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Translanguaging for the development of multilingualism

Linda Molin-Karakocin kommentoitu tiivistelmä Gudrun Svenssonin ja Intisar Khalidin artikkelista Transspråkande för utveckling av flerspråkighet. (2017)*

Translanguaging and the history of language in Swedish education

Svensson & Khalid’s (2017) article focuses on translanguaging and its role in the development of multilingualism. The authors define translanguaging in education as a method used by teachers that systematically builds on and draws from the full linguistic repertoires of multilingual students.  In the article, the traditionally monocultural view of learning (with its monolinguistic emphasis) is discussed. The Swedish Home Language Reform in 1977 was influential in promoting a multicultural view of learning but has failed to incorporate a so-called interlinguistic theory of learning, one in which the mother tongue has an equal standing with other school subjects. In line with Garcia (2009), the authors call for more flexible, interlinguistic approaches to teaching in which first and second languages should not be treated as distinct but interwoven entities that can develop by means of constant interaction.

Theoretical framework

Svensson & Khalid’s (2017) study is premised on Cummins’ theory of (2007) common underlying profiency (CUP) and Garcia’s (2009) notion of dynamic bilingualism. The authors follow Garcias (2009) two principles, social justice and social practice, for implementing translanguaging practices into the curriculum. Social justice refers to generating positive attitudes towards multilingualism and social practice involves the creation of meaningful contexts (including clear and consistent strategies) for the utilization of students’ linguistic resources. As a rationale for this approach, the authors refer to Baker (2001), who argues that tapping into multiple linguistic resources in the classroom carries two important effects for the development of language: (1) the weaker of the two (or more) languages will be supported and further developed and (2) it facilitates scaffolding when more knowledgeable students can collaborate with their less knowledgeable peers. Moreover, translanguaging as a means to developed and sustained multilingualism is mentioned as well as some of the fruits translanguaging typically bears, e.g. positive identity formation, content knowledge support and an improvement in the home and school partnership. The focus in this study is on multingual development and the link between home and school.

The study: data, participants and methodology

The longitudinal (three-year-long) study took place in a fourth grade classroom at a Swedish middle school. Interviews were held with 22 students and their parents. Neither the students nor the staff had any prior experience in translanguaging practices at the school and the curriculum had been monolinguistic in all school subjects despite mother tongue tuition. The teacher maintained a monolinguistic role in the course of the study to support interactive, contextual peer learning. The first of Garcia’s (2009) two principles (social justice), was addressed by building positive attitudes among the students and, after some persuasion, among their parents towards the inclusion of translanguaging practices in the school curriculum. The second of Garcia’s (2009) principles (social practice) was realized in four phases:

Phase 1 – Under teacher guidance, the students learned about and discussed different ecosystems in class

Phase 2 - The students were told to complete homework (translation and vocabulary acquisition) in their native languages in collaboration with their parents

Phase 3 – During a second class, the students worked on the task in groups to fill in potential gaps of knowledge and discuss learning strategies used at home

Phase 4 - A teacher-led, whole-class review of the task was carried out by means of interlinguistic comparisons, discussions and exemplifications. Lastly, the students received homework on sustainable development for the ecosystems in their countries of origin.

A case-study of three students and their parents was conducted to highlight parental opinions on translanguaging practices and their attitudes to the students’ language development as well as to elicit student perceptions of their own language skills and student-parent cooperation.

Results and discussion

The findings of Svensson and Khalid’s (2017) study demonstrate that parents are well-disposed towards multilingual practices at the school. Whereas parental rationales for developing skills in Swedish were more or less identical (Swedish skills are needed for a continued life in Sweden), their reasoning for students to develop skills in their first language varied and emphasized either better cognition, communication or ability to partake in religious matters. None of the parents associated multilingual practices with the development of bilingualism. Among the students, a difference of opinions pertaining to the perceived usefulness of translanguaging in school subjects emerged. Although two students did not find translanguaging particularly helpful, the first and second language skills of one of these students improved significantly during the course of the study.  The authors explain this by referring to Baker’s (2001) claim that the more developed language helps bolster the less developed one.  The study also showed that work methods between students and parents mattered, and that the use of simplification strategies in homework assignments led to more negative attitudes towards translanguaging and less development in the student’s first language. By comparison, as seen in the case of one student, the parents’ adoption of a nonhierarchical role in supporting first language skills resulted in a better disposition towards translanguaging, offered mental and practical help and led to tangible improvements in both languages for the student.

Svensson and Khalid’s (2017) research carries important implications for translanguaging in education. First, for development to occur, parental support should aim at advanced skills in multiple languages. In this respect, the strategies used to carry out translanguaging are of importance and simplification should be avoided.  Secondly, despite previous concerns about parents’ inadequate skills in Swedish, the parents’ role in the development of multilingualism among the students should not be underestimated. As shown by the example above, by providing moral and practical support, the parents are able to bolster interlinguistic interaction, memory and understanding, regardless of their own Swedish language proficiency. Thirdly, content knowledge should not be confused with linguistic competence which so often happens among multilingual students in monolinguistic environments. Parental input ought to be viewed in light of opportunities for intellectual and cognitive development for the students and a portrayal of parents as competent co-educators alongside teachers has to be encouraged. Lastly, linguistic resources provided in the student’s mother tongue classes are not sufficient for a desirable, advanced multilingual development as a gap between mother tongue tuition and other subjects remains to this day. As opposed to two distinct lines of inquiry, the relationship between the mother tongue and other school subjects can and should be consolidated through translanguaging activities at school. As the authors conclude, translanguaging can help pave way for connecting teachers, students and parents, resulting in advanced multilingual skills among a higher number of multilingual students.

Implications for further research

Svensson and Khalid’s (2017) study provides educators with an interesting idea of how to approach multilingualism and the development of the students’ first and second languages at school. Although the authors themselves did not recognize limitations, further research is needed to validate their findings. It is advisable that the study (or a closely related one) is replicated in Finnish classrooms, preferably with heterogeneous student bodies, to arrive at further conclusions about translanguaging and its effects.

Secondly, to address the complex web of parental support (which is voluntary and may show inconsistency), more attention ought to be devoted to how parents are to be informed about translanguaging support and a follow-up on their support. Moreover, in order to attribute the development of language skills to its legitimate sources, a look at other factors (e.g. peer learning outcomes) than parental support is in order. Thirdly, since the study focuses on parents and students as opposed to teachers, considerations of how to evoke positive attitudes towards translanguaging practices among teachers (especially monolingual ones) are conspicuously missing from the discourse. In Svensson and Khalid’s (2017) study, the teacher is bilingual and thus likely to view bi/multilingualism in favorable terms. For monolingual teachers to embrace the idea of translanguaging, so that it does not appear as extra work[1], more research on translanguaging and its direct impact on student achievement (and assessment) has to be conducted.

Fourthly, what is missing from the discourse is the ‘lingua bias’, or one of the so-called Post-Multilingualism challenges[2]. Translanguaging should not only be considered in terms of student engagement with multiple, named languages but as the utilization of multiple semiotic and cognitive resources (i.e. non-linguistic forms of expression). Care needs to be taken not to project any preconceptions about the students’ preferred use of named languages (‘Somalians should develop skills in Somali”), preferred forms of expression (“Translanguaging practices should either be written or oral”) or preferred identities/ownerships (“Migrant students identify themselves as either bi- or multilinguals, with a certain country”). Thus, for translanguaging to truly work, constant negotiations and renegotiations of place, languages and identities among students should be given prominence.


[1] Saloviita, T., & Schaffus, T. (2016). Teacher attitudes towards inclusive education in Finland and Brandenburg, Germany and the issue of extra work. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 31 (4), 458-471.

[2] Wei, Li. (2017). Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics 2017, 00 (0): 1-23.

Linda Molin-Karakoc is a PhD student at the Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, University College London. She is conducting research on the role of social media in the integration of newly arrived migrant youth.

*Gudrun Svensson and Intisar Khalid's article Transspråkande för utveckling av flerspråkighet is published in a book edited by Pirjo Lahdenperä ja Eva Sundgren, Nyanlända, interkulturalitet och flerspråkighet i klassrummet (2017).