Parking signs in Tewali. Photo by Andy McCarthy UK

Ofelia García spends a lot of time sitting near the floor. The professor in the Ph.D. programs of Urban Education and of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York is there observing children who, in her words, “are learning to adapt to the rigors of multi-language communication.”

Ofelia Garcia

“The idea that children are classified (as Limited English Proficient) makes no sense. It’s based on exams and assessments that are completely arbitrary,” García says in a 2009 keynote speech to the National Association of Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC).

“It’s a continuum, not a category, over the course of a lifetime. If you think of them as emergent learners, you will never leave behind their languages and their cultures.”

García wrote “Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective”, a massive text on the topic, and is a globally-known speaker and advocate for promoting a translanguaging, an approach to emerging English learners, where speakers switch from one language to another. It’s a bottom/up understanding of the bilingual learning process, García says, instead of top/down.

Until recently, bilingual learners in the United States were studied from a monolingual perspective. In schools, educators approached bilingual education in one of the following ways:

  • Subtractive Bilingualism – When the child’s mother tongue language disappears, and the school promotes another language.
  • Additive Bilingualism – Add the school’s language to the child’s first language. The general theory is that with two languages, the child has two balanced wheels that go in the same direction.

“We can no longer afford to think of it that way,” García says.

In her studies, bilingual children need more than two language wheels — they need an all terrain vehicle to adapt to the “rigors of multi-language communication.” Sometimes one wheel needs to be up while the other is down; and you can see the wheels turning in several different directions at once, García says.

In in the five part YouTube video of her keynote speech at, García explains that children will call on their understanding of several languages to communicate and understand how to help each other, and play together. To do so, they’ll draw from what they know and hear at home, and in many cases, several different languages are spoken at home.

Around one dinner table sits a monolingual mother, a bilingual father, and perhaps, a monolingual grandparent and her mother tongue. Children use a process she calls translanguaging to navigate this challenging language terrain.

Below, she gives a few examples of what she’s seen in these classroom observations.

“What you’ll find is very flexible language use among the teachers and children making sense of [what’s happening in the classroom]” García says.

Come All Ye Playmates

One day three boys were playing together. Adam speaks English only. Carlos and Isaac are playing with blocks in Spanish and Adam wants to play. So he comes over and says, “Are you done?”

Carlos speaks only Spanish and starts to walk away, and responds in the little bit of English that he knows, “Yes, I done.”

Isaac is a kind of peacemaker and he says to Adam in English, “Adam do you want to play with us? Carlos stay here.”

As they start playing, Isaac, who is bilingual starts acting out and making the noises of the games they’re playing together in both English and Spanish. Through this sense making mechanism of translanguage, or using both languages, back and forth, both children are included.

The tree is grande

The teacher takes the children outside and the teacher is going through some comparative exercises, talking about a big tree and a small tree. One of the children is practicing the words and saying them to himself, and says one tree is grande, the spanish word for big. One way he’s making sense of this new language is by translanguaing, going back and forth to what he knows to bring forth a new understanding.

Adolfo, it’s raining

This next scenario takes place during snack time. Adolfo does not speak English, and he’s looking out the window and talking to himself as preschooler’s often do. “It’s raining a lot,” he says to himself in Spanish. When he looks up he realizes that most of the kids are not Spanish speakers so he says, “look it’s washing.” A little girl is talking to me and she’s translating what Adolfo is saying to me.  “He speaks Spanish, only Spainish,” and she turns to the little boy and says, “Adolfo, raining,” and he says, “raining.”

ABC English & Me putting research into practice

  • Audio CD supports monolingual and bilingual teachers — The 30-minute lessons are led by an English speaker on an audio CD, who narrates a series of integrated songs, stories, and activities. The classroom teacher – who can be monolingual or bilingual – is able to stop the CD and provide additional directions to the children when needed.
  • Puppets – Puppets are used to help engage the children in English-speaking conversation. The teacher can use a puppet to help the children playfully engage in a conversation, such as “How are you?” “I’m fine.” The puppet can speak in English while the teacher is able to choose the language that best helps the child understand the activity.
  • Listening activities develop skills for learning a variety of languages — Critical listening activities, such as moving to music with a slow and fast tempo, and dancing slow or fast in response to that music, helps children develop critical listening skills and phonetic awareness. Exposing children to a wide variety of sounds helps tp “tune” their ears to a variety of phonetic sounds in a wide variety of language. Just as exposure to a wide variety of books helps to develop a child’s reading and language vocabulary, exposure to a wide variety of sounds develop’s a child’s “listening vocabulary.”
  • Rhythm and music activities – Playing rhythm sticks, jingle bells, or egg shakers – along with the music help children experience rhythm, which also helps to develop an awareness for the patterns of all languages.
  • Home activities – Children take home the music, stories, and activities from the class experience to read together and share with family members at home. These activities help the children share the language and the learning with their loved ones at home.
  • Multi-sensory learning – Activities are designed to engage and strengthen skills in the whole child. Children are developing skills to help them think, reason, create, and express.

Do you have a translanguage classroom? Learn more about using music in your English learning classrooms with ABC English & Me.

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