Translanguaging: A Summary  

Translanguaging is baloney. There’s almost nothing in all the dross published that you should pay attention to. It’s a passing fad, a blip, a mistake, a soon to be forgotten episode in the history of ELT and applied linguistics.

Translanguaging, as presented by Garcia, Flores, Rosa, Li Wei and others is an incoherent, political dogma, i.e., ‘a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true’. There’s no way you can challenge translanguaging: you either accept it or get branded as a racist, or a reactionary, or, what it really comes to, an unbeliever. When you read the works of its “top scholars”, you’re bombarded with jargon and obscurantist prose that disguises a disgraceful lack of command of the matters dealt with. These people demonstrate an abysmal lack of understanding of Marx, or Friere, or Foucault, for example, or of Halliday even. They demonstrate an ignorance of philosophy, of political thought, of the philosophy of science, and even of linguistics, for God’s sake. They’re imposters! They talk of colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism as if the very use of the words is evidence enough that they know what the words mean. They nowhere – I repeat nowhere – give any coherent account of their political stance. I bet they don’t know Gramsci from granola.

Furthermore, they give few signs of any understanding of how people learn languages, or of how ELT is currently organised and structured. Perhaps worst of all, they show a general ignorance of what’s actually going on in ELT classrooms; they contribute little of practical use to progressive teaching practice; and they are mostly silent when it comes to support for grassroot actions by teachers to challenge their bosses. They’re theorists, seemingly unconnected to the “praxis” they claim to champion. What, one has a right to ask, has translanguaging ever done to promote real change in the lives of those who work in the ELT industry?   

And that’s the top echelons – that’s the established academics! Go down a few hundred steps in the pecking order and take a look at what the academic wanabees like Ramjattan, Stillar, Gerald and Vas Bauler are doing. They don’t publish much in academic journals, but they’re busy on Twitter and other social media channels. I invite you to go to Twitter and see what they have to say. They delight their thousands of followers with a nausiating flow of “us-versus-them, we’re-right-they’re-wrong” tweets, plus blatently self-promtional bits of junk about how their eagerly-awaited book is coming along, and polite requests for money to help them keep writing. This is where you’ll see translanguaging at its rawest: thousands of people, all in a bubble, all convinced of their righteousness, all “liking” the baloney churned out by their scribes – a motley crew of puffed-up imposters.  

On Flores (2020) From academic language to language architecture: Challenging raciolinguistic ideologies in research and practice

Flores (2020) uses the term ‘academic language’ 35 times in the course of his article, and yet never manages to explain what it refers to. He claims that scholars (e.g. Cummins, 2000 and Schleppegrell, 2004) see academic language as “a list of empirical linguistic practices that are dichotomous with non-academic language”. Nowhere does Flores clearly state what an “empirical linguistic practice” refers to, and nowhere does he delineate a list of these putative practices. Meanwhile, Flores attributes “less precise” definitions to educators. For them, academic language “includes content-specific vocabulary and complex sentence structures”, while non-academic language is “less specialized and less complex”. Thus, Flores offers no definition of the way he himself is using the term ‘academic language’.

Seemingly unperturbed by this failure to define the key term in his paper, Flores sails on, using the clumsy rudder of “framing” to guide him. Flores asserts that scholars and educators use a “dichotomous framing” of academic and home languages, such that

academic language warrants a complete differentiation from the rest of language that is framed as non-academic.

Flores proceeds to claim that academic language is not, in fact, a list of empirical linguistic practices (as if anyone had ever succinctly argued that it was), but rather “a raciolinguistic ideology that frames the home language practices of racialized communities as inherently deficient” and “typically reifies deficit perspectives of racialized students”.

Academic Language versus Language Architecture

As an alternative to ‘academic language’, Flores outlines the perspective of “language architecture”, which

frames racialized students as already understanding the relationship between language choice and meaning through the knowledge that they have gained through socialization into the cultural and linguistic practices of their communities.

To illustrate this perspective in action, a lesson plan built around a “translingual mentor text” is offered, to serve “as an exemplar” for teachers. The text “incorporates Spanish into a text that is primarily written in English that students could use to construct their own stories”. The goal is for students “to make connections between the language architecture that they engage in on a daily basis and the translingual rhetorical strategies utilized in the book in order to construct their own texts (Newman, 2012)”.

Having described how a teacher implements part of the lesson plan (or “unit plan”, as he calls it), Flores comments

To be fair, proponents of the concept of academic language would likely support this unit plan.

But there’s a “key difference” – language architecture doesn’t try to build bridges; instead, it assumes that “the language architecture that Latinx children from bilingual communities engage in on a daily basis is legitimate on its own terms and is already aligned to the CCSS”.

Discussion

Flores’ 2020 article is based on a strawman version of Cummins’ term ‘academic language’ (see, for example Cummins & Yee-Fun, 2007) which Cummins uses to argue his case for additive bilingualism. As noted in my earlier post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Baloney, Cummins denies García and Flores assertion that his construct of additive bilingualism necessarily entails distinct language systems. In his 2020 paper, Flores wrongly imputes to Cummins the “dichotomous distinction” between “academic language” and “home languages”, where academic language is defined as “a list of empirical linguistic practices that are dichotomous with non-academic language”. Note that Flores also suggests that Cummins’ work perpetuates white supremacy, and that, by extension, all those (scholars and teachers alike) who see additive approaches to bilingualism as legitimate ways of attacking problems encountered by bilingual students are guilty of perpetuating white supremacy. It often seems, particularly from the rantings of some of Flores’ supporters on Twitter, that only tirelessly vigilant promotion of translanguaging (whatever that might entail) is enough to exempt anyone “white” from the accusation of racism.

Throughout his work, Flores implies that practically all language teachers in English-speaking countries (and perhaps further afield) treat “the home language practices of racialized communities” as “inherently deficient”. They are thus complicit in perpetuating white supremacy. Cummins has repeatedly denied Flores’ accusations against him, and I dare say that teachers would similarly regard Flores’ accusations as wrong and unfair, if not offensive. Flores’ article raises the following questions:

  1. Is it fair for Flores to accuse “white” teachers of perpetuating white supremacy by behaving as “white listening/reading subjects” who “frame racialized speakers as deficient”? Is that really what they do?
  2.  Are teachers’ extremely varied, nuanced and ongoing efforts to use rather than proscribe their students’ L1s through code-switching, translation and other means best seen as perpetuating white supremacy?
  3. Do teachers’ attempts to “modify” the “language practices” of their students provide convincing evidence of their complicity in prepetuating white supremacy?
  4. What exactly are the differences in terms of pedagogical practice between Flores’ example of a teacher using a predominantly English text containing Spanish words and the suggestions made by Cummins (2017)?
  5. What exactly is the “new listening/reading subject position” that Flores wants teachers to adopt? How does it become “central” to their work?
  6. What changes should they ask their bosses to make in the syllabuses, materials and assessment procedures they work with?
  7. And what are the implications for the rest of us, the majority, who work in countries where English is not the L1? Does Flores even recognise that we are in a context where many of his assumptions don’t apply?
Choir-master leading a rural congregation singing hymns. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration

Preaching to the choir

The fact that Flores gives even a rough sketch of translangaging in action in his 2020 article is in itself worthy of note – anyone who has trudged through the jargon-clogged, obscurantist texts that translanguaging scholars grind out will know that such practical examples are hard to come by. It prompts the question “Who do Flores, and other leading protagonists such as García, Rosa, Li Wei, and Valdés, think they’re talking to?”. My suggestion is that they’re “preaching to the choir” – talking, that is, to a relatively small number of people who share their relativist epistemology, their socio-cultural sociolinguistic stance, and their same muddled, poorly-articulated political views. Just BTW, I have yet to see a good outline of the political views of translanguaging scholars by ANY of them. The case of Li Wei is particularly stark. How does the author of Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language reconcile the views supported in that article (e.g., “there’s no such thing as Language”) with his job as the dean and director of a famous institute of education with a reputable applied linguistics department which sells all sorts of courses where languages are studied as if they actually existed? The answer, I suppose, is that few of those who might take offence at Li Wei’s opinions have even the foggiest idea of what he’s talking about.

Conclusion

I think it’s fair to say that translanguaging is, and will remain, irrelevant to all but the most academically inclined among the millions of teachers involved in ELT, because its protagonists, pace the titles of some of their papers, show little interest in practical matters. None of the important things that teachers concern themselves with – the syllabuses, materials, testing and pedagogic procedures of ELT – is addressed in a way that most of them would understand or find useful.

Phllip Kerr, in his recent post Multilingualism, linguanomics and lingualism uses Deborah Cameron’s (2013) description of discourses of ‘verbal hygiene’ to describe the work of the translanguaging protagonists. Cameron says that these ‘verbal hygiene’ texts are    

linked to other preoccupations which are not primarily linguistic, but rather social, political and moral. The logic behind verbal hygiene depends on a tacit, common-sense analogy between the order of language and the larger social order; the rules or norms of language stand in for the rules governing social or moral conduct, and putting language to rights becomes a symbolic way of putting the world to rights (Cameron, 2013: 61).

He adds:

Their professional worlds of the ‘multilingual turn’ in bilingual and immersion education in mostly English-speaking countries hardly intersect at all with my own professional world of EFL teaching in central Europe, where rejection of lingualism is not really an option.

If teachers are to be persuaded to reject lingualism, they’ll need better, clearer arguments than those offered by Flores and the gang.

References

Cummins, J. (2017). Teaching Minoritized Students: Are Additive Approaches Legitimate? Harvard Educational Review, 87, 3, 404-425.

Cummins J., Yee-Fun E.M. (2007) Academic Language. In: Cummins J., Davison C. (eds) International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Springer International Handbooks of Education, vol 15. Springer, Boston, MA.

Flores, N. (2020) From academic language to language architecture: Challenging raciolinguistic ideologies in research and practice, Theory Into Practice, 59:1, 22-31,

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

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

Coming Soon

I.V. Dim & F. Offandback (2022) Of Baps and Nannies and Texts that Go Off Overnight. Journal of Pre-School Languaging Studies, 1,1, 1 – 111.

Abstract

In this article, we offer an existentially-motivated, pluri-dimensional contribution to the on-going interrogation of reactionary expressions of whiteness, framed by colonial practices aimed at the perpetuation of white supremacy through the overdetermination of racialized otherness and deficit languaging policies which seek to misrepresent, muffle, gag, sideline and otherwise distort holistic ethnographic encounters with socially-constructed micro and macro narratives by marginalized communities which function inter alia to decentralize and destabilize whiteness and the misogynistic, reactionary, expressions of harmful views obstructing the free expression of emerging as yet unheard voicings of counter-hegemonic knowledges and lifeways. We adopt a “from the inside out” perspective, trialed and recommended by progressive tailors everywhere, which permits and encourages the framing of a challenge to two specific obstacles to the optimum development of the language and overall underdetermined educational praxis of toddlers attending pre-school educational and wellness centers in Hudson Yards, New York, and Hampstead, London. Using mixed and embedded ethnographic qualitatively authenticated and triangulated methodological procedures, we challenge the utility and ethicality of the use of standardized overdetermined academic language practices to implement the synchronic distribution of macadamia butter baps by plurilingual nannies, many of whom engage with the children in code-switching and other reactionary linguistic practices associated with the discredited practices associated with additive bilingualism.

Decolonialized educational praxis must center non-hegemonic modes of “otherwise thinking” which promote, encourage and legitimize the translanguaging instinct, consonant with multiple semiotic and socio-cultural adjustments which act as multi-sensory conduits guiding children towards a transformation of the present, anticipating  reinscribing our human, historical commonality in the act of translanguaging and leading to the metamorphosis of language into a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource for sense-and meaning-making. Data include 3-D imaged representational olfactory enhanced modellings of the macadamia butter baps and multi-modal rich transcripts and 6th level avatar re-enactments of the nannies’ quasi-spontaneous interventions.       

Quick Version of the Review of Li Wei’s (2018) Theory of Language

Li Wei (2018) seeks “to develop Translanguaging as a theory of language”.

Key Principles:

1 The process of theorization involves a perpetual cycle of practice-theory-practice.

2 The criterion for assessing rival theories of the same phenomena is “descriptive adequacy”.  The key measures of descriptive adequacy are “richness and depth“.

3 “Accuracy” cannot serve as a criterion for theory assessment because no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another.

4 Descriptions involve the observer including “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”.

5 A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations.

Section 3 is headed “The Practice”.

 Li Wei gives samples of conversations between multilingual speakers. The analysis of the transcripts is perfunctory and provides little support for the assertion that the speakers are not “mixing languages”, but rather using “New Chinglish” (Li 2016a), which includes

ordinary English utterances being re-appropriated with entirely different meanings for communication between Chinese users of English as well as creations of words and expressions that adhere broadly to the morphological rules of English but with Chinese twists and meanings.

His examples are intended to challenge the “myth of a pure form of a language” and to argue that talking about people having different languages must be replaced by an understanding of a more complex interweaving of languages and language varieties, where boundaries between languages and concepts such as native, foreign, indigenous, minority languages are “constantly reassessed and challenged”.

Section 4 is on Translanguaging

Li Wei’s leans on Becker’s (1991) notion of Languaging, which suggests that there is no such thing as Language, but rather, only “continual languaging, an activity of human beings in the world “(p. 34) and on ‘ecological psychology’, which challenges ‘the code view’ of language, and sees language as ‘a multi-scalar organization of processes that enables the bodily and the situated to interact with situation-transcending cultural-historical dynamics and practices’ (Thibault 2017: 78). Language learning should be viewed not as acquiring language, but rather as a process where novices “adapt their bodies and brains to the languaging activity that surrounds them”.  Li Wei concludes “For me, language learning is a process of embodied participation and resemiotization.”  

Li Wei makes two further arguments:

1) Multilinguals do not think unilingually in a politically named linguistic entity, even when they are in a ‘monolingual mode’ and producing one namable language only for a specific stretch of speech or text.

2) Human beings think beyond language and thinking requires the use of a variety of cognitive, semiotic, and modal resources of which language in its conventional sense of speech and writing is only one.

The first point refers to Fodor’s (1975) seminal work The Language of Thought. Li Wei offers no summary of Fodor’s “Language of Thought” hypothesis and no discussion of it, so the reader might not know that this language of thought is usually referred to as “Mentalese“, and is described very technically by Fodor so as to distinguish it fro named languages.

Li Wei states:”there seems to be a confusion between the hypothesis that thinking takes place in a Language of Thought (Fodor 1975) — in other words, thought possesses a language-like or compositional structure — and that we think in the named language we speak. The latter seems more intuitive and commonsensical”. Yes, it does, but why exactly this is a problem, (which it is!) and how Fodor’s Language of Thought hypothesis solves it (which many say it doesn’t) is not clearly explained.

As for the second argument, this concerns “the question of what is going on when bilingual and multilingual language users are engaged in multilingual conversations”. Li Wei finds it hard to imagine that they shift their frame of mind so frequently in one conversational episode let alone one utterance. He claims that we do not think in a specific, named language separately, and cites Fodor (1983) to resolve the problem. Li Wei misinterprets Fodor’s view of the modularity of mind. Pace Li Wei, Fodor does not claim that the human mind consists of a series of modules which are “encapsulated with distinctive information and for distinct functions”, and that “Language” is one of these modules. Gregg points out (see comment in unabridged version) that Fodor vigorously opposed the view that the mind is made up of modules; he spent a good deal of time arguing against that idea (see e.g. his “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way”), the so-called Massive Modularity hypothesis. For Fodor, the mind contains modules, which is very different from the view Li Wei quite wrongly ascribes to him.

Li Wei goes on to say that Fodor’s hypothesis “has somehow been understood to mean” that “the language and other human cognitive processes are anatomically and/or functionally distinct”. Again, Fodor said no such thing. Li Wei does not cite any researcher who “somehow came to understand” Fodor’s argument about modular mind in such an erroneous way, and he does not clarify that Fodor made no such claim. Li Wei simply asserts that in research design, “the so-called linguistic and non-linguistic cognitive processes” have been assessed separately. He goes on to triumphantly dismantle this obviously erroneous assertion and to claim it as evidence for the usefulness of his theory.

Section 5: Translanguaging Space and Translanguaging Instict

This section contains inspirational sketches which add nothing to the theory of language.

Translanguaging Space

Li Wei suggests that the act of Translanguaging creates a social space for the language user “by bringing together different dimensions of their personal history, experience, and environment; their attitude, belief, and ideology; their cognitive and physical capacity, into one coordinated and meaningful performance  (Li  2011a:  1223)”. This Translanguaging Space has transformative power because “it is forever evolving and combines and generates new identities, values and practices; …. by underscoring  learners’  abilities to push and break boundaries between named language and between language varieties, and to flout norms of behaviour including linguistic behaviour, and criticality” (Li 2011a,b; Li and Zhu 2013)”.

As an example of the practical implications of Translanguaging Space, Li Wei cites García and Li’s (2014), vision “where teachers and students can go between and beyond socially constructed language and educational systems, structures and practices to engage diverse multiple meaning-making systems and subjectivities, to generate new configurations of language and education practices, and to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”.

Translanguaging Instinct

Li Wei’s construct of a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) uses arguments for an ‘Interactional Instinct’, a biologically based drive for infants and children to attach, bond, and affiliate with conspecifics in an attempt to become like them (Lee et al. 2009; Joaquin and Schumann 2013).

This natural drive provides neural structures that entrain children acquiring their languages to the faces, voices, and body movements of caregivers. It also determines the relative success of older adolescents and adults in learning additional languages later in life due to the variability of individual aptitude and motivation as well as environmental conditions”.

Le Wei extends this idea in what he calls a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) “to emphasize the salience of mediated interaction in everyday life in the 21st century, the multisensory and multi- modal process of language learning and language use”. The Translanguaging Instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Li Wei suggests that, pace the Minimalist programme (sic!), a “Principle of Abundance” is in operation in human communication. Human beings draw on as many different sensory, modal, cognitive, and semiotic resources to interpret meaning intentions, and they read these multiple cues in a coordinated manner rather than singularly.

Li Wei’s discussion of the implications of the idea of the Translanguaging Instinct use uncontroversial statements about language learning which have nothing relevant to add to the theory. 

Discussion

So what is the Translanguaging theory of language? Despite endorsing the view that there is no such thing as language, and that the divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are nonsensical, the theory amounts to the claim that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource for sense-and meaning-making.

The appendages about Translanguaging Space and a Translanguaging Instinct have little to do with a theory of language. The first is a blown-up recommendation for promoting language learning outside the classroom, and the second is a claim about language learning itself, to the effect that an innate instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Stripped of its academic obcurantism and the wholly unsatisfactory discussion of Fodor’s Language of Thought and his work on the modularity of mind, both bits of fluff strike me as being as inoffensive as they are unoriginal.  

Theories

What is a theory? I’ve dealt with this in Jordan (2004) and also in many posts. A theory is generally regarded as being an attempt to explain phenomena. Researchers working on a theory use observational data to support and test it.

Li Wei adopts the following strategy:

1. Skip the tiresome step of offering a coherent definition of the key theoretical construct and content yourself with the repeated vague assertion that language is “a resource for sense-and meaning-making”,

2. Rely on the accepted way of talking about parts of language by those you accuse of reducing language to a code,

3. Focus on attacking the political naming of languages, re-hashing obviously erroneous views about L1s, l2s, etc. and developing the view that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource.

He thus abandons any serious attempt at theory construction, resorts instead to a string of assertions dressed up in academic clothes and call it a “theory of practice”. Even then, Li Wei doesn’t actually say what he takes a theory of practice to be. He equates theory construction with “knowledge construction”, without saying what he means by “knowledge”. Popper (1972) adopts a realist epistemology and explains what he means by “objective knowledge”. In contrast, Li Wei adopts a relativist epistemology, where objective knowledge is jettisoned and “descriptive adequacy” replaces it, to be measured by “richness and depth”, which are nowhere defined.

How do we measure the richness and depth of competing “descriptions”? Is Li Wei seriously suggesting that different subjective accounts of the observations of language practice by different observers is best assessed by undefined notions of richness and depth?

The poverty of Li Wei’s criteria for assessing a “practical theory” is compounded by his absurd claim that researchers who act as observers must describe “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”. “All that has been observed”? Really?   

Finally, the good bits. I applaud Li Wei’s attempt, bad as I judge it to be, to bridge the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic work on SLA. And, as I’ve already said in my post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Theories of SLA, there are things we can agree on. ELT practice should recognise that teaching is informed by the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker fallacy and the subtractive fallacy (Phillipson, 2018).  The ways in which English is privileged in education systems is a disgrace, and policies that strengthen linguistic diversity are needed to counteract linguistic imperialism. Translanguaging is to be supported in as much as it affirms bilinguals’ fluent languaging practices and aims to legitimise hybrid language uses. ELT must generate translanguaging spaces where practices which explore the full range of users’ repertoires in creative and transformative ways are encouraged.

References

Cook, V. J. (1993). Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.  Macmillan.

Ellis, N. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A Review with Implications for Theories of Implicit and Explicit Language Acquisition. Studies in SLA, 24,2, 143-188.

Gregg, K.R. (1993). Taking Explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.

Gregg, K. R. (2004). Explanatory Adequacy and Theories of Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics 25, 4, 538-542.

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

Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39, 1, 9 – 30.

Phillipson, R. (2018) Linguistic Imperialism. Downloadable from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31837620_Linguistic_Imperialism_

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

Schmidt, R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 237-369). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

See Li Wei (2018) for the other references.

Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language

In his 2018 article, Li Wei seeks “to develop Translanguaging as a theory of language”. Along the way, he highlights the contributions that Translanguaging makes to debates about the “Language and Thought” and the “Modularity of Mind” hypotheses and tries to bridge “the artificial and ideological divides between the so-called sociocultural and the cognitive approaches to Translanguaging practices.”

Section 2

After the Introduction, Section 2 outlines the principles which guide his “practical theory of language for Applied Linguistics”. They’re based on Mao’s interpretation of Confucius and Marx’s dialectical materialism (sic). Here are the main points, with short comments:

1 The process of theorization involves a perpetual cycle of practice-theory-practice.

Amen to that.

2 The criterion for assessing rival theories of the same phenomena is “descriptive adequacy”.  The key measures of descriptive adequacy are “richness and depth“.

No definitions of the constructs “richness” or “depth” are offered, no indication is given of how they might be operationalized, and no explanation of this assertion is given.

3 “Accuracy” cannot serve as a criterion for theory assessment: “no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another because description is the observer–analyst’s subjective understanding and interpretation of the practice or phenomenon that they are observing“.

No definition is given of the term “accuracy” and no discussion is offered of how theoretical constructs used in practical theory (such as “languaging”, “resemiotization” and “body dynamics”) can be operationalised.

4 Descriptions involve the observer including “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”.

No explanation of how an observer can describe “all that has been observed” is offered. 

5 The main objective of a practical theory is not to offer predictions or solutions but interpretations that can be used to observe, interpret, and understand other practices and phenomena.

No justification for this bizarre assertion is offered.  

6 Questions are formulated on the basis of the description and as part of the observer–analyst’s interpretation process. Since interpretation is experiential and understanding is dialogic, these questions are therefore ideologically and experientially sensitive.

No explanation of what this means is offered.

7 A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations.

No explanation of exactly what “principles” are involved is offered, and no indicators for measuring “consequentialties” are mentioned.  

8. An important assessment of the value of a practical theory is the extent to which it can ask new and different questions on both the practice under investigation and other existing theories about the practice. Yes indeed.

Section 3 is headed “The Practice”.

 Li Wei explains that he’s primarily concerned with the language practices of multilingual language users, and goes on to give samples of conversations between multilingual speakers. The analysis of the transcripts is perfunctory and provides little support for the assertion that the speakers are not “mixing languages”, but rather using “New Chinglish” (Li 2016a), which includes

ordinary English utterances being re-appropriated with entirely different meanings for communication between Chinese users of English as well as creations of words and expressions that adhere broadly to the morphological rules of English but with Chinese twists and meanings.

His examples are intended to challenge the “myth of a pure form of a language” and to argue that talking about people having different languages must be replaced by an understanding of a more complex interweaving of languages and language varieties, where boundaries between languages and concepts such as native, foreign, indigenous, minority languages are “constantly reassessed and challenged”.

Section 4 is on Translanguaging

Li Wei starts from Becker’s (1991) notion of Languaging, which suggests that there is no such thing as Language, but rather, only “continual languaging, an activity of human beings in the world “(p. 34). Language should not be regarded ‘as an accomplished fact, but as in the process of being made’ (p. 242). Li Wei also refers to work from ‘ecological psychology’, which seees languaging as ‘an assemblage of diverse material, biological, semiotic and cognitive properties and capacities which languaging agents orchestrate in real-time and across a diversity of timescales’ (Thibault 2017: 82). Such work challenges ‘the code view’ of language, urges us to ‘grant languaging a primacy over what is languaged’, and to see language as ‘a multi-scalar organization of processes that enables the bodily and the situated to interact with situation-transcending cultural-historical dynamics and practices’ (Thibault 2017: 78). The divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are thus “nonsensical”. So language learning should be viewed not as acquiring language, but rather as a process where novices “adapt their bodies and brains to the languaging activity that surrounds them’, and in doing so, ‘participate in cultural worlds and learn that they can get things done with others in accordance with the culturally promoted norms and values’ (Thibault 2017: 76). Li Wei concludes “For me, language learning is a process of embodied participation and resemiotization (see see also McDermott and Roth 1978; McDermott et al. 1978; Dore and McDermott 1982; and Gallagher and Zahavi 2012)”.

Next, Li Wei explains that he added the Trans prefix to Languaging in order to not only have a term that captures multilingual language users’ fluid and dynamic practices, but also to put forward two further arguments:

1) Multilinguals do not think unilingually in a politically named linguistic entity, even when they are in a ‘monolingual mode’ and producing one namable language only for a specific stretch of speech or text.

2) Human beings think beyond language and thinking requires the use of a variety of cognitive, semiotic, and modal resources of which language in its conventional sense of speech and writing is only one.

The first point refers to Fodor’s (1975) seminal work The Language of Thought. Li Wei offers no summary of Fodor’s “Language of Thought” hypothesis and no discussion of it. So the reader might not know that this language of thought is usually referred to as “Mentalese“, and that very technical, but animated discussions about whether or not Mentalese exists, and if it does, how it works, have been going on for the last 40+ years among philosophers, cognitive scientists and linguists. Without any proper introduction, Li Wei simply states: “there seems to be a confusion between the hypothesis that thinking takes place in a Language of Thought (Fodor 1975) — in other words, thought possesses a language-like or compositional structure — and that we think in the named language we speak. The latter seems more intuitive and commonsensical”. In my opinion, he doesn’t make it clear why the latter view causes a problem, why, that is, “it cannot address the question of how bilingual and multilingual language users think without referencing notions of the L1, ‘native’ or ‘dominant’ language”, and he doesn’t clearly explain how Fodor’s Language of Thought hypothesis solves the problem. All he says is

If we followed the argument that we think in the language we speak, then we think in our own idiolect, not a named language. But the language-of-thought must be independent of these idiolects, and that is the point of Fodor’s theory. We do not think in Arabic, Chinese, English, Russian, or Spanish; we think beyond the artificial boundaries of named languages in the language-of-thought”.

I fail to see how this cursory discussion does anything to support the claim that Translanguaging Theory makes any worthwhile contribution to the debate that has followed Fodor’s Language of thought hypothesis.

As for the second argument, this concerns “the question of what is going on when bilingual and multilingual language users are engaged in multilingual conversations”. Li Wei finds it hard to imagine that they shift their frame of mind so frequently in one conversational episode let alone one utterance. He claims that we do not think in a specific, named language separately, and cites Fodor (1983) to resolve the problem. Li Wei reports Fodor’s Modularity of Mind hypothesis as claiming that the human mind consists of a series of modules which are “encapsulated with distinctive information and for distinct functions”. Language is one of these modules. As Gregg has pointed out to me (see the comment below) “Fodor did not think that the mind is made up of modules; he spent a good deal of time arguing against that idea (see e.g. his “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way”), the so-called Massive Modularity hypothesis. For Fodor, the mind contains modules; big difference” (my emphases). Worse, Li Wei says that Fodor’s hypothesis “has somehow been understood to mean” something that, in fact, Fodor did not say or imply, namely that “the language and other human cognitive processes are anatomically and/or functionally distinct”. Li Wei does not cite any researcher who somehow came to understand Fodor’s argument about modular mind in that way, but simply asserts that in research design, “the so-called linguistic and non-linguistic cognitive processes” have been assessed separately. He goes on to triumphantly dismantle this obviously erroneous assertion and to claim it as evidence for the usefulness of his theory.

Section 5: Translanguaging Space and Translanguaging Instict

“The act of Translanguaging creates a social space for the language user by bringing to- gether different dimensions of their personal history, experience, and environment; their attitude, belief, and ideology; their cognitive and physical capacity, into one coordinated and meaningful performance  (Li  2011a:  1223)”. This Translanguaging Space has transformative power because “it is forever evolving and combines and generates new identities, values and practices”.  It underscores multilinguals’ creativity, “their abilities to push and break boundaries between named language and between language varieties, and to flout norms of behaviour including linguistic behaviour, and criticality —the ability to use evidence to question, problematize, and articulate views (Li 2011a,b; Li and Zhu 2013)”.

A Translanguaging Space shares elements of the vision of Thirdspace articulated by Soja (1996) as “a space of extraordinary openness, a place of critical exchange where the geographical imagination can be expanded to encompass a multiplicity of perspectives that have heretofore been considered by the epistemological referees to be incompatible and uncombinable”. Soja proposes that it is possible to generate new knowledge and discourses in a Thirdspace. A Translanguaging Space acts as a Thirdspace which does not merely encompass a mixture or hybridity of first and second languages; instead it invigorates languaging with new possibilities from ‘a site of creativity and power’, as bell hooks (1990: 152) says. Going beyond language refers to trans- forming the present, to intervening by reinscribing our human, historical com- monality in the act of Translanguaging” (Li Wei, 2018, p. 24).

As an example of the practical implications of Translanguaging Space, Li Wei cites García and Li’s (2014), vision “where teachers and students can go between and beyond socially constructed language and educational systems, structures and practices to engage diverse multiple meaning-making systems and subjectivities, to generate new configurations of language and education practices, and to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”. Stirring stuff.

Li Wei’s construct of a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) draws on the arguments for an ‘Interactional Instinct’, a biologically based drive for infants and children to attach, bond, and affiliate with conspecifics in an attempt to become like them (Lee et al. 2009; Joaquin and Schumann 2013).

This natural drive provides neural structures that entrain children acquiring their languages to the faces, voices, and body movements of caregivers. It also determines the relative success of older adolescents and adults in learning additional languages later in life due to the variability of individual aptitude and motivation as well as environmental conditions”.

Le Wei extends this idea in what he calls a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) “to emphasize the salience of mediated interaction in everyday life in the 21st century, the multisensory and multi- modal process of language learning and language use”. The Translanguaging Instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Li Wei suggests that, pace the Minimalist programme (sic!), a “Principle of Abundance” is in operation in human communication. Human beings draw on as many different sensory, modal, cognitive, and semiotic resources to interpret meaning intentions, and they read these multiple cues in a coordinated manner rather than singularly.

In the meantime, the Translanguaging Instinct highlights the gaps between meaning, what is connected to forms of the language and other signs, and message, what is actually inferred by hearers and readers, and leaves open spaces for all the other cognitive and semiotic systems that interact with linguistic semiosis to come into play (Li Wei, 2018, p. 26).

Li Wei’s discussion of the implications of the idea of the Translanguaging Instinct might have been written by an MA student of psycholinguistics. Below is a summary, mostly consisting of quotes.  

Human beings “rely on different resources differentially during their lives. In first language acquisition, infants naturally draw meaning from a combination of sound, image, and action, and the sound–meaning mapping in word learning crucially involves image and action. The resources needed for literacy acquisition are called upon later”.

“In bilingual first language acquisition, the child additionally learns to associate the target word with a specific context or addressee as well as contexts and addressees where either language is acceptable, giving rise to the possibility of code- switching”.

“In second language acquisition in adolescence and adulthood, some resources become less available, for example resources required for tonal discrimination, while others can be enhanced by experience and become more salient in language learning and use, for example resources required for analysing and comparing syntactic structures and pragmatic functions of specific expressions. As people become more involved in complex communicative tasks and demanding environments, the natural tendency to combine multiple resources drives them to look for more cues and exploit different resources. They will also learn to use different resources for different purposes, resulting in functional differentiation of different linguistic resources (e.g. accent, writing) and between linguistic and other cognitive and semiotic resources. Crucially, the innate capacity to exploit multiple resources will not be diminished over time; in fact it is enhanced with experience. Critical analytic skills are developed in terms of understanding the relationship between the parts (specific sets of skills, such as counting; drawing; singing) and the whole (multi-competence (Cook 1992; Cook and Li 2016) and the capacity for coordination between the skills subsets) to functionally differentiate the different resources required for different tasks“.

One consequence of the Translanguaging perspective on bilingualism and multilingualism research is making the comparison between L1 and L2 acquisition purely in terms of attainment insignificant. Instead, questions should be asked as to what resources are needed, available, and being exploited for specific learning task throughout the lifespan and life course? Why are some resources not available at certain times? What do language users do when some resources become difficult to access? How do language users combine the available resources differentially for specific tasks? In seeking answers to these questions, the multisensory, multimodal, and multilingual nature of human learning and interaction is at the centre of the Translanguaging Instinct idea” (Li Wei, 2018, pp 24-25).

There’s hardly anything I disagree with in all this, apart from the dubious, forced connection made between all this elementary stuff and the “Translangaguing perspective”.

Discussion

So what is the Translanguaging theory of language? Despite endorsing the view that there is no such thing as language, and that the divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are nonsensical, the theory amounts to the claim that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource for sense-and meaning-making.

The appendages about Translanguaging Space and a Translanguaging Instinct have little to do with a theory of language. The first is a blown-up recommendation for promoting language learning outside the classroom, and the second is a claim about language learning itself, to the effect that an innate instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Stripped of its academic obcurantism and the wholly unsatisfactory discussion of Fodor’s Language of Thought and his work on the modularity of mind, both bits of fluff strike me as being as inoffensive as they are unoriginal.  

Theories

What is a theory? I’ve dealt with this in Jordan (2004) and also in many posts. A theory is generally regarded as being an attempt to explain phenomena. Researchers working on a theory use observational data to support and test it. Furthermore, it’s generally recognised that, pace Li Wei, we can’t just observe the world: all observation is “theory-laden”; as Popper (1972) puts it, there’s no way we can talk about something sensed and not interpreted. Even in everyday life we don’t – can’t – just “observe”, and those committed to a scientific approach to language learning recognize that researchers observe guided by a problem they want to solve: research is fundamentally concerned with problem-solving, and it benefits from a clear focus in a well-defined domain. Here’s an example of how this applies to theories of language:  

Chomskian theory claims that, strictly speaking, the mind does not know languages but grammars; ‘the notion “language” itself is derivative and relatively unimportant’ (Chomsky, 1980, p. 126).  “The English Language” or “the French Language” means language as a social phenomenon – a collection of utterances.  What the individual mind knows is not a language in this sense, but a grammar with the parameters set to particular values. Language is another epiphenomenon: the psychological reality is the grammar that a speaker knows, not a language (Cook, 1994: 480).

And here’s Gregg (1996)

… “language” does not refer to a natural kind, and hence does not constitute an object for scientific investigation. The scientific study of language or language acquisition requires the narrowing down of the domain of investigation, a carving of nature at its joints, as Plato put it. From such a perspective, modularity makes eminent sense (Gregg, 1996, p. 1).

 Both Chomsky and Gregg see the need to narrow the domain of any chosen investigation in order to study it more carefully. So they want to go beyond the common-sense view of language as a way of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings (not, most agree, following Fodor, to be confused with thinking itself) and of communicating with others, to a careful description of its core parts and then to an explanation of how we learn them. Now you might disagree, in several ways. You might reject Chomsky’s theory and prefer, for example, Nick Ellis’ usage-based theory (see, for example Ellis, 2002), which embraces the idea of language as a socially constructed epiphenomenon, and claims that it’s learned through social engagement where all sorts of inputs from the environment are processed in the mind by very general learning mechanisms, such as the power law of practice. But Ellis recognises the need to provide some description of what’s learned and I defy most readers to make sense of Ellis’ ongoing efforts to describe a “construction grammar”.  Or you might take a more bottom-up research stance and decide to just feel your way – observe some particular behaviour, turning over and developing ideas and move slowly up to a generalization. But even then, you need SOME idea of what you’re looking for. Gregg (1993) gives a typically eloquent discussion of the futility of attempts to base research on “observation”.    

Or you might, like Li Wei, adopt the following strategy:

1. Skip the tiresome step of offering a coherent definition of the key theoretical construct and content yourself with the repeated vague assertion that language is “a resource for sense-and meaning-making”,

2. Rely on the accepted way of talking about parts of language by those you accuse of reducing language to a code,

3. Focus on attacking the political naming of languages, re-hashing obviously erroneous views about L1s, l2s, etc. and developing the view that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource.

 If so, you abandon any serious attempt at theory construction, resort to a string of assertions dressed up in academic clothes and call it a “theory of practice”. Even then, Li Wei doesn’t actually say what he takes a theory of practice to be. He equates theory construction with “knowledge construction”, without saying what he means by “knowledge”. Popper (1972) adopts a realist epistemology and explains what he means by “objective knowledge” (accepting that all observation is theory-laden). In contrast, we have to infer what Li Wei means by knowledge through the reason he gives for dismissing “accuracy” as a criterion for theory assessment, viz., as already quoted above, “no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another because description is the observer–analyst’s subjective understanding and interpretation of the practice or phenomenon that they are observing”. This amounts to a relativist epistemology where objective knowledge is jettisoned and “descriptive adequacy” replaces it, to be measured by “richness and depth”, which are nowhere defined.

How do we measure the richness and depth of competing “descriptions”? For example we have (1) Li Wei’s descriptions of conversational exchanges among his research participants, and (2) Schmidt and Frota’s (1986) description of an adult learner of Portuguese. The two descriptions of the learners’ utterances serve different purposes, they don’t amount to competing arguments, but how do we assess the descriptions and the analyses? How about: “I prefer (2) because the description of the weather outside was richer”. Are these two “descriptions” not better assessed by criteria such as their coherence and their success in supporting the hypothesis that informs their observations? Schmidt and Frota are addressing a problem about what separates input from intake (the hypothesis being that “noticing” is required), while Li Wei is addressing the problem of how we interpret code-switching, and his hypothsis is that it’s not a matter of calling on separately stored knowledge about 2 rigidly different named languages. Is Li Wei seriously suggesting that different subjective accounts of the observations of language practice by different observers is best assessed by undefined notions of richness and depth?

The poverty of Li Wei’s criteria for assessing a “practical theory” is compounded by his absurd claim that researchers who act as observers must describe “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”. “All that has been observed”? Really?   

But wait a minute! There’s another criterion! “A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations”. As noted, we’re not told what the “principles” are, and no indicators for measuring “consequentialties” are mentioned. Still, it’s more promising that the other criteria. And, of course, it’s taken from a well-respected criterion used by scientists anchored in a realist epistemology: ceteris paribus, the more a theory leads to the practical solution of problems, the better it is.   

Finally, the good bits. I applaud Li Wei’s attempt, bad as I judge it to be, to bridge the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic work on SLA. And, as I’ve already said in my post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Theories of SLA, there are things we can agree on. ELT practice should recognise that teaching is informed by the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker fallacy and the subtractive fallacy (Phillipson, 2018).  The ways in which English is privileged in education systems is a disgrace, and policies that strengthen linguistic diversity are needed to counteract linguistic imperialism. Translanguaging is to be supported in as much as it affirms bilinguals’ fluent languaging practices and aims to legitimise hybrid language uses. ELT must generate translanguaging spaces where practices which explore the full range of users’ repertoires in creative and transformative ways are encouraged.

References

Cook, V. J. (1993). Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.  Macmillan.

Ellis, N. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A Review with Implications for Theories of Implicit and Explicit Language Acquisition. Studies in SLA, 24,2, 143-188.

Gregg, K.R. (1993). Taking Explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.

Gregg, K. R. (2004). Explanatory Adequacy and Theories of Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics 25, 4, 538-542.

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

Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39, 1, 9 – 30.

Phillipson, R. (2018) Linguistic Imperialism. Downloadable from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31837620_Linguistic_Imperialism_

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

Schmidt, R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 237-369). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

See Li Wei (2018) for the other references.

Li Wei on Translanguaging

As translanguaging continues to attract attention, here’s a quick review of a recent contribution to the field by Prof. Li Wei. (Note that I’ve done 2 recent post on translanguaging: Multilingualism Translanguaging and theories of SLA; and Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Baloney. The first one gives a quick description of the construct.

Li Wei’s (20201) article Translanguaging as a political stance: implications for English language education” makes several claims, the most undisputed being that the naming of languges is a political act. Yes it is; and so is language teaching and indeed all teaching, – see, for example, off the top of my head, Piaget, Vygotsky, A. S. Neill, Dewey, Steiner, Marx, Friere, Illich, Gramsci, Goodman, Crookes, Long, … add your own favorites.   

So what does Li Wei offer here as the best “political stance” for ELT? He offers translanguaging, which he’s already discussed in a series of published work (see, for example, Li Wei, 2018 and Garcia et al 2021). Why is it the best? Because it sees language as a fluid, embodied social construct, whatever that means. What does it offer in terms of new, innovative, practical implications for English language education? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.  

The main points of Li Wei’s 2021 ELTJ article are these:  

1. “Named languages are political constructs and historico-ideological products of the nation-state boundaries”.

Comment: They most certainly are.

2. “Named languages have no neuropsychological correspondence…. human beings have a natural instinct to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic resources in meaning- and sense-making, as well as an ability, acquired through socialization and social participation, to manipulate the symbolic values of the named languages such as identity positioning” (Li 2018).

Comment: Typical academic jargon makes up a claim vague enough to have little force. The author’s highly disputable claims elsewhere have more force, for example, his (2018) assertion that the divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are “nonsensical”.    

3. We should shift from “a fixation on language as an abstractable coded system” to attention to the language user.

Comment: Amen to that, except that Li Wei elsewhere defines language and comments on constructs such as negative transfer, errors and much else besides in ways that I find preposterous.

4. ELT should embrace the “active use of multiple languages and other meaning-making resources in a dynamic and integrated way”. Furthermore, “the languages the learners already have should and can play a very positive role in learning additional languages”.

Comment: Only the most reactionary among us could disagree! The problem is that scant attention is given to how this might affect teaching practice. Nothing in this article, supposedly aimed at teachers, says anything useful to teachers. Despite its title, the article ends with a short section on “English medium education: practical challenges” where aspirational, academically expressed bullshit is all that’s on offer.

How do teachers actually change their practice? Apart from the exhortations Li Wei makes for teachers to see different languages as less fully-separated than they might suppose; to see students’ previously learned languages as assets; to  resist any urge to correct errors too quickly; and to generally encourage a multilingualist environment (all of it useful advice), he says nothing about the implications, I mean the real classroom day-to-day implications, of all this theoretical posturing. In terms of the syllabuses, materials, testing and pedagogic procedures of ELT, how is the theory of translingualism to be put into practice? Don’t expect answers from Prof. Li Wei.   

On Twitter, I asked Li Wei, who had tweeted to advertise his ELTJ article, what this bit in his article meant:

“To regard certain ways of expressing one’s thought as errors and attribute them to negative transfers from the L1 is to create a strawman for raciolinguistic ideologies”.

He didn’t answer the question.

I then asked:

A Spanish L1 student of mine writes “Freud’s Patient X dreamed with his visit to the Altes Museum”.  If I attribute this error to negative transfer from the L1, how does it create a strawman for raciolinguistic ideologies?

He replied:

Raciolinguistic ideology would ‘expect’ L2 users to produce ‘deviations’ from ‘standard’ language when such ‘deviations’ are in fact ideolects which by definition are personal and sensitive to individual’s socialisation trajectory including language learning trajectory.

He suggests that I’m trapped in a raciolinguistic ideology, where ideolects get misinterpreted as “deviations” because of an allegiance to racist-drenched, standard English.

In Spanish, they say

“Soñaba con … ” (I dreamed* with …),

 while in English we say

“I dreamed about …” or “I dreamed of  …”.  

(*”dreamt” is often used)

I think “I dreamed with you last night” is lovely. But it’s an error – it’s “marked”, as we say. “I dreamed with a visit to the Altes Museum” could be confusing to the reader / listener. How should teachers respond to such errors? They might well decide to let it go, but they might decide to do a recast, or to talk about the difference. What does Li Wei suggest teachers do? Well they certainly shouldn’t pounce on it and make the student feel bad – we don’t need his theory to tell us that. Maybe his theory suggests that teachers should celebrate this particular error, talk about it, discuss other examples. What about other errors, such as “I have twenty years” (I’m twenty) or “He goed to the library (He went to the bookshop`) and millions more? I asked Li Wei on Twitter how he would advise teachers to deal with the “dream with ..” error and he didn’t reply. I suggest that his reluctance stemmed from the fact that he’s trapped in his own daft “theory” which doesn’t want to recognise “errors” that students of English as an L2 make. The theory doesn’t like the use of the word “errors” and it doesn’t like the construct of negative transfer, either. Yet errors play a key role in interlanguage development, and negative transfer has been observed millions of times by researchers and teachers: it’s a fact which can’t – or at the very least shouldn’t – be proscribed because it offends the dictates of a half-baked theory.  

Here’s a text that I’ve invented, which might have come from an overseas student doing an MA in Applied Linguistics.

Second language is foreign language or additional language and is learned in addition to first language. There is multiple uses of L2 for example tourism, business, study and other purposes (Jones and Smith, 2018). Acquire fluency in second language learning (SLL) can prove difficulty because of considerations of age, culture clash and other environmental factors. One example prevailing theory is critical period hypothesis (DeKeyser, 2000) which says young children have imprtant advantages over adults to acquire a L2.

How would a teacher versed in the theory of Translanguaging deal with this text? How would it differ from the treatment given by a teacher who is unaware of this theory? My point is simple: Translanguaging theory is yet to give any significant guidance to teachers’ practice. Why? Because its proponents are focused on theoretical concerns, particularly the promotion of a relativist epistemology and a peculiar way of observing phenomena through a socio-cultural lens.

Philip Kerr, who I’m sure would be anxious to insist that my views and his don’t coincide, comments in his recent post about translanguaging about the poverty of its practical results.

  • Jason Anderson’s  (2021) Ideas for translanguaging offers “nothing that you might not have found twenty or more years ago (e.g. in Duff, 1989; or Deller & Rinvolucri, 2002)”.
  • Rabbidge’s  (2019) book, Translanguaging in EFL Contexts differs little from earlier works which suggest incorporating the L1,
  • The Translanguaging Classroom by García and colleagues (2017) offers “little if anything new by way of practical ideas”.

Those teachers who manage to make sense of Li Wei’s ELTJ article will be left without any idea about what its practical consequences are.   

Finally, a political comment of my own. There’s some brief stuff in the article about ELT as a commercially driven, capitalist industry, all of which has been far more carefully and interestingly discussed elsewhere. I wonder if Prof. Li Wei will ever give his full attention to the coursebook-driven world of ELT, to the producers of the CEFR, the high stakes exams like the IELTS, or the Second Language Teacher Education racket. There’s nothing new in Li Wei’s 2021 article. It’s a carefully confected, warmed-over, one-more-article-under-the-belt job. In my next post I’ll examine the more substantial 2018 article, “Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language”, where his discussion of multilingual students’ dialogues first appeared.

References can be found in Li Wei (2001), which is free to download – click the link at the start of this post.