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Esther Bettney is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow and PhD Candidate the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Originally from Ontario, Esther has spent her professional life engaged in multilingual education in various global contexts. Most recently, she has been conducting her dissertation research in Colombia, employing a critical framework to explore how international schools move away from an “English-only” approach to multilingual education. Esther has recently published in the Journal of Belonging, Identity, Language and Diversity and has an upcoming publication in the Journal of Language, Identity and Education. Connect with Esther on Twitter @BettneyEsther
In September 2017, I moved with my husband and my children from Honduras to the United States to pursue a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In Honduras, we had been surrounded by bilingual friends, colleagues and students at the bilingual school where we had worked since 2006. My daughter’s first word was “wagua”, mixing “water” from English and “agua” from Spanish. While these flexible languaging practices were often joked about as “Spanglish”, they served a variety of purposes, from drawing on a word that had no equivalent in another language to indicating membership in our bilingual community. Bilingualism was seen as inherently valuable as it provided new ways of thinking and expressing oneself.
Our Honduran community was accepting of a variety of levels of language proficiency. My friends and coworkers knew me when I could barely say, “Hola”, and supported my progression as a Spanish speaker. Yet, upon our arrival in the U.S.A., I became increasingly self-conscious about my level of Spanish proficiency as I was no longer sure how to define myself as a Spanish speaker. There was often an assumption that I should have a certain level of Spanish proficiency without an understanding of the context in which I had lived in Honduras. Assumptions were also made about my children’s proficiency levels based on the brown skin of my adopted daughter and the white skin of my biological son.
In this new context, I began to look for opportunities to push back against narrow definitions of linguistic identities and found the documenting of my family’s languaging practices as a helpful practice. Specifically, I transcribed instances in which we engaged in translanguaging, defined by García (2009) as the “multiple discursive practices in which bilinguals engage in order to make sense of their bilingual worlds” (p. 45). By drawing attention to our diverse and fluid languaging practices, I hoped to strengthen my resolve to resist external definitions of who we were and who we should be.
As I began this process, I noticed my five-year-old son, Zach, engaged in translanguaging to clarify meaning and for play and humour. In the following example, Zach responded in English to Spanish questions, until he noted that my husband, Dave, had not understood something he had said correctly. Zach then drew on both Spanish and English to clarify:
Esther: Zach, ¿tu maestra habla español? [Does your teacher speak Spanish?] Zach: No. Esther: ¿Pero habla un otro idioma, sí? [But she speaks another language, right?] Zach: Well, she’s from another country. A country that doesn’t have snow or rain. Only sun and houses. Esther: ¿Sí? ¡Qué interesante! Dave: ¿Sólo sol y lluvia? [Only sun and rain?] Zach: No lluvia. Only sol. [No rain. Only sun.]
While Zach knew the English equivalent of the Spanish words he used, he translanguaged to clarify meaning and to indicate his participation in our bilingual languaging practices. Another time, Zach translanguaged by playing with the different sounds of the words Mexico, México and mágico [magic], creating an accompanying dance to add to the comedic effect.
My six-year-old daughter, Grace, often engaged in translanguaging to bridge her understanding of a concept she learned about in Spanish at school, as part of a Dual Language Immersion program. In the following interaction, Grace explained to me about a book she had been writing at school:
Grace: Mommy, I publiced [published] my story! Esther: Pardon? Grace: My story at school. I publiced it. Esther: Oh, you published your story! That’s great, Grace. What’s the title? Grace: La Bailarina. [The Ballerina]. Esther: Oh neat, I can’t wait to read it. How does the story start? Grace: La Bailarina. Por Grace Bettney Heidt. [The Ballerina. By Grace Bettney Heidt].
As Grace did not yet know how to say publish in English, she used the Spanish equivalent, publicar, adding the English suffix “ed” to show past tense, while keeping the Spanish pronunciation. As a fellow bilingual, I understood this translingual connection as we made meaning together.
Our family also engaged in translanguaging with others. In the following instance, we were eating baleadas, a typical Honduran food, with our Honduran-American friends.
Enrique: ¡Ya, comemos! [Let’s eat!] Come, eat. Esther: Oh, yum, baleadas. That’s our family’s favourite. Grace: Mommy, I want una sencilla [a simple]. Esther: Ok, that’s fine. Zach, ¿quieres una sencilla también? [Do you want a simple too?] Dave: Or Zach, do you want it with eggs? Or there’s aguacate [avocado]? Oh, is that chorizo [sausage]? Oh man, I love chorizo. Zach: ¡Aguacate! [Avocado!] Enrique: ¿Niños, quieren leche o agua para tomar? [Kids, do you want milk or water to drink?] Zach: Leche [milk]. Grace: Quiero leche, por favor. [I would like milk, please.] Enrique: These tortillas were hechos en casa [homemade]. Susan: ¡Ohh, qué rico! [Ohh, delicious!]
Within this conversation, all adults and children translanguaged fluidly. While participants indicated higher levels of proficiency in one language or another, we created meaning together by drawing on all of our shared resources. Our practices reflected the uniqueness of Honduran Spanish, as we used the term sencilla [simple], synonymous with the simplest kind of baleada filled with beans, cheese and crema. Our family translanguaged to demonstrate our participation within our bilingual Honduran community.
I engaged in this process of documenting instances of translanguaging to help me process living within the U.S.A. during a historical moment in which English-only ideologies were prevalent and I struggled to find my place as a plurilingual. Through documenting translanguaging in our family’s everyday lives, I noticed our diverse and flexible use of languages. This process was useful as I chose to not define myself or my family by what others said or assumed about us, but by my own interpretation of how and why we engaged in language. By documenting and exploring how we translanguaged, I strengthened my resolve to engage in practices and create spaces that allowed us to resist narrow definitions of linguistic practices and identities.
García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.