“Translanguaging for Dummies”


After all of my discussion about translanguaging in the last three posts (Translanguaging in the L2 Classroom, Translanguaging: Establishing Some Foundations, and Overcoming the Monolingual Bias), you may be wondering, “So how do we actually use it?” In this post and the next two, I will examine some specific strategies offered by various scholars, considering ways in which they could be extended and applied in different classroom contexts.

First, however, it is noteworthy that the exploration of teaching strategies that make use of translanguaging is a recent development in the field of second language acquisition studies. Canagarajah (2015) comments that since translanguaging occurs in multilingual settings (including classrooms) with or without teachers’ approval, it is important to be active about seeking ways to develop it in classroom contexts. As Canagarajah writes, “we still have a long way to go in developing teaching strategies out of… broadly conceived models” of translanguaging (p. 402).

This is exciting, because it means that there are all kinds of new ideas to be had and approaches to try. It seems that nearly everyone is a bit of a ‘dummy’ when it comes to translanguaging (in the sense of not knowing all about it). I hope that as I outline the approaches to translanguaging I have found in the research, you will chime in with your own thoughts, experiences, and strategies. Who knows; we may come up with some ideas that advance the research and practice of classroom translanguaging! So please, comment and share your thoughts! 🙂

As for existing strategies, Cummins offers some ideas that center around the notion of cross-linguistic transfer. The first of these is that teachers should draw students’ attention to cognate relationships between languages where possible. When I was learning Spanish, and later when I taught it, I used any mnemonic aids that I could come up with to help myself remember vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure, and cognates offered very helpful ‘shortcuts.’ There are many Spanish-English word pairs whose only difference is pronunciation, and there are also many ‘sneaky’ cognates, such as Spanish encontrar (used very often) and English encounter (not used often) or meet (see Cummins 2005). There are also pairs like interrumpir and interrupt or grasa and English grease or fat (as in a snack that is high in fat).

Interestingly, as a student, I always felt as though it was kind of cheating to use these cognates and mnemonic devices, which demonstrates what I talked about in Some Foundations for Using Translanguaging as a Teaching Tool– both students and teachers often feel guilty when they engage in translanguaging, and this is because of the monolingual bias (Creese & Blackledge, 2010). What this means to me is that instead of enacting classroom rules that cause students to use cognates to further their learning ‘on the sly’ and laden with guilt, a better strategy would be for teachers to highlight these connections with the class. For example, when teaching conversational Spanish, I made sure to highlight cognate pairs with English and also French (which several of my students had studied).

Cummins notes the usefulness of cognate relationships between English and any of the Romance languages (such as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese), commenting that “failure to draw students’ attention to cognate relationships across languages is perhaps the most obvious limitation of monolingual instructional assumptions” (p. 588). Furthermore, he asserts that “drawing students’ attention to these relationships and encouraging them to search their internal lexical database for similar meanings as they read” can be useful in helping students transfer their L1 knowledge to English.

Cummins’ suggestion is built on the practices of a classroom where the teacher and most or all of the students are working with the same two languages, which is somewhat limiting for more diverse classrooms; however, I would extend this idea to suggest that there are times where this may be done even if the words are not in fact cognates. For example, I will never forget teaching the English word muffin to my Chinese students. As soon as I said the word, the class burst into laughter-apparently the English word sounded like a Mandarin word for poop. This unconventional association seemed to work; no one got muffin wrong on the test. Therefore, while cognates can be useful translanguaging tools, I feel that we can even go beyond that to draw on similarities in sound patterns and so on, even if the meanings are not the same. Furthermore, I trained myself to remember the Spanish word alfombra (‘carpet’) by associating it with alfalfa, which I knew.

Using these examples as a basis, perhaps it would be constructive to encourage students to make and use similar connections, even if their first language is not one spoken by the teacher. Of course, caution would need to be exercised and true cognates clearly separated from ‘soundalike’ words or false cognates (like embarrassed and Spanish embarazada, which means ‘pregnant’). However, I feel that these sorts of associations are worth further exploration.

In my next posts, I will describe Cummins’ other suggested strategies, but what are your thoughts so far? You may or may not agree with my proposed extension of Cummins’ cognates suggestion. I would love to know why you do or do not, so please feel free to share your thoughts!


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Canagarajah, S. (2011). Codemeshing in Academic Writing: Identifying Teachable Strategies of Translanguaging. Modern Language Journal, 95(3), pp. 401-417. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/41262375.

Creese, A. & Blackledge, A. (2010). Translanguaging in the bilingual classroom: A pedagogy for learning and teaching? The Modern Language Journal, 94 (i). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/25612290.



Image adapted from:

Underdahl, B. (2016). Access forms and reports for Dummies. http://www.dummies.com/store/product/Access-Forms-and-Reports-For-Dummies.productCd-0764599658,navId-323904.html.




5 thoughts on ““Translanguaging for Dummies”

  1. Pingback: Translanguaging for Emerging Experts | Ramblings of a Linguaphile

  2. Pingback: Language is Messy (Concluding Thoughts on Translanguaging) | Ramblings of a Linguaphile

  3. Mela Sarkar

    Cummins’ work has been foundational in this area. He was talking about the kind of strategy you refer to LONG before the word “translanguaging” was in common use (except perhaps in Welsh!). We can all learn from him.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John Narvaez

    I teach Spanish as a L3 in a multilingual context. Finding commonalities among French, English and Spanish at all levels (phonological, lexical, etc.) is an essential part of my teaching. By initially focusing on cognates in particular, I have noticed that students’ confidence to approach learning Spanish is boosted. So instead of the common lesson on greetings and farewells, my first lesson in Spanish is about storytelling using cognates (“El cocodrilo que ataca la escuela”). Approaching cognates as a valid learning strategy makes students aware of the impact that this transfer has on their incipient oral expression and comprehension. By relying on cognates, I am able to better scaffold reading and writing at the early stages of learning and the connections and awareness that arise slowly bring students out of their comfort zones to a place in which meaningful and enduring L3 learning can occur. Experimenting and exploring with language following patterns based on cognates spark realizations and discoveries that make lexical development an inquiry process with remarkable impact on the students’ implicit knowledge of Spanish. By supporting students’ pattern discovery, I enable them to expand an initial lexicon that gives them a basis for interaction (atacar becomes atacante, and ataque for example). The benefits of the students’ use of all of these linguistic resources is a key element of Cummins ideas on translanguaging. By metacognitively helping students realize that there is a Common Underlying Proficiency that could be beneficial in learning an additional language, my students in particular, have come to rely on such interdependence of their language systems to become more resourceful, proficient and better able to tackle communication and comprehension hurdles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing about your strategies, John. I love the way you have put together a phrase composed of cognates to frame the concepts!

      Extending on the idea of comparing cognates across languages, I have also found in my personal experience that a basic knowledge of Greek and Latin roots and affixes is invaluable to learning any of the Romance languages. At times, I can deduce the meaning of a word in French or Spanish even if it bears no similarity to English, just because I recognize a Latin root–what a helpful tool, this knowledge is! I really appreciate the way you’ve offered your students cognate relationships as a tool for further growth. It’s wonderful if they don’t have to know the experience of feeling guilt for taking a “shortcut” against their teacher’s wishes.


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