual setting? What resources are employed? How does the activity intersect with the languaging practices within the workshops? Do particular settings or activities encourage translanguaging?

A conversation with a colleague, who has been researching translanguaging over a number of years, with work in Barcelona, New York, and now Leeds, that arose yesterday at one of our project meetings has led me to consider again translanguaging as an analytical tool and go back to some of the original conceptualisations of translanguaging. It is important as research moves and shifts, and all kinds of detours are taken, that I go back to the literature regularly and remind myself of the origins of the terms we are using (for example, translanguaging, super diversity). Are these applicable, or is something else happening entirely?

An interview with Ofelia Garcia has recently been published in Psychology Today. In it, she states: Only by drawing from their entire language repertoire will bilingual students be able to demonstrate what they know, and especially what they can do with language. Within settings of the kind that we are exploring with this project, the participants may have often only recently moved to the UK, and are in the early stages of learning English. The artists speak English. How do the artists and the participants communicate in order to complete the task? The task being a piece of silk painting. What is the role of the activity and how does that work to facilitate communication? The repertoires that are drawn on within these contexts – by the participants and by the artists – include the practice itself, the painting, the methods. Do we consider this as translanguaging, or as something else? Garcia goes on: Being able to perform with language-specific features legitimized in schools is not the same as having general language ability or being knowledgeable of content. All those participating in the workshops are able to produce a painting by the end of the workshops. And, interestingly, the workshops also become English classes in themselves. How do you say paintbrush? How do you say ‘welcome’? What does it mean to ‘welcome’ somebody? We have been considering this multilingually – by writing words on the silk paintings, by talking within the group. In the last workshop, I also painted a piece of silk. I was a novice – I’d never painted silk before. My paint bled outside the lines. We shared the experience of learning something new.

Garcia goes on to say:

Translanguaging pedagogy requires a different type of teacher, a co-learner. Classrooms are increasingly multilingual in the world. It is impossible for teachers to know all the languages of students. But it is possible for teachers to build a classroom ecology where there are books and signage in multiple languages; where collaborative groupings are constructed according to home language so that students can deeply discuss a text in the dominant school language with all their language resources; where students are allowed to write and speak with whatever resources they have and not wait until they have the “legitimate” ones to develop a voice; where all students language practices are included so as to work against the linguistic hierarchies that exist in schools; where families with different language practices are included. Any teacher, including a monolingual one, can take up translanguaging to enable their bilingual students to make deeper meaning and legitimize their home language practices.

Likewise, it is impossible for us to know the languages of all the participants in our groups. But by producing paintings and using different languages – we perhaps go a small way to develop a translanguaging pedagogy within the workshops. A small step, granted.

In one workshop, one of the participants wanted to talk to me about his home language – the language used in his tribe. He wanted to know how to preserve it. He showed me YouTube videos which showed examples of the language, and of its alphabet. He wrote words on the page and we worked together to produce the words so they could be incorporated into the larger silk painting. We were then able to direct him to people at the university who would be interested in finding out more about his language. Perhaps, in line with Garcia’s words on translanguaging in this article going some way to explore home languages, and legitimise their practice.

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