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Translanguaging in ESL

Amy GTEFL Contributor
ESL Lesson Handouts - Translanguaging in ESL
Photo by European Day of Languages

The landscape of language instruction continues to evolve. Various models of ESL instruction, such as the audio-lingual, grammar translation, and communicative methods, have become popular, vanished, and returned again multiple times over the years. Traditionally, most of these models have emphasized immersion as the most effective way to teach and learn English.

Recently, however, we are seeing more ESL/EFL experts embrace “translanguaging” as a viable instructional model.

What is Translanguaging?

In a nutshell, translanguaging refers to a pedagogical process of utilizing more than one language in a lesson, using all of a student’s linguistic knowledge in order to master subject matter which is delivered in their emerging language; however, translanguaging is not new. People have been using this method informally as a way to learn language in bilingual communities for generations [1]. The existence of “Spanglish” in some Latin-American communities, as well as the multilingual conversations which often take place in international universities, are evidence of that.

What might translanguaging look like in your ESL/EFL class? Here’s what you need to know.

Translanguaging vs Code Switching

Firstly, it’s important to differentiate between “translanguaging” and “code switching”.

Code switching is a term that has been used with negative associations to describe anyone who switches from one language to another. In the past, code switching was seen as a weakness, suggesting a certain level of incompetence in the speaker or, in some cases, the teacher.

For this reason, ESL/EFL teachers have historically been encouraged to completely avoid the use of a students’ native language in the lesson; however, in light of new research [2], it appears that we have been throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

While constant translation or code switching during instruction inhibits the acquisition of English, translanguaging can actually boost competence and confidence in emerging English learners when it’s done the right way.

Teaching methods

The first thing to understand about translanguaging is that even if we don’t consciously use it in our pedagogy, our students naturally do it on their own anyway. So, incorporating translanguaging into your teaching simply harnesses the natural methods that learners already use to construct meaning.

To do so effectively, use English alongside the student’s home language. For example, consider labeling objects around the room in both languages. Students will be pleasantly surprised to find connections between the two languages in a way they hadn’t noticed before. Also, ask your students to take notes on ESL/EFL Lesson Handouts in multiple languages to better see these connections.


Teaching ESL/EFL through translanguaging will look different depending on your students and their English learning goals. For example, let’s say your goal is to teach students how to become better informed during U.S. elections.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) publishes a helpful glossary of terms, available in a wide variety of languages including Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic. Accessing this vocabulary in English and their native language simultaneously allows your students to build their own knowledge. Other useful niche glossaries are published by the Environment Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, just to name a few.

Another helpful strategy is to use visual aids such as pictures and photographs as much as possible. Have students name or label parts in pictures in their native language and find any cognates. Cognate words share an ancestor, like English “brother” and German “bruder” which both trace to the Greek root word “phrater”.

ESL Lesson Handouts includes high-quality photos for your students to study and label. Check out the lesson plans in the ESL Lesson Handouts Library.

Unlike translation or code switching, translanguaging empowers your English students to understand English alongside other subject areas and to claim that knowledge as their own. When used correctly, it can be a great skill for ESL/EFL teachers to have in their repertoire.

[1] Garcia, Ofelia. Bilingualing Without Schooling: “Informal bilingual acquisition: Dynamic spaces for language education policy Chapter 4, 2009.

[2] Sulaiman, Rahima and Akbar & Hanan Ali Taqi. Translanguaging as an ESL Learning Strategy: A Case Study in Kuwait. International Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 9 No. 6, 25 Aug 2020.

Amy GTEFL Contributor
Amy is an experienced English, French, and Spanish teacher. She now studies and writes about trends in education and is a course content creator.

Disclaimer  We aim to provide useful ESL and EFL teaching resources and educational ideas. Our articles are written by educators with extension TEFL experience. They contain only general information about teaching English as a foreign language and are meant purely for informational purposes.

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