The In-Between Language Practices of Multilingual Writers

By Poupeh Missaghi

In their afterword to The Modern Language Journal’s 2011 special issue on multilingualism in school contexts, Durk Gorter and Jasone Cenoz discuss the importance of understanding multilingualism in context. They argue that the language practices of multilinguals are multidirectional and that alternating between one language and another depends on the situation the languages are used in. Looking across a range of academic studies, Gorter and Cenoz note that because researchers and teachers have tended to “focus on languages in isolation” or use “the traditional ‘one language at a time’ approach,” they have overlooked what actually happens when students move between languages (443). Building off these findings, they argue that focusing on common multilingual practices such as codeswitching, codemeshing, translanguaging, and language transfer—and even translation itself—can provide “more authentic data” about language use (443).

Focusing on these practices is not just important for researchers; it is also a crucial part of teaching and tutoring multilingual writers. As writing center consultants, we can attest to the fact that what helps or hinders students in expressing their meaning is not the mere existence or knowledge of their other language(s), but how those languages interact with one another and whether students can access those languages in different contexts. When an unexpected word appears in a student’s writing, more often than not this happens when the student (or Google) translates literally from their first language or replaces an English word they know with a synonym of a higher register. Likewise, when a student uses English structures that differ from what is considered the norm, these issues can be explained not through each of the student’s languages in isolation, but rather, through the interaction of these languages and the practices involved in the process. One can say that these instances happen through the process of transfer, as a result of the languages being in conversation with one another without enough or proper context.

As such, paying attention to the in-between language practices of multilingual writers—what is happening when a student’s first language (L1) moves toward the second (L2) and vice versa, rather than what exists in either of those languages per se—can help us guide students toward a more complex understanding of their writing process. As consultants, this can mean helping students see through their multilingual process and notice how they came to settle on a particular word or structure, rather than simply pointing out, “In English this is not how it is usually done,” or asking, “Is this how it is done in your first language?” By figuring out what has happened in the process of transfer, students will gain a more in-depth view of the multilingual cognitive space in which they think and write. This can also help students pay attention to the multidirectionality of language transfer: while their English is being affected by their first language, their first language too is being transformed by their usage of English. This critical perspective will provide students with a more long-term, holistic view of their writerly processes in all languages.

Gorter and Cenoz refer to several studies that examine the effect of multilingualism on “the development of creativity, identities, and criticality,” noting that “the possibility of using different languages in the classroom has proved to provide an important communicative support for students and for teachers” (444). While we cannot directly affect the teaching practices that are used in the classroom, we can in our consultations put more emphasis on these language practices and modes of transfer so that our multilingual students can put them to work more consciously and effectively—and benefit from them beyond the one session and one paper.

Works Cited

Gorter, Durk, and Cenoz, Jasone. “A Multilingual Approach: Conclusions and Future Perspectives: Afterword.” Toward a Multilingual Approach in the Study of Multilingualism in School Contexts, special issue of The Modern Language Journal, vol. 95, no. 3, Fall 2011, pp. 442-445.

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