Translingual Writing Assignments

Linguistic diversity as a resource

by Brooke Schreiber

One of the great advantages and pleasures of teaching at Baruch is the diversity of linguistic and cultural knowledge students bring into every classroom – whether or not the classroom is specifically designated as “ESL”. Something like 60% of Baruch students speak a language other than English at home, and even students who identify as native-English-speaking have typically lived and studied in the linguistically rich environments in and around New York City. Given this student population, writing assignments that encourage students to reflect on their experiences within and across languages are an ethical choice, allowing instructors to highlight students’ multilingual abilities as a valuable resource for making meaning, and therefore to work against the default image of multilingual students as deficit or less than monolingual peers. They are also, I find, tremendously enjoyable both for students to write and for instructors to read. 

The sequence of assignments I use in my 2150T course are based around the notion of “trans-“: movement across languages, cultures, and modes, borrowed very liberally from the wonderful work of Julia Kiernan (see the resources below). The goal is for students to consider how words, objects, and narratives shift in meaning when translated, what is gained and what is lost, and how to write effectively from a space of hybridity. Throughout the sequence, I encourage (but never require) students to use other languages in their research and writing. We look at published examples of code-mixed texts and texts written in non-standard English dialects from professional authors such as Gloria Anzaldua, Junot Diaz, Ken Saro-Wiwa, David Sedaris, Eva Hoffman, and Xiaolu Guo, and discuss the specific techniques these writers employ for writing across languages: direct translation versus transliteration (spelling out words in English letters); footnotes and other formatting choices, like italics. The assignments are sequenced from most to least personal, with increasing requirements for external research, and each final draft much include a brief cover letter describing the student’s writerly choices, particularly around language. 

Personal narrative: “lost in translation”

The first assignment is a personal narrative focused on a transcultural moment – a moment in which the student encountered a new culture or found themselves “lost in translation”. This is presented in the form of an audio essay – essentially, a podcast episode. We listen to and analyze examples of audio essays about cross-cultural experiences from shows such as “This I Believe” and “This American Life”. 

Translingual interview

The second assignment is a translingual interview: students should first conduct an interview in a language other than English, then connect the subject of the interview to a larger historical context. For example, students have interviewed survivors of war or natural disasters, business people profiting from a particular trend, or family members who were part of larger migration patterns. Their translated interview and research are presented in the form of a website, using both visual and verbal modes. Students must choose what and how to translate, and how to convey the sense and significance of the interview in English and in a written mode. 

Analysis of a transcultural object

The third and final assignment is an analysis of a transcultural object – an object that has different significance in two cultures. Students have written about objects such as Barbie dolls, yoga pants, K-pop music, and tofu, looking at the history of the object and how it has been received or appropriated into other cultures. This assignment draws on students’ expertise in multiple cultures, requiring them to reflect on and articulate what they have observed for an academic audience. Students have the option to present this assignment in any mode: a traditional print essay, audio essay, website, or even video.

Resources

2150T translingual interview assignment– assignment used by Dr. Schreiber

Transcultural personal audio essay assignment– assignment used by Dr. Schreiber

Transcultural object project description– assignment used by Dr. Schreiber​

Hanson 2013 – recommended reading for some pedagogical applications of translingualism

Kiernan et al 2016, “Negotiating Languages and Cultures: Enacting Translingualism through a Translation Assignment,” Composition Studies – a useful translation assignment

Verzella 2018 COIL assignment – a COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) assignment for a first-year writing class