On Translingual Dispositions

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I’m a bit behind on my journal reading, but I finally got around to the December 2016 issue of CCC. It’s a good issue—with Joyce Carter’s powerful 2016 CCCC Chair’s address on “Making, Disrupting, Innovating”—but one article especially stood out to me: Jerry Won Lee and Christopher Jenks’s “Doing Translingual Dispositions.” This essay builds on Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur’s “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” (College English, 2011, 303-21), which defines translingual disposition as one distinguished by “a general openness toward language and language differences.” Lee and Jenks go on to say

This disposition allows individuals to move beyond preconceived, limited notions of standardness and correctness, and it therefore facilitates interactions involving different Englishes. Considering the historical marginalization of ‘nonstandard’ varieties and dialects of English in various social and institutional contexts, translingual dispositions are essential for all users of English in a globalized society, regardless of whether they are ‘native’ or ‘nonnative’ speakers of English. (319)

I see the lively conversation around translingualism as one very positive outgrowth of the work done forty-five years ago by the group of scholars working on "Students’ Right to Their Own Language," first as a resolution and later as an NCTE publication, with full documentation. It’s worth remembering this resolution, voted on in 1972:

We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language -- the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

The last sentence in the resolution touches on what I have always thought of as “attitude,” that is, the attitude of teachers of
English toward varieties of English as well as toward other languages. Often it’s easier to pass a resolution (though this one was vehemently oppose249456_3-9-17.jpgd by some members at the time) than it is to change attitudes. And in spite of this resolution and the research and scholarship that supported it, attitudes changed slowly: teachers of writing could and did talk the talk but didn’t yet come close to walking the walk. But we kept working at it: I can remember taking a cold, hard look at my syllabi, at the readings I chose, at my assignments, and noting the many many ways that attitudes regarding “proper” English were there inscribed. So I kept trying to make what I felt were my attitudes toward language variety (all upbeat and favorable) show forth more clearly in my classroom. And roughly twenty years ago, I wrote a new chapter for one of my reference books, on “Varieties of Language,” the first such chapter to appear in a composition handbook and one that argued for the validity of all varieties of English and of all languages.


So I’ve been thinking about these issues for most of my professional life, and I am encouraged by recent developments to recognize and nurture “translingual dispositions.” What I especially like about Lee and Jenks’s essay is that they see clearly that our field hasn’t yet worked out a strong pedagogy for teaching translingual dispositions, much less for teaching what Suresh Canagarajah and others call code meshing. But they persist in paving the way for such a pedagogy, showing that “even students who can be considered monolingual in the most traditional sense of the term have the capacities to develop translingual competence and do translingual disposition” by sharing research that demonstrates some students beginning to make the move toward such new dispositions.


Lee and Jenks are also clear-sighted about the role that teachers of writing must play in developing such dispositions: it won’t be enough for us to embrace this concept intellectually. Rather, as their title suggests, we have to DO translingual dispositions. I’d say that nearly fifty years on from the Students’ Right resolution, it’s time we take that step. And thanks to Lee and Jenks for moving us in the right direction.

Credit: Pixaby Image 705667 by wilhei, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.