written by Caroline Tagg
It was our pleasure to host Suresh Canagarajah, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor at Pennsylvania State University, at the School of Education, University of Birmingham on Monday 8th September. Suresh led a Masterclass entitled ‘Researching and Teaching Translingual Practice’. We were a varied audience of doctoral students and academics from across and beyond the UK. Rather than lecturing us, Suresh adopted a relaxed and interactive style of delivery, often asking his audience to respond directly to the statements we found most interesting on his slides. For one afternoon, we had a taste of what it might be like to be his students!
Suresh focused on the emerging view in sociolinguistics and other disciplines that the notion of ‘languages’ in the sense of bounded and discrete systems should be replaced by a view of ‘languaging’ or ‘translanguaging’ as a fluid, dynamic process of meaning-making, whereby people draw on a range of communicative resources as appropriate in the context of an immediate interaction. This view of language has given rise to a number of terms that seek to capture the dynamics of language practice, including ‘translanguaging’, plurilingualism, metrolingualism, fluid lects, multiliteracies, code meshing and the postmonolingual condition. However, Suresh showed how hard it is for researchers to escape pre-existing categories and labels that assume the existence of discrete languages: we remain in the awkward position of having to use terms like ‘multilingual’ and ‘languages’ in order to construct arguments and evidence that challenge them.
The theoretical assumptions behind such views include the observation that what are typically described as discrete languages in fact often mutually influence each other; for example, as Suresh asked us, to what language can ‘curry’ be assigned? (One participant argued for Welsh.) People with access to resources from more than one language do not always appear to separate them along these lines, and in fact produce talk or texts that are ‘translingual’ as they exploit resources associated with various languages in their repertoires. Suresh tackled questions regarding the role of technology in shaping translingual practices and our current conception of them; as well as the implications of ‘translanguaging’ for language acquisition theories and cognition. In all his answers, Suresh emphasised the social: that language practices arise from negotiation and interaction in local situations.
One implication for language competence, and thus for language teachers, is that what are typically conceived of as different languages in the classroom cannot be treated as separate entities when it comes to language use and learning. Rather than having separate competences for different languages (so that someone might learn one language through another, or switch between them for different tasks), learners must be enabled to draw simultaneously on their full repertoire in order to perform classroom tasks. The implications for language learning are explored further in Canagarajah’s recent publication, ‘Translanguaging in the classroom: emerging issues for research and pedagogy’, and in Professor Heidi Byrnes’ masterclass at the University of Birmingham on 2nd September.
The masterclass ended with group discussions of ‘translingual’ data brought in by Suresh. Although the most immediately obvious aspect of the data tended to be their meshing of resources associated with different languages, what also came out of our discussions was the extent and range of the diversity, with texts incorporating different genres, styles, registers and modes as well as ‘languages’. As Suresh made clear to us throughout the seminar, what we typically assume to be the ‘same’ can often be revealed to hide a great deal of difference and diversity. Are all texts thus ‘translingual?’ We were delighted to have the opportunity to explore this and other ideas in person with Suresh.