Over the years there have been shifting attitudes towards the value of using learners' home languages as a resource the English classroom. While at one time the use of translation was considered the quickest and easiest route to learning a language (e.g. by adopters of the grammar-translation method), others have championed the use of full immersion and English-only classrooms as the best route to develop fluency. Currently, there is growing interest in the use of learners' own languages both to build language competency in English and also in order to avoid the devaluing of mother tongues against more dominant world languages, with considerations of the role a mother tongue plays in identity development and as a cultural resource.
It is not always clear what teachers themselves believe in relation to the best use of learner languages in the classroom, where these beliefs come from and how these beliefs affect the way a teacher incorporates language in his or her lessons. These issues are of particular importance in contexts such as India where classrooms are nearly always multilingual in nature – with multiple home languages represented by the learners – coupled with growing pressure for children to learn English, sometimes at the cost of proficiency in of the status of their mother tongue. Outside the classroom, there is regular mixing of languages as individuals move between different communities and contexts (home, work, school, etc.) The practice of 'translanguaging' is common place – this is defined by García (2009) as 'the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximise communicative potential'. Translanguaging is more complex than simply switching from using one language's vocabulary to another (better defined as codeswitching), suggesting more of a nuanced approach to using different features of language as appropriate to a particular situation.
A recent study undertaken by Jason Anderson (University of Warwick, UK) and Amy Lightfoot (British Council, South Asia) set out to explore both translingual practices in English language classrooms in India and attitudes towards translanguaging and L1 use among the teachers surveyed. 169 teachers from primary, secondary, tertiary and adult sectors responded to 33 quantitative and six qualitative items investigating nine research questions.
The study found that most respondents reported making only occasional use of other languages in English language classrooms, most often for comparing and contrasting language features, explaining concepts, managing the classroom and translating for learners. Only a minority of teachers reported actively facilitating translanguaging during language practice activities. English medium institutions were found to be less tolerant of L1-use practices than non-English medium institutions. More experienced teachers were more likely to express more pro-translanguaging beliefs and report more L1-inclusive practices.
Important differences between urban, semi-urban and rural contexts were also found, suggesting a need for varied, context-sensitive approaches to multilingual practices in English classrooms across India. In their paper, Anderson and Lightfoot argue that there is a need for an explicit focus on use of other languages in English language teacher education in India and suggest more cohesive support for translingual practices across the education. Currently there are insufficient resources available to support teachers to develop these practices.
The full report is available to download for free and read from the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Further information on the professional practice 'Using multilingual approaches' can be found here.
García, O. 2009. "Education, Multilingualism and Translanguaging in the 21st Century." In Social Justice Through Multilingual Education, edited by T. Skutnabb-Kangas, R. Phillipson, A. K. Mohanty, and M. Panda, 140–158. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.