It is perhaps, a small reflection on me, that there is something inherently joyful in the phrase “trans-semiotic translanguaging”. This wasn’t the main focus of the evening talk given by Melanie Cooke and James Simpson (researchers into ESOL since ages, astonishingly clever people and co authors of Still The Best Book On ESOL) but it was a phrase which came up and which has lodged itself into my head quite rigidly. If I get time I might even tell you what it means.
No, the talk was entitled Recognising Multilingual Realities in ESOL and centred around tackling that great classroom taboo: students first languages. Or rather, the “features of [their] multilingual repertoire that centre around” their first languages: this was the focus of the first half of the talk. Drawing on findings from the TLANG project , Dr Simpson (also of ESOL-Research JISC mail list fame) discussed the nature of individuals’ languages as translanguaging. People who we might consider to be multilingual are not users of several discrete lumps of language, which is processed and used in separate ways, but rather they are users of a linguistic repertoire which includes features of many languages, and can (and do) draw on these as needs require, or as personal preference dictates. This is, I thought, also bound up in notions of individual and social identity, as in the mutual pride and interest shown in one of the examples given of a teenager wanting her (primarily Czech speaking) Mum to correct , albeit in the form of a text. Given that the vast majority of people globally, and a large proportion of people in the UK are plurilingual in some form or another, it does raise questions of how this pride in linguistic heritage can be twisted into notions of cultural and political linguistic dominance: immigrants should learn English and use it in favour of their other languages, rather than as an addition to their range of languages.
Speaking as an ESOL teacher, it would be easy to take umbrage at something which might appear, on the face of it, to be critical of the work that ESOL teachers do: implying that we are the minions of a dominating state. However, it’s worth remembering that outside the sphere of these politics; at a social, familial and personal level, English language learning is important, but what we need to consider is that our students’ other languages are as important as their English. Our job is not to over-write and over-rule those languages, but to extend the repertoire to enable wider and more useful interactions in an English dominated setting. Sure, it helps us to superficially, perhaps, buy into the discourse of integration and cultural assimilation as promoted by our governments because that leads to helpful things like funding from said governments. And I like being paid. Sorry.
But what of the implications of this from a classroom perspective? This is where the second half of the talk came in, from Dr Cooke (there were so many Doctors going round at one point, I was half expecting John Hurt to arrive in a TARDIS) talking about findings from the DALS project, (sadly, I can’t find a link…). This tied much of the translanguaging practice to the more contentious issue of the use of students other languages in the classroom. As was pointed out later, standard practice is to avoid other languages in the classroom, but the findings from the DALS project suggested otherwise: students could use their own languages through activities to explore and negotiate meaning in English. Students were actively encouraged to use their first languages, rather than avoid them, with counterintuitive results: richer, more expressive and, most importantly, perhaps, more meangful language emerged from the shared multilingual intercourse. Students’ other languages were also used to find shared experiences, showing that rather than being a hindrance, other languages than English can be a help. Now, I have to admit to an English only policy, at least on paper, although in practice I am fairly laid back – when I think of my Level 1 / 2 group this year, I recall using aspects of translanguaging and seeing it as students from a shared linguistic and cultural background (Congolese French speakers) interacted at times to negotiate meaning, as, at times, did I, with my own rusty and very limited French. On paper, it would appear to be somewhat excluding of other students, but in reality it was incidental to a wider discourse which did revolve around English.
In the study, of course, students were asked to reflect on their feelings about their other languages in the classroom, with interesting results: students enjoyed some aspects of it: speed, convenience, efficiency, but also felt very strongly that using English in class was important, if not necessary.
The question, then, is why we have this monolingual focus to ESOL continues, despite the reality of a multilingual environment. Certainly it is treated as the standard practice (“best” practice?) in training (honourable mention for CELTA, perhaps?), in most coursebooks and materials, and it would get frowned upon in any lesson observation I’m aware of. And despite to critical view of it, I think I would still want to insist on if not English only, then at least English mainly in a class. James and Melanie were coming from a sociolinguistic perspective, but this does, perhaps, also need to be reviewed against understanding from second language acquisition, although I’m a bit rusty on this, to be fair, and certainly want to go back to review it, bearing this in mind.
And that’s the point of any kind of talk like this, to challenge and force you to analyse your own practice and beliefs, and however much you might agree or disagree, this can be no bad thing at all.