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?
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.