Questions About Separation of Language

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Recently, I published a blog article about separation of language. I thought my next blog post in this series would be about bridging, but many readers have asked a number of questions about separation of language that I would like to address first.

Q1.  Isn’t it normal for bilingual individuals to translanguage?

A. It is absolutely normal for bilingual speakers to translanguage, and there is a legitimate  space for translanguaging.  For instance, personally, when I speak to family members who speak both Tamil and English, I translanguage often without even realizing that I am doing it.  However, when I speak to my grandmother, to Tamil speakers in India, or to Tamil speakers who have recently come to the United States who do not speak English, I make a conscious effort to remain in Tamil. Needless to say, when I speak to colleagues and friends in the United States who don’t speak Tamil, I remain in English. Our students also need and deserve this ability to navigate all three spaces.  Social justice means giving students what they need.  Therefore, we need to make intentional spaces for both separation of language and for translanguaging. 

Q2.  What would happen if the classroom were only a translanguaging space?

A.  In most instances, students would eventually choose to speak English over the target language because of English’s higher status in society.  If we truly want to preserve students’ heritage, and if one of the goals of Dual Language Education is true bilingualism and biliteracy, students need the opportunity to practice both languages in their own respective spaces.

Q3.  Is separation of language for adults, for students, or for both?

A. Separation of language primarily refers to the adults in the classroom (Beeman & Urow, 2013).  We expect students to use all of their linguistic repertoire, and will never get mad at them for mixing languages.  However, this does not stop the teacher in the classroom from pushing students to expand their linguistic repertoire in the language of instruction in accordance with where teachers feel their students are.  For instance, let’s say a student makes the statement, “Hay un watermelon en el libro,” (There is a watermelon in the book), the teacher may recast, “Sí, hay una sandía en el libro” (Yes, there is a watermelon in the book).   On the other hand, if the teacher just taught the word sandía in the last unit, they may point to the word wall prompting the student to then restate the sentence using the vocabulary word.  These are just two examples where the teacher is helping students grow their abilities in the language of instruction while still honoring the fact that students can and should use all of their linguistic repertoire in the classroom.

Q4.  Shouldn’t we respect students’ home language, which may in fact be a mixture of the two languages?

A. Of course we should honor students’ home language, including their translanguaging.  One way to honor students’ language is by having honest conversations with students about the use of language.  I suggest starting the conversation with first explaining register to students.  We are far less formal in our speech talking to our friends than when speaking to our superiors.  Neither is better.  Neither is worse.  The register we use is based on circumstances.  Then explain to students that similarly, there is a space to translanguage and a space to separate language.  For instance, at home and in students’ communities, translanguaging may be the lingua franca.  On the other hand, when at a business meeting someday with someone from Mexico who does not speak any English, they may have to speak in only Spanish.  Again, nothing is right nor wrong.  It’s circumstantial.  That’s why we make language spaces at school where students can navigate any of these spaces that they may someday encounter.

Q5.  Isn’t it hard to stay in one language for a bilingual individual?  Making someone do something unnatural sounds like the opposite of social justice.

A.  There is no doubt that it is easier for bilingual individuals to translanguage.  This is because we don’t have two brains.  We don’t have an English brain and a target language brain, just one bilingual or multilingual brain.  However, as discussed often throughout this blog, social justice is not always about doing what’s easier.  Social justice is ensuring that our students get what they need, and what they need is to be able to navigate all three linguistic spaces.  Furthermore, in addition to the practical benefits of being able to speak to people who speak only one of the two languages taught while still being able to communicate comfortably with people who regularly translanguage, there is also a cognitive advantage to be able to separate language.  The cerebral challenge of keeping a metaphorical lid on the languages we are not using at the moment is actually a workout for the brain that helps delay the onset of symptoms of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.  While any kind of exercise is not easy, I personally would like to avoid dementia for as long as possible (if not forever) and would like to give the same gift to our students.   

Thank you to readers who presented me with these questions.  I enjoy challenging my own thought process and am always ready to grow with y’all as a community.  I will soon be writing about what our translanguaging space (bridging) can look like. 

Until next time,

Aradhana

2 comments

  1. A long time ago I was teaching a 3 y/o child whose home language was English, even though his mother was from Panama. His English was not near what it should be for his age. That summer they went back to Panama for 4 months. When he first came back his Spanish was age appropriate. He spoke to all the staff in Spanish thinking they would understand. (most were English speakers) It took him about 2 weeks before he realized who understood English and who understood Spanish. Both languages were at least up to age, and he correctly knew to whom he had to use each one. he was 4.

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