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.

4 thoughts on “Li Wei on Translanguaging

  1. Thanks Geoff.

    If I were Prof Lei Wei I would have responded to your question by pointing out the norms expected in +written+ English for your student. Overlooking the distinction between spoken and written English is common I think. John O’Regan has made this case in Global English
    And Political Economy – “the speech of capital is that of the normative written form” (p 205)

    Flores in this video (linked below) comments:
    “There is a fine line between pragmatism and complicity [in colonial logics]”
    00:16:20
    https://nyu.zoom.us/rec/play/TkD7qVBqqxQM0XA2TmhBkIPqjJQWQFj15Ip9BTlRiX5N5BC7IxWyKu88q08A3T0U7yfJ3DpP0z-5IE1Y.8JBxLVnKlcIGtz8e?continueMode=true&_x_zm_rtaid=nR2dwZcARZaRF7yynhIgTg.1641220766881.76a986b89d310a46db2cf8f179da497b&_x_zm_rhtaid=252

    Would Flores say Lei Wei being is being complicit [in colonial logics] by writing in a normative written form to get published in ELTJ?

    Are there ways to approach learner “errors” in other waya?

    I wrote about Masters (2007) who pointed out in a study on articles using timed essays –
    “more than a quarter of the article “errors” were actually viable choices that should have been honored.” (https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/articles-and-collocational-effects/)

    He goes on to consider in addition to corrective feedback, metacognitive feedback.

    Ta
    Mura

  2. Hi Mura,

    Happy New year!

    I wonder when Li Wei last looked at the document which describes the norms that students doing MA assignments at the IOE are expected to follow. And I wonder when he last marked an assignment, how he explained the mark he gave, and what feedback he offered. It would be good to see an example of his “Translanguaging Theory of Practice” in action.

    I’ve no idea what Flores would say about LI Wei ‘s academic writing – or his own, come to that. Flores & Li Wei both seem to revel in using long, multi-clause sentences and a barrage of terms. In their texts, teachers and students attempt to negotiatie a path, aided by a translanguaging instinct consonsant with multiple semiotic and socio-culturally appropriate adjustments, to move between and beyond the confinements of artificially and mistakenly separated, politically-named languages (frozen, representiational codes, arbitrary system of symbols and rules, whose iconicity remains uninterrogated), situated in educational systems, institutional structures, conventionally enshrined and legitimized in the static, orthodox practices of monolingual, pervasively white educators, so as to engage diverse multiple meaning-making systems and subjectivities in the socio-cultural construction of knowledge and thus to symbiotically generate new configurations of language and education practices.

    There are, as you know, a variety of ways that teachers respond to students’ “errors” – most of them, IMO, counterproductive. My point is that Li Wei – neither in the 2021 ELTJ article or anywhere else – gives any coherent discussion of corrective feedback, or of most of what makes up ELT – syllabuses, materials, assessment procedures and pedagogic procedure.

    Thanks for the link to the interesting post.

  3. 2022 greetings to you as well Geoff.

    lol i c what you did there;

    yeah the problem is how to generalise an approach used to conceptualise the education of “racialised bilinguals” to the concerns of teachers in other areas of teaching languages.

    i get what Roy Harris has called an occupational disease in language teachers – confusing pedagogical simplifications with linguistic reality and Flores says he see stranslanguaging as an orientation and not as an empirical endeavor to find any so called linguistic fact – but as you point out in this post how far can this go with an audience of teachers in a english teaching journal?

  4. Teachers’ shouldn’t be criticised for taking so little notice of Flores – and neither should ANYONE concerned with language education! Most of Flores’ stuff is about racism and other forms of dIscrimination. Flores claims to talk about languages, but actually limits himself to taking pot shots at academic English – a very easy target indeed where all the completely unoriginal stuff about colonial standard English can be regurgitated and pepped up with a bit more venom.

    Here’s a classic Flores tweet:

    “The foundational assumption of mainstream linguistics that you can remove language from bodies allows primarily white linguists to avoid grappling with their own complicity in white supremacy while dismissing scholars of color who reject this premise as not doing real linguistics.” (BTW, this crap got 300 “Likes”.)

    This is typical in its sweeping assertion, its inquisitional tone, its easy allocation of blame, and, most of all, its lazy disregard of evidence. Terry McDonough pointed out soon after Flores tweeted his admonishment to white linguists, that, as a matter of fact, the “foundational assumption” of mainstream linguistics”. is NOT that you can remove language from bodies. McDonough says: “From Labov and the U.S. variationists to Fairclough, Wodak, van Dijk etc in Critical Discourse Studies, this issue has been addressed by linguists since the 1970s and it quite rightly continues to be addressed”. To my enormous surprise, Flores ignored McDonough’s correction.

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