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Translanguaging in deaf education - Qu’est ce que c’est?

Thinking Aloud

Language use in the deaf education classroom

In our Teacher of the Deaf Programme at Leeds University we ask teachers to describe and analyse the way in which they use spoken and sign language in the classroom and reflect on how their language use influences learning. Increasingly teachers are finding that they are switching between and blending and sign and speech (and written language to some degree) to respond to the learning needs of the pupils and facilitate the right kind of interaction in the classroom to enhance learning. It is no surprise that deaf pupils also engage in this flexible and dynamic use of their two (or more) languages and modalities for learning. We therefore encourage the development of pedagogy which recognises the potential of this fluid and nuanced use of language and focuses on actual language practices rather than policies.

The role of translanguaging

The concept of ‘translanguaging’ provides a helpful way to think this dynamic use of sign and spoken language in the leaning context. The term ‘translanguaging’ describes the way in which learners switch and blend languages, using the repertoires available to them, for learning and meaning making (Baker, 2011: Garcia 2009). This term has its origins in bilingual education research in Wales in the 1980s where it was first used to describe ‘the planned and systematic use of two languages for teaching and learning inside the same lesson’ (Lewis, Jones & Baker, 2012, p. 3). Translanguaging (translated from the Welsh ‘trawsieithu’) became a way of a describing a pedagogical approach which involved the deliberate and purposeful switching between languages of English and Welsh in order to support learning.

Translanguaging in deaf education

Taking this term into deaf education provides a useful way to conceptualise and describe the ways in which teachers and pupils naturally use both languages as one integrated resource to develop and extend language and curriculum knowledge and understanding (Creese & Blackledge, 2010; Hornberger & Link 2012).This way of thinking about the mixed language repertoires that adults and children draw on in the learning context signals a move away from thinking about language as separate entities to seeing bilingual language skills as an integrated set of competencies (Cummins, 2007). From this perspective we can begin to see how translanguaging can scaffold learning in the classroom by mediating content and language that pupils do not (yet) know through the language that they do know. Students’ learning can thus be at once challenged and supported through the purposeful switching of languages in the classroom.

Translanguaging as pedagogy

The ways in which teachers use translanguaging to support content and language learning is becoming increasingly documented in the wider field of language learning and the purposes of translanguaging identified below are completely applicable to the deaf education context:

  • To differentiate and adapt teaching for individuals
  • To build background knowledge
  • To deepen understanding; develop and extend new knowledge
  • To develop new (and sustain established) language practices
  • To develop language awareness
  • To enable participation and engagement in learning

Adapted from Garcia and Li Wei (2014, p. 121)

There are no shortages of examples of these purposes in deaf education where, for example, sign language might be used to mediate students’ reading of an English text or to prepare the new curriculum vocabulary and concepts or where sign and spoken/written languages are explicitly compared through translation activities or juxtaposed to show equivalence of meaning through chaining. The simultaneous or blended use of sign and spoken language (such as through the use of SSE or SimCom) is also used to support learning and in particular mediate students’ experience and understanding of spoken and   written language.

Translanguaging and teacher development

Translanguaging is therefore already a part of our pedagogical approach but hitherto this has perhaps been more intuition than design. To develop translanguaging as pedagogy in deaf education teachers need to understand the potential of translanguaging as a sense and meaning making tool, extend their language repertoires and insight into their own classroom talk. The task that we ask teachers to complete at Leeds involves an analysis of their language use in the classroom based on a video recording of a short session involving teaching a new concept to individual or a small group of deaf children. The insights and development of practice that this task affords are evident in the way in which teachers interrogate and appraise their own language use and the conclusions that they come to about their language choices, decisions and practices. Their reflections illustrate the flexible ways in which they use sign and spoken language in the classroom to support different learning activities and different learners and throw light on the complex and nuanced decisions about language use that they make in their interactions with deaf children and the language skills and awareness needed to do this. They are, in short, translanguaging all the time but having stopped to reflect and self-critique appreciate the extent to which the informed and ‘mindful’ use of two languages in the classroom offers a powerful and dynamic tool for learning and teaching in the classroom.


Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (5th edition). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Creese, A, & Blackledge, A. (2010). Translanguaging in the Bilingual Classroom: A Pedagogy for Learning and Teaching? The Modern Language Journal, 94(1), 103-115.

Cook, V. (2001). Second language learning and language teaching. London: Arnold.

Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking Monolingual Instructional Strategies in Multilingual Classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics 10 (2), 221-240.

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century : a global perspective. Malden, MA; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education.London: Palgrave Macmillan

Hornberger, N. H., & Link, H. (2012). Translanguaging and transnational literacies in multilingual classrooms: A biliteracy lens. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 15(3), 261-278.

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012). Translanguaging: Origins and Development from School to Street and beyond. Educational Research and Evaluation, 18(7), 641-654.