[Trans]languaging and Communication: Co-constructing Heteroglossic Classroom Discourse in English-Only Spaces

Dr. Rodriguez-Valls Fernando
Author: Fernando Rodriguez-Valls, Ph.D.
Affiliation: CSU Fullerton
Date Submitted: 12/12/2020

On any given day, thousands of Emergent Bilingual (EB)[1] students enter English-Only (EO) classrooms carrying rich and ample linguistic repertoires. Yet, they are pushed to master the language of the dominant anglophone culture. All the deficit labels stigmatizing their linguistic identity  –English Learner (EL), English Language Learner (ELL), Limited English Proficient (LEP) and Standard English Learner (SEL)- constantly remind them what the goal is, what they are missing, what they need to accomplish to fit within the system.

Nobody denies the importance of acquiring high levels of literacy in English. The questions remain: how, according to what rules, and following whose principles and ideas. Numerous studies have shown vast evidence that in order to support EB students, they must be empowered by teachers who: a) recognize, value, embrace, and include their linguistic repertoires (Busch, 2017; Martinez, Morales & Aldana, 2017; Rowe, 2018 This link will open a PDF file from an external website in a new tab.; Garcia & Alvis, 2019 This link will open a PDF file from an external website in a new tab.) and b) at the very least help them to maintain their multi/bilingual proficiency, and at best, ignite and propel their multi/biliteracy (Capdevila-Gutiérrez & Rodríguez-Valls, 2018 This link will open a PDF file from an external website in a new tab.; García & Sánchez, 2018 This link will open a PDF file from an external website in a new tab.).

On the how

We all have heard stories about sink or swim approaches in which EB students are “metaphorically” thrown into EO classrooms with the hope that they will learn the dominant language by symbiosis. In some of these EO settings, EB students are asked to leave their language, culture, and identities at the classroom door. Once they step in the EO classroom only one language is allowed, taught, and valued: English. These students’ linguistic repertoires are neither embraced nor included in the teaching and learning occurring in the classroom. Monoglossia[2]  es la regla/is the rule of this trifecta: one voice, one language, one nation.

Some teachers excuse and justify this approach under the claim that students must stop using their mother tongues in order to focus on mastering English. Despite research to the contrary, these teachers are convinced that using various languages in the classroom could retrasar/delay, confundir/confuse, or pausar/interrupt “the needed” learning of English.

I would argue that in most cases there is miedo/a fear factor of losing control of the classroom discourse and management. I often overhear statements such as: how do I know if MY students are learning if they are speaking languages I do not understand? The problem with this question is that it has too many “I”, “MY”, and “THEY” and not a single “WE.”

Learning a language requires a process of socialization. We learn languages (arbitrary systems of sounds, letters, structures, functions) to communicate. A language that is not being used loses its functionality and disappears. If we agree on this, how can we sustain the argument made by monoglossic teachers that there is only space for one voice in the classroom otherwise chaos and nonsense will conquer and reign. If the final goal is for the students to use their languaging to communicate and understand, why not empower students to use all the tools of their linguistic repertoire to share ideas, information, and opinions? Why not?

My answer is simple and clear: not understanding all the languages spoken in the classroom is not the challenge, but rather the hurdles begin when a teacher (monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual) attempts to install monoglossic (Erichsen Skalle & Müller Giesdal, 2018 This link will take you to an external website in a new tab.) and white gaze (Toni Morrison; Flores & Rosa, 2015) discourse in their classroom using arguments such as; language appropriateness, standard language, proper language. All these 18th-century fallacies perpetuate bourgeois and deficit sentiments towards Emergent Bilingual students.

To stop and dismantle these strategic and racist actions designed to perpetuate the linguistic status quo, teachers must create heteroglossic spaces guided by translanguaging principles.

On the compromise/rules  

Heteroglossia as opposed to monoglossia claims the importance of creating spaces, lessons, and activities in which EB students can use all their voices. The inclusion of all variances, registers, and idiolects ignites a language fluidity that reinforces the linguistic self-esteem of EB students. In the heteroglossic classrooms, teachers and students who are enacting and expanding their languaging practices engage in what Flores & Schissel (2014) call dynamic bilingualism,

In other words, instead of seeing language blending, mixing, and co-existing as a problem that needs to be eliminated, dynamic bilingualism positions these fluid languages practices as legitimate forms of communication that enable emergent bilinguals [students who learn English as an additional language] to develop metalinguistic awareness that can be used as an starting point in adding new language practices to their linguistic repertoires (p. 461).

Dynamic bilingualism is enacted in heteroglossic classrooms where teaching and learning are guided by three principles:

  • Dialogism- Teachers and students must be active listeners and speakers
  • Communicative Actions- Teachers and students co-construct the classroom discourse
  • Metalinguistic awareness- students understand the why, how, and when of languaging

In order to create heteroglossic classrooms where dialogue, communication, and critical thinking are cultivated, teachers must utilize translanguaging pedagogies. Translanguaging  questions the idea of homogenous discourse conducted univocally in one named language[3] (Li Wei, 2018 This link will take you to an external website in a new tab.). Moreover, translanguaging “proposes that, rather than making decisions about which ‘language’ to use in a particular social setting, people have a communicative repertoire from which they select resources to communicate” (Creese, Blackledge & Hu, 2018, p. 842).  

For example, when a student says: my father is cambing the oil on his car/mi padre está cambiando el aceite de su coche, she/he is [trans]languaging using all the tools included in her/his linguistic repertoire. The sentence is grammatically correct from the syntactic point of view. Each word has a correct function and all together add to a complete and meaningful thought. The key, once again, is how teachers are going to approach, analyze, and “amend” this sentence.

Teachers using translanguaging lenses would assess the aforesaid sentence understanding that when “… emergent bilingual students read, write, learn, and communicate, they draw on diverse linguistic features and resources from a single linguistic repertoire” (Ascenzi-Moreno, 2018, p, 356 This link will take you to an external website in a new tab.). Reaffirming the student’s linguistic repertoire empowers other students to freely and fully use all their linguistic tools. In such a classroom, teachers listen to all the multiple voices -heteroglossia- spoken by students. Then, teachers show students how to fully use their linguistic repertoires -translanguaging. The sum of both, heteroglossia and translanguaging, humanizes students by liberating them from the tension of monoglossia and indexicality (Kananu Kiramba, 2016 This link will take you to an external website in a new tab.). 

On the humanizing and heteroglossic educator

Education when effective is a humanizing practice that draws from the funds of language represented in the learning spaces. To reach this level of linguistic inclusiveness, educators must have a clear understanding of; a) their stance, b) their willingness and commitment to shift their mindset, and, c) their skills to design just, equitable, and inclusive learning practices (Kleyn & Garcia, 2019 This link will open a PDF file from an external website in a new tab.). The heteroglossic educator is an advocate of plurilingualism.

The humanizing educator knows and is ready to change and adapt her/his practices. Their positionality is a “live document” constantly revised and rewritten. The heteroglossic and humanizing educator designs lessons and activities in which students are “…free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having to always translate…” (Anzaldùa, 2016, p. 111 This link will take you to an external website in a new tab.). These lessons are the space where Emergent Bilingual students “overcome the tradition of silence” imposed by colonizing educators carrying banners of legitimacy and correctness. Through these lessons, Emergent Bilinguals reconquered the spaces owned by their ancestors: those who had an ethno voice rooted in the wisdom and knowledge of their communities.

On a given day, an Emergent Bilingual student enters her/his class knowing that their voices will be heard, will be valued, and will be the tool for transformation. They are confident that the teacher is prepared to listen before talking with them. On a given day, education becomes a translanguaging practice where all participants engage in communicative actions built upon agreement, respect, and appreciation for the other. On a given day, education is a liberatory practice.

Every single day, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Who am I in terms of linguistic inclusion?
  • Why do I do what I do with respect to language use in my classroom?
  • How will I develop the skills that I have to better support heteroglossic translanguaging?
    • In what specific behaviors will I engage?
    • What do I need to begin?

[1] A liberatory label that depicts the linguistic richness, heteroglossia, and multidimensionality of all language learners

[2] The concept of monoglossia refers to a situation where a homogenous, conventional, ‘correct’ language dominates a given culture, something Bakhtin relates to the existence of a dominant class trying to maintain their advantageous social and cultural hegemony (Bruhn & Lundquist, 2001, p. 29).

[3] Named languages are linguistic constructs associated to one nation and one territory