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In Response to English-Only: A Translanguaging Call to Action

By Dr. Virginia Rojas
In Response to English-Only: A Translanguaging Call to Action

English-only mindsets and practices in international schools are rooted in historically institutionalized beliefs and practices. The first and most prevalent of these is the well-intended but overly zealous implementation of what is known as “the maximum exposure myth,” hypothesizing that more and only English results in faster and more native-like English mastery. Tuition-paying parents of multilingual learners and classroom teachers untrained in second language teaching and learning add to the myth’s credibility despite research to the contrary that “English-only” is the one and only path to successful English acquisition (Billings & Walqui, 2017).  Another belief comes from early research on bilingualism, warning educators to keep languages separate due to the potential “confusion” doing otherwise might trigger. This research influences second language teaching methodology to the point where language teachers sometimes feign incompetence in a language other than the target language lest students ask for clarification. Finally, a lack of valuing or understanding how bilingualism works may contribute to international schools’ English-only and monolingual biases, despite the reality that knowing and using two or more languages interchangeably is in fact the global norm.

A growing body of academic literature challenges English-only mindsets and practices by calling for an awareness and adoption of translanguaging, an approach representing a major paradigm shift from prevailing perceptions of bilingualism and multilingualism. Translanguaging delegitimizes the English-only theory of language acquisition, breaks down imagined boundaries between speakers’ languages, and disrupts the stigmatization of nonnative multilingual learners, many of whom uncomfortably surprise parents when they become English dominant as a result of their long-term, English-language schooling (Deroo & Ponzio, 2019; España, Herrera, & García, 2019).  Translanguaging is a call for action, one which summons international schools to (1) develop the stance that bilingualism is a resource students can use for learning languages and for achieving academically and (2) explore what it might take to shift deeply ingrained English-only mindsets and practices. Translanguaging calls for us to be transformative; to begin, we can learn what it means, how it can be used, and whom it benefits.

What Translanguaging Means

Imagine new-to-school language learners sitting silently in class as they start their English-acquisition journey. Now imagine these same students strategically using their home languages to facilitate their acquisition of English and their understanding of information while immersed in subject-area classrooms. Translanguaging accepts that emergent bilinguals must access their full linguistic repertoires to their advantage and refutes the commonplace idea that bilinguals have two language systems which must always be kept separate; in fact, translanguaging puts forth that bilinguals possess one unified, internal system on which they draw while making meaning of their bilingual world.  Because translanguaging recognizes the complex language practices of bilingual/multilingual learners, it calls on us to reconsider how we view new-to-English learners in classrooms (García & Kleyn, 2016).

Teachers who nurture translanguaging do not view new-to-English learners as having an empty compartment, one that is seen as missing a language (España, Herrera, & García, 2019, p. 4). Instead, they acknowledge that multilingual learners possess a full set of language features already: vocabulary, sentence structures, and a sense of how to organize discourse in ways to make listeners or readers understand what they are saying or writing. These affordances come from previous interactions and experiences multilingual learners have had with their own languages in their lives and schooling. In these classrooms, emergent bilinguals do not sit silently waiting for a time when they might join a new English-speaking world, and their teachers do not think of their role as one of simply adding English. With the use of translanguaging, learners seek and teachers provide opportunities to appropriate a set of new language features into already existing, unitary language repertoires of multilingual learners (España, Herrera, & García, 2019).

How Translanguaging Can Be Used

In addition to describing multilinguals learners’ discursive practices, translanguaging refers to the pedagogical practices that classrooms employ to teach rigorous content and academic language to language learners. Initially, teachers think of translanguaging as a support system whereby different strategies are implemented as tools to include emergent bilinguals. Examples include providing electronic translations, grouping students based on home languages, or asking bilingual teachers to review new concepts in learners’ home languages. Teachers then leverage translanguaging as a literacy scaffold, students read or write a text in the first language before reading or writing the same text in English, or librarians offer home language resources. The use of translanguaging can also be used strategically to bridge concepts and skills at the beginning and end of instructional units through bilingual vocabulary charts or a comparison of language forms in the two languages (Marrero-Colón, 2020; Celic & Seltzer, 2011).

Translanguaging pedagogy extends beyond the use of home languages as translation, scaffolding, or bridging tools to ease emergent bilinguals’ transition into English. It can be systematically used as a powerful way to draw on multilingual learners’ language practices so they can engage in deep and complex thinking. Primary teachers can plan how to intentionally use translanguaging for key stages of the inquiry design cycle or for readers’ and writers’ workshops, and secondary teachers can create translanguaging spaces where multilingual learners of all proficiency levels deepen understandings and critical thinking skills while developing cross-linguistic transfer and metalinguistic awareness skills. EAL specialists might use their linguistic expertise and language learning and teaching experiences to facilitate the use of translanguaging as a deliberate methodology for normalizing the practices of multilingual speakers, especially in situations where teachers do not speak learners’ languages. Translanguaging teachers invite students to judiciously use their home languages while learning English so they can contribute academically in meaningful ways in classrooms (Marrero-Colón, 2021; Rojas in Huynh, 2020; Prada & Turnbull, 2018; García & Kleyn, 2016).

Who Translanguaging Benefits                                                                           

When given the opportunities to use translanguaging to learn, multilingual learners have access to and success with grade-level content without watered-down expectations or simplified materials. They integrate immediately into mainstream classrooms and study their own or a third language with English-proficient peers. Parents are assured that English-language schooling is indeed an additive bilingual experience, and home-school communication connections are strengthened. EAL, world language, and classroom teachers collaborate to create language and learning profiles to aptly capture what multilingual learners can do in translanguaging spaces. School leaders benefit from framing language learners’ resources as the norm where all teachers are responsible for content and language integrated learning, and where coming to a majority-multilingual school is deemed a valuable and powerful experience. As the wall of “only and more English” continues to fall in academic research, some international schools hold on to traditional practices while others welcome the translanguaging call to build ecological understandings of multilingualism and equity.



Billings, E. & Walqui, A. (2018). Dispelling the Myth of “English Only”: Understanding the Importance of the First Language in Second Language Learning (, pp. 1-8.

Celic, C. & Seltzer, K. (2011). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators, CUNY-NYSIEB, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, pp. 1-190.

Deroo, M. R. & Ponzio, C. (2019). Confronting ideologies: A discourse analysis of in-service teachers’ translanguaging stance through an ecological lens, Bilingual Research Journal, 42(2), pp. 1-19.

España, C., Herrera, L.Y., & García, O. (2019). Translanguaging in educating teachers of language-minoritized students in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press, pp. 1-19.

García, O. & Kleyn, T. (2016). Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments, Routledge Publishing.

Huynh, T. (Host). (2020, July 17). The what, how, when, and why of translanguaging (No.23) Teaching Multilinguals Podcast, (1:06) 

Marrero-Colón, M.B. (2021). CAL Commentary: Translanguaging: Theory, Concept, Practice, Stance… or All of the Above? Center for Applied Linguistics.

Prada, J. & Turnbull, B. (2018). The role of translanguaging in the multilingual turn: Driving philosophical and conceptual renewal in language education, EuroAmerican Journal of Applied Linguistics and Languages, 5(2), pp. 8-23.

Dr. Rojas currently teaches the EAL certification program in partnership with the Principals’ Training Center ( Before semi-retiring, Dr. Rojas was a faculty member for the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and a language education consultant for over 350 international schools. She was inducted into the Association for the Advancement of International Education’s Hall of Fame in 2016.


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01/16/2024 - Avery Udagawa
I observe that translanguaging can benefit ALL students in an international school. At ours, while English is the common language across campus, nearly all students are nurturing a language other than English—whether as part of their academic program, as their mother tongue, or due to living in Thailand. Translanguaging in their various classes enables them to exercise and add to their full linguistic repertoires, while enhancing their content learning and expressing their identities. Translanguaging is a win-win-win. Not just for English learners, but for everyone!