Translanguaging in the L2 Classroom


In Interacting with Linguistic Capital and Teacher Agency, I mentioned that I have been trying to incorporate ways for students to use their first language into my class. You might be wondering, “If you’re teaching English, isn’t it counterproductive to let students speak in their first language?” Actually, research suggest that it may be a helpful tool!

Before discussing the research, I’d like to tell you what brought me to allow students to use their first language (or L1) in the classroom. Since many well-established methods of teaching discourage or openly prohibit use of students’ first language in the second language (L2) classroom (see Larsen-Freeman, 2000; Creese & Blackledge, 2010), it is not surprising that the general attitude among ESL teachers at the academic prep school where I worked for the last two years was that use of students’ L1s in class should be discouraged. Perhaps this was particularly the case because the aim of our program was to equip students with adequate language skills to get through university classes without need of language tutoring. As a result, we only accepted intermediate and advanced students, which meant that they were all capable of speaking about most daily concepts in their L2.

But they didn’t.

In terms of demographics, about 80% of the students in our program were from China or Hong Kong, which meant that most or all of the students in any class spoke Mandarin as a first or early second language. They tended to isolate themselves socially from the rest of the school, and among themselves they spoke Mandarin almost exclusively. What became really problematic was that they would whisper to each other or show off to their friends in Mandarin during ESL classes, despite knowing that they were supposed to speak English.

After trying several different approaches to reducing the distracting L1 outbursts, in a moment of desperation, I came up with something new. I asked them if they wanted to speak Chinese in class with my permission. Met with curious nods, I continued. “Okay then, your homework is to teach me Mandarin. You can choose any phrase you think I should learn, but you have to explain to the class in English what it means, why you chose it, and what makes it important.”

They loved it. That got me thinking. Maybe it’s less important to discourage students from using their first language in the L2 classroom than it is to make sure that they use it productively. Now that I am in a master’s program in second language education, I am increasingly convinced that it’s true.

Angela Creese and Adrian Blackledge (2010) examine approaches to bilingual education over the years. First of all, they clarify that when they talk about bilingual classrooms, they are referring to any classroom where two or more languages are spoken and/or used for instruction. They note that traditional pedagogies support a mentality of “keeping the languages separate” (p. 104). In fact, using two or more languages concurrently was seen as inappropriate and detrimental to learning (Creese & Blackledge, 2010). In this type of approach, instruction is only in the target language (the one students are learning), translation between languages is discouraged,and student’s languages are to be kept “rigidly istock_000011869612smallseparate” (Creese & Blackledge, 2010, p. 105). Moreover, based on the types of attitudes toward language that I have discussed in several of my earlier posts, many approaches to language teaching have been designed for replacive functions, aiming to replace students’ native language or dialect with a standard variety of the target language (Fishman, 1999; also see my post, What’s the Standard?).

Creese and Blackledge, however, are in favour of a different approach that makes use of a phenomenon known as translanguaging. Translanguaging would fit with Fishman’s definition of additive teaching, where the target language is seen as adding to their linguistic repertoire. According to the Creese and Blackledge, translanguaging, also sometimes called code-switching, occurs when speakers’ languages are not kept strictly separated, but rather are allowed to “leak into one another” (p. 106), much like the watercolours in the photo above. The authors note that a growing number of researchers are calling for more “flexible approaches to pedagogy” (p. 106) that will better accommodate the increasingly complex realities of multilingual classrooms. They are also calling for ways of teaching and thinking about language that do not enforce separation of one language from another (Creese & Blackledge, 2010). Finally, Creese and Blackledge note that there are convincing arguments for the pedagogic potential of using translanguaging in the classroom.

I will continue to discuss translanguaging in my next post, but for now, what are your thoughts on it? Can you think of any ways that it might be implemented in ways that will help language learners with their L2? I’d love to hear from you!


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Creese, A. & Blackledge, A. (2010). Translanguaging in the bilingual classroom: A pedagogy for learning and teaching? The Modern Language Journal, 94 (i). Retrieved from

Fishman, J, A. (Ed.). (1999). Handbook of language & ethnic identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and principles in language teaching (2nd ed.). Toronto: Oxford University Press.


(2013). Watercolour workshop 2. Retrieved from

Winn, Matt. (2012). An intro to subcategories for ecommerce sites. In Volusion. Retrieved from

8 thoughts on “Translanguaging in the L2 Classroom

      1. Mela Sarkar

        The idea you outline (“your homework is to teach me Mandarin”) is one of the best I’ve ever come across. Kudos!

        There is some debate on how “code-switching” may or may not be a very different animal from “translanguaging”. I expect you know all about it…

        Liked by 1 person

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  4. Thank you, Mela! Yes, as I understand it, translanguaging would include a range of practices, one of which would be code-switching (at least in the sense used in the Creese and Blackledge article). Since I found varied definitions of code-switching throughout the pieces I read, I chose to simplify and refer mainly to translanguaging, while acknowledging that there is overlap.


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