What is translanguaging?

‘Translanguaging’ – the use of different languages together – can be a powerful tool for learning … but it can also go against the grain for language teachers who are used to supporting learners to master the intricacies of a single language. In this post, we ask what the research tells us about ‘translanguaging’ and how it can be used to support EAL learners in the classroom.

Picture the scene: two students are sitting together, working intently on a handout. They have different first languages but some shared knowledge of the words and phrases of each other’s languages, so they are moving in and out of English to get their message across. Another two students are sitting together nearby. Both of them are Spanish speakers, but are very strong in English and often use it as their main language. At other times, as now, they blend Spanish and English together.

Are either of these examples of translanguaging?

In both cases, yes. The young people are using resources from different languages together, with very little regard for what we might call the ‘boundaries’ of named languages such as ‘Spanish’ or ‘English’. They are using elements of each language together to communicate more effectively. This is translanguaging: it’s about using the all your language resources to communicate.

Translanguaging is the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.

Ofelia García (2009: 140)

Translanguaging is about communication, not about language itself. There are times when we need to be language teachers, focusing on accuracy in English so that our learners can pass exams and be taken as proficient speakers in wider society. Much of the time, though, we are working with students to explore concepts, add to their knowledge, make connections between ideas and to help them make their voices heard by others. This is often about communicating, and this is where using all our language resources can be very valuable.

A (very) brief history of translanguaging …

Translanguaging is nothing new – it can be a very natural way for multilingual people to communicate – but as a focus of research it emerged in the 1980s in Bangor, north Wales. Cen Williams and colleagues were investigating strategies for learners to use two languages (Welsh and English) in a single lesson. They came up with the term ‘trawsieithu’ to describe reading or hearing input in one language (e.g. English) and writing or speaking about it in another (e.g. Welsh, or vice versa). The term was translated into English (and popularised) as ‘translanguaging’ by their colleague Colin Baker (see Lewis, Jones and Baker 2012).

Since then the term has expanded to cover the use of multiple languages in many contexts. It is one of a series of related terms (such as polylanguaging and flexible multilingualism) and the subtle differences between them suggest the wide range of academic work investigating how multiple languages are used – especially for learning. We can use ‘translanguaging’ as our general term.

The beginnings of a translanguaging pedagogy

Garcia and Li Wei

García and Li Wei (2014).

Translanguaging pedagogy challenges what Jim Cummins (2008) called the ‘two solitudes’ approach to bilingualism, in which languages were kept strictly separate. It sees languages as a property of the community: the language resources that are relevant to the classroom are those shared by the students and the teacher. This separates the languages of the classroom community and the language of the test or the curriculum. We can use our classroom repertoire to learn, share and communicate, coming to focus on the language of the curriculum (highly formal and accurate English, for example) as necessary. It means making a distinction between forms of learning that require display (such as essays, often written in ‘best English’) and forms of learning that do not (such as worksheets). We can move between them within a lesson: perhaps using all our repertoire to discuss and to draft, moving into more formal/correct English to report to the group, back into translanguaging to revise the work-in-progress and into a very formal register for the final written product.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the strongly monolingual slant of recent education policy, much work into translanguaging pedagogy has been done outside mainstream classrooms. Creese and Blackledge (2010), for example, have looked at Gujarati and Chinese complementary schools. Li Wei and Zhu Hua (2013) studied learners at university, but connected translanguaging to migration and identity development in ways that are very relevant to school-based language policies. Hornberger and Link (2012) look at children the US, with an explicit focus on the restrictive language policies of that country, and offer ideas that are very applicable to the UK. A good starting point is García and Li Wei (2014) – a recent and very readable (only 165 pages) discussion that has a strong focus on translanguaging and education, with one author based in the US and one based in the UK.

The first issue of the EAL Journal (published in September and free to all NALDIC members) features Li Wei writing about translanguaging and the EAL classroom. Click here for information on how to join.

Recent developments

García’s recent work has focused on translanguaging pedagogy as a political act, a critical response to the monolingual bias of current education policy. Earlier this year the South London EAL Group (part of NALDIC’s national network of regional interest groups) discussed García’s work on translanguaging stance – a teacher’s political commitment to encouraging bilingualism in her classroom. The video below features Constant Leung discussing this approach and explaining how it connects to the UK context:


Constant Leung discussing Ofelia García’s work on translanguaging, at NALDIC’s South London EAL group.

But what about exams?

Very often, we meet the colleagues who are keen to encourage multilingualism in their classroom (even experiment with a translanguaging pedagogy), but who are worried about how it will affect their students’ exam performance.

A translanguaging approach is entirely consistent with high expectations in exams – if we recognise the difference between language and communication.

testing the proficiency of children in a language must be kept separate from testing their proficiency in language.

(Otheguy, García and Reid 2015: 299)

Translanguaging pedagogy is about you and your students. It draws on the languages you have available to your group – so even if you don’t speak all (or any) of the other languages your students do, you can welcome them and encourage the learners to use them in the classroom. You can then make a distinction between your classroom approach to languages and the language resources the students will need to use in exams. If you have used a translanguaging pedagogy in your classroom (even if that wasn’t the term you used for it) we would love to hear from you.



Creese, Angela and Adrian Blackledge (2010). Translanguaging in the Bilingual Classroom: A Pedagogy for Learning and Teaching? Modern Language Journal 94 (1), 103-115.

Cummins, Jim (2008). Teaching for Transfer: Challenging the two solitudes assumption in bilingual education. In: Jim Cummins and Nancy H. Hornberger (eds). Encyclopedia of Language and Education Vol. 5: Bilingual Education (2nd edition edition). Boston: Springer Science + Business Media.

García, Ofelia (2009). Education, multilingualism and translanguaging in the 21st century. In: Ajit Mohanty, Minati  Panda, Robert  Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (eds). Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the local. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, pp. 128-145.

García, Ofelia, S. Johnson and K. Seltzer (forthcoming). Translanguaging Stance. In: Ofelia García (ed.). The Translanguaging Classroom. Philadelphia, PA: Carson.

Lewis, Gwyn, Bryn Jones and Colin Baker (2012). Translanguaging: origins and development from school to street and beyond. Educational Research and Evaluation 18 (7), 641-654.

Li Wei and Zhu Hua (2013). Translanguaging Identities and Ideologies: Creating Transnational Space Through Flexible Multilingual Practices Amongst Chinese University Students in the UK. Applied Linguistics 34 (5), 516-535.

Otheguy, Ricardo, Ofelia García and Wallis Reid (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review 6 (3), 281-307.