Translingualism: Tongue-Tied in English Composition

Jeff Zorn

Translingualism, the fastest-rising movement in composition studies today, builds on “the human right to use the language of one’s nurture,” opening scholarship and other formal English expression to creative amalgams of Standard English, non-Standard dialects, and other languages.1 The results, we are assured, will be more practical, ethical, and farsighted than continuing to impose a uniform, culturally imperialistic Standard English.2 Bruce Horner, Endowed Chair in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville and co-author of “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach,” writes elsewhere that translingualism “critiques the tacit policy of ‘English Only’ dominating composition scholarship and pursues teaching and research that resist that policy.”3 In a globalized economy and an increasingly multilingual domestic and world population, Horner continues, “attempting to teach students to reproduce a single standardized English in their writing is both futile and inappropriate.”4

The proper response here is twofold. First, the attempt is never futile with good students. Second, teaching Formal Standard English in English classes seems inappropriate only to the handful of cultural-Left theorists who instead would recruit students to campaign for Diversity Utopia.5 Sadly, this theory-cabal has an iron grip on English compositionism.6 Should things keep going the way they are, Standard English will soon be damned throughout the profession responsible for teaching it.

Against this prospect I offer a timely strike against translingualism. Translingualism worries far too little about the Babel-level inefficiency of polyglot classrooms, jury panels, political assemblies, military units, work teams, and the like. Cocksure by reasons of theory that they can only help immigrants, nonstandard dialect speakers, and struggling students, translingualists never entertain the real-world likelihood of the harm they can do in blurring languages and worsening communication.7

Connection with SRTOL

Both the allure and the weaknesses of translingualism are best understood in connection with a professional precedent. As Horner and colleagues proclaim, “Most obviously, our approach is aligned with the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) 1974 resolution declaring ‘Students’ Right to Their Own Language.”8 Though never—for good reason—applied in practice forty years after its publication, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (SRTOL) remains a powerful inspiration and substantive reference point for composition theory today.9

Translingualism borrows directly from SRTOL the bad habit of waxing theoretical without ever saying how this set of changes will work. Search as one might, there isn’t a single example in the translingualist literature of how a classroom or a jury panel or a medical emergency service will function if I speak English, you Cantonese, he Farsi, and she Russian—all of us insisting on our “human right to use the language of [our] nurture.”10 Instead, hints promoting blends of other languages with English abound, with Spanglish regularly the template. Everyone would speak or at least understand a new English that is tumbled together with every other tongue being used, but nowhere do translingualists express any awareness, let alone understanding, of the difficulties posed by blending different languages. In classrooms containing Vietnamese-speaking students, for example, Vietnamese would become part of a language-blend unintelligible in all classrooms that do not contain Vietnamese students. And by extension, every time a new student speaking a different language enters the classroom, the blend must integrate that language into the mix to accommodate that student. Given the three hundred-plus languages now spoken in America’s classrooms, how can efficacious communication be possible without the imposition of a uniform Standard English?

Like SRTOL, translingualists do not consider such questions because their sole interest in “dominant” institutions such as schools, juries, and businesses is oppositional. Theorists hovering above the action, they remain safe, striking dissident poses and weighing only those proposals that are ideologically consistent with their paradigm.

Another strong connection translingualism has with SRTOL, then, is crafting rights for weak or vulnerable students to embrace instead of improving their speaking and writing skills. Students had no “right to their own language” before CCCC invented one for them, and students today have no “right to use the language of one’s nurture.”11 Anyone can claim such a right, of course, but, as the petition builds on no more than wishful thinking and special pleading, no one in authority need honor it. In practice, translingualism will add to the experience of failure, frustration, and exclusion among weak English students. In Diversity Utopia, teachers, recruiters, employers, and editors will welcome linguistic difference, but today they insist on persuasive, conventionally correct Standard English. In response, translingualists follow SRTOL in issuing proclamations: “We support the rights of all to use the languages of their nurture. We reject discrimination on the basis of language identity and use.”12

Translingualists also inherit directly from STROL the hypocrisy of using Formal Standard English in their own writings while condemning it for others. In an endnote, Horner and his fellow authors finesse their way past the problem:

Some readers will see our own decision to follow conventional notational practices as evidence that we are failing to practice what we appear to be preaching—shouldn’t we be somehow more “translingual” in our spelling, diction, punctuation, syntax?13

As with supporters of SRTOL, the translingualists do not acknowledge that more than a social, rhetorical necessity, Formal Standard English is an intellectual, cognitive necessity in scholarly writing. Among the dialects and levels of English, only Formal Standard English has been stocked with sufficient resources of vocabulary, syntax, and organizational strategies to explicate complex lines of thought. Translingualists may claim that street talk is perfectly adequate for communicating even the most abstruse ideation, but in their own writing they use recondite words, thickly layered sentences, and intricately patterned paragraphs because otherwise they could communicate only a hint of what they intended.14

Finally, again following SRTOL, translingualists make far too much of the truism that students speak and write outside the classroom—to audiences other than teachers, in genres other than formal exposition, through media other than printed text. Yes, there is a choice: English instructors can limit themselves to formal exposition and argument, readying students to address educated, judgmental audiences on intellectually complex topics, or they can opt for some form of vague expansiveness: “A translingual approach to differences can facilitate writers’ interactions with the full range of users of English and other languages.” But few students need instruction in street talk and informal English, and the only way to communicate with users of other languages is to know those languages.15

Standard English and Critical Thinking

To translingualists, however, writing that employs correctly spelled words to create grammatically sound sentences that form coherent paragraphs using elevated diction is perforce robotic and reactionary, conforming to hegemonic norms. This is a fatuous claim. Formal Standard English is “sterile and unflavored” only in bad writing; creative, critical thinking is absent only in bad essays.

Consider these powerful words:

Someone who only speaks dialect, or understands the standard language incompletely, necessarily has an intuition of the world which is more or less limited and provincial, which is fossilized and anachronistic in relation to the major currents of thought which dominate world history. His interests will be limited….A great culture can be translated into the language of another great culture, but a dialect cannot do this.16

The author, translingualists would insist, must be a right-wing enforcer of the dominant power structure and a bitter enemy of contemporary leftist “theory.” And yet, the author of this passage is one of that theory’s most important influences, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist whose prison writings surmounted the crude economic determinism of classic Marxism.17 Unlike the translingualists, Gramsci thought deeply about the role of education in revolutionary change. To his credit, and their discredit, Gramsci identified ignorant localism—“fossilized and anachronistic”18—as the reactionary force it always has been and will forever be.

Patricia Bizzell and the “Social Justice” of Translingualism

In her May 2014 PMLA article, “We Want to Know Who Our Students Are,” Patricia Bizzell, Distinguished Professor of English and founder and former director of the writer’s workshop and a writing-across-the-curriculum program at the College of the Holy Cross, criticizes the teaching of Standard English on the grounds that the wrong students succeed at it.19 In contrast, the translingual classroom will invert the hegemony and erase the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots. Detailing demographic changes in U.S. higher education, Bizzell detects pedagogical and political significance in the rising numbers of international students and “students from American groups that have been subjected to discrimination on the basis of perceived race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexual orientation, and physical ability.”20 Bizzell “feel[s] a special urgency to help oppressed” students, because the expectation of proficient Standard English “unfairly privileges students who are native speakers of [Standard] English…and it unfairly penalizes those who are not.”21

Again by reason of “composition theory,” Bizzell simply knows that non-Anglophone immigrants cannot compete in school with native-born English speakers. Camille Paglia’s narrative of her mother’s education pitch-perfectly chides all such sweeping generalization:

My mother came over here at six not knowing a word of English, and when she arrived, they didn’t say to her, “Oh, you poor person, you poor Italian-American, all you can understand is things about Italian-American culture, that’s all we’ll tell you, and oh, you can keep Italian. Sure—we wouldn’t dream of imposing English on you.” No. They said to her, “This is a disciplined American school. You will learn English.” My mother, not speaking a word of English, and because of the support of her family, got straight A’s all the way through, and look, within one generation you get: Sexual Personae. One generation! I write English better than the English.22

Unlike Bizzell, Horner, and company, Paglia understands the intergenerational character of successful immigration, its surest rewards realized in the lives of children, grandchildren, and beyond. She challenges the paternalism and elitism of translingualists who claim to speak for immigrants who in reality do not consider classroom immersion in Standard English fruitless for or demeaning to their children. Recall that in California’s Proposition 227 campaign nearly 40 percent of Latino voters and 60 percent of Asian Americans expressed clear preferences for “English Only” in the classroom.23 Recall as well the flabbergasted recoil of Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Kwesi Mfume, John McWhorter, Cynthia Tucker, and Spike Lee from Oakland’s Ebonics Resolution.24

Educational “unfairness” as Bizzell understands the term is inevitable. In classrooms around the world, some students work purposefully while others dilly-dally; some read faster and with better comprehension while others struggle; some think and write more cogently while others labor to make sense; some are cheerful and effervescent while others sulk, mope, and whine. Leveling barely scratches the surface of what it would take to make education “fair” according to Bizzell’s definition. Every time an educated parent speaks to a child, modeling language beyond the simplistic, prompting the child’s further reflection, and guiding the child to deeper conceptual command, a powerful “unfairness” has been done to children not similarly stimulated. How exactly do we combat that outcome?

Not ready yet to yank privileged kids out of their homes or simply award “oppressed” students higher grades, Bizzell strains to find anything to reverse the polarities and have the right students succeed.25 Everyone has a language of nurture, so decreeing all languages, dialects, and personal idiolects to be equally valid, potent, and welcome is a strong start.

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