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.

Professional Update

July 2018 and March 2019 SRIS Newsletters: Continuing the Conversation, Building Solidarity and Allyship

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, but in the meantime, I’ve continued to publish TESOLers for Social Responsibility, the newsletter of TESOL’s Social Responsibility Interest Section. This post will highlight the work we published both in response to the 2018 TESOL Convention in Chicago and leading up to the 2019 TESOL Convention that just wrapped up in Atlanta.

The July 2018 issue of the newsletter was called Continuing the Conversation, Building Solidarity, a theme that was conceived of as a way to extend the conversations started in Chicago. The 2018 convention marked the final year that TESOL had “Forums,” before they transitioned to a new “Professional Learning Network” or PLN model. Many of the Forums that became PLNs focused on identity related or social justice issues, and so we in SRIS were very aware of the change and the reduction of resources as groups became PLNs, so we decided to make space in our newsletter for articles by and about the PLNs. My article, Black Spaces and White Norms: The Importance of BELPaF for the TESOL Community, directly responded to the change in the status of TESOL’s Black English Language Professionals and Friends group, and called on TESOL to recognize the importance of maintaining support for groups that are underrepresented within the organization, especially Black TESOLers. In the second article, Invalidated Identity and Foreign Language Anxiety: A Personal Reflection, James D. Mitchell, a member of the LGBT+ PLN, provided his perspective on how foreign language classrooms can be invalidating spaces for LGBTQ+ learners. Next, in Social Intelligence Course Implementation for English Learners, Jennifer Burr outlined a course that was deliberately designed to build social intelligence skills for newcomer students in Texas. Continuing the focus on learners’ emotional skills, Zsuzsanna Kozák & Ildikó Lázár described how a multimedia project about the Holocaust they conducted in Hungary developed students’ empathy in The Neighbor’s Window: A Visual World Foundation Project on Bystanders Becoming Upstanders. We also shared Cinthya Salazar’s review of the book Teachers as Allies: Transformative Practices for teaching DREAMers and Undocumented Students.

Our pre-convention issue was published earlier this month and focused on Allyship. We started with an article from the Sister Scholars on Speaking Up and Pushing Back: Women of Color in the Academy. These seven women (Rachel Grant, Ryuko Kubota, Angel Lin, Suhanthie Motha, Gertrude Tinker Sachs, Stephanie Vandrick, & Shelley Wong) have been my academic role models ever since I read their article Women Faculty of Color: Theorizing Our Lived Experience when I was in grad school, and it was such an honor to highlight their work from their annual TESOL panel in the newsletter. The theme of race in TESOL continued through the next two articles as well. Scott Stillar wrote a powerful reflection on Decentering Whiteness in TESOL, and my co-editor Anastasia Khawaja wrote with her colleague Lianna Smith on being White women co-chairing TESOL’s Palestinian Educators and friends PLN in Collaboration Under Occupation: Allyship for Palestine. Next, my dear friend and colleague from Tanzania, Catherine James Njau, shared the menstrual education work she does to keep Tanzanian girls in school in Keep Them Flying: Reusable Menstrual Pads and Girls Education in Tanzania. The next article, Out with the Textbook, In with the Computer: Empowering Immigrant University Employees in the ESL Classroom, showcased a course Lisana Mohammed designed to teach English to custodial workers at her university. We end the issue with two pieces focusing on trans and non-binary gender in TESOL. In the first, Transgender University Experience in Mexico, David Ruiz Guzmán shares his experience teaching two transgender students as they navigated language and gender in a rural part of Mexico. Finally, Gabe Winer shares their ideas on how we as TESOL professionals can normalize singular they and create more inclusive educational spaces for transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people in Beyond He/She: The Power of Language in Making ESOL Environments Inclusive for Trans and Nonbinary Students and Colleagues.

It has been an absolute privilege sharing some many powerful ideas and perspectives in the SRIS newsletter over the last two years, and I am incredibly proud of the work Anastasia and I did in reviving and revitalizing the newsletter. We’ve got one final issue,  Social Justice and the Arts, that we are co-editing as a handoff issue with our incredible incoming editors, Luis Javier Pentón Herrera and Ethan Trinh, as Anastasia and I transition into our new roles as Co-Chairs of SRIS. If you’re interested in writing for us, please check out the Call for Submissions and send in your article by April 15!

Reader Response Journal

Plurilingual Pedagogical Practices in a Policy-Constrained Context: A Northern Ugandan Case Study by Doris Maandebo Abiria, Margaret Early and Maureen Kendrick

This article examines the ways a group of teachers at a primary school in Northern Uganda used plurilingual and multimodal techniques in their subject-area classes. In Uganda, schools are allowed to use one local language as the medium of instruction until 3rd grade, but then are expected to switch to English in fourth grade (called P4 for primary 4). While the school in the study was in a Lugbara speaking area, it had students from a number of different countries and language backgrounds, making for a very multilingual student body. Uganda is also an exam-driven context, where the students are expected to take high stakes tests in English, which often have very poor results. The school in question is run by the government and has very few resources (P4 initially had over 100 students per class, until they regrouped them into classes of 77). The six teachers in the study said that when the asked students questions in English, they would get blank stares, so they developed alternative pedagogies to reach them, despite these being in opposition to the stated government policies. The primary strategies that the teachers used were translating into the dominant local language, using students as peer tutors to reach those who spoke other languages and using a wide range of semiotic modes to communicate meaning, including dramas, demonstrations, songs, drawings and role plays. As Abiria, one of the researchers, notes, these strategies were effective because they came from the teachers themselves, rather than being imposed by the Ministry. Despite these innovations, the teachers were conflicted. Challenges they faced included breaking the ministry rules in a context where school inspectors have a lot of power, initial training that was focused on theory rather than practice, lack of on-going professional development opportunities, curriculum restraints, including the need to teach very specialized vocabulary, national examinations conducted exclusively in English, lack of time and resources and large class sizes. Nonetheless, the etchers continued to use a range of linguistic and multimodal resources to communicate content effectively to their students, because according to one teacher “they are so excited…they are free” (p. 587). and the alternative is disengagement and students dropping out. The fact that the head teacher and parents saw the importance of these strategies (and the futility of the monolingual alternative) was also an incentive for the teachers to keep using them.

I am always interested in reading about TESOL practice in Africa, and East Africa in particular. I love comparing the situations in these studies to those at my schools in Tanzania. It’s interesting that Ugandan schools do the same sort of switch of the medium of instruction as in Tanzania, they just do it earlier, and in a country without a single dominant language to serve as a lingua franca between different groups, the way Swahili is in Tanzania, they leave the choice of language of instruction for grades 1-3 up to the local schools. It’s also interesting that Northern Uganda is so multiethnic, multilingual and multinational, because my area of Tanzania was almost exclusively populated by students from the same tribe. However, some of the challenges, including the importance of the national examinations, the lack of resources and the fact that ministry decisions seem out of touch with teacher’s on the ground realities are quite similar. Also, the more I read about plurilingual pedagogies, the more practical they seem to me. Despite the fact that I speak Swahili, in Tanzania I taught almost (but not quite) entirely in English. I wonder how I could have used these teachers’ techniques there. I think the integration of the translanguaging methodologies with other communicative modalities is a particularly important idea, and something I’m trying to use in my classes here in Ecuador, where I use Spanish alongside my MI-based approaches in an attempt to reach the students. Like the Ugandan teachers, I’m a bit conflicted about the approaches I’m using here, but I think they’re better than the alternative of students’ blank stares and lack of comprehension.

Abiria, D. M., Early, M. & Kendrick, M. (2013). Plurilingual pedagogical practices in a policy-constrained context: A northern Ugandan case study. TESOL Quarterly, 47(3), 567-590.