Tapping Into the First Language


By Melissa Enns

For those who are newer to this blog, a topic that has been of great interest to me is translanguaging. I have written a series of posts on the topic and will be referring to several of them today, as they might be helpful to build a broader understanding of the topic. I won’t repeat what I’ve written previously; instead, this post connects the concept of metalinguistic knowledge with translanguaging and offers a teaching strategy that encourages both.

In Metalinguistic Knowledge: More Layers, I argued that metalinguistic knowledge in one language is useful to the learning of another. Jessner (1999) views the comparison of different languages as a productive activity in improving metalinguistic understanding and developing useful metacognitive language learning strategies. This idea is echoed in Cummins’ (2005) comment that “failure to draw students’ attention to cognate relationships across languages” actually limits their learning (p. 588). In other words, the assumption that learners’ first languages are a hindrance to target language learning is not necessarily true. This idea brings us into translanguaging territory.

To recapitulate, translanguaging is a term used to denote a different way of thinking about languages and the ways people view and use them. It is a perspective in which people’s languages are viewed as flexible linguistic resources that do not have clear separations in users’ minds, but rather are called upon strategically in response to different social settings and needs (García 2011; Otheguy et al., 2015). In other words, instead of being kept strictly separated, proponents of translanguaging argue that elements of speakers’ different languages actually “leak into one another” (Creese & Blackledge, 2010, p. 106).

Any language-lover who has spent a day in Montreal can certainly attest to the fascinating effects of the city’s linguistic diversity (and language laws) on signage and speech everywhere. I can assure you that in a short ride on the metro, you will hear conversations with elements of two or more languages in them. It is not an aberration; it’s a social reality and indicates something about speakers’ social competence. I am certainly not arguing that languages should be taught without boundaries; however, if we view the boundaries as socially mediated, we are free to make use of the linguistic resources students already possess rather than attempting to keep their languages separated, as has traditionally been common practice (García 2011; Otheguy et al., 2015; Creese & Blackledge, 2010).

Some of the strategies I have mentioned for increasing metalinguistic awareness, thus, may constitute translanguaging and, as such, serve additional purposes. According to Palmer et al. (2014), allowing learners to draw from their first language affirms their linguistic identity construction and contributes to greater investment in language learning. Furthermore, beyond stimulating growth of metalinguistic knowledge, incorporation of translanguaging practices in the language classroom is believed to increase learners’ activity in both languages (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012) and scaffold and support their linguistic and academic success (Palmer, et al., 2014; Celiz & Selzer, 2011).

We have already talked about the value of drawing attention to cognates (click here to see the posts), and I have written about some other useful translanguaging activities, including creative translation projects (see the post here). If you have time to look through some of that material, I have shared a good number of personal examples and practical suggestions and would love to hear what you think about them.

Finally, the additional strategy I wish to present is the use of multilingual projects and texts (Celic & Selzter, 2011). These can take on many forms, but the common element is that students collaborate to complete some parts of the work in the target language but are free to use whichever language they want for others. For example, they may brainstorm in any language but do their writing in the target language. Conversely, they may listen to an audio file in the target language and discuss it in any language. There is a lot of room for creativity here, as this could easily be done with multimedia projects, skits, or art, in which they could brainstorm and plan in any language and present in the target language.

These ideas may seem worrisome, but remember that activities like this will not only validate learners’ home languages and identity, but they will also stimulate learners’ development of language-learning strategies and help them build their metalinguistic knowledge. Additionally, these types of activities are believed to build students’ content knowledge, engage their higher-order thinking skills, and scaffold their literacy skills in the target language (Celic & Seltzer, 2011). With all that being said, it is important that educators emphasize that students’ linguistic choices should be based on how they will learn more efficiently since they still have to be able to meet target language objectives.

Celic and Seltzer offer clear descriptions of many more strategies that productively incorporate learners’ home languages in the target language classroom in their useful Translanguaging Guide, which can be downloaded here.

As you can see, there is overlap between translanguaging practices and those used to increase metalinguistic knowledge, and in all of the examples here, learners are permitted to tap into their first language in ways that advance their learning of the target language. What do you think of the strategies suggested here? What challenges do you think you might encounter in implementing them in your context, and how could you counter them?


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.



Celic & K. Seltzer. Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators. New York: CUNY-NYSIEB. Retrieved from www.nysieb.ws.gc.cuny.edu/files/2012/06/FINAL-Translanguaging

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.

Cummins, J. (2005). A proposal for action: Strategies for recognizing heritage language competence as a learning resource within the mainstream classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 585-592. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3588628.

García, O. (2011). Theorizing translanguaging for educators. In C. Celic & K. Seltzer.
Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators. New York: CUNY-NYSIEB.
Retrieved from www.nysieb.ws.gc.cuny.edu/files/2012/06/FINAL-Translanguaging

Jessner, U. (1999). Metalinguistic awareness in multilinguals: Cognitive aspects of third language learning. Language Awareness, 8, 201-209. Doi: 10.1080/09658419908667129.

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012). Translanguaging: Developing its conceptualisation and contextualisation. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18(7), 655–670.

Otheguy, R., García, O., & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), 281-307.

Palmer, D., Mateus, G., Martinez, R., & Henderson, K. (2014). Reframing the debate on language separation: Toward a vision for translanguaging pedagogies in the dual language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 98(3), 757-772. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2014.12121.x0026-7902/14/757-772.



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7 thoughts on “Tapping Into the First Language

  1. Robert

    There is an often used expression in esl classes: “Put your English hat on”, which implies to turn off the other languages in one’s mind in order to concentrate only on English. This translanguaging approach goes against the thinking that one language or another must be completely switched off in order to let the target language take over.
    Personally as a french speaker, I often draw on typical Quebec expressions and their equivalents when explaining English idioms to a predominantly Quebec French class. By relating the English idiom use to situations where the students’ experience attached a typical French Quebec phrase, I feel there is a shortcut created in language use with the equation of the French expression for English one based on their common use in similar situations.
    One thing that is often touched upon in vocabulary teaching is for students to be aware of typical false cognates or “faux amis.” Though this seems to denote a drawback to translanguaging, identifying and ‘rerouting’ connections between the two languages in meaning can still aid in learning. Example: the commonly misused “actually” to mean “currently” can be corrected by modelling and then practicing the word in it’s commonly used response type forms; i.e. “So you are studying at Concordia?” Actually, I’m studying at McGill.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Robert, thank you for your insightful comment! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by pointing out that it’s important to draw attention to differences as well as similarities, modelling correct usage as we go. This is a reason that a base knowledge of learners’ L1s can be a major asset to teachers, as it allows us to offer equivalent phrases or draw attention to faux amis.

      To extend your point, I also like to make the case that even mnemotic devices drawn from phonetic similarities between completely unrelated lexical items, such as “muffin” and a Mandarin word which my students claimed roughly meant “poop,” can aid in retention. I’ve written a bit more about that in one of the posts linked above: https://ramblingsofalinguaphile.com/2016/12/23/translanguaging-for-dummies/.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. So true, Robert! Yes, exactly. I remember my days as a 2nd language learner and teachers were far too insistent in not switching channels. The analogy was that our brain was a tv set and that we had to stick to the “English channel” and stay there (No zapping, haha!) Anyway, I somewhat continued with the same approach for a while in my early years as a teacher. I used to prefer explaining over and over again in English the meaning of a certain word and, sort of, looked down on those teachers that just used translation. I mean, as we know, extremes are never good. I finally got to embrace, sometimes rather unconsciously, that translanguaging was a valid strategy (if not essential!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Patrice Lalande

    Thanks so much! I used to feel so bad about using French to explain how English works. I was doing it on instinct, realising that my weak students had a shot at understanding what they needed to do. It is important for my students to know they have access to communicating and understanding, especially when they feel that they are not good at languages at all. Without becoming a full fledged Frenglish pidgin class, I think this approach can make success attainable. After showing the poster at the top of this post to some of my students, one exclaimed, “Monsieur, that’s so tellement me, that!” I suppose translanguaging brings a level of normalcy to the learning process, taking the pressure of having to be perfect all the time off.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your encouraging comment, Patrice! It’s interesting how teachers’ instincts can influence us to try different approaches, even if we have not yet read or been told that they are useful.

      I had a similar experience in Saskatchewan. My students were speaking a lot of Mandarin in class (and not in ways that were productive to their learning). I couldn’t stand the thought of implementing a strict rule or punishments, but I had to manage the situation. I ended up asking them, “Do you want to speak Mandarin in class? Okay, then here is your assignment. You teach me. You can teach me any phrase you want, but you have to explain in English what it means and why you chose it.” They loved it! When I left that job and came across the literature on translanguaging, I finally began to understand why that was better than punishing them and how, if I am intentional in my planning, I can validate their first language and use it to support development of the second!


  3. Kaia

    In my context, a university preparatory high school, one of the things we have to help our students understand is how the cultural academic expectations at our school/in Canada differ from the academic expectations of their home country (Mainland China for the majority). This includes how to both participate in and lead collegial discussions with their teachers and classmates, as well as produce writing that incorporates the conventions of North American academia. This is no small task; it takes time and requires a teacher to train the students to use and apply appropriate academic skills and conventions that their non-ESL teachers are expecting from their students, skills that when done well will move a student’s grades from mediocre to pleasing. It is difficult to imagine translanguaging in this sort of environment simply because it is the differences in organizational processes of the mother tongue vs. L2 that cause “hang ups” for a learner trying to find academic success. In other words, if a learner does not know how to process and organize language in ways that are academically acceptable in their L2, then they will revert to habits of organization that are acceptable in their mother tongue but ultimately lead to cultural-academic clashes. One idea I’ve been thinking on is somehow employing academically successful students at the Grade 12 level to work with younger students and explain to them in their L1 how to better understand and work within the academic expectations of their new high school. This could maybe be like a study group or tutorial type setting where the older student explains how and why they are achieving good grades, highlighting the different cultural academic expectations. A teacher would have to confer with the Grade 12 students prior to such meetings just to make sure that these sessions contain accurate information. A little troubleshooting may be required here, but it’s an idea worth toying with at the very least.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kaia, for sharing your insights and very intriguing idea! I have also been giving thought to how these concepts might be applied in an environment such as you described. I was also envisioning a situation in which students would discuss grammatical and discourse-level understandings in L1, but thinking of younger students at lower levels, I knew it would be very difficult to monitor or scaffold such activities so that they actually accomplished this. I really love your idea of employing more experienced students to offer explanation to others!

      Actually, my experience with international colleagues in my master’s program has also given me the thought that language programs with a strong academic bent could also potentially invite university students of different linguistic backgrounds to come and speak to students in these programs about their experiences learning new ways of thinking, speaking, and writing in order to be able to achieve the academic standards valued in this particular context (ie- Canadian, “Western,” North American standards). Students who have already adapted would have so much to offer to those who may not yet see why they should make any adjustments!


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