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What Is Translanguaging, And How Is The Concept Being Used?

The idea is growing in popularity among some linguists and language teachers, but nailing down a definition isn’t easy.
What Is Translanguaging, And How Is The Concept Being Used?

We often think of different languages as being entirely separate. When you’re learning a language, you’re focusing entirely on studying the grammar and vocabulary of that one language. Mixing in your old language with your new one might even be considered a failure, because you should be able to speak the new language “fluently.” This mindset doesn’t match up with the real world, however. In everyday speech among monolinguals and bilinguals, there’s often a combination of two or more languages. This phenomenon is called translanguaging.

As far as linguistic ideas go, translanguaging is a relatively new one. It’s really only caught on in the past two decades as a way to push back against the idea — common among monolinguals, particularly in the global west — that the human brain processes languages separately. Let’s dive into the term and explore how translanguaging can transform our own ideas about language.

Defining Translanguaging

The term translanguaging is hard to define because it’s used in different ways by different people. Linguists have had an ongoing debate about translanguaging, but it’s hard to even understand the debate because there’s no one definition that everyone agrees on. With that caveat in mind, we can look at how different people use the term, starting with its origins.

The term was coined by Cen Williams, a Welsh researcher who wrote about trawsieithu — the Welsh word for “translanguaging” — in one of his unpublished papers in the 1980s. Williams used a narrow meaning for the term: it referred to the use of both English and Welsh within the same language lessons.

Over the following decades, many researchers have latched onto the term to describe the use of multiple languages in a single situation. One of the most common uses for it is in the field of language education. Translanguaging in the classroom means teaching people to become bilingual or multilingual through the use of two or more languages. This is a departure from most second-language teaching, which teaches one language and excludes all others. 

There’s also a broader meaning for translanguaging, which can be boiled down to “using multiple languages together.” This can happen in any number of ways. Two bilingual people switching between languages in the same conversation are translanguaging. A traveler attempting to communicate with someone using a mix of languages is translanguaging. Any time you hear more than one language being used in the same situation, that can be translanguaging.

The term translanguaging is most divisive among those who argue it should change what “bilingual” and “multilingual” really mean. The idea that a bilingual is “two monolinguals in one” has been a subject for debate for decades now. The real question is whether the brain treats multiple languages separately or all together. Translanguaging advocates claim that the brain treats all languages together, and so you can’t really separate, say, Spanish and French in a Spanish-French bilingual. This idea has a growing number of advocates, but it’s far from widely accepted.

What’s The Difference Between Code-Switching And Translanguaging?

There is another common term you may have heard of that describes switching between languages: code-switching. If you’re familiar, you may be confused by the difference between the two. That’s fair, because it is admittedly confusing, and it has to do with differences in linguistic approach.

Code-switching has been established in linguistics for a longer time, and there’s much more research about it. The study of code-switching usually involves looking at people’s speech and figuring out why and how people switch from one language to another within a single conversation. There are studies on the “grammar” of code-switching, because the theory behind it is that there is something in the brain governing how it works. Some have argued that code-switching is part of the “two monolinguals in one” idea of bilinguals.

Admittedly, however, code-switching has taken on a different meaning among non-linguists. Some people use the phrase “code-switch” to refer to the way that people change the way they act in different environments. For one example, a child might act differently depending on whether they’re with their friends or with their parents. The phrase is prevalent when people talk about race, and the way that Black people and other people of color code-switch around white people. NPR even has a podcast about race called Code Switch. While this is in itself a useful concept, it’s only tangentially related to linguistics.

Translanguaging is not so much a field of research as it is a framework for understanding how individuals use language. Whereas studies often divide up language — separating languages from other languages, dialects from other dialects, spoken words from gestures — translanguaging is about showing how everything is connected. Code-switching looks at language from the outside, but translanguaging is about looking at individuals. Ofelia García, an advocate for translanguaging, put it this way in an interview: “Translanguaging is more than going across languages; it is going beyond named languages and taking the internal view of the speaker’s language use.” The argument behind this is that we need to erase some of the borders between languages that are limiting our ability to understand multilingualism.

As mentioned above, however, the meaning of translanguaging in general is still somewhat in flux. Some people use translanguaging and code-switching almost interchangeably, while others say that code-switching is one aspect of translanguaging. The popularity of the term “code-switching” among non-specialists means that the two will probably continue to be lumped together by many people, even if they aren’t exactly the same thing.

Teaching And Translanguaging

The main practical uses of translanguaging so far are for teaching, particularly for teaching children. Before, it was assumed that the best way to teach a bilingual child two languages at the same time was to teach the two languages entirely separately. In the past few years, some educators have been experimenting with a new method.

In an article for Language Magazine, three language teachers laid out some concrete ways to teach two languages at the same time. It involved having students do things like write bilingual texts, and to learn how to navigate between the languages. It’s a more holistic approach to learning, and it requires careful planning to ensure that the two languages are being treated equally. They wrote that a translanguaging exercise “provided a space for my emergent bilingual students to leverage their full linguistic repertoires, supporting the development of important literacy skills and enriching their learning experience.” 

There isn’t widespread agreement on the effectiveness of this teaching technique. Many linguists believe that languages have different grammars, so trying to teach them both at the same time will be less effective than treating them separately. In the coming years, it’s likely more people will be trying out new ways of bilingual teaching using this framework. It’s particularly coming into fashion in places where students are already bilingual to some degree, because it meets the students where they are, knowledge-wise.

If there’s one thing you can take away from it all, however, it’s that there are already billions of people in the world who mix languages without thinking much about it. Some may call that an “improper” way of speaking because monolingualism is prevalent in the western world, but focusing on “proper” speech limits our view of the world’s diversity. Communication is multifaceted, and translanguaging may very well end up being the norm.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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