Translingual Teaching

One view of university writing courses focuses on “fixing” the writing first-year students do so they will be able to write legible essays in future coursework. This emphasis is largely on legibility (primarily correctness) with some glances directed toward “knowing the writing conventions of discipline X.” Most compositionists know that instructors of first-year writing do not and cannot send students to future classes with an affidavit ensuring they will produce readable prose; nor can they bestow upon students the knowledge of a discipline and all the writing conventions that go along with it.

The emphasis on readable prose looms larger for multilingual students, and they are often preoccupied with whether their prose “sounds like” it was written by an American student experienced in writing “Edited English.” The approach many students have to erasing any traces of difference has larger political implications, of course, not the least of which is visible in Americanization of multinational brands (it’s “always” McDonald’s, regardless of the geo-coordinates). “Capital-E” English is held up as a model.

Just ask anyone from the Indian Subcontinent—despite worldwide corporate signage, English has not stabilized as it has globalized. Rather, English is used all over the world in a variety of ways; deviations from “Standard Written English” (SWE) are, instead, the norm. When using English, we are all working in dialects or “englishes” [sic]. In FYW, we try to account for the many englishes and to foreground the malleability of language by approaching writing translingually. “Translingualism” is an approach to language difference that challenges English-only monolingualism and assumes students’ languages are not liabilities but resources. Translingualism is “best understood as a disposition of openness and inquiry toward language and language differences.”[1]

Multilingual writers are typically marked by the ways their texts might diverge from “Standard Edited Written English,” while “the rest of the students” are seen as generally competent monolingual users of that same English. The students whose first language is not English are socially and culturally subordinated to the other, presumably stronger users of English in the classroom. Such categories situate writers whose first language is not English as lacking, their use of English infelicitously aberrant, their understanding of conventions weak.

Yet, these assumptions misunderstand writing and conventions entirely. First, “all writing always involves rewriting and translation, inevitably engaging the labor of recontextualizing (and renewing) language, language practices, users, conventions, and contexts” (Horner & Lu 586). If also we accept that conventions are repetitions, but that no repetition can be an exact copy, then an apparent act of repetition is the moment that a writer’s agency emerges, producing difference at the same time that it reproduces the conventional.[2] From this premise, we argue that every student is negotiating this dynamic, working out a mix mimicry and agency, in effect translating what has gone before to make something new. Thus, each student is always engaging in translation, and all divergences are the norm. The multilingual writer engages in the same acts, encounters challenges, resolves problems, and produces meaning, as does every student.

The Takeaway:

  • Language is not stable and is always subject to negotiation.
  • We are all writing in translation.
  • The use the multiple languages in a classroom are resources, not liabilities.

[1] Bruce Horner & Min Zhan Lu, “Translingual Literacy, Language Difference, and Matters of Agency.” College English 75.6 (2013): 586.

[2] See Anthony Giddens: “Every instance of the use of language is a potential modification of that language at the same time as it acts to reproduce it” (Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979: 220.  Qtd. in Horner & Lu, “Translingual Literacy, Language Difference, and Matters of Agency,” College English 75.6 (2013): 589).