How translanguaging addresses English-only exclusion

The past few decades have witnessed an expanding rate of international student mobility. In 2019, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that 6.1 million students were enrolled in tertiary education institutions outside their home countries.

The internationalisation of higher education has marked a significant shift in the linguistic landscape of universities worldwide, with English emerging as the lingua franca in the academic domain, even in countries where it is not the majority language.

As part of the push to attract international students and rise in global university rankings, there has been an increased focus among universities both in Anglophone and non-Anglophone contexts on establishing English-medium instruction programmes and courses, especially in the fields of business, science and technology.

Many universities also require students from non-English-speaking countries to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in English as a prerequisite for admission, for example, by submitting test scores from English language proficiency exams such as the IELTS and TOEFL.

The move towards Englishising universities in the pursuit of internationalisation brings up important questions of equity for students who are linguistically and culturally diverse. The paradox of internationalisation is that, as the student body becomes more multilingual, the predominant or exclusive use of English in instruction, research, assessment and support services has created universities that are artificially monolingual.

Students’ academic success in these monolingual settings often relies on their proficiency in a ‘standardised’ and ‘academic’ form of English, without regard for the challenges that English-only instruction poses for students for whom English is not a dominant language.

The exclusion of languages other than English in English-medium instruction contexts also means that the multilingual competence and knowledge that students have accumulated in other languages, particularly minoritised languages, are overlooked and not considered as valuable resources for their learning.

This poses a significant challenge in ensuring an equitable and inclusive educational experience for students who are speakers of English as an additional language.

Translanguaging has been proposed as a concept and a pedagogy that pushes back against the dominance of English in educational spaces. Translanguaging describes multilingual individuals’ flexible and fluid use of all of their languages – without strict boundaries or separation between them – for the purposes of communicating, gaining new knowledge and understanding and making sense of their worlds.

The rise of translanguaging

The term translanguaging was first coined by Cen Williams in the 1980s to describe the planned use of both Welsh and English to maximise students’ learning potential in Welsh bilingual schools.

Since then, scholars such as Ofelia García, Li Wei, Suresh Canagarajah, Angel Lin, Adrian Blackledge, Angela Creese and Leketi Makalela have extended the definition and use of the term translanguaging internationally to advocate for teaching practices that affirm the diverse language practices of multilingual students, and to advance a social justice agenda.

Translanguaging promotes social justice by challenging language policies and practices that prioritise English at the expense of other languages and creating educational experiences that are empowering for students from minoritised and marginalised linguistic backgrounds.

Instructors who implement a translanguaging pedagogy in higher education recognise the full array of students’ languages as integral to their learning and are deliberate in incorporating these languages into their course syllabi, lesson plans, activities, discussions, materials and assessments.

Translanguaging experiences

In recent years, translanguaging research has gained traction in higher education contexts globally. Studies have demonstrated the various benefits that translanguaging pedagogy offers students, instructors and institutions as a whole.

Encouraging students to learn through all the languages they know has been shown to aid their comprehension of complex academic content, facilitate self-directed learning, improve student engagement and confidence, promote intercultural understanding and ensure more equitable access to resources and opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds.

In a study recently published in Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, my co-authors Wenyangzi Shi, Justine Jun and I spoke to international graduate students in a major Canadian university to find out what their experiences with translanguaging in their academic programmes had been and to gather their recommendations regarding the effective implementation of translanguaging practices in higher education.

All of the students we interviewed expressed an appreciation for the benefits of translanguaging for their knowledge acquisition, language development, identity affirmation, intercultural learning and socio-emotional well-being.

However, their use of translanguaging was, for the most part, limited to informal group discussions and social interactions with peers outside classroom settings. While some of their instructors supported the use of languages other than English in the classroom, these reflected individual initiatives rather than a comprehensive, institutional commitment to translanguaging.

To move away from English-only practices, students recommended that instructors include a statement affirming translanguaging in their course syllabi, provide or allow students to access resources and materials in languages other than English, give students the option to conduct research and submit their assignments multilingually and create opportunities and spaces for students to engage in class discussions using various languages.

Our study also highlights the importance of broadening hiring practices to ensure that the composition of staff and faculty in universities mirrors the linguistic and cultural diversity among the student body, and creating university support services that cater to the distinctive strengths and needs of multilingual students.

Furthermore, initiating a university-wide dialogue on translanguaging can serve as a catalyst for the entire university community to embrace the linguistic and cultural diversity of its student body.

In conclusion, as universities engage in internationalisation efforts, it is vital to ensure that ‘international’ does not become synonymous with ‘English-only’. Rather, a primary goal of internationalisation should be to establish inclusive and equitable universities where students’ multilingualism is welcomed, valued and deeply integrated into every facet of the learning environment and experience.

Shakina Rajendram is an assistant professor, teaching stream, and the coordinator of the language teaching field in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto in Canada. Her teaching and research focus on teacher education and supporting multilingual learners in K-12, ESL (English as a second language) and higher education contexts through translanguaging and multiliteracies pedagogies. The study published in Critical Inquiry in Language Studies may be accessed here for free for the next three months.