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.”
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”.
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.
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.
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.