Translanguaging is Everywhere

Citizen sociolinguists are showing how translanguaging works.

For over three years now I’ve been keeping a blog about something I call “citizen sociolinguistics”—the work people do to make sense of everyday communication and share their sense-making with others. This is my small way of supporting the Council on Anthropology and Education’s goal to “promote research, policies and practices” that are “close to the voices of the participant communities” and “sensitive to participant experiences and social contexts.” Often citizen sociolinguistic practices take place on the internet, and many of my dozens of posts have discussed internet postings in which everyday people explain some feature of language and communication in their world.

Topics range from memes and emojis, to cross-posting and Urban Dictionary, to Konglish to Singlish to White American Vernacular English. As of now, the following are the three most accessed posts:

While these may seem trivial topics, citizen sociolinguistics like this provides a potentially powerful means to voice alternative, local points of views on language and communication.

Moreover, all these examples and dozens more could all arguably be called “translanguaging,” as defined by Ofelia García (2009). That is, “accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.”

This definition accounts for almost every example I’ve encountered from citizen sociolinguists and discussed on my blog.  But when scholars talk, research, and write about specific instances of translanguaging, they don’t seem to range very widely. A quick look through the top nine articles appearing in a Google Scholar search for “Translanguaging examples” confirms this impression:

  • Chinese and Gujarati community language schools in the United Kingdom (Creese & Blackledge 2010)
  • International students from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, UAE, and Saudi Arabia in a US university writing class (Canagarajah 2011a; 2011b).
  • Bilingual classrooms in Wales (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012a, 2012b)
  • Chinese University students in the UK (Wei 2011)
  • Mexican-heritage first-graders in Pennsylvania and university students in Limpopo using English and multiple African languages (Hornberger & Link 2012)
  • Multiple educational spaces for translanguaging, primarily Wales and the United States. (García & Wei 2014)
  • Chinese University students in the UK (Wei & Zhu 2013)

As this list suggests, when discussing translanguaging, scholars are most often referring to a classroom that includes children or young adults of minority ethnic backgrounds, speaking minoritized languages. Translanguagers are commonly heritage language learners or, sometimes, multilingual international students in higher education.

Recently I’ve had a few conversations consistent with this Google Scholar representation of “translanguaging” as something that occurs in a rather narrow range of contexts, among certain types of people. These conversations go something like this:

Student:          Translanguaging is important and I encourage it. We are designing translanguaging lessons for future teachers in my methods class.  But, I’m conflicted, as a graduate student, because when I go to a seminar I need to speak like a graduate student.

Me:                  What type of speaking happens in a graduate seminar?

Student:          We need to just speak English.

Me:                  Do you speak just one type of English in Grad Seminar?

Student:          No

Me:                  Do other languages ever pop in?

Student:          Yes—yes, I suppose we are translanguaging there, too!

It appears that translanguaging has become something we notice and name easily when minoritized languages and those labeled “language learners” are part of the context. But as the dialogue above suggests, these are not the only ones who translanguage or the only contexts in which translanguaging occurs. Aren’t we always, in some way, “accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential”? I would answer, yes! But the term “translanguaging” is disproportionately exemplified, at least in the scholarly literature, by speakers of minoritized languages in classrooms.

Mexican-heritage first-graders in a Pennsylvania school are inevitably translanguaging. But so too, I would argue, are US-heritage students (and their professor) in a University of Pennsylvania “Grad Seminar.” As are moms in Western Massachusetts saying “kwor-sor” (Croissant), fictional Italian-American mobsters eating “gabagool” (capicola), and avid emoji texters! Translanguaging is everywhere.

And, while the most-cited examples of translanguaging on Google Scholar look at the narrow contexts I’ve listed, more recent developments suggest that the “translanguaging-is-everywhere” point of view is taking hold. At the Translation and Translanguaging (TLANG) summer school in Birmingham in 2017, for example, presentations covered translanguaging in a much wider range of contexts and with a wider range of translanguagers. And in March 2018, at the Birmingham, TLANG Conference, “Communication in the Multilingual City,” examples presented ranged from translanguaging as queer practice, translanguaging in Polish online communities, translanguaging in health-care settings, and translanguaging within the teamwork of sign-language interpreters. Name a context and it seems there is someone who is researching translanguaging there.

But now you may be worrying that if translanguaging is everywhere, it doesn’t really do much that is very special. On the contrary! If translanguaging is happening all over the place, it is probably important. Other communicative features are also everywhere (intonation, facial expression, volume, posture, gesture), but we don’t ignore them. Instead, we work hard to understand the specific (indexical) work that such features are doing. As communicators, we cannot assume a certain gesture or intonation does just one thing.

The same is true for translanguaging. Probably every single context potentially invites some type of translanguaging. But translanguaging may look very different and do very different work according to that context, and who is doing it.

However, when it comes to introducing translanguaging in the classroom, people often act like translanguaging just does one thing—one thing that their students and other teachers should do. People say things like “I want to try translanguaging in my classroom” or, “I’d like to introduce translanguaging to other teachers.”  These statements strike me as odd. Why? Because, if you can agree that translanguaging is everywhere, we don’t ever need to “introduce” it. This would be something akin to the sociolinguist William Labov saying he would like to “introduce” language variation to people—as if people weren’t already speaking in different regional varieties, on their own.

Instead of introducing translanguaging to people, it makes more sense to investigate what people are already doing as competent translanguagers, and to learn how acts of translanguaging are functioning. In any high school classroom in the United States, for example, students are inevitably addressing a dual audience (teachers and peers) and choosing how to express themselves accordingly—selecting a bit from one variety of English and a bit from another (or from another language, or maybe, if using their smart-phone or a computer, another modality). Ben Rampton’s (2006) example of “mock German” in a high-school classroom in London illustrates what this might look like. Here, students use something like German to joke with one another, while the language of instruction is technically English:

Mr. N:         as I’ve said before I get a bit fed up with saying Shshsh

John:           LOUDER

Mr. N:         you’re doing your SATs now


                    VIEL LAUTER SPRECHEN

                    ((translation from German: ‘speak much louder’))

Mr. N:         ((emphatic)) sshh

John:           ((smile voice)) lauter spricken whatever that is

This could be considered one specific type of translanguaging—Rampton refers to this use of German as a “textual projectile.” But this is not a type of translanguaging that this teacher needs to introduce to his students. The students effortlessly came up with this themselves.  And they seem to revel in it—as John’s savoring repetition of “lauter spricken” and accompanying “smile voice” suggest. This example illustrates the potential variety of translanguagers and the contexts within which they act—often with unexpected wit and creativity. As scholars of translanguaging, we would be remiss to limit our view of which contexts or actors might officially count. And we might even be sucking the situated liveliness out of such a pervasive and creative feature of communication.

Fortunately, citizen sociolinguists are out there, providing voluminous commentary as everyday ambassadors of translanguaging. Citizen sociolinguists expand the assumed contexts of translanguaging, getting very detailed about what translanguaging looks like, how it might work and why, in infinite possible contexts.  Check it out!

Betsy Rymes is professor and chair of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches about language and society and how they relate to educational projects. She introduced the concept “citizen sociolinguistics” as a vehicle for sharing and engaging in dialogue relating to everyday encounters with language.

Cathy Amanti [email protected] and Patricia D. López [email protected]  are contributing editors for the Council on Anthropology and Education.

Cite as: Rymes, Betsy. 2018. “Translanguaging is Everywhere.” Anthropology News website, April 27, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.842


Love this, Betsy. In my “Understanding Language Learning” course for undergrads, they blog about their own language learning experiences and we study blogs to analyze how they are written. Citizen Sociolinguistics was one of the examples I gave them of a language-focused blog and many of them selected one of your posts as a mentor text as they were learning how to blog. Thanks for sharing this here.

Thanks for an interesting commentary. Questions: Isn’t there a difference between ‘code-switching’ and ‘translanguaging’? As I understand it, ‘translanguaging’ involves using what we conceive of as different languages in ways that transcend the notion of language boundaries (e.g. Alim 2009; Otsuji and Pennycook 2011).
– Wendy Klein

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