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"Translanguaging" Skills for Multilingual Students: Why They Matter

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

"Translanguaging" as a topic has dominated the emergent multilingual landscape for a while now. Educators of multilingual students have been encouraged to embrace a student's development of oracy and literacy by intertwining languages through "translanguaging" skills. Gone are the days of strict separation of a student's languages. In fact, bilingual students have always only translanguaged in the presence of other bilinguals, inwardly knowing when and where it's use was appropriate. Onward to embracing "Spanglish", "Engspañol" and other hybrid forms of communication by students. As long as communication doesn't break down, it's on!

Translanguaging skills seem to be innately a part of our humanity and the capacity to communicate with one another as bilingual or multilingual individuals. We use all and any parts of the languages we are learning to communicate. Sometimes we even use them to create new words from two languages, or to complete our sentences when we can't quite find the word we are looking for in one language. It is a sophisticated dance which happens in our brain, ever fluid, ever adapting.

Why then, if translanguaging is innately a part of us, should we teach it? Why should we help our students become versed in this dance? For one, it's something many already do. However, it's also a way to make linguistic connections across languages which creates academic success in biliteracy.

For generations teachers of bilingual learners were equipped with pedagogy that prepared us to teach English, helping students leave behind their first language and be successful "English Language Learners". (Hurray for English!) We had LPAC meetings deeply analyzing students' language levels and planning on how to increase English over the home language. It made us happy when our students' English levels increased dramatically over the year. We never worried about how their home language was faring, in fact we almost never tested that again. After all, we wanted them to be successful in the language they would need to be successful in higher education. As well intentioned as we were, this was very much a model that saw our students as somehow "deficient" as learners. As we all know, perception is everything. I would argue that many teachers expected little of bilingual students. Limiting beliefs have limiting consequences. But that's a blog for another day. We now know that it's vital to accept and embrace a student's linguistic reportoire. As we value their language, we transmit our validation of who they are and from whence they come. No language is "better" than another. Everyone has a place at the table.

So back to translanguaging. Don't our students already know how to do it? Well er, maybe. It's a fact that many innately make connections between languages. But what about the others? Couldn't we help them by guiding them to see similarities between languages, or point out differences? Wouldn't it be best to arm them with the words they need to master content in another language? All students will benefit from scaffolding designed to help them be successful learners of content and language . It's critical that we provide a place, space and a routine for exploring languages and make cross linguistic connections.

When I say place, I mean, in class. We find a corner, a spot, a bulletin board where we can gather and share our learning, transferring it from one language to another and back. Making connections that enhance how we use both languages.

When I say space, I mean a time in the lesson, where translanguaging or cross linguistic connections can enhance understanding. Is it before the lesson? At the end? Or even in the middle in a planned or impromptu sidebar conversation?

A routine helps us remember to "translanguage" or examine language features as needed. At my best, I figure out when and where I can help students make the cross linguistic transfer happen. Then I add time into my content area lesson plans so

that I know that I've given students the chance to make these connections happen. I write it in the daily schedule, or I incorporate it into my morning routine with the alphabet, numbers, calendar, etc. Will I use a T-chart? A visual depiction, diagram or graphic organizer? Alpha Cognado cards? Sentence stems?

If we wish for students to excel, we must help propel them through the wanderings of loving and learning different languages. Through accepting their translanguaging and supporting cross linguistic connections, we honor where they are as multilinguals and carry them forward to deeper knowledge and appreciation for who they are to become. We help them make real connections that lessen the cognitive load of mastering content in two languages. It's the kind of hand-up all multilinguals can benefit from.

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