Translanguaging as a humanizing pedagogy

Jacob Huckle
July 20, 2022
Elif Shafak writes about the need to ‘tell different stories to humanize the other’; let’s tell different stories that humanize our multilingual learners as we ‘create radically human-centered classrooms’.

Dehumanizing language policies and practices

A drawing of a headstone containing the words 'English only is cultural death', above which there is a closed fist holding a pen, and the words 'deny our language, deny our roots, deny our cuculture'
Image source Pictured: A handdrawn fist coming out of a gravestone, with the caption "Deny Our Language, Deny Our Roots, Deny Our Culture" above, and on the gravestone, "English Only Is Cultural Death"

A drawing on Latino History Project’s website, from the Pueblo county collection, shows a headstone engraved with the words ‘English Only is cultural death’, and above it the words ‘deny our language, deny our roots, deny our culture’. This powerful image reflects how the fight against oppressive language policies – in schools and societies more generally – runs deep. To deny a language is not simply a requirement to use a different vocabulary or rephrase speech, it is a denial of cultural roots, identity, soul. It is a denial of humanity.

María del Carmen Salazar, Professor at the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver, experienced such a denial of humanity in her own early education, and writes movingly about it:

I went to school with all of my treasures, including my Spanish language, Mexican culture, familia (family), and ways of knowing. I abandoned my treasures at the classroom door in exchange for English and the U.S. culture; consequently, my assimilation into U.S. society was agonizing. One of my earliest memories is of wishing away my dark skin; I wanted desperately to be White, and I abhorred being la morena, the dark-skinned girl. I came to associate whiteness with success and brownness with failure. I was overwhelmed with feelings of shame over the most essential elements of my humanness. As a result, my experience in the U.S. educational system was marked by endless struggles to preserve my humanity (Salazaar, 2013, p121).

When prevented from using his/her/their own language in a classroom, one of the ‘most essential elements’ of the child’s ‘humanness’ is denied. ‘To reject a child’s language in the school’, Professor Jim Cummins (2001, p.19) puts it, ‘is to reject the child’.

Yet dehumanizing language policies and practices continue in many schools, denying children’s humanity as they are forced to abandon their treasures at the classroom door each day. Still some schools attempt to enforce “English Only” policies that prevent multilingual students accessing their full linguistic repertoires and punish children for speaking the languages of their hearts, approaches that have been denounced by the National College of Teachers of English as ‘depriving students of their voices’. Still some schools ‘pathologiz[e] the language and culture of poor children’ or view English language learners through deficit lenses that frame them as deficient or reduce them to labels that condemn them to single stories (Flores, Kleyn & Menken, 2015).

As Cummins (2005, p.586) points out, it’s a ‘bizzare situation’ in which schools ‘struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual speakers into foreign language speakers’, while ‘successfully transforming fluent speakers’ of other languages into ‘monolingual English speakers’ by denying their linguistic treasures. In the pursuit of ‘elite bilingualism’ for a few (foreign language programs, study abroad opportunities, etc.), the ‘folk bilingualism’ of others is delegitimized; ‘additive bilingualism’ for some, ‘subtractive bilingualism’ for others (Guerrero, 2010).

Such dehumanizing language policies and practices are often underpinned by what has been termed a ‘monolingual bias’, which ‘rests on the assumption that monolingualism is the default for human communication’ (Akbar, 2013, p.42) or, in other words, ‘that people who speak only one language…are the norm and that bilinguals and multilinguals are exceptions to that norm’ (Barratt, 2018). This monolingual bias manifests itself in schools in various ways: language curricula standards and assessment frameworks ‘have all been shaped in significant ways by a monolingual bias’ (Genesee, 2022); the monolingual bias shapes the assumption that languages exist as separate, bounded systems, as ‘two [or more] solitudes that should be kept rigidly separate’ (Cummins, 2008, p.65), so can be slotted into timetable grids or turned on and off as students move from classroom to classroom.


As a teacher who has worked in culturally and linguistic international schools in Asia (in which English is the dominant language of instruction) for the last decade, I’ve come to realise that one important way to counter the monolingual bias and the dehumanizing language policies and practices it spawns is to embrace translanguaging pedagogies. Translanguaging begins from a different starting point by treating languages not as segregated and bounded systems that exist like two monolinguals in the mind of a multilingual but as a unified communicative resource in which what we usually treat as separate languages are actually enmeshed and intertwined as one linguistic repertoire. Translanguaging then is defined as

…the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential (García, 2009, p.140).

In a classroom when, for example, a student listens to the teacher’s instruction in English, turns to a classmate to clarify their understanding by speaking in Korean, and then asks a question to a group in English, the student is not simply switching between different languages, but is drawing upon their complete linguistic resource. This student, in deploying their ‘full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named languages’ (Otheguy, García & Reid, 2015, p. 281), is translanguaging.

In linguistically diverse spaces, translanguaging is a natural process for multilinguals and ‘children engage in translanguaging of their own accord without being encouraged to do so - or despite being discouraged by others from doing so’ (Harris, et. al., 2020, p.54), but language policies and practices in schools often attempt to shut it down. So, the responsibility of teachers of linguistically diverse students is not just to permit the unplanned or spontaneous translanguaging that is natural in multilinguals’ communication, but to leverage it as a resource for learning through the use of pedagogical translanguaging, in which translanguaging is used intentionally as ‘part of the lesson plan and has a pedagogical purpose’ to teach using students’ whole linguistic repertoires (Cenoz & Gorter, 2020, p.3). CUNY-NYSIEB'S Guide for Educators contains examples of such pedagogical translanguaging in practice, with strategies such as multilingual reading partners, vocabulary inquiry across languages, and multilingual research.

Translanguaging as a humanizing pedagogy

We can put forward an argument for pedagogical translanguaging from the perspective of its academic benefits (e.g. Hillcrest, 2021), or from the perspective of a child’s right to an ‘equitable quality education’ for all learners, which, as UNESCO (2017) notes, ‘is only possible when education responds to and reflects the multilingual nature of the society’. We can also advocate for translanguaging from the perspective of humanizing approaches, in line with the values of the Human Restoration Project, which is the line of inquiry I’ll take in the rest of this article. To do so, we need to recognize that language is deeply connected to our identities and, as explored above, denying or delegitimizing a language – or preventing a child’s access to their whole linguistic repertoire – has implications for their identities. As Cummins (2001, p.19) explains,

When the message, implicit or explicit, communicated to children in the school is “Leave your language and culture at the schoolhouse door”, children also leave a central part of who they are - their identities - at the schoolhouse door. When they feel this rejection, they are much less likely to participate actively and confidently in classroom instruction.

Pedagogical translanguaging is one way in which this can be countered in linguistically diverse schools. Translanguaging pedagogies shift the message that is communicated to children, emphasizing that their languages and culture are welcome in our classrooms, that they are valuable resources for learning and identities that should be affirmed. Theorizing this, Childs (2016, p.27) draws upon Salazar’s principles and practices of humanising pedagogy in her discussion of translanguaging, arguing that translanguaging in the classroom ‘enable[s] humanising experiences’ as ‘the language and sociocultural treasures that learners bring are valued and included in classrooms in order to facilitate humanising engagement’. Childs (2016, p.27) uses poetic inquiry to explore the ways in which, through translanguaging, ‘language can be used to enable learners and teachers to be more fully themselves’.

Opening up spaces in which students can be ‘more fully themselves’ through translanguaging clearly aligns with Human Restoration Project’s core values, as shown in the image below.

Image with four circles. Blue circle in top left contains the words 'Learning is rooted in purpose-finding and community relevance'; green circle in top right contains  the words 'social justice is the cornerstone to educational justice; a pink circle in the bottom left contains the words 'Dehumanizing practices do not belong in school'; and a yellow circle in the bottom right contains the words 'Learners are respectful toward each other's innate human worth'.
Image source Pictured: An infographic showing HRP values in a solar system formation, with the HRP logo at the center and four quadrants: I: Learning is rooted in purpose-finding and community relevance with map a path to purpose; create cross-disciplinary, multi-age classrooms; learn experientially; promote literacy; connect to the community. II: Social justice is the cornerstone to educational success with demand anti-racist, inclusive spaces; authenticate student voice; reimagine spaces & promote free play; adopt critical pedagogy & build democratic schools; utilize restorative justice. III: Dehumanizing practices do not belong in school with eliminate grading; redefine assessment & end testing; build strong relationships; reform food systems; radically reduce homework. IV: Learners are respectful toward each other's innate human worth with self-direct learning; support & elevate teachers; cooperate, don't force competition; prioritize mental health & social-emotional learning; ensure a thriving public education.

Learners are respectful toward each other’s innate human worth

Translanguaging has, as Lin and He (2017, p.228) explain, valuable ‘identity-affirming functions’; it creates ‘third spaces where language minoritized students can voice their realities, perform their ways of being, demonstrate their expertise and create new realities’ (Yilmaz, 2019, p.211), through which their identities are affirmed. As students are empowered to share aspects of their linguistic and cultural identities that would otherwise be hidden, teachers are able to get to know them better and see their assets, challenging the deficit narrative that often surrounds English language learners. As Tan Hyunh observes, ‘when we see kids in a different way, we teach in a different way’. When we see our students’ strengths and potential – made more visible through translanguaging – rather than their weaknesses and gaps, we will teach in ways that tap into those assets. Similarly, in a virtuous cycle, teaching in a different way gives us opportunities to see our students in different ways, as translanguaging pedagogies open up spaces for students to share their treasures, gain glimpses into their full humanity, and demonstrate respect for their innate human worth.

Learning is rooted in purpose-finding and community relevance

Lin and He (2017, p.228) describe a classroom interaction in which, during a science lesson about animal classification, the class were suggesting examples of herbivores, and some students mentioned camels; the teacher added it to the blackboard but expressed uncertainty about whether they only eat grass, to which a South Asian student used the Urdu word “oonth” (camel), ‘echoed with pride by her peers’, and explained that camels don’t eat meat, “of course”. Here, the student had knowledge that the teacher, ‘who had grown up in a different cultural and geographical environment’, lacked, and was empowered to share that knowledge in the classroom space opened up by translanguaging. Education can find relevance to students’ own communities if the knowledge they have gained within those communities is valued, legitimized, and leveraged through translanguaging. A shift towards education as purpose-finding will require students to feel invested in and connected to their learning at school and for multilingual learners this can be enhanced as translanguaging enables them to forge links between the knowledge gained in their different language communities and integrate knowledge from the classroom in their multilingual identities.

Dehumanizing practices do not belong in school

Translanguaging shifts the power dynamic in classrooms as it ‘break[s] down power relations and creates a collaborative learning environment that encourages teachers and students to learn from one another’ (Davis & Phyak, 2017, p.86). In such an environment, translanguaging can be used ‘to show care, affection, to build trust and relationships’ (Tigert et. al., 2020). By providing scaffolding and affirming their identities, translanguaging enables students to participate more actively in classroom tasks, through which stronger and more humane relationships can be built with peers and teachers. Translanguaging has the potential to humanize multilingual classrooms and lead to larger shifts away from dehumanizing practices. Take one classroom translanguaging experiment in South Africa as an example: ‘the rigid classroom atmosphere, known in monolingual scripted curricula, resulting in tense students, was completely erased by the comfortable, humane and communal atmosphere of dialogic, cooperative and communicative language learning aided by translanguaging’ (Zhou & Landa, 2019, p.303).

Social justice is the cornerstone to educational success

It’s important that we recognise that translanguaging is not just another ‘fashionable trend’(Erdocia, 2020, p.10) or ‘buzzword’ (Flores, 2014) and it shouldn’t be reduced to just another “strategy” or “tool” to be used now and then to provide learner support. As this article has shown, it is bigger than this. Translanguaging is ‘a political act’, ‘part of a larger political struggle of linguistic self-determination for language-minoritized populations’ (Flores, 2014); it is a ‘political stance, a decolonizing stance’ (Wei, 2022, p.172). Approached in such a way, translanguaging can create ‘a space within schools where the practice of social justice can thrive…By creating translanguaging spaces, we create spaces that students experience as empowering, adaptable, relevant, and reflective of their own life experiences’ (Cioè-Peña and Snell, 2015). Furthermore, in line with critical pedagogies more broadly, translanguaging disrupts inequitable hierarchies that position certain ways of langauging as superior; it seeks to combat ‘structural inequities’ by ‘challenging the hegemony and linguistic imperialism of standard languages’ (Yilmaz, 2019); it is one way in which such hierarchies can be unlearned and resisted as ‘multilingual learners further create new ideologies and consciousness…while building agency and activism’ (Davis & Phyak, 2017, p.86).. Translanguaging is thus a key part of a larger mission to create not only more just schools, but a more just ‘society in which multicultural, multilingual schools are considered “the norm”, and in which all languages, and those who speak them, are valued’ (Cleave, 2020, p.28).

Telling different stories to humanize the other

So, in a number of ways, we can see how ‘translanguaging practices are inherently humanising’ as they open up spaces in which teachers and learners can ‘participate as social, thinking, transforming individuals’ (Delport, 2016, p.7). As students and teachers learn together with authenticity, open to sharing their full multilingual identities, they can begin to create more just and equitable educational spaces. As Zhou, Landa, and Tshotsho (2020, p.236) remind us, ‘humanity can only be realized through repeated exposure to humanizing practices that create an alternative narrative, construct a new identity and tell a new story’. Translanguaging is part of the creation of this new narrative. Elif Shafak writes about the need to ‘tell different stories to humanize the other’; let’s tell different stories that humanize our multilingual learners as we ‘create radically human-centered classrooms’.


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Jacob Huckle
Jacob teaches English to multilingual learners in an international school in Asia and is also completing a Doctorate in Education focused on multilingualism & intercultural understanding.
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