Deadheading Some of the Flowers: Pushing back on Translingualism

Now before I’m accused of overly violent language or rampant white privilege, allow me to begin by stating that the “deadhead” portion of this title comes as an echo of Lantolf (1996) and his article “SLA Theory Building: “Letting all the Flowers Bloom!”. In this article, Lantolf discusses the big tent view of SLA and of TESOL, one where our theoretical foundation is varied and polyvocal. That is, there’s no single grand unified theory of SLA/TESOL, nor should we want there to be. The proliferation of theory grants us an agility to acknowledge the dappled perspectives that our researchers, theorists, and practitioners—themselves global academics—bring with them. It allows us flexibility to address questions of language learning, teaching, and acquisition in a globally sensitive way.

The downside to the big tent view is that there tends to be some reduplication of theory in a way that can smother some useful theories just because the name connected to the theory has a certain star power. For example, why should anyone care about a multilingual view of SLA/TESOL that’s being advanced by some no name scholar, when we have a sexy new theory with a buzzy name, like translingualism, and a name with some star power, like Canagarajah. Now, make no mistake, I enjoy the work of Suresh Canagarajah; and in some places, I even agree with him. I truly appreciated his argument for a world Englishes informed view of composition (Canagarajah, 2006). I am an advocated for the rhetorically appropriate deployment of linguistic variation in all writing. However, in other places, like in his recent advancement of the theory of translingualism, I think he’s gone a bit too far and has done so in a way that will only feed into the far-right’s attack on intellectualism, expertise, and college training (Canagarajah, 2013).

The term translingual conceives of language relationships in more dynamic terms. The semiotic resources in one’s repertoire or in society interact more closely, become part of an integrated resource, and enhance each other. The languages mesh in transformative ways, generating new meanings and new grammars. -S. Canagarajah, Translingual Practice, p. 8.

On its surface, there’s nothing wrong with Canagarajah’s definition of translingual, translingualism, or translanguaging. As a matter of fact, I quite agree. However, where he sees some new terminological niche from which to advance his claims, I see the lived realities of billions around the globe—mono- and multilingual alike when they interact with people using differing varieties of language. What he sees as translanguaging, I see as Sociocognitive alignment and the strategic negotiation of that alignment to achieve joint action. There’s nothing different here, to me at least, between this view of language and its use and how Atkinson (2002) would see language and interaction from a sociocognitive perspective. What he sees as translingual practice, I believe that Gee (1990) would see as the deployment and negotiation of various literacies and linguistic practices to engage in social action. As a matter of fact, Canagarajah himself spend the first six pages of the book Translingual Practice outlining the various names for the phenomena that he is relabeling “translingual practice.”

Canagarajah self-identifies his translingual push as representing a sort of “paradigm shift (p. 6)” in applied linguistics. However, all of his exigencies are, quite simply, reality as accepted by most other theories of language, sociality, and communication that I’m familiar with. Telling us that translingualism is going to lead to a radical shift and then keeping so close to what seems almost taken granted fact doesn’t make a strong argument for any change in thinking. It seems, rather, to just be further justification that this is a new name for the accepted reality that has been described using already available linguistic theories and jargon. This to me, is one issue with the theory of translingualism. Not only is it perhaps not the paradigm shift it claims to be, but it muddies the water by using new and unnecessary jargon for phenomena already under examination by applied linguists. This argument was, quite nicely articulated by Chris Cassanave during the 2013 meeting of the American Association for Applied Linguistics. She soundly attacked translingualism—and a few other theories—as adding to the impenetrable jargon that makes it so easy to think that academics live in a world completely disconnect from the realities of our students and the tuition and taxpayers that fund our positions. It also makes it harder to engage in the professionalization of new practitioners and researchers if we have this propagation of theories that are propped up by their names as opposed to being truly representative of a radical shift in thinking. I agree.

Another issue here is that the terms translingual and translanguaging are buzzy terms in part because of their use of the prefix “trans-“ at a time when this prefix is experiencing increased visibility. And, that visibility can be at least partially linked to increased visibility of trans persons as they struggle for rights and protections in every corner of the globe—including in the liberal democratic West. Canagarjah’s theoretical approach to me seems to want to cash in on this buzz, to co-opt this prefix and to affix it to his theory to make it instantly sexy and du jour. To me, this does a disservice to trans-identifying individuals and their advocates—some of whom are also our fellow researchers, practitioners, and most importantly our students.

The final issue, here, is that this theoretical approach, and how it’s outlined in Translingual Practice opens the door to attack from the far-right at a time when conservative parties control the majority of state legislatures in the U.S., as well as the national executive and legislative branch. Part of the reason for this is because the language used in outlining the introduction to Translingual Practice sets up translingual individuals as marginalized—and I don’t deny that L2 writers often are marginalized—but it does so using the discourse of trauma and injury. This discourse, taken to an extreme, is often read as a blanket indictment of racism if you disagree with the theory. If you want a good example of this, just look at the push back against University of Washington Tacoma’s writing center after they released their new policy to be more aware of social justice issues in tutoring writing (click here). This comes at a time when we can ill afford these distractions—especially with almost daily attacks against our L2 migrant/immigrant student populations and their rights to seek out a quality education.

I made it a point to read a lot on translanguaging recently. I wanted to be at least partially convinced. I remain, perhaps sadly, wholly unconvinced. That being said, I think it’s important to engage with theories and positions that we disagree with so that we can better understand the professional landscape that we exist in. I’d love to hear from others on their thoughts about this theoretical approach, as I would appreciate the perspective. I would, however, remind us all that these conversations are most useful when we don’t approach them as evangelicals for our given world-view, or as battleships preparing for a broadside.

Source Articles

Atkinson, D. (2002). Toward a sociocognitive approach to second language acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 86(4), 525-545.

Canagarajah, S. (2006). The place of world Englishes in composition: Pluralization continued. College Composition and Communication, 57(4), 586-619.

Canagarajah, S. (2013). Translingual practice: Global Englishes and cosmopolitan relations. London: Routledge.

Gee, J.P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideologies in discourses. London: Routledge.

Lantolf, J.P. (1996). SLA theory building: “Letting all the flowers bloom!”. Language Learning, 46(4), 713-749.

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