Out with the old, in with the new: ELF and translanguaging

Posted: December 30, 2021 in Discourse, learning theory, practical ideas, research
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The world of language learning and teaching is full of theoretical constructs and claims, most of which have their moment of glory in the sun before being eclipsed and disappearing from view. In a recent article looking at the theoretical claims of translanguaging enthusiasts, Jim Cummins (2021) suggests that three criteria might be used to evaluate them:

1 Empirical adequacy – to what extent is the claim consistent with all the relevant empirical evidence?

2 Logical coherence – to what extent is the claim internally consistent and non-contradictory?

3 Consequential validity – to what extent is the claim useful in promoting effective pedagogy and policies?

Take English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), for example. In its early days, there was much excitement about developing databases of ELF usage in order to identify those aspects of pronunciation and lexico-grammar that mattered for intercultural intelligibility. The Lingua Franca Core (a list of pronunciation features that are problematic in ELF settings when ELF users mix them up) proved to be the most lasting product of the early empirical research into ELF (Jenkins, 2000). It made intuitive good sense, was potentially empowering for learners and teachers, was clearly a useful tool in combating native-speakerism, and was relatively easy to implement in educational policy and practice.

But problems with the construct of ELF quickly appeared. ELF was a positive reframing of the earlier notion of interlanguage – an idea that had deficit firmly built in, since interlanguage was a point that a language learner had reached somewhere on the way to being like a native-speaker. Interlanguage contained elements of the L1, and this led to interest in how such elements might become fossilized, a metaphor with very negative connotations. With a strong desire to move away from framings of deficit, ELF recognised and celebrated code-switching as an integral element in ELF interactions (Seidlhofer, 2011: 105). Deviations from idealised native-speaker norms of English were no longer to be seen as errors in need of correction, but as legitimate forms of the language (of ELF) itself.

However, it soon became clear that it was not possible to describe ELF in terms of the particular language forms that its users employed. In response, ELF researchers reframed ELF. The focus shifted to how people of different language backgrounds used English to communicate in particular situations – how they languaged, in other words. ELF was no longer a thing, but an action. This helped in terms of internal consistency, but most teachers remained unclear about how the ELF.2 insight should impact on their classroom practices. If we can’t actually say what ELF looks like, what are teachers supposed to do with the idea? And much as we might like to wish away the idea of native speakers (and their norms), these ideas are very hard to expunge completely (MacKenzie, 2014: 170).

Twenty years after ELF became widely used as a term, ELF researchers lament the absence of any sizable changes in classroom practices (Bayyurt & Dewey, 2020). There are practices that meet the ELF seal of approval (see, for example, Kiczkowiak & Lowe, 2018), and these include an increase in exposure to the diversity of English use worldwide, engagement in critical classroom discussion about the globalisation of the English language, and non-penalisation of innovative, but intelligible forms (Galloway, 2018: 471). It is, however, striking that these practices long pre-date the construct of ELF. They are not direct products of ELF.

Part of the ‘problem’, as ELF researchers see it, has been that ELF has been so hard to define. Less generously, we might suggest that the construct of ELF was flawed from the start. Useful, no doubt, as a heuristic, but time to move on. Jennifer Jenkins, one of the most well-known names in ELF, has certainly not been afraid to move on. Her article (Jenkins, 2015) refines ELF.2 into ELF.3, which she now labels as ‘English as a Multilingual Franca’. In this reframed model, ELF is not so much concerned with the difference between native speakers and non-native speakers, as with the difference between monolinguals and multilinguals. Multilingual, rather than ‘English’, is now the superordinate attribute. Since ELF is now about interactions, rather than ELF as a collection of forms, it follows, in ELF.3, that ELF may not actually contain any English forms at all. There is a logic here, albeit somewhat convoluted, but there’s also a problem for ELF as a construct, too. If ELF is fundamentally about multilingual communication, what need is there for the term ‘ELF’? ‘Translanguaging’ will do perfectly well instead. The graph from Google Trends reveals the rises and falls of these two terms in the academic discourse space. After peaking in 2008 the term ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ now appears to be in irreversible decline.

So, let’s now turn to ‘translanguaging’. What do Cummins, and others, have to say about the construct? The word has not been around for long. Most people trace it back to the end of the last century (Baker, 2001) and a set of bilingual pedagogical practices in the context of Welsh-English bilingual programmes intended to revitalise the Welsh language. In the early days, translanguaging was no more than a classroom practice that allowed or encouraged the use (by both learners and teachers) of more than one language for the purposes of study. The object of study might be another language, or it might be another part of the curriculum. When I wrote a book about the use of L1 in the learning and teaching of English (Kerr, 2014), I could have called it ‘Translanguaging Activities’, but the editors and I felt that the word ‘translanguaging’ might be seen as obscure jargon. I defined the word at the time as ‘similar to code-switching, the process of mixing elements form two languages’.

But obscure jargon no longer. There is, for example, a nice little collection of activities that involve L1 for the EFL / ESL classroom put together by Jason Anderson http://www.jasonanderson.org.uk/downloads/Jasons_ideas_for_translanguaging_in_the_EFL_ESL_classroom.pdf that he has chosen to call ‘Ideas for translanguaging’. In practical terms, there’s nothing here that you might not have found twenty or more years ago (e.g. in Duff, 1989; or Deller & Rinvolucri, 2002), long before anyone started using the word ‘translanguaging’. Anderson’s motivation for choosing the word ‘translanguaging’ is that he hopes it will promote a change of mindset in which a spirit of (language) inclusivity prevails (Anderson, 2018). Another example: the different ways that L1 may be used in a language classroom have recently been investigated by Rabbidge (2019) in a book entitled ‘Translanguaging in EFL Contexts’. Rabbidge offers a taxonomy of translanguaging moments. These are a little different from previous classifications (e.g. Ellis, 1994; Kim & Elder, 2005), but only a little. The most significant novelty is that these moments are now framed as ‘translanguaging’, rather than as ‘use of L1’. Example #3: the most well-known and widely-sold book that offers practical ideas that are related to translanguaging is ‘The Translanguaging Classroom’ by García and colleagues (2017). English language teachers working in EFL / ESL / ESOL contexts are unlikely to find much, if anything, new here by way of practical ideas. What they will find, however, is a theoretical reframing. It is the theoretical reframing that Anderson and Rabbidge draw their inspiration from.

The construct of translanguaging, then, like English as a Lingua Franca, has brought little that is new in practical terms. Its consequential validity does not really need to be investigated, since the pedagogical reasons for some use of other languages in the learning / teaching of English were already firmly established (but not, perhaps, widely accepted) a long time ago. How about the theory? Does it stand up to closer scrutiny any better than ELF?

Like ELF, ‘translanguaging’ is generally considered not to be a thing, but an action. And, like ELF, it has a definition problem, so precisely what kind of action this might be is open to debate. For some, it isn’t even an action: Tian et al (2021: 4) refer to it as ‘more like an emerging perspective or lens that could provide new insights to understand and examine language and language (in) education’. Its usage bounces around from user to user, each of whom may appropriate it in different ways. It is in competition with other terms including translingual practice, multilanguaging, and plurilingualism (Li, 2018). It is what has been called a ‘strategically deployable shifter’ (Moore, 2015). It is also unquestionably a word that sets a tone, since ‘translanguaging’ is a key part of the discourse of multilingualism / plurilingualism, which is in clear opposition to the unfavourable images evoked by the term ‘monolingualism’, often presented as a methodological mistake or a kind of subjectivity gone wrong (Gramling, 2016: 4). ‘Translanguaging’ has become a hooray word: criticize it at your peril.

What started as a classroom practice has morphed into a theory (Li, 2018; García, 2009), one that is and is likely to remain unstable. The big questions centre around the difference between ‘strong translanguaging’ (a perspective that insists that ‘named languages’ are socially constructed and have no linguistic or cognitive reality) and ‘weak translanguaging’ (a perspective that acknowledges boundaries between named languages but seeks to soften them). There are discussions, too, about what to call these forms of translanguaging. The ‘strong’ version has been dubbed by Cummins (2021) ‘Unitary Translanguaging Theory’ and by Bonacina-Pugh et al. (2021) ‘Fluid Languaging Approach’. Corresponding terms for the ‘weak’ version are ‘Crosslinguistic Translanguaging Theory’ and ‘Fixed Language Approach’. Subsidiary, related debates centre around code-switching: is it a form of translanguaging or is it a construct better avoided altogether since it assumes separate linguistic systems (Cummins, 2021)?

It’s all very confusing. Cenoz and Gorter (2021) in their short guide to pedagogical translanguaging struggle for clarity, but fail to get there. They ‘completely agree’ with García about the fluid nature of languages as ‘social constructs’ with ‘no clear-cut boundaries’, but still consider named languages as ‘distinct’ and refer to them as such in their booklet. Cutting your way through this thicket of language is a challenge, to put it mildly. It’s also probably a waste of time. As Cummins (2021: 16) notes, the confusion is ‘completely unnecessary’ since ‘there is no difference in the instructional practices that are implied by so-called strong and weak versions of translanguaging’. There are also more important questions to investigate, not least the extent to which the approaches to multilingualism developed by people like García in the United States are appropriate or effective in other contexts with different values (Jaspers, 2018; 2019).

The monolingualism that both ELF and translanguaging stand in opposition to may be a myth, a paradigm or a pathology, but, whatever it is, it is deeply embedded in the ways that our societies are organised, and the ways that we think. It is, writes David Gramling (2016: 3), ‘clearly not yet inclined to be waved off the stage by a university professor, nor even by a ‘multilingual turn’.’ In the end, ELF failed to have much impact. It’s time for translanguaging to have a turn. So, out with the old, in with the new. Or perhaps not really all that new at all.

The king is dead. Long live the king and a happy new year!


Anderson, J. (2018) Reimagining English language learners from a translingual perspective. ELT Journal 72 (1): 26 – 37

Baker, C. (2001) Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 3rd edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Bayyurt, Y. & Dewey, M. (2020) Locating ELF in ELT. ELT Journal, 74 (4): 369 – 376

Bonacina-Pugh, F., Da Costa Cabral, I., & Huang, J. (2021) Translanguaging in education. Language Teaching, 54 (4): 439-471

Cenoz, J. & Gorter, D. (2021) Pedagogical Translanguaging. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cummins, J. (2021) Translanguaging: A critical analysis of theoretical claims. In Juvonen, P. & Källkvist, M. (Eds.) Pedagogical Translanguaging: Theoretical, Methodological and Empirical Perspectives. Bristol: Multilingual Matters pp. 7 – 36

Deller, S. & Rinvolucri, M. (2002) Using the Mother Tongue. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta

Duff, A. (1989) Translation. Oxford: OUP

Ellis, R. (1994) Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: OUP

Galloway, N. (2018) ELF and ELT Teaching Materials. In Jenkins, J., Baker, W. & Dewey, M. (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of English as a Lingua Franca. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, pp. 468 – 480.

García, O., Ibarra Johnson, S. & Seltzer, K. (2017) The Translanguaging Classroom. Philadelphia: Caslon

García, O. (2009) Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Malden / Oxford: Wiley / Blackwell

Gramling, D. (2016) The Invention of Monolingualism. New York: Bloomsbury

Jaspers, J. (2019) Authority and morality in advocating heteroglossia. Language, Culture and Society, 1: 1, 83 – 105

Jaspers, J. (2018) The transformative limits of translanguaging. Language & Communication, 58: 1 – 10

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jenkins, J. (2015) Repositioning English and multilingualism in English as a lingua franca. Englishes in Practice, 2 (3): 49-85

Kerr, P. (2014) Translation and Own-language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Kiczkowiak, M. & Lowe, R. J. (2018) Teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Stuttgart: Delta

Kim, S.-H. & Elder, C. (2005) Language choices and pedagogical functions in the foreign language classroom: A cross-linguistic functional analysis of teacher talk. Language Teaching Research, 9 (4): 355 – 380

Li, W. (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39 (1): 9 – 30

MacKenzie, I. (2014) English as a Lingua Franca. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Moore, R. (2015) From Revolutionary Monolingualism to Reactionary Multilingualism: Top-Down Discourses of Linguistic Diversity in Europe, 1794 – present. Language and Communication, 44: 19 – 30

Rabbidge, M. (2019) Translanguaging in EFL Contexts. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Seidlhofer, B. (2011) Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: OUP

Tian, Z., Aghai, L., Sayer, P. & Schissel, J. L. (Eds.) (2020) Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives. Cham, CH: Springer Nature.

  1. Coincidentally, Li Wei has today posted this link to an open access article in the ELT Journal, where he argues – approvingly – that translanguaging is neither thing nor action but an ideological stance. I’m not sure to what extent this aids your jobbing EFL teacher apart perhaps from assuaging some of the guilt associated with L1 use in the classroom, even if the very idea of an L1 is itself an ideological construct. Anyway here is the link: https://academic.oup.com/eltj/advance-article/doi/10.1093/elt/ccab083/6483197?s=09

    • philipjkerr says:

      Thank you, Scott. I can’t see anything in this Li Wei article that adds anything to his other pronouncements. There seems to me to be no good reason for ELTJ to publish this, except for the fact that Li Wei is a ‘big name’ and this article will no doubt get cited a lot, which is good for ELTJ’s impact factor.
      What makes it interesting is that he rails against academic English, which is ‘prejudiced against racialized and minoritized bilingual and multilingual language users as well as socioeconomically disadvantaged students’ but he writes in a register and in a publication which, following his own logic, perpetuates that prejudice. He conveniently forgets that he is an active part of that ‘elite group’ that he needs to refer to in order to associate himself with the colonized: he is, let’s not forget, the director of the UCL Institute of Education, fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, etc. The political posturing of this article fails to conceal its moralising, condescending tone, replete with buzzwords, self-contradictions and self-promotion.

  2. nmwhiteport says:

    What a fascinating post, thank you!

    The definitional confusions you describe are, I think, likely inevitable as they follow on from what appear to be a number of underlying presuppositions about what a language, or language (as a mass rather than a unit), is (or is not) that seem to have gone unrecognized, leave alone addressed.

    This is anecdotal, and I accept that he may since have changed his views on this, but I once saw Marek Kiczkowiak at an IATEFL SIG event make a joking aside to the effect that his views on teaching English would not apply to the teaching of, for instance, Polish as a second or foreign language.

    At first blush, this seems reasonable and straightforward – Polish is not a widespread global lingua franca in the same sense that English is and it must be a practical certainty that the volume of data collected on L2 speakers of English interacting has to be many orders of magnitude larger than that for L2 speakers of Polish.

    But it isn’t straightforward or, arguably, even reasonable. What motivates an ELF in the context of ELT should apply to the teaching of any foreign language, regardless of whether or not it has the status of a global lingua franca.

    To suggest otherwise is either inconsistent with what ELF taken seriously would actually mean or (and?) further suggests that the ‘ELF’ element is a conscious add-on to the processes of ELT, rather than something (no pun intended) at its core.

    Similarly, some years ago I once had an opportunity to see a talk by Jennifer Jenkins. This, again, was more than a decade ago so her views may have altered, but throughout the talk Jenkins kept referring to “proficient ELF speakers”.

    It therefore seemed reasonable to ask what criteria were being used to assess these speakers as proficient. The answer, if I remember correctly at least, was that they had all passed the Cambridge Proficiency exam.

    The point of these anecdotes is that ELF (and more surprisingly apparently even Translanguaging) seem both to be even more dependent on the notion of an ideal European speaker of a standardised language variety as normative than language teachers of years gone by; and not, or not only, as something standing in opposition to these alternatives, but something foundational to them (which given the season puts me in mind of those British pantomime sketches where one actor pretends to be oblivious to the presence of another in the background – “It’s behind you!”, “Where? Where?”, “Behind you!!” etc.)

    • philipjkerr says:

      Nothing like an anecdote, is there? And I love the analogy with pantomime, where the performers look everywhere except where the audience is pointing with their cries of ‘There! There!’

  3. russ says:

    excellent post.

  4. eflnotes says:

    Thanks Philip.
    Is the strong/weak translanguaging description from the Cummins (2021) article you reference? If you have an electronic version any chance you could share that?
    I ask as I recall for example that Garcia (2009) (if she is classed in strong group) does not deny the “lingustic or cognitive reality of named languages”?

    • philipjkerr says:

      Hi Mura, Yes, Cummins 2021 talks about the strong / weak distinction, but he prefers the terms UTT and CTT. I don’t have a digital version of this article, I am afraid. Garcia’s position seems to shift across and even within articles.

      • In a book I have just struggled through (less for the density of its argument than for its appallingly bad editing) – Languaging without languages: Beyond metro-, multi-, poly-, pluri-, and translanguaging by Robin Sabino (Brill 2018) – the author notes that ‘García and Li [2014] richly illustrate the intimate link between prescriptivism and the pervasiveness of a politically motivated “ideology of bilingualism that is monoglossic“ (55). But, like so many struggling to escape the influence of the languages ideology, their discourse illustrates the tenacious hold of the languages ideology. Although García and Li distance themselves from “socially constructed languages” (10), “multilinguals” and “monolinguals,” (17), they redefine rather than reject bilingualism, plurilingualism, and multilingualism and liberally but inconsistently deploy scare quotes.’(pp 35-36). And later she adds ‘We cannot meet the challenge of developing discourses that disassociate languaging from languages if we continue to use language-centric terms, scare quotes, and disclaimers’ (p. 118). In short, you can’t have it both ways: “there are no such thing as languages” and “translanguaging involves using two or more languages.”

      • philipjkerr says:

        I think this captures things very neatly. It also makes me think of the problems we face in fighting native-speakerism, while maintaining that there’s no such thing as a ‘native speaker’. You’ll have noted my use of scare quotes there!
        The Sabino book sounds interesting, but, at 88 Euros (either hardback or pdf), I’ll give it a miss.

  5. pauldummett says:

    Very clear post about what seems to have become an unnecessarily unclear subject. I’ve come to it late – probably 10 years too late – but I already feel a sense of nostalgia for the straightforward notion o have become an unnecessarily unclear subject. I’ve come to it late – probably 10 years too late – but I already feel a sense of nostalgia for the straightforward notion of ‘a classroom practice that .. encouraged the use of more than one language for the purposes of study’. I’m working at the moment with a Palestinian teacher who got her students to interview their grannies about childhood memories and then write them up and retell the stories in English. A practical way of getting the stories to a wider audience and also a very memorable language-learning experience for the students ….. no ideological strings attached!

  6. […] sure would be anxious to insist that my views and his don’t coincide, comments in his recent post about translanguaging about the poverty of its practical […]

  7. Ben Knight says:

    Thanks, Philip, for pulling apart some of the issues around translanguaging and ELF, and challenging assumptions around them. I feel that definitions of translanguaging are not that different from those used for code-switching before ‘translanguaging’ was invented (look at Code-Switching in Conversation Language, Interaction and Identity, ed Peter Auer 1998, as an example). But I don’t think we should underestimate the huge value of the changes that have happened (are happening) in ELT over the past 20-30 years in terms of moving away from exclusive native speakerism, of seeing multilingualism as an asset to be nurtured, of seeing the value of using the L1 in language learning, of prioritising communicativeness over mastery of obscure linguistic details. As you say, the theorising around ELF and translanguaging may not have driven those changes, but perhaps they are more attempts by the applied linguistics community to catch up with social-political changes that were happening anyway. Post-hoc rationalisations of change can still be useful, of course, to those who face resistance (e.g. all those teachers working in educational contexts where the L1 is prohibited in the classroom).
    In the 80’s I was taught by a professor (in his 60s) who specialised in Creolisation, and I recognise many similarities in the linguistic issues discussed then and translanguaging now – but he had learned his craft at a time when European colonies were widespread, and the term ‘creolisation’ reflects that political milieu.

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