Translanguaging for communication and identity (re)building: The story of a 74-year old Brazilian woman in Montreal (by Dr Angelica Galante)

Angelica was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and has both Italian and Spanish heritage. Growing up, she would flexibly use Italian, Spanish and Portuguese in conversations and mixing languages has always been something natural for her. She attended Universidade de São Paulo, Brock University, and completed a PhD in language education at OISE/University of Toronto. Angelica moved to Montreal in 2018, when she accepted a position as assistant professor in Applied Linguistics at Concordia University and became a BILD member . For more about Angelica see our Active Members page.

After decades of research, the field of applied linguistics has finally recognized that languages in fact constantly and actively interact with one another, making it difficult to completely switch off one language while keeping another turned on.

For example, I am a speaker of Portuguese, English, Spanish and some French, and I access these languages any time I want for several different purposes. Sometimes I catch myself reading an article in Spanish while listening to the news in French. Other times I can be writing an email in Portuguese and singing a song in English. All of these languages interact in my brain, and they may even be used in one single sentence, especially if I am interacting with someone who knows the same languages. This is a phenomenon that happens with most bilinguals and multilinguals and is called translanguaging.

The theory of translanguaging posits the idea that people have one single linguistic repertoire from which they draw to communicate and make sense of the world (Otheguy, García & Reid, 2015; Wei, 2018). Rather than thinking about how we can effectively communicate in one language only, translanguaging goes beyond to suggest we can communicate using all linguistic resources we have (click here to know more). It is easy to think that a person who is fluent in many languages has the ability to translanguage, but how about someone who doesn’t have proficiency in two or more languages? Can they still translanguage?

Absolument! Let’s explore the linguistic practices of a 74-year old retired nurse called Luzia. Luzia has Spanish heritage and grew up in Brazil, where she developed both Portuguese and Spanish to a proficient level. One could say that she is a native speaker of Portuguese and Spanish is her second language, but if we think in a translanguaging paradigm, this linguistic categorization does not matter. Luzia has been spending some time in the city of Montreal, where her daughter lives, and while she is considered a bilingual in her country of origin, Luzia’s linguistic identity is reduced to Allophone in Canada, a country where only those who speak English and French have official “bilingual status.” Luzia is a very active and resourceful woman and does not shy away from participating in social interactions because of her “lack of linguistic resources” in English and/or French. In less than a week in Montreal, she became a member of the YMCA and the local church, and she learned how to take the bus and the metro so she could get around the city. As an independent woman, Luzia likes to have agency over her linguistic practices and does not accept others speaking for her. Luzia has a voice, and she wants her voice to be heard.

Here are three examples I have observed of how this retired woman, who does not speak English or French at a proficient level yet, communicates with others in Montreal.

At the YMCA

At the YMCA, located in Montreal’s Chinatown, a lot of the members speak Mandarin. Luzia has learned to greet her friends in Mandarin as a way to show respect and be friendly. Besides her interest in learning Mandarin, she has developed an interest in learning French and English because most classes she takes are taught bilingually. When arriving home from her first class, she got out her tablet and a small notebook and began writing down the names of the parts of the body in both English and French. She even found a YouTube video for children with a song about the body in French, so she could practice saying the parts of the body while singing. “Music makes me excited and interested in learning,” Luzia says. Every time she says le cou she laughs, as phonologically this French word sounds the same as an intimate part of the body in Portuguese (which I cannot write here but feel free to look it up).

In Church

Because her daughter lives close to the Notre Dame Basilica, Luzia started attending French mass every Sunday. Before going to mass, however, she reads the liturgy in either Portuguese or Spanish to prepare herself for the French mass. She has also learned how to say the main prayers in French, and she did it all by herself with technology mediating her language learning. A few weeks later, she did some research and found a Portuguese church in Montreal and decided to check it out. While Portuguese is one of the languages in Luzia’s linguistic repertoire, the variety spoken in Portugal is slightly different than the one in Brazil. Nevertheless, it took her less than an hour to get used to listening to the Portuguese variety. She now has a choice of going to two different churches and chooses a mass that fits into her schedule, regardless of the language it is delivered in.

At Social Events

Luzia’s daughter was unsure about taking her mother to social events at first as most people who live in Montreal speak English and/or French, two languages in which her mother is not yet able to have basic conversational interactions. However, she decided to take her mother to an event with about 20 people, and Luzia seemed to be doing quite well socializing, sometimes better than the people who spoke French and English. In the event, Luzia ensured to walk around independently and did not rely on her daughter to translate what she had to say. She sometimes mixed Portuguese with a few words in French and English and used body language for meaning making. Other times, she got her smartphone and used Google translator whenever she wanted to interact with someone. Interestingly, people at the event started digging into their own linguistic repertoire and used their limited knowledge of Spanish to communicate with Luzia. The willingness to communicate from both parties facilitated translanguaging practices.

These are simply three examples of how Luzia engages in translanguaging, even though she has little knowledge of English and French. While Luzia is not aware of the theoretical underpinnings of translanguaging, her linguistic practices show how she embodied this practice to make meaning and communicate with others. When asked about her positive attitude about learning languages, even if partially, she replied: “Je suis cara de pau” a Brazilian expression that means she is not afraid of making a fool of herself and being laughed at because of her mistakes. When she meets people and they ask “Do you speak English or French?” she proudly replies “No, but I speak Portuguese and Spanish.” Her positioning is empowering and invites Montrealers to identify Luzia as a bilingual. When I think of Luzia, I remember all the times I was afraid of speaking a language that I was learning because I wasn’t fluent yet. Being “cara de pau” and using translanguaging as a strategy to communicate is empowering and allows Luzia to feel like she belongs in the new social context.

Her daughter, the author of this blog post, is immensely proud of her mother Luzia.


Otheguy, R., García, O., Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying translaguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6, 281–307.

Wei, L. (2018). Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics, 39(1), 9–30.

4 thoughts on “Translanguaging for communication and identity (re)building: The story of a 74-year old Brazilian woman in Montreal (by Dr Angelica Galante)

  1. What a heart warming story! I remember my dad when I was 15 (60 years ago) and our family was in France. Dad met a man on the steps of a cathedral, and they had a long and interesting conversation in French, until the moment when they realized that neither of them actually spoke French, but they were both trying to be respectful of the language, so were doing their best! Determined to communicate with everyone they met…
    This journal is so interesting, and I’m so proud of my beautiful daughter, Alison, for being a part of it? Carrying on the tradition of her Grandpa! He would be so delighted, Ali, and so proud of you!

  2. What an amazing mom. I didn’t have to get to the end of the story to know who she was. I hope she enjoys her visit. She’s well connected!

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