Translanguaging instinct: What does doodling have to do with language learning? (by Dr Sunny Man Chu Lau)

Recently I invited Dr. Marsha Liaw, Educational Director of a Chinese-English bilingual program in Massachusetts, to give a talk to my graduate class on pluriliteracies and trans-semiotization. We both share an understanding of language and literacy from a heteroglossic perspective (Blackledge & Creese, 2014) which highlights not only the interconnections between languages but also their interdependence with other semiotic systems, underscoring the inherent multimodal nature of any human communication. All semiotic modes, be they written-linguistic or visual, graphic, audio or spatial, are intricately connected as sense-making devices and resources (Cope & Kalantzis, 2013). This expanded view of language and literacy is core to translanguaging (Li, 2017) and/or pluriliteracies practices, allowing us to understand the complex indexicalities of varied semiolinguistic resources that complement and/or juxtapose each other to give rise to new, enriched meanings (Kress et al. 2005). The paradigmatic shift also helps disrupt the traditional deficit-oriented view of second language (L2) or plurilingual individuals, repositioning them as agentive actors in their constant, active mixing and meshing of semiolinguistic resources to transfer, construct, recontextualize and re-semiotize different ways of knowing, being and acting (García, Bartlett, & Kleifgen, 2009) for different social purposes.

Marsha’s talk about English-dominant students’ learning of Chinese (Mandarin) through translanguaging reminded me of the rough patches my son, Janan, went through as he first started to learn traditional Chinese in Grade 1. The kindergarten he attended offered a Chinese (more precisely, Cantonese)–English bilingual program which proudly embraced a play-based, experiential learning approach to cultivate children’s intellectual curiosity and creativity. Most mainstream kindergarten programs, however, already started introducing basic Chinese reading and writing to children, mostly through mechanical drills, copying and memorization. That means Janan started his Grade 1 with minimal to no Chinese reading and writing skills and it quickly became apparent that he was falling behind. His dictation marks were appallingly low, sometimes even close to zero. Needless to say, a nightmare to any parent, especially to me who was a language teacher (ESL) at the time. While I had so many fun and meaningful teaching ideas for ESL, it had not occurred to me until then to apply some of those at home to help with my son’s Chinese learning. My intuition told me that if these activities worked for one language, they should too for another language. All I needed to do was to find ways to connect with his learning style and interests. As simple as that.

Most traditional Chinese classrooms put great emphasis on sitting still and straight when you read and write—a proper sitting posture is a sign of serious and attentive learning. My son couldn’t be more different from that. At home, he loved lying on the sofa or the floor while reading and doing his homework. He liked to be able to move his body or swing his legs in the air as he read, and he read a lot. To make things “worse’, he liked to doodle, and he still does, which unfortunately is still perceived as a sign of distraction and demotivation. I remember his Grade 9 French teacher complaining to me that he was caught doodling during his French test. She then made him re-do the test so that the paper was all “clean” and “tidy”. “He has to learn to respect the test,” she added. All these years, I have kept thinking about this assertion of hers — while I totally understand the need for children to learn to exercise self-discipline and to accept that things do not always go their way, the teacher’s putting the test before the person taking the test suggests that she might have missed something very important here. At the time, I didn’t have the theoretical concepts or labels to name these practices. Looking through a translanguaging lens now, doodling is a perfect example of pluriliteracies practices. Doodling has always been my son’s way of thinking things through – he sees ideas in pictures and through drawing, he makes sense of what he reads and hears.

This was exactly what I did then at home to help support his Chinese reading and writing—I encouraged him to draw. I had no idea what he could come up with. I was no artist myself but all I knew was that if drawing was his interest, he would find a way to connect it with his language learning. After all, Chinese characters are all pictograms and/or ideograms. Below, I show a picture he created, using the target vocabulary for the week’s dictation test:

Figure 1: Janan Chan (28 September, 2003)

The words are quite complex for Grade 1, given most children at that age are just learning to hold and control their pencil.  The words were taken out from a reading passage of which I now have no memory. But Janan created a story of his own using the given words.

He started off from the top left corner, writing down words or phrases such as 兩隻眼睛 (two eyes); 一隻青蛙 (one frog); 一張嘴 (one mouth); 四條腿 (four legs) on the respective parts of a frog’s body, which shows a good understanding of the word meaning. Then he went on to add in the rest of the vocabulary, not in a haphazard but rather in a meaningful way, piecing together a narrative about some monstrous creatures.

First, there is the word 高 (tall, high) in the centre which is torn apart by an insect-like creature just as 逃跑 (run away) is trying to do what it does, i.e., to run away. The word 跑, literally meaning “to run” or “to sprint”, is unfortunately snagged by one of the creatures’ claw while 逃 (“to escape”) is trying to break loose from a strap. A gigantic monster-like creature on the right is howling or screaming at the top of its lungs. At the tip of its tongue, there hangs the word 聲 (sound) and on its lower jaw, it says 下 (under, beneath).

At the bottom centre, there are two fish being trapped by the tentacles of a jellyfish-like creature. Look at how the word 魚 is written with the four dots on the bottom drawn in the shape of two tails, echoing the Chinese quantifying phrase “two tails of fish” (literal translation).

To the left, there are two onomatopoeic words/phrases suggesting: 1) a plopping sound (撲通) and 2) a loud rumble (隆隆巨響). The gas bubbles suggest that these words are plunging themselves into the water (hence making loud noises) to save their lives from the impending danger, just like what 跳 (jump) is doing on the lower left corner.

This might not be a well-structured story with a beginning, middle and end, but as my son presented his work to me, narrating the little story with an animated voice and embellishing it with different sound effects, I knew those were not the signs of a student who was unmotivated. Enthused with his fantasy world, he turned these Chinese ideograms literally into different “characters”, each in its own way trying to flee from the menace imposed by the encroaching monsters. Illustrating these characters and weaving them into a coherent narrative demonstrated a high level of creativity and sophisticated literacy skills. Call me biased, but how I wished his teacher could have witnessed this beautiful orchestration of his pluriliterate performance!

Seeing my son struggle with Chinese language learning, I resorted to my motherly instinct and my professional knowledge as an ESL teacher to encourage him to take on a different pathway to learn and make meaning. By choosing drawing and doodling, a way still deemed irrelevant and even disruptive to learning, he reclaimed ownership of his Chinese learning. Isn’t it only logical to harness students’ entire semiolinguistic repertoires to maximize target language and/or content learning? Why, when it comes to L2 learning, is the modus operandi to police for language purity and preference for written-linguistic forms over other semiotic systems, when in fact they are all intricately interconnected and interdependent? Li Wei (2016) asserts that we all have the translanguaging instinct as humans to exploit all available cognitive, sensory, semiotic and modal resources in language learning and use. If we agree on that, one take-away from my son’s story is that this innate capacity shouldn’t be dismissed in teaching and learning as irrelevant, but rather be more systematically nurtured and developed in order to better equip our children for complex communicative and cognitive tasks.


Blackledge, A., & Creese, A. (Eds.). (2014). Heteroglossia as practice and pedagogy. Dordrecht Springer Netherlands Imprint: Springer.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2013). “Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning. In M. R. Hawkins (Ed.), Framing languages and literacies: socially situated views and perspectives (pp. 105-135). New York: Routledge.

García, O., Bartlett, L., & Kleifgen, J. A. (2009). From biliteracy to pluriliteracies. In P. Auer & Li Wei (Eds.), Handbook of multilingualism and multilingual communication (pp. 207-228). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

Li, W. (2016). Multi-competence and the translanguaging instinct. In V. Cook & W. Li (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of multi-competence (pp. 533-543). Cambridge: Cambrige University Press.

Li, W. (2017). Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics, 39(1), 9-30.

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