Tatyana Kleyn, EdD, Translanguaging

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


Over the past two years, we’ve done several episodes on supporting multilingual learners in math classrooms. In this episode, we’re going back to the topic of support for multilingual learners to talk about translanguaging, an asset-focused approach that invites students to bring their full language repertoire into the classroom. We’ll talk about what translanguaging looks like and how all teachers can integrate the practice into their classrooms.

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Tatyana Kleyn is a professor in the Bilingual Education and TESOL programs and founding faculty advisor to the Dream Team at The City College of New York. Her dissertation,focused on the intersections of bilingual and multicultural education, earned an Outstanding Dissertation Award from the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE).


CUNY New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals


Mike Wallus: Over the past two years, we've done several episodes on supporting multilingual learners in math classrooms. Today, we're going back to this topic to talk about translanguaging, an asset-focused approach that invites students to bring their full language repertoire into the classroom. We'll talk with Tatyana Kleyn about what translanguaging looks like and how all teachers can integrate this practice into their classrooms. 

Well, welcome to the podcast, Tatyana. We're excited to be talking with you today. 

Tatyana Kleyn: Thank you. This is very exciting. 

Mike: So, your background with the topic of multilingual learners and translanguaging, it's not only academic. It's also personal. I'm wondering if you might share a bit of your own background as a starting point for this conversation. 

Tatyana: Yes, absolutely. I think for many of us in education, we don't randomly end up teaching in the areas that we're teaching in or doing the work that we're doing. So I always like to share my story so people know why I'm doing this work and where I'm coming from.

So my personal story, I work a lot at the intersection of language, migration, and education, and those are all three aspects that have been critical in bringing me here. So, I was actually born in what was the Soviet Union many, many years ago, and my family immigrated to the United States as political refugees, and I was just 5½ years old. So I actually never went to school in the Soviet Union. Russian was my home language, and I quickly started speaking English, but my literacy was not quick at all, and it was quite painful because I never learned to read in my home language. I never had that foundation. So, when I was learning to read in English, it wasn't meaning making, it was just making sounds. It was kind of painful. I once heard somebody say, “For some people, reading is like this escape and this pure joy, and for other people it's like cleaning the toilet. You get in and you get out.” And I was like, “That's me. I'm the toilet cleaner.” [laughs] 

So, that was how reading was for me. I always left my home language at the door when I came into school, and I wanted it that way because I, as a young child, got this strong message that English was the language that mattered in this country. So, for example, instead of going by Tatyana, I went by Tanya. So, I always kind of kept this secret that I spoke this other language. I had this other culture, and it wasn't until sixth grade where my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Chang, invited my mom to speak about our immigration history. And I don't know why, but I thought that was so embarrassing. I think in middle school, it's not really cool to have your parents around. So, I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to be horrible.” But then I realized my peers were really interested—and in a good way—and I was like, “Wait, this is a good thing?” So, I started thinking, “OK, we should be proud of who we are and let just people be who they are.” And when you let people be who they are, they thrive in math, in science, in social studies, instead of trying so hard to be someone they're not and then focusing on that instead of everything else that they should be focusing on as students. 

Mike: So, there's a lot there. And I think I want to dig into what you talked about over the course of the interview. I want to zero in a little bit on translanguaging, though, because for me, at least until quite recently, this idea of translanguaging was really a new concept, a new idea for me. And I'm going to guess that that's the case for a lot of the people who are listening to this as well. So, just to begin, would you talk briefly about what translanguaging is and your sense of the impact that it can have on learners? 

Tatyana: Sure. Well, I'm so glad to be talking about translanguaging in this space specifically, because often when we talk about translanguaging, it's in bilingual education or English as a second language or is a new language, and it's important in those settings, right? But it's important in all settings. So, I think you're not the only one, especially if we're talking about math educators or general elementary educators, it's like, “Oh, translanguaging, I haven't heard of that,” right? 

So, it is not something brand new, but it is a concept that Ofelia García and some of her colleagues really brought forth to the field in the early 2000s—around 2009. And what it does is instead of saying, “English should be the center of everything, and everyone who doesn't just speak English is peripheral,” it's saying, “Instead of putting English at the center, let's put our students' home language practices at the center. And what would that look like?” So, that wouldn't mean everything has to be in English. It wouldn't mean the teacher's language practices are front and center, and the students have to adapt to that. But it's about centering the students and then the teacher adapting to the languages and the language practices that the students bring. Teachers are there to have students use all the languages at their resource—whatever language it is, whatever variety it is. And all those resources will help them learn. The more you can use, when we're talking about math, well, if we're teaching a concept and there are manipulatives there that will help students use them, why should we hide them? Why not bring them in and say, “OK, use this.” And once you have that concept, we can now scaffold and take things away little by little until you have it on your own. 

And the same thing with sometimes learning English. We should allow students to learn English as a new language using their home language resources. But one thing I will say is we should never take away their home language practices from the classroom. Even when they're fully bilingual, fully biliterate, it's still about, “How can we use these resources? How can they use that in their classroom?” Because we know in the world, speaking English is not enough. We're becoming more globalized, so let's have our students grow their language practices and then students are allowed and proud of the language practices they bring. They teach their language practices to their peers, to their teachers. So it's really hard to say it all in a couple of minutes, but I think the essence of translanguaging is centering students' language practices and then using that as a resource for them to learn and to grow, to learn languages and to learn content as well. 

Mike: How do you think that shifts the experience for a child? 

Tatyana: Well, if I think about my own experiences, you don't have to leave who you are at the door. We are not saying, “Home language is here, school language is there, and neither shall the two meet.” We're saying, “language,” and in the sense that it's a verb. And when you can be your whole self, it allows you to have a stronger sense of who you are in order to really grow and learn and be proud of who you are. And I think that's a big part of it. I think when kids are bashful about who they are, thinking who they are isn't good enough, that has ripple effects in so many ways for them. So I think we have to bring a lens of critical consciousness into these kind[s] of spaces and make sure that our immigrant-origin students, their language practices are centered through a translanguaging lens. 

Mike: It strikes me that it matters a lot how we as educators—internally, in the way that we think and externally, in the things that we do and the things that we say—how we position the child's home language, whether we think of it as an asset that is something to draw upon or a deficit or a barrier. That the way that we're thinking about it makes a really big difference in the child's experience. 

Tatyana: Yes, absolutely. Ofelia García, Kate Seltzer and Susana Johnson talk about a translanguaging stance. So translanguaging is not just a practice or a pedagogy like, “Oh, let me switch this up,” or “Let me say this in this language.” Yes, that's helpful, but it's how you approach who students are and what they bring. So if you don't come from a stance of valuing multilingualism, it's not really going to cut it, right? It's something, but it's really about the stance. 

So something that's really important is to change the culture of classrooms. So just because you tell somebody like, “Oh, you can say this in your home language” or “You can read this book side by side in Spanish and in English if it'll help you understand it.” Some students may not want to because they will think their peers will look down on them for doing it, or they'll think it means they're not smart enough. So, it's really about centering multilingualism in your classroom and celebrating it. And then as that stance changes the culture of the classroom, I can see students just saying, “Ah, no, no, no, I'm good in English.” Even though they may not fully feel comfortable in English yet, but because of the perception of what it means to be bilingual. 

Mike: I'm thinking even about the example that you shared earlier where you said that an educator might say, “You can read this in Spanish side by side with English if you need to or if you want to.” But even that language of “You can” implies that, potentially, this is a remedy for a deficit as opposed to the ability to read in multiple languages as a huge asset. And it makes me think even our language choices sometimes will be a tell to kids about how we think about them as a learner and how we think about their language. 

Tatyana: That's so true, and how do we reframe that? “Let's read this in two languages. Who wants to try a new language?” right? Making this something exciting as opposed to framing it in a deficit way. So that's something that's so important that you picked up on. Yeah. 

Mike: Well, I think we're probably at the point in the conversation where there’s a lot of folks who are monolingual who might be listening and they're thinking to themselves, “This stance that we're talking about is something that I want to step into.” And now they're wondering what might it actually look like to put this into practice? Can we talk about what it would look like, particularly for someone who might be monolingual, to both step into the stance and then also step into the practice a bit? 

Tatyana: Yes. I think the stance is really doing some internal reflection, questioning about, “What do I believe about multilingualism?” “What do I believe about people who come here, to come to the United States?” In New York City, about half of our multilingual learners are U.S. born. So, it's not just immigrant students, but their parents, or they're often children of immigrants. So really looking closely and saying, “How am I including, respecting, valuing the languages of students regardless of where they come from?” And then I think for the practice, it's about letting go of some control. As teachers, we are kind of control freaks. I can just speak for myself [laughs], right? I like to know everything that's going on. 

Mike: I will add myself to that list, Tatyana. 

Tatyana: It's a long list. It's a long list. [laughs] But I think first of all, as educators, we have a sense when a kid is on task, and you can tell when a kid is not on task. You may not know exactly what they're saying. So, I think it's letting go of that control and letting the students, for example, when you are giving directions. I think one of the most dangerous things we do is we give directions in English when we have multilingual students in our classrooms, and we assume they understood it. If you don't understand the directions, the next 40 minutes will be a waste of time because you will have no idea what's happening. So, what does that mean? It means perhaps putting the directions into Google Translate and having it translate the different languages of your students. Will it be perfect? No. But will it be better than just being in English? A million times yes, right? 

Sometimes it's about putting students in same-language groups. If there are enough—two or three or four students—that speak the same home language, and having them discuss something in their home language or multilingually before actually starting to do the work to make sure they're all on the same page. Sometimes it can mean, if, asking students—if they do come from other countries, sometimes I'm thinking of math, math is done differently in different countries. So, we teach one approach, but what is another approach? Let's share that. Instead of having kids think like, “Oh, I came here, now this is the bad way.” Or, “When I go home and I ask my family to help me, they're telling me all wrong.” No, again, these are the strengths of the families, and let's put them side by side and see how they go together. 

And I think what it's ultimately about is thinking about your classroom, not as a monolingual classroom, but as a multilingual classroom. And really taking stock of, “Who are your students? Where are they and their families coming from, and what languages do they speak?” And really centering that. Sometimes you may have students that may not tell you because they may feel like it's shameful to share that we speak a language that maybe other people haven't heard of. I'm thinking of Indigenous languages from Honduras, like Garífuna, Miskito, right? Of course, Spanish, everyone knows that. But really excavating the languages of the students, the home language practices, and then thinking about giving them opportunities to translate if they need to translate. I'm not saying everything should be translated. I think word problems, having problems side by side, is really important. Because sometimes what students know is they know the math terms in English, but the other terms, they may not know those yet. 

And I'll give you one really powerful example. This is a million years ago, but it stays with me from my dissertation. It was in a Haitian Creole bilingual classroom. They were taking a standardized test, and the word problem was where it was like three gumballs, two gumballs, this color, what [is] the probability of a blue gumball coming out of this gumball machine? And this student just got stuck on “gumball machine” because in Haiti people sell gum, not machines, and it was irrelevant to the whole problem. 

So language matters, but culture matters, too, right? So giving students the opportunity to see things side by side and thinking about, “Are there any things here that might trip them up that I could explain to them?” So I think it's starting small. It's taking risks. It's letting go of control and centering the students. 

Mike: So from one recovering control freak to another, there are a couple of things that I'm thinking about. One is expanding a little bit on this idea of having two kids who might speak to one another in their home language, even if you are a monolingual speaker and you speak English and you don't necessarily have access to the language that they're using. Can you talk a little bit about that practice and how you see it and any guidance that you might offer around that? 

Tatyana: Yeah, I mean, it may not work the first time or the second time because kids may feel a little bit shy to do that. So maybe it's, “I want to try out something new in our class. I really am trying to make this a multilingual class. Who speaks another language here? Let's try—I am going to put you in a group and you're going to talk about this, and let's come back. And how did you feel? How was it for you? Let me tell you how I felt about it.” And it may be trying over a couple times because kids have learned that in most school settings, English is a language you should be using. And to the extent that some have been told not to speak any other language, I think it's just about setting it up and, “Oh, you two spoke, which language? Wow, can you teach us how to say this math term in this language?” “Oh, wow, isn't this interesting? This is a cognate, which means it sounds the same as the English word. And let's see if this language and this language, if the word means the same thing.” Getting everyone involved in centering this multilingualism. 

And language is fun. We can play with language, we can put language side by side. So then if you're labeling or if you have a math word wall, why not put key terms in all the languages that the students speak in the class and then they could teach each other those languages? So I think you have to start little. You have to expect some resistance. But over time, if you keep pushing away at this, I think it will be good for not only your multilingual students, but all your students to say, like, “Oh, wait a minute, there's all these languages in the world, but they're not just in the world. They're right here by my friend to the left and my friend to the right” and open up that space. 

Mike: So I want to ask another question. What I'm thinking about is participation. And we've done an episode in the past around not privileging verbal communication as the only way that kids can communicate their ideas. We were speaking to someone who—their focus really was elementary years mathematics, but specifically, with multilingual learners. And the point that they were making was, kids’ gestures, the way that they use their hands, the way that they move manipulatives, their drawings—all of those things are sources of communication that we don't have to only say, “Kids understand things if they can articulate it in a particular way.” That there are other things that they do that are legitimate forms of participation. 

The thing that was in my head was, it seems really reasonable to say that if you have kids who could share an explanation or a strategy that they've come up with or a solution to a problem in their home language in front of the group, that would be perfectly legitimate. Having them actually explain their thinking in their home language is accomplishing the goal that we're after, which is, “Can you justify your mathematical thinking?” I guess I just wanted to check in and say, does that actually seem like a reasonable logic to follow? That that's actually a productive practice for a teacher, but also a productive practice for a kid to engage in?

Tatyana: That makes a lot of sense. So I would say for every lesson you, you may have a math objective, you may have a language objective, and you may have both. If your objective is to get kids to understand a concept in math or to explain something in math, who cares what language they do it in? It's about learning math. And if you're only allowing them to do it in a language that they are still developing in, they will always be about English and not about math. 

So how do you take that away? You allow them to use all their linguistic resources. And we can have students explain something in their home language. There are now many apps where we could just record that, and it will translate it into English. If you are not a speaker of the language that the student speaks, you can have a peer then summarize what they said in English as well. So there's different ways to do it. So yes, I think it's about thinking about the objectives or the objective of the lesson. And if you're really focusing on math, the language is really irrelevant. It's about explaining or showing what they know in math, and they can do that in any language. Or even without spoken language, but in written language artistically with symbols, etc. 

Mike: Well, and what you made me think, too, is for that peer, it's actually a great opportunity for them to, like, engage with the reasoning of someone else and try to make meaning of it. So there's a double bonus in it for that practice. 

Tatyana: Exactly. I think sometimes students don't really like listening to each other. They think they only need to listen to the teacher. So, I think this really has them listen to each other. And then sometimes summarizing or synthesizing is a really hard skill, and then doing it in another language is a whole other level. So we're really pushing kids in those ways as well. So there's many advantages to this approach. 

Mike: Yeah, absolutely. We have talked a lot about the importance of having kids engage with the thinking of other children as opposed to having the teacher be positioned as the only source of mathematical knowledge. So the more that we talk about it, the more that I can see there's a lot of value culturally for a mathematics classroom in terms of showing that kids’ thinking matters, but also supporting that language development as well. 

Tatyana: Yes, and doing it is hard, right? As I said, none of this is easy, but it's so important. And I think when you start creating a multilingual classroom, it just has a different feel to it. And I think students can grow so much in their math, understanding it and in so many other ways. 

Mike: Absolutely. Well, before we close the interview, I invite you to share resources that you would recommend for an educator who's listening who wants to step into the stance of translanguaging, the practice of translanguaging, anything that you would offer that could help people continue learning. 

Tatyana: I have one hub of all things translanguaging, so this will make it easy for all the listeners. So it is the CUNY New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals. And let me just give you the website. It's C-U-N-Y [hyphen] N-Y-S-I-E-B.org. And I'll say that again. C-U-N-Y [hyphen] N-Y-S-I-E-B.org, cuny-nysieb.org. That's the CUNY New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals. And because it's such a mouthful, we just say “CUNY NYSIEB,” as you could tell by my own, trying to get it straight. You can find translanguaging resources such as guides. You can find webinars, you can find research, you can find books. Literally everything you would want around translanguaging is there in one website. Of course, there's more out there in the world. But I think that's a great starting point. There's so many great resources just to start with there. And then just start small. And small changes sometimes have big impacts on student learning and students' perceptions of how teachers view them and their families. 

Mike: Thank you so much for joining us, Tatyana. It's really been a pleasure talking with you. 

Tatyana: Yes, it's been wonderful. Thank you so much. And we will just all try to let go a little bit of our control little by little.

Both: [laugh] 

Tatyana: Because at the end of the day, we really don't control very much at all. [laughs]

Mike: Agreed. [chuckles] Thank you. 

Tatyana: Thank you. 

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling all individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.