Carnegie Mellon University


from Communication and Language Support


10:00 | September 30, 2022

This Speak! is brought to you by CMU’s Communication and Language Support Program. Speaks are quick podcasts that use research-based information to help you understand effective communication strategies. In this Speak!, we will discuss TRANSLANGUAGING.

Translanguaging…right. It’s a term used in the field of Applied Linguistics that supports a flexible approach to how we language. How we talk. Communicate. How we choose to express ourselves, using the resourceslinguistic and otherwisethat are available to us. A simple way to think about it is not closing off or rejecting any part of who you are as you communicate. 

cartoon of two figures with inernational flags in speech bubbles

"Talking in Languages" by zinjixmaggir is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

To help us think through what translanguaging could look like, we have two guests. 

Here’s Ding:

When you are a bilingual, and when you can speak more languages, and then when you only speak one language, it's kind of like having only one side of you shared.

And here’s Adam:

We use both Mandarin and English at home in basically every context.

So Ding and Adam are a married couple, and they have cultivated a vibrantly multilingual way of relating to each other.

Adam:    I think we value it a lot, right? Because we have friends that aren't, one person doesn't speak. They only share one language, but one person's multilingual, and that's often very odd. We're from the outside, obviously, I mean, I'm sure for them it's fine. I don't mean to put or place value judgments on it or anything like that. But yeah, I mean it would be very hard to even imagine a scenario in which we didn't…because our life is built around it.

Ding:      It’s very difficult to imagine, like wait, so what do you…so your husband cannot communicate with your parents directly? It has to go through you? It's just like, “Ahhh.”  For me, that scenario for me is weird.

Their conversations are in both Mandarin Chinese and English, and they pass from one language to the other very easily. 

A:     In the made-up world of Adam and Ding, soy milk and dou jiang are two different things. Dou jiang is what you have from China. It’s a very particular taste. But then, like soy milk is like that thing that you buy at, you know, Walmart. That thing that’s sweet and, whatever.

an image of a fried food with steaming bowls in the background

"My favorite chinese breakfast, warm soy milk and fried dough!" by tinachensf is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let’s hear how their story began.

D:     So I was born in Beijing. And then, when I was seven my parents moved to Shenzhen, which is a city in the southern part of China. So if you imagine the distance it would be kind of like from New York to Florida. 

So I grew up speaking Mandarin, and after I moved to Shenzhen my environment became like Mandarin/Cantonese so I acquired Cantonese in this environment as well, and also at the same time, I started learning English. After college I moved to the US.

 photo of a cityscape in the foreground and a winding river in the background

"Shenzhen River" by yuan2003 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

 A:     Both my parents are monolingual English speakers. My sister also speaks Spanish. In high school I got this opportunity to study abroad in China. I didn't speak any Chinese at the time, I studied abroad several more times. But then I lived in Beijing for a little bit. 

I was also in the military, which makes this whole story a little confusing.  I was enrolled at the University of Arkansas. I studied abroad but then I ended up doing Princeton in Beijing, and then wanting to stay, and doing all this stuff. And then I ended up transferring to the University of Hawaii so I could really focus on Mandarin because they have a really good Chinese department there, and I loved it. It was great. I ended up working for Apple as a language specialist after that.

photo of the forbidden city

Forbidden City (photo courtesy of Bianca Brown)

So they are both pretty solidly language people and both comfortable in Mandarin and English. When they met, what language were they speaking?

A:     When we first met, we weren't allowed to speak English to each other, because the program has a policy of only being able to speak Mandarin.

He’s talking about Princeton in Beijing, a summer study abroad program.

A:    And then at the end of the program we were all going out for celebration. And I heard Ding speak English for the first time, and I was like, whoa, this is weird.

Now people have many different opinions regarding language pledges. I am an alumnus of the same program, and I can attest that it is pretty artificial. It’s an example of what translanguaging is not. 

So the program ended, life went on…

A:     We considered dating, but we decided that it would be a good idea to start only speaking English actually, because we had only spoken Mandarin. And there was kind of this student-teacher thing so then we for a while just spoke English. 

D:     And also it's not like non-Chinese, because when we're talking to my parents, we, of course we have to do it in the Chinese when we're talking to his parents, naturally, in English, so it's not like a strict ‘no Chinese’ or no one language pledge in any sense. It's just now looking back post-hoc, looking back, it was about a year, you know, like that. But we never really set a time.

A:     You know, a year of Mandarin, then a year of English, and then now we have a much more balanced situation.

Part of that balance is not feeling the need to artificially translate. When we encounter an item in its linguistic and cultural context, we let it retain its…identity. 

D:     You know in the Chinese store, like everything is basically named ‘Chinese whatever’, like, for example, like ‘Chinese broccoli’, Chinese this, Chinese that, and for me, I'm like what do you mean, ‘Chinese broccoli’? 

We would just call it jie lan and bai cai. You know like, dou miao.

a bound bouquet of a green leafy vegetable

"chinese broccoli" by jules:stonesoup is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A:     Like there are no English names for some of these things. So you can convert it to English but it doesn’t really have, like, dou miao is what like pea tips?

D:     Yeah! Like it doesn’t really make sense. for green onions, instead of calling it ‘green’ onions we just call it cong

And you learned something new in the language environment, and then that thing kind of stays in that environment. 

A:     It's the same with food too, right? So if you have bai cai, what we mean is napa cabbage. 

D:     Yeah. 

A:     But when we say cabbage, it's the round thing.

a bowl of steamed cabbage

"20120729_永和客家小館_06_白菜雞" by macglee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

And when we step outside of that micro-multilingual context, like when Ding and Adam are with their in-laws, the affordances of translanguaging become even more obvious! You have to think harder, as things don’t come as naturally…

A:     And when it's us, sometimes my parents are like, “What are you guys eating?” And then I’m like, “I don't know how to tell you, at all!” And then your parents are like, “What is this?” and I don’t know!

D:     And then we have to kind of…think more about things like, for example, that pea tip? Like dou miao. And then we're okay, It's a…tip. It’s a sprout. What kind of bean-ish thing does it come from? And then we're talking about is it like huang dou is it lü dou oh wait it is wan dou so pea sprout! Something like that.

Kind of like the juan bing. Having the bing and then put some meat and vegetable in it. 

A:     My mom’s like, “That looks delicious. What is it?” And I’m like, “This is a…Chinese taco…” which sounds like…I just came up with that…

D:     Yeah, it's like you kind of think about our experience and the other side's experience. And then think of a way to have the other side understand what this thing is kind of equivalent to.

Chinese birds have Chinese names. Chinese food has Chinese names.

So we are talking about Chinese birds now, and this will be relevant soon. 

A:     We go birding a lot. Both of us really like birds. We do that in English and in Mandarin. We’re constantly trying to figure out the different names.

Together they are learning new vocabulary–new in either language. Specialized vocabulary. Which brings up an interesting strategy about how to help move your language learner identity into more of a legitimate language user identity. 

stylized illustration of three eagles

"bird wild drawing eagle" is marked with CC0 1.0.

D:     After we met each other, and then we both know two languages, and then we added more vocabulary into our language. Right so birding is kind of like that.

A:     We were in Beijing a couple of years ago, and we were birding with an older shu shu, and he was like trying to tell us about the different birds and going birding with him was so fun. And then, like talking to other people, it makes it…it's weird, because when you're a second language speaker and you have a specialty in something that makes you have really high-level vocabulary, it makes it where you're like, ‘I don't have these checks anymore’. I can't just look at your face and know if I'm wrong about this, because I know more of these words than you do, so like…

Being in a multilingual marriage myself, I wanted to know more about how they balanced an identity as spouse with an identity as language learner, in particular vis-a-vis the other.

A:     So we didn't say so before, but we do have a 100% correction policy, which is kind of odd.

It’s actually a really decent way to diffuse an argument. Like making a grammatical mistake is hilarious.

D:     Yeah. It’s like “Oh, pausethat was a tense mistake. Okay, let's go back. Okay, let's talk about what we were doing.”

But again, when private worlds are in public…

D:     “What did you just do?!” Because it’s kind of like, unacceptable…

A:     Yeah in public you have to tell people. Like, “No no no, we just do that.” Because people are like, “Did you just correct their language?”

D:     When it’s not acceptable anymore, yeah that part is pretty fun.

When I talk to my mom, and then sometimes he will overhear something and be like, “Earlier you used that word. What does that mean?” And I’m like, “Ohh ohh ohh okay yeah that means this.” And then he learns a new word. And it’s not like us talking per se, but it can be like me talking to someone else, and use the word and he can be like, “What was that word?” You know like that. 

A:     Or like my dad has a pretty thick accent, he’s just absurdly fluent in just like, colloquialisms. So sometimes Ding will be like, “I have no idea what that means.”

D:     One time he said something like, “I've done, did it.” And I was like, “...”

We’re just about out of time, but our theme with communication and language remains to HAVE FUN.

A:     I love Mandarin. And you really love English, too.

D:     Yeah, yeah.

A:     So it’s nice, because it’s like an unlimited resource for each other where she’s always the better resource.

We hope you found this Speak! useful. Remember that CLS is here to help you with all your communication needs. And to book a free appointment with one of our consultants, visit our website: Handouts, Videos, and Other Resources to see more tutorials. Thanks for listening!

A:     Like I feel like I wouldn’t be half as funny without puns. Like I love multilingual puns. It’s one of my joys. Our dog’s name is a multilingual pun.

D:     So his English name is ‘Leo’. And his Chinese name is ‘Liuliu.’

A:     He’s also a little devil, so…Liuliu.

D:     So when my parents call his name, he responds.

A:     Liu! Liuliu!

photo of a dog laying in grass

Leo/Liuliu himself! (Photo courtesy of Ding and Adam)

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