Challenging Languages; Challenging Form: Student Perspectives on Translingual Composing


Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to teach several sections of a first-year writing course for multilingual students. Having read the works of Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Suresh Canagarajah, Juan Guerra, Paul Kei Matsuda, and others, I built a curriculum that held linguistic diversity as the norm, creating numerous opportunities for linguistic negotiation and giving students the opportunity to play with format, style, language, and mode of reading and writing. For example, students read texts that directly confronted code-switching, code-meshing, and non-standard forms of English. Students analyzed hip-hop music (and the corresponding music videos) in multilingual groups, where language diversity created natural information gaps students needed to negotiate in collaborative writing assignments. Students wrote traditional academic research papers, with an invitation to conduct some research using non-English texts. We interrogated daily practices (names and nicknames, text messaging, etc.) and academic practices. And finally, we examined the concept of translingualism. As Juan Guerra explains:

“We also need to teach a translingual/transcultural approach very explicitly if we want to demystify the various ideological approaches to language and cultural difference and to encourage them to develop–as many of them are already in the process of doing–the metacognitive, metalinguistic, and rhetorical dexterity that we value as proponents of such an approach.”

For their final writing assignment, I asked students to read, analyze, and respond to the Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur essay “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” Inviting students to respond directly to the authors in the form of a letter gave the students a clear audience for their writing and I added additional stakes by telling them that I planned to share their letters, with their permission, with the original authors. It is very important to me to create an engaged academic community in the classroom, with transparency about teaching, learning, and language practices. Students understood that I have a deep interest in their perspectives on writing and that I am always open to their feedback. The students were excited to be able to contribute to the field of writing studies and second language writing, especially because these students do not often feel heard in the academy.

The assignment prompt asked students to:

  1. Demonstrate an understanding of the translingual approach to writing (starting with defining the approach in their own words)
  2. Give a thoughtful response to the text from their perspective as multilingual students, including their understanding of how the approach could affect their learning, and
  3. Provide specific examples from their own writing experiences.

For this blog post, I analyzed 20 student letters written during Autumn Quarter 2013 and Winter Quarter 2014. There were a variety of responses; however, most students found the translingual writing to be natural for them. Many students noted that they already write somewhat translingually, whether they consciously try to or not. Some students would like to embrace the approach further, while other students resisted a non-rules-based system of learning. As I was reading these essays, I felt that it was most significant that I let students speak for themselves, with minimal commentary. I have organized the student responses in several categories: student definitions of translingual writing, appreciation for the translingual approach, inevitability of such an approach to writing, and moments of resistance to translingualism.


Mingzhu explains the context of the translingual approach to writing succinctly:

“Variations in language should not be considered as problem which need to be fixed, and people should delightfully accept and utilize language differences to generate more meanings and creativity.”

Zisu places her experience with writing across languages centrally in her definition:

“I … started my English education … in first grade. Mostly my whole life I am dealing with both English and Chinese at the same time. I understand the Translingual approach more than a lot of native English speakers. Translingual approach is more focused on the process rather than the outcome. A paper mixed with several language[s]is translingualism, but a paper only has English but contains resources from outside of English culture is also translingualism too.”

Both Mingzhu and Zisu focus on the ability for a translingual approach to emphasize meaning-making over specific textual or linguistic forms.


The most common student response to Horner, et al. is an appreciation for recognizing  daily experiences with language. Many students felt that this essay named a phenomenon they were already living with—translingual reading and writing—but they did not agree on its relevance in academic contexts. Changying felt appreciation and relief after reading the article:

“I have tried to make my writing looks as the same as American writing as possible. However, just when I read your article I feel a fresh air blow into my writing world, and I was so excited to know that there are some people who put feet in our shoes and support to mix different culture, language and writing skill.”

Jingfei appreciates the translingual approach because it gives her confidence to express herself, explaining to Horner, et al. that the

“translingual approach gives me the room to accept my own accented English and expressions, which lessen my stresses and give me more confidence … You provided me another way to think my cultural background not a barrier but a source, which influenced me a lot. Being confident makes life better to me, so I want to thank you for that.”

In the process of exposing students to composition theory and classroom experiences, and by inviting their lived experiences into the classroom, this low-stakes writing assignment in the everyday genre of a letter enables students to have a voice in their own learning.

Finally, Emma describes how being able to utilize all her linguistic repertoires allows her to innovate both her language and ideas:

“As a Chinese student study in an American class, thinking in both American and Chinese ways would always facilitate innovation when I’m doing a project, because Chinese and American really think in different ways, such like usually American do things ‘directly’ when Chinese prefer circuitous way. So keep changing my way of language using really helps me to spark my ideas.”


When Beibei describes the translingual approach, she invokes broader themes of the university’s mission, writing:

“the president … said on our first year honors day, that ‘University is a place to embrace multi-cultures,’ and this is true. When more and more international students are admitted in universities in America, the multi-culture that brought by students all over the world is the very thing that contributes to the diversity of universities, and this kind of diversity should not only exist in students’ daily lives but in their academic fields where ‘standard English’ or ‘edited English’ is highly emphasized. Allowing flexibility in using terms and methods across languages gives multilingual students confidence of writing in English, and my experience tells me that confidence in writing is a crucial element of succeed in writing in a second language.”

Beibei describes the increasing diversification of American universities, which inevitably includes linguistic diversity.

In her letter, Jane notes that a translingual approach to writing acknowledges the diversity of the United States today:

“Today, America is full with citizens around the world [who]speak different languages, different mixture of languages, even different forms of English, and this is a part of our culture. The concept of ‘correct English’ has become hard to define. With the translingual approach focusing less on the format and grammar, allowing more flexibility on code mixing and the creation of more meaningful outcomes.”


Despite the overall positive response to the translingual approach (and to our own classroom assignments), some students resisted this approach to writing in certain spheres of their life or at particular times. Additionally, a number of students described areas of contradiction between the translingual approach and their academic objectives. Kat points out the discrepancy between the first-year writing classroom and the standards of of other disciplines:

“While there are advantages of the translingual approach … I do not wish to learn it at this moment. I think it will be less effective for the university students. Although, the translingual approach will help me to develop creative and unique writing style, without prescriptive correction, I will not receive good grades in school. English classes might consider my nationality and respect my imperfections … while other classes do not. Of course it doesn’t mean that learning in translingual approach results in imperfect writing, but I think that college would not be the right timing for one to develop translingual writing style.”

This is an important point to raise–and to continue raising–as we consider new approaches to writing pedagogy: how do our objectives in the writing classroom meet the standards of the academy? And whose job is it to challenge those standards–our students, or ours?

Finally, Lin challenges the entire premise of first-year writing pedagogy, arguing that students actually create the classroom for themselves, with instructors just facilitating the learning process. She writes:

“I have different definition of teaching, as Rogers, a education professor, said, ‘The primary task of the teacher is to permit the student to learn. Students need to explore and nourish their curiosity, instead of simply regurgitating facts’ (University of Wyoming). Teaching is not feeding knowledge to students; students will find their routes themselves, and they will chase the termination they prefer. So whatever the teachers’ expectations are, they will not dominate the learning process of students. You will argue that the translingual approach has already acknowledged this reality, so it encourages writers to create awareness … Actually, in my mind, translingual approach will not result in any difference from old teaching method because of independent learning capacity of students. Why should we struggle to accomplish same outcome?”

Lin’s final question is an important one to raise: how does a translingual approach change our learning–both as educators and as students? Are we struggling to accomplish the same outcome? And what purpose does that struggle serve?

Finally, some questions that remain on my mind as I revise my first-year writing course:

  • What role does student voice and agency have in classroom conversations and curriculum development–especially when different pedagogical orientations come into conflict?
  • How do we balance student investments, expectations, and dispositions when they come into tension with our theories and practices? How can that tension be used to facilitate deeper conversations and nuance to our theories of pedagogy?

Work Cited

Guerra, Juan. “Under Siege: The Necessary Work of Language Insurgents in the Writing Classroom.” Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication Annual Convention. Indianapolis, Indiana. 21 March 2014. Conference Presentation.



  • Jennifer Eidum Zinchuk

    Jennifer is currently a composition instructor at the University of Washington. She will complete her doctoral work this spring, focusing on the role students’ metacognitive practices and confidence play in writing success in college--especially for multilingual and non-traditional students.


  1. It was especially intriguing to me that this post points (through the extremely insightful comments of students) to two broad issues that continue to be highly relevant for *all* approaches to composition: (1) the role of the instructor (as Lin asks about) and (2) the differences between composition instructors’ and courses’ agendas and those of other courses across the curriculum (as Kat asks about). In fact, I wonder ultimately how focused Lin’s comment is on *only* the composition course. Teachers ultimately can’t “dominate the learning process” in *any* course. Writing faculty and program administrators need to continue to clarify and communicate course goals not only to students but to faculty colleagues across the curriculum. Even if we don’t take to translingual approaches, we know students will encounter diverse expectations that are often, unfortunately, tied to writing that is assigned but not actually taught. Students need to explore lots of composition options in FYW, and faculty members in other curricula need to be exposed to everything writing can do in their courses for students’ learning/ongoing acquisition.

    • Jennifer Eidum Zinchuk on

      Jay, thank you for the thoughtful response! I was really struck by the difference between reading these student essays as the instructor and later as a researcher. I noticed very different themes as I read with different lenses. I think that speaks to the nature of how we engage differently as we wear different hats, and also the influence of time and distance. As a teacher, I felt much more tension between my classroom approaches and student goals (like Kat articulated) but as a researcher literally taking a step back (not having taught any courses since last winter) I saw much more nuance in the student essays. I absolutely agree that writing faculty and WPAs need to engage with our colleagues in other disciplines, especially in regard to language standards. I think that being able to have these conversations with students enables them to continue the conversation for themselves elsewhere and make choices about their learning, just as much as it gives us fodder for our own conversations about good pedagogy.

Leave A Reply