Reader Response Journal

Ubuntu Translanguaging: An Alternative Framework for Complex Multilingual Encounters by Leketi Makalela

In this article, Makalela outlines his framework for ubuntu translanguaging, an approach to translanguaging informed by African history, cultural values and linguistic realities. He begins by contrasting Euro-colonial notions of the nation state and linguistic purity with an African approach to multilingualism that blurs the boundaries between languages and reflects the linguistic continuum of many African languages, which he believes have been inappropriately separated into distinct languages according to imported norms. He presents the example of Mapungubwe, a pre-colonial multilingual city state located in the Limpopo valley, as a site of linguistic and cultural confluence, as shown by archaeological artifacts. He argues that it is the European practice of dividing Africa into colonies with boundaries based on colonial language borders that led to Africa’s language struggles, including using poorly-understood colonial languages in education and excluding indigenous African languages from positions of esteem. He argues that translanguaging is the proper framework for thinking about the complex multilingual encounters typical in African settings, and presents his own idea of fuzzy languaging to describe situations involving more than two languages in communicative encounters (in his research he has documented up to six being used in a classroom in the course of a day). In contrast with both additive and subtractive bilingualism, he suggests that translanguaging fits better with the African experience of learning multiple languages before entering school, a situation where numbering the L1, L2, etc. doesn’t make sense. He puts forward the idea of ubuntu translanguaging, which combines the South African idea of Ubuntu (I am because we are; we are because I am, which he abbreviates as “I x we”) with translanguaging in a four part model, based on incompletion (languages are incomplete without other languages), interdependence (interdependent multilingualism means that speakers cannot make full sense of their surroundings without using multiple languages), and both vertical and horizontal flows of information (teacher to student would be vertical, while student to student would be horizontal). In his model, these four pillars are constantly disrupting and recreating language boundaries. He then includes some suggestions for an ubuntu translanguaging pedagogy, meant to normalize the systematic inclusion of multiple languages in creative ways in the classroom. He notes that translanguaging strategies reflect the internal reality of multilingual learners, for whom their languages co-exist, and that they can improve literacy outcomes as well as home-school connections. He ends with a call for us to shift our perspective from the “monolingual multilingualism” perspective inherent in additive/subtractive bilingualism towards ubuntu translanguaging, with its fluid approach to multilingualism, grounded in African cultural competence.

I first read this article last year when I was preparing my keynote on African translanguaging and I revisited it after reading an article on codeswitching in a South African classroom in my class on multilingualism and plurilingualism. Makalela is drawing on the work of Ofelia Garcia, who he references several times throughout the article, but adapting her ideas within a distinctly African worldview. I find the emphasis on named languages as a European invention quite intriguing and am wondering whether other scholars who argue against the validity of named languages have examined the concept within contexts with language continuums, where the boundaries between languages are already much more porous. For example, the languages that my students in Tanzania say they speak don’t reflect the same distinctions that Ethnologue makes for Tanzanian languages. My students see Chagga as one languages (with different varieties) and Ethnologue sees it as several, but the reverse is true for Hacha. It’s therefore much less of a conceptual leap to think of translanguaging as natural, when there’s less of a consensus of what constitutes a language or not in your context. I also want to think more deeply about the ideas of incompletion and interdependence, since those are the aspects that seem most directly tied to ubuntu, and therefore least reflected in the wider literature.

Makalela, L. (2016) Ubuntu translanguaging: An alternative framework for complex multilingual encounters, Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, 34(3), 187-196. https://doi.org/10.2989/16073614.2016.1250350

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