Using different languages at home…and at school…

Families who juggle several languages on a daily basis, tend to switch from one language to the other when a word in the other language comes to mind faster and fits the context so that we can make our point in a conversation.

We use to code-switch only with people who share the languages we switch words from and children do this intuitively from a very early stage on.

I used to compare code-switching like fishing for pieces out of a big box of a united repertoire of the languages that are required or possible in the conversation. We don't do this randomly and in every situation. We usually use code-switching only in a multilingual context, ie. with people who share the languages we're switching in.

For example, I wouldn't switch between French and Italian with someone who doesn't understand one of the two languages. 

When my daughter tells me about a discussion on a topic she had at school in English, she will switch from English to German (our home language) in order to adapt to the family policy (German at home). She knows that I understand English so she can use both languages. She might even add some Dutch words or concepts if she needs them to make things clearer (and she knows I speak Dutch too), but the switching only takes place in a setting where both – or all – those involved in the conversation share the languages we switch words and sentences in.

On a side note, as a code-switcher between several languages, I don't use the term of code-switching assuming that the codes are like two or more monolingual codes that can be used without reference to each other because:

Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one! (cfr. François Grosjean 1985).

Translanguaging and code-switching

In the last ten years (and more) the term of translanguaging came up, especially in the area of bilingual education. Professor Ofelia García of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York defines it as "the deployment of a speaker's full linguistic repertoire without regard of watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages".

Some thought that translanguaging in class is like code-switching at home, and I must admit that some early descriptions of the concept were misleading because in both cases, the speaker uses the linguistic repertoire from all the languages he/she knows, to communicate effectively.

Despite the very diverse panorama in most of the schools – at least here in Europe – many schools still follow the school-language-only policy, which perfectly works for monolinguals.

But every person knows multiple languages would be far better off if they could use their all the languages they speak also in the school setting, in order to communicate effectively, to better support their arguments when asked to find the main idea of a text, or to better understand a concept or theory in science, maths, physics etc..

From the point of view of a parent who raises her children with multiple languages that are not all supported by the school, I can tell that it is a great effort to keep up with the vocabulary of all (!) school topics!  And I'm not only talking about literature and linguistics: every multilingual family knows the struggles and challenges when it comes to discuss about ways to do maths, explain science concepts, etc... 

I had the chance to attend a European School in Italy, where I was in the German section, i.e. I had most of the subjects in German. Geography and History lessons were taught in French (it was the first foreign language I took at school starting from age 6) and other topics were taught in Italian.

Fact is that if one learns a subject in a given language and doesn't translate it – and we usually don't do this as we tend to memorize concepts in the language they're taught to us! – we can end up in not talking about a subject in another language that easily because we don't make the connection between the terminology in the two languages on a cognitive level!

Just an example to explain what can happen: I learned about Charlemagne, but only when I talked about his achievements with my German cousins, it occurred to me that Charlemagne and Karl der Große are the same historical person: Charles the Great ...

Many parents of multilingual children who are schooled in a language which is not one of the home languages, in fact, constantly check on the subjects taught at school in order to foster and consolidate their children's vocabulary in their home languages too.

The reason for this is to guarantee a certain degree of biliteracy*

In fact, isn't it one of the main goals of parents who embark the multilingual journey with their children, that their children become biliterates?

What schools can do to help bilingual children become biliterate

The recent research and policies about translanguaging are actually meeting multilingual parent's needs!

By legitimizing the use their home languages at school in order to support their learnings, the translanguaging pedagogy puts the teacher in a similar position as the parents at home.

The same way the parent experiences (or learns) the topics in the school language through the child, the teacher co-learns with the student at school.

Of course, teachers can't know all the languages of their students! But they "can build a classroom ecology where there are books and signage in multiple languages; where collaborative groupings are constructed according to home language so that students can deeply discuss a text in the dominant school language with all their language resources; where students are allowed to write and speak with whatever resources they have and not wait until they have the "legitimate" ones to develop a voice; where all students language practices are included so as to work against the linguistic hierarchies that exist in schools" (cfr. García)

Families and schools need to work together

Like García says: "any teacher, including a monolingual one, can take up translanguaging to enable their bilingual students to make deeper meaning and legitimize their home language practices" (cfr. What is translanguaging from Psychology Today, an interview of Prof. François Grosjean with Professor Ofelia García).

I completely understand that teachers wonder how they can make sure that the school language stays the main language of their lessons. Allowing students to use all their languages in a lesson can easily lead to a chaos if not done in a structured way – the same way language policies within a family can run out of hand if we don't make sure every family member sticks to the rules!

In fact, schools need to "develop students' critical metalinguistic awareness" – and repeatedly remind  students about the rules. Multilingual students also need to learn to suppress some of their "language features from their repertoire at appropriate times" (cfr. García). What this means is that the multilingual speakers who engage in translanguaging won't vacillate between the different languages systems in an arbitrary manner but that they do it with a clear intention and a metacognitive understanding of the way their language practices work.

School = home

If we compare this with the situation in a multilingual home setting: this is exactly what we do at home too! Whenever we discuss about topics where we allow definitions, explanations and more information from the other languages, we do so with the intention to gain a deeper understanding of the topics and when a family has a clear family language policy, these discussions are always "rounded up" by focusing on the home language!

Translanguaging pedagogy should be introduced in every school and lesson because it is actually one of the most natural ways to learn for multilinguals!

In fact, translanguaging pretty much seems like what we did among students using different languages: when working on a topic in teems at school, we would use all the resources we got in the different languages, discuss in several languages (that we had in common) and finally present the outcome in the school or class language.

What needs to be clear though is, that the performance of bilingual students should not be compared to those of the monolingual students in the same language. When bilingual students are assessed like monolinguals it is like one would assess a student only in maths, disregarding all the other school subjects! This would clearly put a student who is brilliant in all the other subjects but struggles with maths in a very disadvantaged position... – but this is the topic for another post that I'll write soon!...

What is your opinion and experience about this?

If you liked this post and/or would like to share your thoughts, please do so in the comments here below!

Thank you for taking the time to read! ~ Ute


Biliteracy is the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge and use the dominant symbol systems of more than one culture.

– Cfr. The concept of literacy is expanding in OECD countries to include skills to access knowledge through technology and ability to assess complex contexts.

If you want to know more about family language policies for multilingual families, you can contact me at, or have a look at my Family Language Consultancy

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