Inna* walked into the library confidently. She had very recently arrived in Canada and was, like so many multilingual language learners, a hands-down amazing communicator. She greeted me in both Ukrainian and English, and sat down to get to work. As we conversed, she continued speaking in Ukrainian and then added some of the English she knew to express herself, and sometimes gestures. I did the same. The conversation progressed this way naturally, as we shared our likes, dislikes, and some of our interests and hobbies.
The classroom teacher and I had collaborated just prior to that session, a quick yet impactful dialogue about what he was teaching, and how he might make it accessible to everyone in the class. He explained his lesson, which was new learning for me, and I in turn shared some possible strategies and multilingual adaptations that might work to ensure Inna could participate as well. He chose the adaptations that worked best for his set up, and I offered to show Inna some of them in a withdrawal session.
And in this way, I found myself sitting in an empty library across from this resourceful student, using all of the tools at her disposal to communicate. I got out her teacher’s questions, prepared to show her some strategic translation tools that would help fill in anything she didn’t understand, as well as some sentence frames in English and Ukrainian for offering answers. I placed them on the table in front of her.
She regarded the questions on the paper, and then me, with calm awareness. As I reached for my iPad, my finger hovering over that familiar little icon, she gave a quick shake of her head. She swiftly took out her own device, and before I knew it had snapped a photo of the text, skillfully read the translation in Ukrainian, and concluded with an assured nod of the head, “Yes.”
I put my iPad down with a smile.
Translanguaging is a wonderful tool — not only for learning and expanding all languages the MLL speaks, but for accessing curriculum and creating inclusive learning environments. From the Latin word “trans”, meaning “across”, translanguaging is moving “across” and back and forth between languages in order to communicate, think, and learn. This intelligent student demonstrated all of this in just a few moments of interaction. She used both Ukrainian and English to express herself, to check the meaning of words, to access the classroom task, and begin to form answers.
How much of this learning, this communication, would have been possible had we been using English exclusively? How much of her personality, how many of her thoughts and contributions, would have been silenced? When you think about it that way, why would we want a school environment that demands answers and learning be conducted in a single language? A learning environment that posits, even unintentionally, a single language as the norm?
We know that for learning spaces to be equitable, all students’ identities, knowledge, skills — and languages in which they are encoded — need to be centered and affirmed. As Inna demonstrated so powerfully, translanguaging is one indispensable element of such inclusive classrooms.
*names have been changed