Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Theories of SLA


Multilingualism and translanguaging are “hot” topics among students enrolled in Leicester University’s MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL, and maybe this reflects not just the sharp increase in the number of articles on these topics appearing in academic journals, but also discussion among teachers and teacher educators in blogs and the social media in general.

Both topics begin with a questioning of how we define language; in particular, they question the assumption that most people are monolingual, and that to learn a second language is to learn a separate, different “system”, comprising of a separate grammar, vocabulary and so on. In other words, they challenge the traditional monolingual approach which conceives of bi/multilingualism as the addition of parallel monolingualisms, and which, furthermore, regards the hybrid uses of languages by bilinguals as signs of deviant or deficient language knowledge and use.

Moving away from Chomsky’s UG perspective and Saussure’s view of languages as arbitrary and autonomous systems of signs, translanguaging theorists embrace Bakhtin’s view that “language is inextricably bound to the context in which it exists and is incapable of neutrality because it emerges from the actions of speakers with certain perspectives and ideological positions”. The move from a view of language as a discrete system to ‘languaging’ as a socially situated action is further developed by the construct of “translanguaging” (see, for example, Garcia & Wei (2014). Translanguaging scholarship began with an analysis of the historic conflict between English and Welsh in Wales; English being the dominant language imposed on Wales by English colonial rule, and Welsh being the indigenous language endangered by the colonial language policy which excluded Welsh from formal education spaces in Wales. By the 1980s, children in Wales began learning through the concurrent use of Welsh and English in school, with means of representation in one language and means of expression in the other (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012a; Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012b).

Translanguaging has since been expanded theoretically and practically by linguists and educators globally. Two facets stand out. First, García’s “dynamic bilingualism” (which emerges from her distinction between subtractive and additive bilingualism) insists that bilinguals choose parts from a complex linguistic repertoire depending on contextual, topical, and interactional factors. Translanguaging moves beyond languaging by affirming bilinguals’ fluent languaging practices and by aiming to transcend current boundaries of discourse so as to legitimise these hybrid language uses. Second, Li argues for the generation of translanguaging spaces, that is, spaces that encourage practices which explore the full range of users’ repertoires in creative and transformative ways. Translanguaging stems from indigenous resistance to oppression. It foregrounds students’ multilinguistic knowledge and practices as assets and insists that these be fully utilized in classroom communication and in the wider community. Translanguaging classroom praxis exemplifies how language teachers can disrupt subtractive approaches to language education and deficit language policies.

There is an obviously radical agenda at work here: translanguaging wants to throw out well-established ways of understanding languages, language learning and language teaching and to replace them with new configurations, which allow for the emergence of discourses and voices that are currently deliberately repressed by the status quo. García & Wei (2014) emphasise the importance of “criticality, critical pedagogy, social justice and the linguistic human rights agenda” (p. 3), and throughout the book there are references to and alignment with a political agenda, which stems from what one may call a socio-cultural perspective to applied linguistics. Translanguaging is closely connected to the topic of linguistic imperialism, which studies dominant languages, language policy, and their roles in Anglo‐American, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish colonial empires. In the postcolonial age, English acts as a lingua franca and also as a powerful tool to protect and promote the interests of a capitalist class. The teaching of English, as Phillipson (2018) points out, is founded on the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker fallacy, the early start fallacy, the maximum exposure fallacy, and the subtractive fallacy. Phillipson argues that the ways in which English is privileged in education systems needs critical scrutiny, and policies that strengthen linguistic diversity are needed to counteract linguistic imperialism.

 “Standardized English” has become the focus of criticism from a wide range of scholars and researchers, and to those mentioned above, we should add Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (see, for example, Flores & Rosa, 2015; Rosa & Flores, 2017) and Valentina Migliarini and Chelsea Stinson (see Migliarini & Stinson, 2021). Flores and Rosa argue that standardized linguistic practices, far from being an objective set of linguistic forms appropriate for an academic setting, are actually demonstrations of raciolinguistic ideologies, and that language education expects language-minoritized students to model their linguistic practices after the white speaking subject, “despite the fact that the white listening subject continues to perceive their language use in racialized ways” (Flores & Rosa, 2015, p. 149). Migliarini & Stinson (2021) use the Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit) solidarity framework “to challenge the deficiency lens through which students at the intersections of race, language, and dis/ability are constantly perceived”, arguing that this has “the potential to create more authentic solidarity with multiply marginalized students” (p. 711). DisCrit solidarity attempts to transform teachers’ understanding of power relations in the classroom “so that they are not steeped in color-evasion and silent on interlocking systems of oppression”. The framework also offers the opportunity to interrogate the ways ableism and linguicism reproduce inequities for students with disabilities. The DisCrit framework embraces translanguaging “as a strategic process (García, 2009b), theory of language (Wei, 2018), and as pedagogy (Garcia, 2009a) which conceptualizes the linguistic practices and mental grammar(s) of multilingual people” (Migliarini & Stinson, 2021, p. 713).

While I have no reason to think that any of the sources cited above intended the consequence, it’s a fact that most of the students I know who are drawn to the views and approaches sketched above are fervent in their commitment to sociolinguistics, and express hostility towards the work of psycholinguists working on cognitive theories of SLA, particularly those who claim to be carrying out scientific research. They frequently refer disparagingly to “positivism”, or to the “positivist paradigm” and express their support for “rebels” like Schumann, Lantolf, Firth & Wagner, and Block who, in the 1990s, tried to rock the positivist boat in which most SLA scholars so smugly sailed. Below, I suggest that no such “culture war” is necessary. There is, IMHO, no need for students interested in sociolinguistics in general, or in translanguaging in particular, to reject “scientific” attempts to provide a psycholinguistic explanation for how we learn languages. Note that I use bits from Jordan (2004).            

The Critical Rationalist Viewpoint

First let me state my own position. I’m a critical rationalist and I adopt a realist epistemology. Like most of those working in the field of psycholinguistics, I am interested in the advancement of scientific knowledge and I think rational argument and an appeal to empirical data are the two pillars on which such advancement are based. We make the following assumptions:

1. An external world exists independently of our perceptions of it. It’s possible to study different phenomena in this world, to make meaningful statements about them, and to improve our knowledge of them. This amounts to a minimally realist epistemology, and therefore excludes those who claim that there is no objective way to judge among competing theories. 

2. There’s an asymmetry between truth and falsehood (Popper, 1959, 1962, 1972). We’ll never know that Theory X (a causal explanation for phenomena A, B, & C) is true, but we can know that it’s false.

3. Research is inseparable from theory.  We can’t just observe the world: all observation involves theorising.  As Popper (1959, 1972) argued, there is no way we can talk about something sensed and not interpreted. 

4. Theories attempt to explain phenomena.  Observational data are used to support and test those theories.

5. Research is fundamentally concerned with problem-solving. Research in SLA should be seen as attempted explanations. Data collection, taxonomies, “rich descriptions” of events, etc., must be in the service of an explanatory theory.  Hypotheses are the beginning of attempts to solve problems. Hypotheses should lead to theories that organise and explain a certain group of phenomena and the hypotheses about them.  Theories are explanations and are the final goal of research. The aim should be to unify descriptions and low-level theories into a general causal theory.

6. There is no strict demarcation line between “science” and “non-science”: there is no small set of rules, adherence to which defines the scientific method, and no need for SLA researchers and theory builders to emulate the methods of physics, for example. There is no one road to theory (we don’t have to start with the careful accumulation of data, or with universal principles). SLA research needs a multi-method approach.  

7. Considerable progress has been made in the field of SLA in attempts to explain how people learn a second language, mainly by those who have seen learning as a psychological process involving input, processing and output. Starting with work on error analysis, passing through various processing approaches and ending with theories such as those of Carroll (2001), Towell & Hawkins (1994), and N. Ellis (2019), researchers have relied on appeals to empirical evidence and logic to develop a body of knowledge and research findings which, while far from offering a full theory with paradigmatic status, allow us, among other things, to judge among different approaches to language teaching and identify those which are more and less efficacious. I’ll return to this, later.    

The Relativist Viewpoint

 There are some in the SLA academic community who adopt a relativist, postmodernist position – they deny the idea of any objective reality external to the observer, and claim that there are a multiplicity of realities, all of which are social constructs.  The adoption of the view that the construction of reality is a social process means that there can be no one “best” theory of anything: there are simply different ways of looking at, seeing, and talking about things, each with its own perspective, each with its own set of explicit or implicit rules which members of the social group construct for themselves. So science is just one specific type of social construction, a particular kind of language game which has no more claim to objective truth than any other.

In the 1990s, a group of relativist SLA scholars challenged what they saw as the outdated and suffocating “positivist” paradigm which they claimed dominated the field, and sought to replace it with their own research methodology. Here are a few examples:

First, a precursor. Schumann (1983) suggests that SLA research should be viewed as both art and science. As an example of the artistic perspective at work, Schumann recommends viewing the opposing accounts of Krashen and McLaughlin of conscious and unconscious learning as

“two different paintings of the language learning experience – as reality symbolised in two different ways… Viewers can choose between the two on an aesthetic basis, favouring the painting which they find to be phenomenologically true to their experience” (Schumann, 1983: 74).

Lantolf (1996) suggests that scientific theories are metaphors, that the acceptance of “standard scientific language” within a discipline “diminishes the productivity of the scientific endeavour”, so that “to keep a field fresh and vibrant, one must create new metaphors” (Lantolf, 1996, 756).

Firth and Wagner (1997) argue that SLA research should be “reconceptualiized” so as to “enlarge the ontological and empirical parameters of the field”.  They continue:

“We claim that methodologies, theories and foci within SLA reflect an imbalance between cognitive and mentalistic orientations, and social and contextual orientations to language, the former orientation being unquestionably in the ascendancy” (Firth and Wagner, 1997: 143).

At the end of their paper they say:

“although SLA has the potential to make significant contributions to a wide range of research issues, that potential is not being realised while the field in general perpetuates the theoretical imbalances and skewed perspectives on discourse and communication” (Firth and Wagner, 1997: 285).  

Block (1996) argues that the field of SLA is under the sway of a ruling ideology, and in the course of a plea for a wider view of SLA research, Block challenges some central assumptions held by what he sees as the ruling clique. The assumptions that Block objects to include

  • that there is any such thing as “normal science”,
  • that a multiplicity of theories is problematic,
  • that replication studies are helpful, and
  • that there is an “ample body” of “accepted findings” within SLA research. 

Finally Block argues that one problem for the SLA community, which stems from its being under the sway of such misleading assumptions, is that those who attempt to challenge them do not get a fair opportunity to voice and promote their alternative views.

Markee (1994) notes that: “a few writers have valiantly attempted to stem the nomothetic tide”, but that “these have been voices crying in the applied linguistic wilderness.” (p. 91). Markee wants to replace the nomothetic paradigm with a “hermeneutic scientific tradition” which

  • replaces “explanation” with “understanding”,
  • replaces “objective, value-free language” with “the ordinary language of social actors and their lay explanations of everyday experience.”; and
  • replaces “a mathematical statistical explanation” of a phenomenon with an explanation “that is constructed in terms of lay participants’ real-time understanding of the phenomenon” (Markee, 1994: 93).


I think we need to separate two different issues which have been wrongly bundled together by the relativists. When Firth and Wagner (1997, 1998) argue for “a reconceptualization of SLA research that would enlarge the ontological and empirical parameters of the field”, they would seem to be making a plea for more attention to be paid to sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, and for SLA research to be liberated from the domination of a “Chomskian legacy”. This plea strikes me as perfectly reasonable. But there is another argument in the Firth and Wagner paper, namely that those working in psycholinguistics are dominated by the view that SLA research should be carried out according to “established” and “normal” scientific standards, and that there is something deeply wrong with such a position. They suggest that SLA research should throw off the assumptions of scientific enquiry and adopt a relativist epistemology which holds that there is not one reality, that all science is political, that all statements are theory-laden, that theories are a kind of story-telling, and so on. 

Block (1996) also conflates these two issues when he claims that those who attempt to challenge the ruling clique in SLA do not get a fair opportunity to voice and promote their alternative views, while at the same time claiming that the field of SLA is dominated by a certain methodological orthodoxy which should be replaced by a more relativistic alternative.  Surely, we must separate the issues.

To argue for a shift in focus for SLA research, i.e. for a more multi-theoretical, multi-methodological approach, where research is done from a sociocultural perspective, where a more context-sensitive approach is adopted, where concepts such as “non-native speaker”, “learner”, and “interlanguage” are re-examined with increased “emic” (i.e. participant-relevant) sensitivity, is one thing. To argue that there is no rational way to decide that Theory X is better than Theory Y is another, separate thing. The first issue is a political question about priorities in the distribution of limited research resources, the second issue is about the fundamental questions of what we can know, and of how we should do research. The relativists have every right to argue for more resources to be devoted to their kind of research, and to argue the merits of their kind of approach to theory construction and assessment. But they should clearly separate what are, I repeat, two different issues.  If it is in fact the case that those professing to use a rationalist, deductive research methodology are imposing their methods on others, and are insensitive to the value of “home-grown ways of thinking”, then I would be the first to urge them to stop such an imposition, and to listen to different points of view. What I would not ask them to do is stop criticising, or to abandon their methodology.

The important issue concerns explanation. While I hold a rationalist, realist position, the relativists claim that such views are obsolete and blinkering. This is an epistemological issue. As an example, we can take the argument that scientific theories are metaphors, that the acceptance of “standard scientific language” within a discipline “diminishes the productivity of the scientific endeavour” and that “to keep a field fresh and vibrant, one must create new metaphors.” Nobody questions that terms like “input” “processing” and “output” are metaphors, and it is certainly worth reminding oneself that they are metaphors. But terms like “input” are not just metaphors, they are theoretical constructs, and they’re used to construct theories which attempt to explain events that take place in a real world and they are open to empirical tests which support or falsify them and thus make it possible for us to choose rationally between them. 

To the extent that researchers need to be flexible, to be imaginative, to open up to unlikely possibilities, to brainstorm, to “fly kites”, etc., I would completely endorse Schumann’s suggestion that SLA research should be viewed as both art and science. I have no objection to looking at Krashen’s and McLaughlin’s theories as “paintings”, as reality symbolised in two different ways, but sooner or later, I suggest, we will need to scrutinise Krashen’s and McLaughlin’s accounts in order to check their validity, and to subject them to empirical tests. On the basis of such scrutiny, by uncovering ill-defined terms, contradictions, etc., and by seeing how they stand up to empirical tests, we will be able to evaluate the two accounts and make some tentative choice between them.  First, they cannot both be correct: McLaughlin suggests that conscious learning affects language production, while Krashen denies this. Second, they suggest different ways of continuing the search for answers to the question of interlanguage development, and different pedagogical applications. So researchers need reasons to choose between them. Krashen’s account is seriously flawed because first, its terms are almost circular, and second, there is very little empirical content in it. These, to the rationalist, are extremely serious defects. Schumann suggests that: “Neither position is correct; they are simply alternative representations of reality” (Schumann, 1983: 75). It may well turn out that neither position is correct, and they are certainly alternative representations of reality; but if the implication is that there is no way, other than an appeal to our own subjective aesthetic sense, to decide between them, then here is where rationalists and relativists must part company.  

Thanks to adopting a research methodology which relies on a rationalist epistemology and an appeal to logic and empirical evidence, there is wide consensus in the field of SLA that second language learning is a process of learning declarative and procedural knowledge, and that it is the implicit learning of procedural knowledge which is largely responsible for communicative competence in an L2. The clear implication for teaching is that a synthetic syllabus is inefficacious, which I have argued at length in various posts on this blog.


If we then ask why coursebook-driven ELT – which relies on a synthetic syllabus and is thus, according to robust SLA research findings, inefficacious – dominates ELT, we are in a different domain, and we need to adopt political, social and cultural perspectives. The inefficacious use of coursebooks is one of the pillars of a huge, global, multi-billion dollar industry, the other pillars being private and public educational institutions, teacher education, and language testing and assessment. This ELT industry, based as it is on the commodification of education in the service of maximizing profit, is part of neoliberal capitalist world, and its injustices take us back to the start of this post, to the concerns of those researching multilingualism and translanguaging. It seems entirely appropriate to me that one would adopt a socio-cultural perspective in order to investigate these sociolinguistic issues, and I fail to see why anybody would argue that those working on a psycholinguistic theory of SLA are indulging in outdated, reactionary, “positivist claptrap”.     


Block, D. (1996). Not so fast: some thoughts on theory culling, relativism, accepted findings and the heart and soul of  SLA.  Applied Linguistics  17,1, 63-83.

Carroll, S. (2001) Input and Evidence. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Ellis, N. (2019) Essentials of a Theory of Language Cognition. Modern Language Journal. Free Downlad here:,

Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modem Language Journal, 81,3, 285-300.

Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (1998). SLA property: No trespassing! Modem Language Journal, 82, 1, 91-94.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85, 2, 149–171.

Garcia, O. & Wei, L. (2014) Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism, and Education.  NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Lantolf, J. P. (1996a). SLA Building: Letting all the flowers bloom.  Language Learning 46, 4, 713-749. 

Lantolf, J. P. (1996b). Second language acquisition theory building?  In Blue, G.  and Mitchell, R. (eds.), Language and education. Clevedon: BAAL/ Multilingual Matters, 16-27.

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012a) Translanguaging: origins and development from school to street and beyond. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18, 7, 641-654.

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012b) Translanguaging: developing its conceptualisation and contextualization. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18, 7, 655 – 670.

Markee, N. 1994: Towards an Ethnomethodological Respecification of Second Language Acquisition Studies.  In Tarone, E., Gass, S., and Cohen, A. (eds.) Research Methodology in Second-Language Acquisition.  NJ: Lawrence Eribaum Associates.

Migliarini, V., & Stinson, C. (2021). Disability Critical Race Theory Solidarity Approach to Transform Pedagogy and Classroom Culture in TESOL. TESOL Journal, 55, 3, 708-718.

Phillipson, R. (2018) Linguistic Imperialism. Downloaded 28 Oct. 2021 from

Popper, K. R. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.  London: Hutchinson.

Popper, K. R. 1963: Conjectures and Refutations.  London: Hutchinson.

Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective Knowledge.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosa, J., & Flores, N. (2017). Unsettling race and language: Toward a raciolinguistic perspective. Language in Society, 46, 5, 621-647.

Schumann, J. (1983). Art and Science in Second Language Acquisition Research.  Language Learning 33, 49-75.

Towell, R. and Hawkins, R. (1994). Approaches to second language acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

13 thoughts on “Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Theories of SLA

  1. It’s not particularly easy, or enjoyable – I much prefer reading your stuff. I hope my summary gave some idea of their concerns, and I think the sources I cited are ones that MA students can learn from, if this is their area of interest.

  2. hi Geoff,

    is there a difference between “critical rationalism” and “critical realism”?

    i ask as Roy Bhasker supports “epistemological relativism” along with “ontological realism” and “judgemental rationalism” and so worth nothing this form of relativism (i.e. you can have many ways of knowing but also there is a way to pick the best version)


  3. Hi Mura,

    Critical Rationalism is Popper’s way of surrmounting the problems of classical rationalism, which relies on induction. Agreeing with Hume, Popper says that the inductive argument is illogical, and so, to rescue rationalism, we need to base ourselves on the assymetry between truth & falsehood. We need to see the function of empirical evidence not as providing proof of theories thru induction, but as providing the severest tests possible of theories in attempts to falsify them.

    I confess that I haven’t read Bhasker’s work. I tried to read “A Realist Theory of Science” and quite soon decided it wasn’t worth continuing. So I don’t know how Popper’s critical rationalism compares.

  4. hi
    I believe Bhaskar claims critical realism is a more comprehensive epistemology e.g. from Enlightened Common Sense

    “ also claims to provide a more general and comprehensive epistemology than its irrealist rivals. These typically remain fixated on a particular moment of the research process. Thus, if one defines a round of scientific enquiry as the movement of the research process from knowledge of one stratum of reality to knowledge of the next, then one can readily see how classical empiricism or Kantianism or Popper’s falsificationism (for example) each derives their plausibility from a particular phase of scientific enquiry. By contrast, critical realism attempts to provide an account of the whole research cycle (for example, in the DREI(C) model of natural scientific discovery introduced in Chapter 2), so providing a fuller, rounder, more comprehensive epistemology.”

  5. I believe I once tried Bhaskar and decided whatthehell; anyway, critical this and rational that: the simple fact is that there is a real world out there and one should try to account for it, or failing that shut bloody up. Geoff has tried valiantly to present the other side–i.e. the people who think that what matters is how one feels–but that side, if side it be–the Lantolfs and Blocks and so on—have yet to offer us one piece of evidence–not one bloody one–to believe the crap they produce. And which is published, by God, in e;g; Modern Language Journal.

  6. Sorry; one more point: Geoff says:

    If we then ask why coursebook-driven ELT – which relies on a synthetic syllabus and is thus, according to robust SLA research findings, inefficacious – dominates ELT, we are in a different domain, and we need to adopt political, social and cultural perspectives. The inefficacious use of coursebooks is one of the pillars of a huge, global, multi-billion dollar industry, the other pillars being private and public educational institutions, teacher education, and teacher training. This ELT industry, based as it is on the commodification of education in the service of maximizing profit, is part of neoliberal capitalist world, and its injustices take us back to the start of this post, to the concerns of those researching multilingualism and translanguaging. It seems entirely appropriate to me that one would adopt a socio-cultural perspective in order to investigate these sociolinguistic issues,

    What are the ‘sociolinguistic issues’, and what would adopting ‘political, social and cultural perspectives’ do to help us deal with them? Geoff, in a line or two in the above quote, has –without adopting a sociocultural perspective–given a clearer analysis of what the ELT business is about than Markee or Block et al. have ever even hinted at.

  7. i hesitate to suggest that Kevin R. Gregg may well be sympathetic to the following quote by AJ Ayer (1956) as cited by Louw, B., & Milojkovic, M. (2016). Corpus stylistics as contextual prosodic theory and subtext:

    “This leaves it open to the metaphysician to reply that there may be other worlds besides the world of science and common sense, and that he makes it his business to explore them. But then the onus is on him to show by what criterion his statements are to be tested: until he does this we do not know how to take them. What he cannot do, and what he too often tries to do, is to have it both ways; putting forward his assertions as though they were scientific hypotheses, but of greater profundity and generality than scientific hypotheses normally are, and then, when it is shown that they do not qualify for this at all, taking refuge in saying that he does not expect them to: he is entering them for quite a different race. But then we want some information about the conditions under which this different race is run. To be disqualified from one race is not automatically to enter for another.” (Ayer et al., 1956: 76)

  8. Sympathetic enough; although I wouldn’t call the wankers Geoff cites metaphysicians. (Then again, I’m never really sure what it is that metaphysicians do.) I’m struck by the title of the paper you quote from: Corpus stylistics as contextual prosodic theory and subtext? What–nay, what the hell–could that be about? And how did an editor, and of what journal, accept it?

  9. Pingback: Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Baloney | What do you think you're doing?

  10. Pingback: Li Wei on Translanguing | What do you think you're doing?

  11. Pingback: A Critical Review of Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language | What do you think you're doing?

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