Text messaging as a language learning opportunity

Mike Baynham

In this short vignette, based on reflections on translanguaging in social media from the sports phase, Leeds case study co-investigator Mike Baynham describes his experiences of text messaging multilingually and multimodally.

Tiago, one of the project’s key participants in Leeds, is a basketball and capoeira player from Mozambique. This is the story of a text message exchange between myself and Tiago, which became a language learning and practice opportunity for both of us. More specifically it felt like playing with our languages. The principal languages we played with were English, Portuguese and Arabic. A very interesting moment however, came quite late in our exchange, when Tiago introduced some words and phrases in the African language of Mozambique which he speaks, Changana. As regards Arabic, this was a language of childhood as well, though not a vernacular. It goes back to the time when, living with Muslim relatives, he attended Qur’an School. Personal reasons at the time of texting made him get interested in Arabic again. I was in a position to help Tiago with his Arabic, teacher-like in a more explicit way.

In the first few months of our exchange it is English and Portuguese and I am the novice. Tiago never corrects me, and in fact I never correct his English, but he is a warm and friendly interlocutor. Drawing on my knowledge of Spanish and WordReference as well as my growing understanding of Portuguese grammar and idioms I can put together texts to initiate or respond to a move of Tiago’s. However it doesn’t transfer into understanding spoken Portuguese or being able to speak myself. I need that planning time that texting affords. One error that I make for quite some time is “uma abraçada” which I take to mean in Portuguese “a big hug”. In fact it is a hug in Catalan, something I eventually work out. In Portuguese the word is “um abraço”. To ramp it up to a big hug you can say “um grande abraço” or “um forte abraço”.

At some point, Tiago communicated to me that he was interested in getting into Arabic, I think because of friendships with Arabic speaking people. I gave him an introductory book to Arabic handwriting which I had in the house and started teaching him some expressions and phrases. Congruent with my background as a teacher this was more explicit teaching. In the translation, the original Arabic text is purple and Portuguese is red.





T: Thank you.

M: You are welcome my little brother)

T: Friend very nice to see you yesterday. Thank you big hug

M: Me too. So happy I found Sophie’s mobile :0)

M: Till Wednesday little brother

= Till Wednesday little brother.


Like the Portuguese I learnt with Tiago, this was social language, greetings and making arrangements. The affectionate term akhuyi (‘my little brother’) stuck and we used it a lot, though there was nothing particularly little brother-ish about me!

Later in our exchanges, Tiago really surprised me by bringing Changana, one of the African languages of Mozambique, into our conversation. I get on the internet and find a Changana vocabulary from which I piece together some utterances to run past Tiago. In the translation below, Arabic is purple, Portuguese is red and Changana is blue.Like the Portuguese I learnt with Tiago, this was social language, greetings and making arrangements. The affectionate term akhuyi (‘my little brother’) stuck and we used it a lot, though there was nothing particularly little brother-ish about me!



M: Good evening my little brother

How are you brother?

I am fine


Good night!

T: Good morning my friend. ( good morning my friend)

Thank you

M: So now we have FOUR languages to play with [emoji]

M: Good morning

T: Hehehehe amazing, very nice

Good morning. Thank you

M: I have found a little Changana word list on the internet [emoji]

T: Yes, good I’m happy for that, long time for me I’m not speck my language I miss it. You are unique

M: So now I am totally ready for Maputo

T: Let’s go, you are already there my friend. My house is your house

M: Thank You thank you

T: You are welcome

M: Next poetry evening you should come and read poems in Changana then English!

People would love it!

T: Yes I will, I can imagine

Alas Changana occupies quite a transitory place in my memory. All that sticks now is “kanimambo”! I remember “lichile” but not what it means. Looking back over this long interaction, what stands out is often the playfulness of the interaction. Here we have all four, English, Portuguese, Arabic and Changana, as it happens in (I think) more or less the reverse order that Tiago would have learnt them. And they are a bit like juggler’s balls that we are throwing up in the air to each other. For fun and the enjoyment of languaging, translanguaging.

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