By Sara Vogel, Chris Hoadley, Lauren Vogelstein, Wendy Barrales, Sarane James, Laura Ascenzi-Moreno, Jasmine Ma, Joyce Wu, Felix Wu, & Jenia Marquez
Prepare for a Journey
Have you ever been judged for how you speak or write? Many people share the experience of feeling put off or excluded when their way of communicating doesn’t align with how others are communicating, whether because they misunderstood an ‘in-joke’, felt out of place for not using the right “techie jargon”, or because they pronounced words differently than someone else. Others have had the experiences of being mocked or stigmatized for their accent, or for using languages or varieties deemed “not appropriate” to a particular situation.
While people may feel judged for their language in their interpersonal interactions, inclusion and exclusion based on language are structural features of our society – occurring systematically across many institutions, fields and contexts, including in education and CS education. Bi/multilingual learners – students who use more than one language and who may be learning English – often experience significant marginalization in school. Only 5.6% of computer science students were designated English Learners (compared to 11.2% English learners on average statewide) (100Kin10.org, 2022). Students may be separated from their peers in remedial-style English classes where expectations for their academic learning shrink, and they aren’t provided opportunities to learn CS at all. And in CS classrooms that do serve bi/multilingual learners, resources may not be provided using language students and their families understand. Standardized tests measure what students know and can do in English, neglecting to consider what they can express using other languages and modalities.
Bi/multilingual learners aren’t the only ones who experience marginalization due to their language or communication practices; CS programs may not have the resources or expertise to support learners with speech disabilities or other language-related disabilities, educators may (even unwittingly) lower expectations for learners who have accents or speech patterns they perceive as “ethnic” or “uneducated,” or who appear not to know specific technical or disciplinary vocabulary.
As CS for All grows as a national initiative, teachers may find themselves wondering how to reach all learners regardless of how they communicate. To support teachers with this problem of practice, this chapter provides background on how language operates in society and how it variably affects different learners and shares how those dynamics play out in computer science education (CS Ed). We provide approaches teachers can use to practice better, more equitable computing education for bi/multilingual learners and others who may be marginalized for how they communicate.
Where we’re headed
Throughout this chapter, you’ll follow the story of John, a sixth grader who used the programming environment, Scratch, to tell a powerful story as part of a unit in his English as a New Language class. John participated in research conducted by the authors of this chapter – members of Participating in Literacies and-Computer Science (PiLa-CS), a research-practice partnership which has worked with New York City public schools to promote bi/multilingual learners' participation in CSforAll.
In Part 1, Who are we talking about? we discuss the ways John was labeled by the school system to help us interrogate the terminology we use to describe and refer to bi/multilingual students, and select terms that highlight student assets.
In Part 2, Defining the Problem: Language Injustice, we share excerpts from interviews we conducted with John where he draws connections between language and power, and questions the status of his home language practices vis a vis English. We connect his experiences and noticings to the phenomenon of language injustice. We argue that to support students in CS Ed, educators must resist deficit ideologies by identifying changes that need to happen in systems, rather than trying to change the language of students and their families.
In Part 3, Interpreting Student Language Practices, we highlight the dynamic ways that John communicated as he created his Scratch project, interpreting his language practices using a theory from linguistics called translanguaging. Translanguaging recognizes that the ways people communicate are far more complex than the labels that society puts on language. We make connections between translanguaging and other -isms in society (specifically racism) and share why educators might want to take up this theory in their work. We go behind the scenes of the unit plan that John’s teacher created to introduce translanguaging pedagogy – an approach that can help educators leverage bi/multilingual learners’ linguistic, community, and cultural resources as generative assets for their learning.
In Part 4, Code as a Language Resource, we share how John used code to help him tell his story. We highlight the ways that John’s teacher leveraged language of all kinds to support students to read and write code, putting into action the philosophy of literate programming – the idea that computer programs are not just for computers, but are for people to read, write, and interact with.
Finally, in Part 5, What conversation(s) is this code a part of? we share how John’s story helped him have conversations about a range of topics with a range of audiences. We will share how the teacher’s unit design helped John start these conversations. The design intentionally brought knowledge and practices from computing, students’ communities, and the school disciplines together to promote students’ learning and creation. We call the merging together of these practices syncretic computational literacies.
In a nutshell, we hope this chapter provides CS teachers with frameworks and approaches they can use to empower bi/multilingual learners and other students who might be linguistically marginalized, and to create environments where all learners can practice better, more equitable computing education.
To learn more about our team and to further frame this work before you dive in, see our video below:
Part 1: Who are we talking about? Bi/Multilingual Learners in CS
As CS for All grows as a national initiative, teachers may find themselves wondering how to reach all learners regardless of how they communicate. The problem space around this question is complex and multilayered and involves deeply understanding the populations we’re trying to support. To help shed some light on the issues feeding into that question, we introduce you to sixth-grader John.
As you read the introduction to John’s story below, consider: What do you notice and wonder about John, and how he is described here?
John's Story: Introduction
During our work at one New York City public school, the PiLa-CS team met John. John was a 6th grade student who immigrated to NYC from East Africa during the 5th grade. He used four languages in his daily life – English, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Arabic. When he enrolled in school, he was labeled an English Language Learner (ELL), and for this had English as a New Language (ENL) classes programmed into his schedule several times per week. He would typically leave his general education class during some literacy or social studies periods, to attend these.
In his ENL pull-out class, his teacher asked John and his classmates to use Scratch – a programming environment that allows users to design and code their own digital stories, games, and animations – to tell a family story. John decided to animate an important moment in his family’s history: when he and his family walked from Eritrea to Ethiopia for three days at the beginning of their journey as refugees.
One key thing to highlight in this introduction is that John was labeled an English Language Learner (ELL) at his school. School systems and policies use many terms to label learners who are bi/multilingual and learning English at school. Each label comes with associations and assumptions about learners and schooling’s expectations for them, as described by García & Kleifgen (2018). These terms have important consequences for their experiences in school.
Historically, the US federal government has labeled bi/multilingual students with names that take a deficit-based perspective on their abilities (e.g. Limited English Proficient, Language-Minority), baking those perspectives into our schooling structures. Some of these labels center white, middle class standard English language and culture as the norm and as desirable (e.g. English Language Learner, culturally and linguistically diverse children & language minority students). As of 2023, many school systems, states, and educators have attempted to shift those perspectives by employing terms that illuminate both the assets of these students and the historical and ideological systems that marginalize them (e.g., emergent bi/multilingual, racialized bi/multilingual). A more comprehensive list of relevant labels and the associations they carry can be found in Table 1.
Throughout this guide, you’ll notice we use several of the terms in the table, including bi/multilingual learner and/or emergent bi/multilingual to foreground students’ rich and fluid language practices, and language-minoritized or racialized to highlight how systems marginalize those that are perceived to have language practices that don’t conform to a dominant standard. In some moments, we may also refer to bi/multilingual learners who are receiving services for English learning at school as bi/multilingual English Learners.
TABLE 1: Labels for multilingual students and their connotations
ASSUMPTIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
Limited English Proficient
Used in Federal Policy up to 2015.
“focuses on the students’ limitations rather than their potential” (García et al., 2008).
Culturally and linguistically diverse children
Mistakenly equates diversity with individuals who culturally and/or linguistically deviate from white middle class, standard English norms.
English as a Second Language students
Refers to a subject and not to people; neglects that students may be multilingual, not just bilingual (García et al., 2008).
Language minority students
Can “offer a legal basis for [students’] rights and accommodations” but neglects the idea that bi/multilingualism is the norm around the world.
English Language Learner / English Learner (ELL/EL)
Used in federal policy, and that of most states and localities in the US. Foregrounds that these students are and should be learning English rather than the language assets they already possess (García & Kleifgen, 2018).
Used in New York State policy documents. Foregrounds students’ flexible and bi/multilingual performances and assets.
Foregrounds students’ flexible and bi/multilingual performances and assets. Additionally “recognizes the fact that our linguistic performances are always emerging, depending on the task that we are asked to perform” (García & Kleifgen, 2018).
A term that acknowledges how systems perceive the language resources of some students as a problem for institutions to “fix,” (Flores, 2020), rather than as an asset or resource (Ruíz, 1984).
Acknowledges that systems multiply the marginalization of bi/multilingual students who are racialized in society as Latinx, African or Middle Eastern, Black and Brown, low-income, recent immigrants.
Using different terminology to refer to students is not just a semantic exercise; terms link the experiences of individuals to the larger systems at the root of those experiences (Brooks, 2020; García, 2009b) and have real material consequences for how students are taught. John’s ELL label meant he was entitled to English learning support and services. At his school’s English as a New Language (ENL) program, a specialized TESOL teacher was tasked with “pushing in” to content classes to provide supports to students with ELL labels, and “pulling” students – especially those just beginning to learn English – to a smaller classroom for differentiated activities a few times per week. John received both kinds of supports at different times of the week
State policies to support students with the ELL label can have drawbacks and gaps for different students. While being in a smaller pull-out ENL class might help students like John adapt to a new cultural and educational setting in a new country, at times being in those classes can mean students miss out on opportunities happening in the general ed classroom – including computing. Another way to fulfill policy mandates for students with the ELL label in New York State is through bilingual education models, where students learn from educators who use their home language and English during content instruction and typically do not “pull” students out of content classes. There is a Spanish-English bilingual program at John’s school, but not one that uses languages that John can read or write, which are lower incidence in his neighborhood. Policy only mandates bilingual education in New York City when more than 15 students in two consecutive grades speak the same language.
John, like all students with the ELL label, was expected to make progress towards passing the state’s standardized English proficiency test each year. His school would be evaluated based on his and his peers’ growth on that test, which could incentivize educators and administrators to focus solely on English learning to the detriment of other content areas (Menken & Solorza, 2014). Schools could run the risk of making English learning the most salient aspect of John’s identity, obscuring the fact that he uses other languages in his daily life (Amharic, Tigrinya, some Arabic). If they don’t take care, school policies could also wind up segregating students like John from the general ed population, leading to stigmatization.
The stigmas that can follow language-related labels are symptomatic of a larger issue that shapes the experiences of students in school, in CS education, and CS fields: language injustice.
Part 2: Defining the Problem: Language Injustice
Language injustice is the systematic denial of people’s rights to use the language practices of their families, cultures, and communities, or the systematic privileging of certain groups’ language practices over others’.
Let’s continue to unpack this problem space by providing some more of John’s story:
John's Story: Language and Power
John had experiences in many different places, from his hometown in Eritrea, to refugee camps in Ethiopia, to his home, community and school in New York City. Across all of these contexts, he regularly had to make decisions about how to use language. These were not always easy decisions.
John shared that being multilingual helped him, because he could speak to people in their preferred language. He also discussed his decision to use Amharic as a refugee in Ethiopia, sharing that because of the ongoing conflicts between groups in those two countries, he feared he would be physically harmed if he spoke his home language, Tigrinya. John understood that language was linked to power, and that aggressors could use language to identify a person’s tribe, sect, religion, or region, potentially putting that person in danger.
While John was proud of Tigrinya—as he called it “his language”—he predominantly used English at school in New York. For example, for his family history Scratch project, he used the English version of Scratch even though there were versions available in his other languages because nobody else spoke the other languages he knew. John shared that it was important to him to use the language that others around him would understand, and he prioritized others’ comfort and needs in a caring manner.
While he chose to use English for his project, the use of English at school was a complicated issue that he grappled with. During one focus group with John, he spontaneously posed a question to the group:
“I have a question about the thing - Is it a good thing to only speak English? Or uh, like, or another country like language? Because like if you speak English like, people know, like, what kind of language you speak. But if you speak like my language, people - people doesn’t know like my language more popular. Is that a good thing only to learn English? That way people could speak to you, like, and they don’t-. They know that English is, like, all people know that. English is like American - uh like they speak American people? And pe- uh like, is it only - is it good thing to just learn American?” (Focus Group, 5/31)
The second part of John’s story here highlights that bi/multilingual students are often navigating far more than their own communication goals when they decide what language to use in different situations. These students are grappling with schools, tools, and communities shaped by language injustice—societies that mark their language practices in ways that sometimes privilege them, but often in ways that marginalize them. Language injustices have been perpetrated against many whose language practices do not conform to the dominant group’s including students who are Black, Latinx, Asian, recent immigrants, children of immigrants, language disabled, from rural areas, low income or a combination. Depending on the ways their multiple identities intersect (Crenshaw, 1991), their experiences of language injustice in school might be layered and internalized differently.
Language injustice manifests at several levels in our society—it permeates society’s dominant ideologies, gets embedded in our institutions, shapes our interpersonal interactions, and gets internalized by people (Chinook Fund, 2015). We call these the four I's: ideologies, institutions, interactions, and internalization.
Ideological Language Injustice
One way that language injustice is perpetuated is through damaging language ideologies. Language ideologies are ideas, values, and assumptions about languages and language speakers that link language to broader social and political systems in different contexts (Irvine & Gal, 2000).
Teachers and students may internalize or notice the language ideologies of the contexts around them. For example, John picked up on how English is centered in the US, where the language practices of white upper and middle class standard English speakers are privileged over all other means of communication. The idea that using this kind of language is a measure or sign of intelligence and capability is a language ideology, not an objective reality. Language ideologies such as this also exist in global contexts. For example, within Spanish-speaking communities, some Colombian or Argentinian varieties are thought to be more prestigious than ones from the Caribbean. Deficit-based language ideologies are pervasive in the American school system, framing school as a place that needs to “fix” students and families that speak languages other than standard English.
Language ideologies intersect with other kinds of oppressive ideologies in our society, for example, with ideologies about race. Flores and Rosa’s (2015) concept of raciolinguistic ideologies describes the politicized nature of how racialized bi/multilingual people are perceived by “white listening subjects.” Given students’ intersectional identities, they may be both racialized and thought of as a language-minority, and may experience multiple levels of marginalization.
Institutionalized Language Injustice
Oppressive language ideologies get taken up by the policies and practices of institutions, like the technology industry, and the tools created by it. For example, the interfaces of many tech platforms might only be available in English and a handful of other global languages, disadvantaging many users and creators. Facebook suspended the accounts of many Native Americans because Facebook systems perceived their names as not “real names” (Holpuch, 2015). Voice recognition software is worse at processing the language of people with non-standard accents (Paul, 2017). Software support for non-Roman scripts, or even for letters of the Roman alphabet that include accent marks and other diacritics, is often absent, buggy, or prohibited.
We can also see these ideologies taken up by schooling institutions, marginalizing some students, and maintaining the linguistic supremacy of others who use language in ways thought to be standard. Historically across North America, Indigenous and Native American children were forcibly sent to boarding schools to “civilize” and assimilate them, which included violently imposing English and punishing children for using languages other than English (Suina, 1985; Hanson et al., 2020). Violent means were also used to punish immigrant children for using home languages at school (García, 2009). Some states continue to have laws on the books making it illegal to educate students bilingually in public schools (Gómez, 2022), with other states repealing those laws as recently as 2015 (Freedberg, 2016).
A common education practice for students labeled as ELLs is to educate them in "English only" contexts, which amplifies the idea that they are at a deficit. Bi/multilingual learners are already fluent in vast and complex language practices – John, for example, spoke four different languages. And yet, the "English Language Learner" (ELL) label zeros in on their standard English language status only, tying their intelligence to their scores on English proficiency exams and what they can demonstrate about their academic achievement using English. In some schools, schedules are designed to prioritize the English learning of emergent bi/multilinguals over all other kinds of learning – for instance English as a New Language (ENL) teachers are often asked to pull bi/multilingual English learners out of class during CS time because CS is considered “enrichment” while their English learning is considered mandatory. Luckily for John and his classmates, their ENL teacher took care to integrate CS into her class.
Even when students are able to access computing education, institutionalized marginalization can also occur through forms of assessment that depend on using the language of the dominant group. In one study, researchers found that middle schoolers designated as English Language Learners or ELLs (a state mandated designation) did worse than other students on text-heavy story CS problems, but actually performed better on interviews related to open-ended authentic final projects (Grover, Pea, & Cooper, 2016), reinforcing the idea that students who use language differently may be more successful than traditional metrics show and that bias may be baked into traditional metrics which do not enable students to demonstrate their actual abilities (Ascenzi-Moreno & Seltzer, 2021).
Language injustice manifests within societal institutions like the technology industry and computing education, putting language minoritized users of tools and learners at a disadvantage.
Interpersonal and Internalized Language Injustice
Language injustice also manifests interpersonally in interactions between people. In education, this could look like students teasing each other for their accents or for being in the “ENL” class, teachers telling Black students they are “articulate” when they don’t use “street language,” or a tech firm hiring manager not hiring an engineer because their accent seems non-standard. In tech fields, people can be excluded for not using the right tech jargon, or knowing the right nerdy cultural references, or programming languages, in addition to all the ways groups get marginalized more generally if they don’t use language in the way dominant or powerful groups do. For example, April Christina Curley, a Black employee at Google, described how her manager told her that what they perceived as a prominent Baltimore accent was a “disability” that should be disclosed and that it “intimidated” others in the company (Kirby, 2021). (See here for more). Language injustice also gets internalized by people, as speakers come to feel pride or shame in how they speak based on their experiences navigating systems and interactions.
In summary, language injustice manifests in our society across those four levels (ideological, institutional, interpersonal, internalized). It is present in technology and computing fields – which use language to gate-keep, and tend to produce products and tools that embed biases and may not meet the needs of everyone in our linguistically diverse societies. It is present in schooling in general and in CS education specifically, where students who use, or may be perceived to use, language differently from a dominant standard English have been marginalized. Because it is “baked” into so many institutions, such as schools, educators in schools may not be aware that it is part of the hidden curriculum.
Bi/multilinguals and other language-minoritized learners come to school with experiences of language marginalization, and thoughts and opinions about it. Educators looking to promote equity in their computing courses must grapple with language injustice – both to lower barriers for CS learners who may be marginalized around language, and to support all learners to notice and push back against oppressive language ideologies in tech tools and cultures.
Striving for Language Justice in CSed and Beyond
What about language justice?
The scholar April Baker-Bell writes specifically about language justice (as she calls it, linguistic justice) in the context of supporting and sustaining the cultural and linguistic practices of Black students, calling it
“a call to action: a call to radically imagine and create a world free of anti-blackness. A call to create an education system where Black students, their language, their literacies, their culture, their creativity, their joy, their imagination, their brilliance, their freedom, their resistance MATTERS.” (2020, p. 2)
For Baker-Bell, linguistic justice is rooted in challenging white supremacy. By chipping away at anti-Black linguistic racism, she argues educators can support Black students and indeed, any speaker whose practices deviate from standard, white, middle-class American English norms.
CS teachers can promote language justice in their classrooms and spheres of influence. How?
Teachers can pick up on the ways that language-minoritized students resist linguistic injustice daily, especially in the context of computing and technology activities. For example, at John’s middle school, students were asked to use a “personalized” automated learning software called iReady. iReady was only available in English, and students were expected to engage with it quietly and independently for test prep. Many students covertly conferred with each other and spoke in home languages around the tool, and attempted to use translation software. One student, Andy, exercised critical consciousness, remarking that “programadores debieron pensarse como dos veces” or “programmers should think twice,” before releasing iReady as an English-only product. Andy’s classmate Mariposa said: “I think it's racist because it doesn't have two languages, it only have one. So it’s much difficult for kids that doesn't know English.” Further, the school didn’t have another technology class on offer, and Andy remarked that if their classmates didn’t learn computer science and coding, the students might think that computing is iReady, when computing held so much more possibilities for expression and creativity (for more, see Vogel, 2021). These students’ actions resisted language injustices as they manifested at their school and in education technology.
Instead of ignoring these moments, or treating them as “off-task” tangents, teachers might build on students’ language practices and attitudes about language. Teachers that value language justice would welcome the kinds of conversations that Andy, Mariposa, and John had around language, power, and technology and help students refine their critical consciousness around the potential biases of technology vis-à-vis language. Teachers might help students navigate choices related to language and technology in the CS classroom and beyond, and to prototype or design new kinds of tools or digital artifacts that can help them and their communities better learn, share, inquire, and express themselves.
Educators who care about language injustice might also become advocates outside of the classroom. There’s a long history of parents, educators, and communities fighting for linguistic justice, including the right to educate children using home languages. CS teachers might become involved at a systems level by developing culturally and linguistically relevant CS curricula, ensuring that English learning services do not conflict with computing coursework, and considering the experiences of bi/multilingual learners and their families across school policy decisions.
Teachers can also move towards more linguistically just ways of teaching and doing CSed by interrogating their own understandings about language and how students use it in computing classrooms – the subject of our next section.
Part 3: Interpreting Student Language Practices
One of the first steps towards promoting language justice in CS education is to interrogate the lenses and filters we as educators use to interpret how people – especially our students – use language. Are we perceiving students as competent communicators and meaning-makers? Or are we perceiving deficits? While most teachers want to do the former, erring towards the latter can happen when students express in ways educators are not accustomed to or find difficult to parse, or when we don’t have enough time to stop and think.
In the next section, we unpack a classroom moment involving John and a PiLa-CS researcher to provide readers with time to slow down and consider the perspectives we bring.
As you read this part (excerpted from Vogel, 2020), consider: How would you interpret what John is meaning here?
John’s Story: Dynamically Communicating Computational Ideas
In order to create his family history Scratch project, John had to become acquainted with many computational ideas and make choices to express his ideas in code. During this process, John wanted to program his sprites to speak one at a time, which required him to carefully sequence “wait () secs” code blocks between the blocks for the characters’ dialogue.
John was asked by a PiLa-CS researcher to explain how this code functioned. In his explanation, John drew two different stick figures representing Scratch sprites (or characters), and then shared how he wanted them to greet each other using spoken language and gestures. The following documents part of John’s explanation:
How do you interpret what John is meaning here?
There are many ways that teachers might interpret what’s going on with John here. When students communicate with us, we try to make sense, and interpret their communication through the lens of different theories we have about how people learn language and use language to learn. We make judgments about what language counts as “articulate,” “academic,” or “appropriate” in CS classrooms.
We argue that the theories that educators use to interpret language shape what we do in classrooms.
For example, using a theory that ties proficiency with “academic language” to intelligence might lead an educator to identify “problems” with how John shared his ideas. They might label what John was doing with spoken language as “stuttering” and him as “struggling” to get his words out and conclude that he didn’t understand how to code in Scratch. These kinds of deficit-based views of students can lead educators to provide remedial education around vocabulary and conclude that some students need simplified curricula.
Other theories, however, might help educators interpret what John was trying to communicate in a different way. They might help educators recognize and parse all of the “resources” – language and communication tools – he orchestrated in his explanation. John coordinated his words with drawings and gestures, and even went on to expand his explanation by asking the researcher to act out the conversation idea together, embodying what it meant for talk to overlap. If our theories help us attend to these resources, we can see that John had an in-depth understanding of the idea that in an animated dialogue, wait time must be programmed in, even if humans take it for granted in a conversation. He also demonstrated his understanding of how code in the language Scratch is spatially organized.
Attending to all of John’s communicative resources would help an educator develop asset-based perspectives on his learning and to create more opportunities for John and other students to express themselves fully. Below, we’ll introduce readers to a theory from linguistics, sociolinguistics, and bilingual education called “translanguaging” that can help us view students through asset-based perspectives.
What is Translanguaging?
Translanguaging theory offers a way to center the dynamic and fluid ways people use language. It can help educators pay attention to the full range of ways that students communicate – without evaluating them against a perceived “standard” way of speaking.
How does it do that? Read on!
Translanguaging theory calls attention to the fact that there are two ways of thinking about what language is. When used colloquially, “language” might be used as a noun to refer to a collection or system of sounds, syntaxes, signs and symbols which have been politically labeled with a name: English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and so on. But “language” might also refer to the act of communicating itself, a verb. This definition highlights that language is a general competence. Bilingual education scholar Ofelia García uses the verb, languaging, to reflect that language is something people DO in social contexts. “Languaging” and communication are universal capacities, even if using particular language systems like English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese are not.
Building on that idea, translanguaging theory posits that (García & Li Wei, 2014):
- People have only ONE system of language features and practices – one general language repertoire – that they draw on to make meaning, learn, and express themselves
- These features and practices defy the named languages (like English, Spanish, etc.) that society has used to categorize language.
To unpack that, let’s start with the first part: people have one language repertoire.
Just like John, all of us have a collection of resources we use to communicate, make sense, and learn. That collection includes words, sounds, syntaxes, gestures, signs, symbols, objects (like things in our environment, clothes, media, and tools), as well as social knowledge about how, when, and where to use those forms in different contexts. We might call that collection our communicative repertoire (Rymes, 2014) or our language repertoire, and the features of that repertoire our “language resources.”
Translanguaging recognizes that people have one, unified language repertoire they draw on when they communicate and make meaning. In recognizing this, translanguaging attempts to rectify past theories that argued that different languages (like Arabic, Spanish, English) lived separately in the mind. According to those theories, when people communicate, they access those mental systems separately, with bilinguals only being able to use one of their two different systems at any time. That kind of argument led to misconceptions that there was only so much “space” in the brain for different languages. Operating with those traditional language theories, educators would probably insist John use his home languages less in order to reduce confusion, problematically neglecting the assets of his language repertoire, and being complicit in assimilationist forms of education.
Translanguaging theorist Dr. Ofelia García, argued the older theories just couldn’t capture the dynamic ways that most people – especially bi/multilingual people – actually do language (García, 2009a). For example:
- In talking with bilingual friends, bilinguals often use words from different languages in the same sentence to capture concepts and ideas that don’t translate.
- A bilingual physics student from Latin America who studied abroad in the US might be nervous about giving a research talk in what would be considered her “native” language, Spanish, because she learned concepts and ideas about physics in English.
- Many young bilinguals in the US are encouraged to practice English and not to speak a home language at home. They may be more comfortable listening to and understanding a home language, but speaking and writing in English (rather than their “home language”).
Traditional theories would suggest that individuals in those circumstances above were less “balanced bilinguals” or were more “dominant” in one language over another. But that idea locates deficiencies and differences in those bilingual people relative to a monolingual standard. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one (Grosjean, 2012). As García and others have pointed out, people don’t use or acquire languages as they appear in the dictionary. We acquire and use different language resources depending on the context around us and our purposes for communicating.
Another major issue with traditional language theories is that they posit that named languages are a reality in our brains. But named languages (Hebrew, Chinese, Hindi etc.) are social and political designations (Otheguy, Garcia, & Reid, 2015). We can see this clearly when we consider the experiences of someone growing up in Scotland and someone growing up in Louisiana. While they may both be recognized as speakers of “English,” they might still find communication with each other difficult. So why are both of those people recognized as speakers of English?
The answer to this question can often be traced back to colonialism, imperialism, and nation-state building, as was articulated by scholar Max Weinreich during a lecture in the 1940’s:
אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט
a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot
"A language is a dialect with an army and navy"
- Max Weinreich
This quote captures that the ability to decide what counts as a “language” and what is merely a “dialect” is power. People speak how they speak, but politics often shape, police, or value/devalue language practices based on our conceptions of named languages.
This leads to the second part of translanguaging: people’s language repertoires do not conform to the named languages (like English, Spanish, etc) that society has used to categorize language – an idea that translanguaging’s “trans-” prefix captures. When we communicate, the ideas we have and the purposes we have for expressing those ideas determine the language we use for our thinking, not the boundaries of the named language. People draw on words, sounds, ideas, gestures, signs, symbols, rhythms and cadences that they pick up from all of their life experiences.
Watch the following video to learn more about translanguaging theory:
Translanguaging can help educators attend to the many ways that our students communicate meaning, rather than simply evaluate their speech. Rather than assessing John’s language against a standard, we might consider all of the ways John communicated meaning as he explained his Scratch code. This way, we get a better sense of what he understood about the computational concept of “sequencing”:
John's Story: John's Translanguaging
Even though John only spoke in words that are recognized as English, he translanguaged, drawing on many resources to express himself:
- John drew a quick sketch of two stick figures on either side of the page to represent two sprites (programmable objects such as characters) in Scratch.
- He wrote text next to each character, carefully sequencing their dialogue in a way that matched how a programmer would code.
- He gestured to one sprite, and then another as he wrote, indicating who was speaking at what time.
- As he wrote the response from the second sprite, he explained and wrote a time amount on top of the sprite on the left because “this girl has to stay ten, like five seconds, then she say ‘hello’ to her,” sharing his awareness of the function of Scratch’s “wait” blocks in the context of his dialogue project.
All together, looking at how John translanguaged – how he coordinated his use of words, drawings, writing, and gestures to communicate his understanding – can help us get a better sense for what he knows and has learned.
Something important to note here is that John tailored his speech to his English-speaking audience, which meant he didn’t use all of his language resources including the Tigrinya, Amharic, and Arabic he knows. Can you imagine what he could have expressed about his understanding if he had been able to use his full language repertoire?
Using Translanguaging theory to interpret students’ communication has important implications for challenging systems of power and oppression – we’ll unpack those ideas in the next section.
Translanguaging, Power, and Racism
As we learned above, the language practices of people are dynamic, and defy the language categories that societies have constructed. Translanguaging happens all of the time – think about…
- The academic whose manuscript is filled with words specific to their field, Latinisms like “in situ” or “a priori,” or equations, charts and graphs
- Teens who use the latest memes to share in-jokes with each other
- The programmer who uses code and comments to ensure others can follow progress they’ve made on an open-source project
- The last time you sent a text message to a friend that included gifs or emoji
- Times you used context to guess words in a Science textbook that you didn’t understand
- Times you’ve used language that would have been considered “inappropriate” or “swearing” in a situation to help you make a point
- When deaf individuals use signs from standard sign languages as well as signs specific to their communities or families in conjunction with vocalizing, and text messaging to communicate. (Swanwick, 2016)
- When families with young children use made up words or imitations of their child’s pronunciation to share their affection for each other
Some of the boundary-crossing and defying nature of the language practices above might seem mundane to you, and go unremarked upon day-to-day. Other examples might stick out more.
This is because while translanguaging describes how everyone communicates, some translanguaging practices are more socially marked than others. Some translanguaging moves might mark someone as part of a particular community, or help someone identify. For instance, using techie words and l33ts speak might mark someone as a “geek” or “techie” person. But some forms of translanguaging are marked because they are associated with groups that have less or more power in society, due to -isms like racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Depending on context, when people use language associated with groups racialized as Black, Latinx, or Asian, or language associated with immigrants, working classes, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups, they might be perceived as inferior, uneducated or transgressive. When people use language associated with dominant groups (white, heterosexual, cis, male, middle/upper class, college-educated), they might be perceived as intelligent, dextrous, or creative.
We can see a powerful example of the ways language gets “marked” differently depending on the person using it in the following video of the poet Elizabeth Acevedo performing her poem, “Afro-Latina.”
In this poem, Elizabeth Acevedo translanguages (leveraging a host of language resources, including words that would be recognized as “English,” “Spanish,” or “Spanglish,” gestures, rhythmic phrasing, singing, and a reference to “la negra tiene tumbao” - a line from a song by Afro-Latina artist Celia Cruz.) She relays her pride around her identity and unique language practices. She also shares her experiences navigating a society that does not value her and her families' ways of being and communicating. She calls out the ways society labeled her mother’s language “broken English” and how she internalized that stigma for a time.
Acevedo’s mother’s language was deemed “broken.” But plenty of people may use language the same way as her mother, and not be stigmatized for it. For example, white American tourists who try to make themselves understood through gesture or machine translation software when they have trouble communicating with spoken language abroad are not, in general, systematically stigmatized for those practices because they have more political power.
Everyone translanguages, because everyone’s language practices cross and go beyond named language boundaries. But society does not perceive the translanguaging of all people equally.
Over the years, educators have responded to this social marking of language in a variety of ways. Historically, the approach was to help students who used language outside of a dominant norm to assimilate by suppressing home languages and working to diminish their accents. As the Civil Rights movement brought more visibility and power to language-minoritized groups, many educators took up more “additive” approaches rooted in teaching kids to “code switch” – in other words, to teach students to recognize when it would be “appropriate” to use home languages and when to use the dominant language – to help them gain power in an unjust society (for a summary of these movements, see Flores & Rosa, 2015).
But recently, some educators have critiqued that additive approach. They have called attention to the raciolinguistic ideologies present in societies, or the ways racism shapes dominant ideas about language. Scholars Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa argue that institutions and individuals become “white listening subjects” when they perceive the linguistic performance of racialized people as deviant or at a deficit – no matter how technically their speech conforms to the “standard” (Flores & Rosa, 2015). There are many examples of raciolinguistic ideologies playing out in our society and schools:
- Higher ed professors and K-12 teachers often perceived grammar errors in the speech and essays of Black and Latinx students (even though the speech and writing technically complied with standard grammar rules) (Flores & Rosa, 2015, Alim, 2007).
- Princess Charlotte, the young daughter of British Royals, has been praised in the popular press for growing up bilingual, while mainstream press accounts of racialized immigrant young people’s budding bilingualism is often portrayed in mainstream outlets as a problem to solve (Rosa & Flores, 2017)
- In popular culture, the Spanish practices of many Latinx politicians and celebrities are often judged more harshly than those of their White counterparts (see Flores, 2016).
These points highlight a key tension – even if a racialized person is “code-switching,” and using language in ways that conform to a dominant standard, it does not mean they can overcome the effects of racism. Dr. April Baker-Bell underscores this point in her book, Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy.
“If y’all actually believe that using ‘standard English’ will dismantle white supremacy, then you not paying attention! If we, as teachers, truly believe that code-switching will dismantle white supremacy, we have a problem. If we honestly believe that code-switching will save Black people’s lives, then we really ain’t paying attention to what’s happening in the world. Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer while saying ‘I cannot breathe.’ Wouldn’t you consider ‘I cannot breathe’ ‘standard English’ syntax? (Baker-Bell, 2020, p. 2)
Most if not all mainstream educators would accept that schools should not impose a language forcibly on students, or demand that they “subtract” their home languages, but there are still many who argue for an approach that promotes teaching students how to speak “appropriately” or to “code-switch” in school. But emphasizing that students should speak standard English at school or in “professional” environments suppresses their identities as emergent bi/multilinguals or speakers of marginalized varieties of language and conveys to them that they and their methods of communication are inferior. The language practices our students already use are just as powerful, valid, and important as standard English, and these practices can support them to do CS.
Why might educators take up translanguaging theory?
In schools, we often restrict students from using their full language repertoires to communicate, in part because schooling expects students to learn to use “Standard English” in “academic” ways. Translanguaging can help educators question the nature and politics of categories like “Standard English” and “academic language” for example, it helps us ask:
- Why do named languages exist in the first place? Who decides what the “standard” is?
- Why are certain kinds of language (e.g. words, phrases, and styles used in Black, Latinx, and working-class communities) seen as more/less “proper” or “academic”?
- Why are block-based programming languages like Scratch viewed as less “real” than text-based programming languages like Python?
- How can we elevate speakers who use language in ways that are typically de-valued in schools and computer science?
- How can we notice and learn more about ALL of the ways students communicate, from home language practices to memes, emojis, and other digital literacies students engage in?
Translanguaging re-focuses our attention on the rich and dynamic language practices that students like John are already leveraging in a given moment (Otheguy, García & Reid, 2015). Translanguaging helps us focus on students’ assets. It can help us acknowledge that all people’s language repertoires, including those of our students who may be labeled as “English language learners” – are already full and always dynamic.
By advocating for teachers to take up translanguaging perspectives, we are not saying you shouldn’t teach your students the language necessary to pass a test or ace a job interview. But your students are more than a passed test or job interview. Students should feel free to use any method of communication that will help them learn, and to strategically choose the method of communication that will get them the best results in any given situation. Their diverse language practices are an asset, not a hindrance.
As we strive towards equity in CS education – especially for students who have been marginalized for the ways they or their families use or are perceived to use language – translanguaging theory can help teachers look beyond whether their students’ language practices conform to notions like “perfect English” or “perfect Spanish” and to instead pay attention to and value the rich ways students and their communities already express themselves.
When we take up a translanguaging lens as educators, we put less stock in evaluating how students communicate against a “standard” and instead commit ourselves to help learners:
- value their identities as bi/multilinguals or users of particular varieties used in their communities
- engage with complex content using their full language repertoires
- leverage students’ existing and complex understandings of language politics
- extend their language repertoires to include new practices for different contexts, audiences, and purposes
- navigate and push back against a world where language ideologies are imposed by society
- build community across language difference
It is especially important to teach with your bi/multilingual students’ translanguaging in mind because their vast language resources are repressed in classrooms more often than many other students’. Even when students have the opportunity to use more of their language repertoire than they normally do in school, they often choose not to: even though John could have used Scratch in for example, Amharic, he felt a need to restrict his language use to standard English and even raised the question if using “American” or “English” is better than his languaging. Resisting deficit-based language ideologies in the classroom takes time and necessitates creating trusting relationships with students.
Translanguaging underscores that people use different language and other expressive resources to communicate with different audiences, in different contexts, for different purposes (e.g. to express, to inform, to learn, to persuade, to push back) over their life course. Teachers can help students develop those abilities to deploy their language resources strategically and to reason explicitly about their choices.
As CS teachers who care about equitable practice, we might also support students to develop critical consciousness. Language plays a key role in that process. Students might choose to push back on dominant language ideologies. For example, notice how educator and scholar Dr. Jamila Lyiscott shares how she uses her different language practices in different situations and for different purposes – including to critique society.
We believe that taking a translanguaging lens to teaching can promote equity in your classroom because it starts from the assumption that learners' full language capacities, what they are already good at, is helpful for their learning, rather than focusing on measuring students against external named languages to demonstrate deficiencies.
How to leverage translanguaging in your teaching
Students translanguage all of the time in classrooms. It is your job to design learning experiences and supports to help students use those dynamic and rich language resources to learn. That’s called Translanguaging Pedagogy (García et al., 2017).
Translanguaging pedagogy is a way of teaching that builds on students’ diverse language backgrounds. It isn’t just accepting students’ diverse language repertoires, but it means explicitly supporting students to leverage the resources in their existing repertoires to develop new ones.
Translanguaging pedagogy includes three parts: your stance as an educator, your designs for learning, and the shifts in practice you make in response to students in the moment.
First, CS educators who practice translanguaging pedagogy take up a stance that is curious and open about students’ language practices. They learn more about how students express themselves and make meaning. They find about their experiences with reading, writing, and technology in and outside of school, in the US, and for some students, abroad.
For example, this stance was embodied in the family history Scratch project that Ms. Kors, John’s ENL teacher designed. Ms. Kors asked students to share more about themselves and their family history, and invited them to use the language practices that would be authentic to their story in the final product. John took up this invitation and shared a part of his life – more specifically his experience as a refugee – with his teacher and peers, opening up opportunities for John to be seen as the full, complex, and competent community member he already was.
As noted in the previous section, teachers who take up a translanguaging stance seek not to police students’ language, but to to support them to make decisions about when, how, and why to use particular kinds of language in context for specific purposes and interactions. They teach with the awareness that language categories (like Standard and Academic English) are social constructs which can have real consequences in our students' lives, but that we and our students can also be empowered to resist and change them (Otheguy, García & Reid, 2015).
Next, armed with that knowledge, educators who practice translanguaging pedagogy design learning experiences and supports for students. Part 5 of this chapter will spell out an approach for designing with students’ language practices and community literacies in mind, but there are many ways to incorporate translanguaging into the design of classroom activities.
Teachers might design lessons that encourage students to use multilingual resources. Many helpful tools are digital and exist online. For example, teachers can model how and when to use machine translation software, and programming tutorials in multiple languages. Of course, not everything is available in language that will reflect how your kids communicate, so you might supplement online resources with translanguaging activities like strategically pairing students depending on the activity. Educators might pair students with similar language repertoires for activities that center fluid sense-making, or group students with complementary language repertoires to encourage students to learn new language practices in English or each others’ home languages. Other strategies for your classroom may include posting multilingual word walls or having students make personal bilingual picture dictionaries, and supporting students to consider what language practices they will use to show and tell what they know. These practices give permission for students to use all of their language in the CS classroom.
Educators might also validate students’ language practices during whole class discussions and share-outs. Let them use terms for code and programming they make up, or which they use with their families and friends if these help them learn. You can also ask students to describe, draw, or use their bodies to engage with expressing their ideas about code and computing. Looking back at how John explained the concept of sequencing, we can see how he leveraged his multi-modal language resources in his understanding and communication. Designing for opportunities like that is key for engaging in translanguaging pedagogy.
If specialized CS vocabulary or other English learning goals are part of your lessons, you can encourage kids to use all of their language abilities to get there. Or use activities and language that makes sense to them to describe and define such terms.
To see more design strategies check out these resources from PiLa-CS, and our video on this topic, Episode 3: Translanguaging Pedagogy in CSed.
To see images and resources from the design of Ms. Kors’ unit in John’s class, check out the slide deck below.
The design strategies we mention above might also come in handy in the moment, as things that students say or do prompt you to make changes to your plan. Being flexible and ready to make shifts is the third part of translanguaging pedagogy.
For example, John’s teacher initially wanted to have her students create Scratch projects about Greek mythology, to closely align the activity with the 6th grade curriculum. However, she ultimately chose to have her students tell family stories because she wanted to get to know her students better, considering most of them were newcomers to the US and her school. What she didn’t expect was how students themselves wanted to know more about each others’ language and cultural backgrounds. In response to these curiosities, she did things like pull up Google maps to geographically locate students’ international immigration journeys and opened informal opportunities for students to ask each other questions about their language use.
Supporting multilingual learners in your CS teaching doesn’t have to mean radically changing your classroom. It means adopting the three parts of translanguaging pedagogy: having a stance of curiosity and acceptance about your students’ language use and backgrounds, designing your lessons so that students can leverage all language resources, and adapting or shifting in the moment to build on whatever language abilities kids bring to class. These techniques can even help students with IEPs who may use language differently or help monolingual standard English speakers consider deficit language ideologies or biases embedded in their school environment.
Designing computer science learning activities with students’ language practices at the center also requires educators to think critically about what they are asking students to learn, and why. In Part 4, we will consider how looking at computing through the lens of language can help us frame computing in more inclusive ways. In Part 5, we will support teachers to expand learning goals beyond those covered by state standards to consider how students might dig into literacies from their own communities, from computing, and from other school disciplines in generative ways.
Part 4: Literate Programming and Code as a Language Resource
(Adapted from Vogel et al., 2020a)
As we aim to support bi/multilingual and language-minoritized students in computer science education, it is important to consider the power dynamics of computing education that may be excluding those students in the first place. CS is often taught in ways that reinforce narrow notions of what counts as computer science, who does CS, and for what purposes. Many CS 101 courses ask students to memorize syntaxes and to create test “toy” projects disembodied from context.
But these approaches ignore the fact that code is deeply relevant to the human experience. Code is all around us, shaping how we communicate, entertain, transact, vote, and take civic action — not to mention how we are surveilled, scammed, and persuaded. Instead of treating code as something people use to solve de-contextualized problems, we might view it as a language resource – a resource that computers can process and which people can mobilize to support communication and expression with other humans. As scholar/educator Tom Lynch writes, “Software theorists are quite clear on this: like other languages, software is socially constructed, flawed, fickle, and ideological” (2017, p. 165).
The section below unpacks a philosophy about programming that highlights CS’ connections with expression, language and communication. If we start with the premise that people express and communicate about, with, and through code (Vogel, 2020), then it follows naturally that bi/multilinguals – and all students – already have a lot to contribute, and can be more inclusively welcomed into the space.
Communicating About and Around Code: Making Code “Literate”
Many people decide that programming and computer science is “not for them” because code itself appears like a jumble of inscrutable white text on a black screen. But there are many ways to make code more readable, supporting experts and novices alike. Below, we return to John’s story to share how Ms. Kors aimed to do this in her ENL classroom.
John’s Story: Designing to Leverage Language Resources
As they built their Scratch projects, students in Ms. Kors class…
Storyboarded their stories on paper and used PowerPoint before moving to Scratch
Role-played what they hoped their code would do using puppets and paper prototypes
Set the interface of Scratch to display different languages at different times
Shared and debugged their code collectively by doing demos at the electronic whiteboard – students shared their thinking, and narrated along using a range of language practices
Annotated printed out versions of Scratch code on paper
Annotated their code digitally using comments and Scratch’s “Notes and Credits” project page section
Through all of the teaching moves above, Ms. Kors set up John and his peers to represent code and what they hoped it would do for their projects in a way that was easily understandable for the members of this computing community. Students translanguaged with spoken and written Scratch keywords and human language, diagrams, drawings, and role-play.
Like John and his classmates, all programmers express themselves about, with, and through code as they engage in broader communities. They use programming languages like Java and C++. They write comments in their code, create flow charts and diagrams, post queries on online forums like stackoverflow.com, share meaningful CS projects with the wider world, critique harmful tech on social media and so much more (Vogel, Hoadley, et al., 2020b).
The idea of embracing a broad range of language and communication practices has a long history in Computer Science. Prominent computer scientist Donald Knuth coined the phrase literate programming (Knuth, 1984) to emphasize that computer code (programs) are meant to be read and understood by people, and not just computers. Knuth advocated that computer scientists should appreciate virtuosic works of programming just like virtuosic works of literature, and that by treating programs as not only functional but expressive creations would allow real progress in CS.
In addition to advocating that coders should be well-read in excellent works of programming, Knuth also advocated that programming itself should involve combining human language and computer programming languages in specific ways. Knuth built systems to support a software development process in which programmers first specified and refined with others what their programs should do in human language, and then gradually refined these drafts to include a combination of executable code and comments, which together led to a clear and expressive “literate” program that could both be run on the computer and read (or modified) by other people. Thinking about how to make programs literate for all can help reduce perceptions of programming as the domain of an elite few, what has been metaphorically called a programming “priesthood” (Backus, 1980; Doctorow, 2009; Maz, 2017; Nelson, 1973; Sabelli, 1998).
The idea of literate programming helps us see that coding is a part of a social conversation – one way that we can express and communicate ideas to and with others. This means that coding is not just about correctness, but about how ideas are encoded, expressed, and understood in social contexts. Programmers must consider the other people they are in conversation with.
When we understand that computer programs are for people – not just computers – to interact with, we also pay more attention to how language mediates how people learn, solve problems, and collaborate in CS. “Communication about computing” is a core practice identified in the K-12 CS Education Framework (2016). Research shows that even though students may be able to correctly solve programming problems, if they can’t explain how the solutions work, they may not actually understand what they’ve done (Hoadley et al., 1996). When teachers engage students in talking about computing and pair-programming interactions, they can help shape those students' development of computational thinking (Grover & Pea, 2013; Werner & Denning, 2009; Lash et al., 2017). Social interactions mediated through text comments, code, and tutorials on the Scratch programming platform were found to support younger students in improving their interactive media projects (Brennan et al., 2011). Teachers can encourage students to express themselves through multiple modalities such as interviews, drawings and design journals to help them show what they know about computing (Brennan & Resnick, 2012) – much in the same way that John did in Part 3. Attending to students' language use in conversation about and with code is key to supporting robust computer science learning.
Incorporating not just writing of programs, but also reading and engaging with programs to make them more “literate” can help create space for novices to participate in CS. Just like translanguaging pedagogy, the literate programming philosophy can help educators take up an asset based approach in which all of a student’s linguistic resources can be used to leverage into new literacies, i.e., using human language and pseudocode to leverage into executable code.
For more on how a literate programming approach can support multilingual learners’ CS and language development, watch the video below.
Leveraging Code for Expression and Criticality
The literate programming philosophy underscores that computer programs are for people, not just computers to read and parse. Not only is communicating about and around code integral to sustaining computing communities – people can express themselves through code as an expressive medium.
Take the assignment John was asked to complete in his ENL class as an example.
John’s Story: Ms. Kors’s Pedagogical Design
John’s ENL teacher, Ms. Kors, asked her students to use Scratch to code animations of their family history. She chose this assignment because she thought that code would allow students to express themselves in a more expansive way than her traditional written assignments. Students would be able to add more details with the visual features of animations and bring viewers into their stories by leveraging potential interactive elements.
In addition, this assignment allowed students to share parts of themselves that their teachers and peers might now know about them, or wouldn’t know about them if not for this opportunity to share. John understood this intention behind the assignment. When asked why he thought Ms. Kors wanted students to use Scratch in class, John shared, “because she want us, she she she, she want to know our story” (Focus Group, 5-31-2019).
Through the framing of this project, Ms. Kors challenged notions about what part of kids' lives are relevant to CS, encouraging students to express personal narratives in code and multimedia. This became apparent when sharing projects meant running their code as well as taking the class through the code itself. This created new and shared parts of students’ language repertoires as they learned how to code together to share their stories.
While many programmers use code for problem-solving (e.g. creating efficient algorithms to sort or search through data), like John, people who engage in computing also use code, images, and data for expression and communication. For example:
John’s project, and all of these examples, bring together things that are not traditionally seen as relevant to computer science (e.g. refugee journeys, the artistry of handwriting, your abuela’s favorite story, knitting) with computing to represent people’s ideas in easy to understand, aesthetically beautiful, and compelling ways.
Thus far in this chapter, we’ve explored how leveraging students’ translanguaging and code as a “literate” language resource can offer bi/multilingual learners a way to express themselves and participate in conversations that involve computer science and coding.
But to truly advance equity in CS, we must also examine the nature of the computing conversations that students take part in: What is being discussed in these conversations? Towards what ends? Who is taking part? Who is left out?
Even as computing tools, technologies, and cultures have enabled expression and creativity, they have also played a role in advancing inequities (Ko et al., 2020), including language injustice, as explored in Part 1. When we support bi/multilingual students to participate in computer science, educators can run the risk of uncritically inculcating students into fields and industries that have marginalized them and their communities in the first place. They might telegraph to students that the language and learning practices associated with school-based CS or other disciplines are more valuable than language and practices used in students’ communities.
To avoid these pitfalls, educators might attune themselves to the conversations happening around computing that are taking place away from seats of power (e.g. the tech industry and CS departments). Educators might help their students start new conversations, and to leverage practices and language they learn outside of school to have them. As Yasmin Kafai argues, “computational participation” is not just about understanding the tools that students have inherited, but changing and remaking a world mediated by computation (Kafai, 2016).
How we get there is the subject of the final section of this chapter.
Part 5: What conversation is this code a part of?
As we connect our theories of translanguaging pedagogy with the literate programming approach, we repeatedly pose the question:
“What conversation is this code a part of?”
There are many conversations that students might have about, with, and through code. As we aim to support equitable participation of bi/multilingual learners in CS education, educators might consider expanding the range of conversations that might be had with computing tools and ideas beyond those typically sanctioned by CS courses and industry.
Let’s return to Ms. Kors and John for an example. Ms. Kors asked students to use Scratch to share personal narratives, bringing their experiences and communities closer to the center of CS education. Below, we describe how John took up this invitation in his own work:
John’s Story: Supporting Conversations with Multiple Audiences
For his family history project, John chose to create a Scratch animation depicting a moment from a consequential experience: when he and his family walked from Eritrea to Ethiopia for three days at the beginning of their journey as refugees.
This entailed coding Scratch sprites representing the different members of his family and timing the appearance of speech bubbles to depict their conversations as they embarked on their journey. Through his code, John was able to share traits of his family members. He made decisions about what images to use to depict each member of the family, which “text to speech” voices to use to depict people of different ages and genders, and what dialogue to use to share the ways they took care of each other.
When asked why he chose to tell this particular family story, John shared that he wanted to tell his class where he came from and to remind them that traveling to a new country means you will miss where you’re from:
“I want to tell where I came from and I want to tell people that, like you could travel ano-any country and like you’ll miss your fr-place.” (John, Focus group 5-31-2019)
In choosing to share such an intense and challenging experience, John was able to start conversations in school about his experiences as a refugee that he had not previously shared with teachers. Although it was not Ms. Kors’s original intention behind the project, it served as a generative sentence starter. For example, when asked about the part of his story that he put into Scratch, John shared vivid details from his experience:
John: I was walk like, I was walking like the, the place like this, it was too sunny. Uh, then, like, we only walk like at the night time. Like, we cannot walk, like at the sun time. [...] Only sometimes. Like, I bleed ((gesture towards nose)). My mother cannot let me go at this time. I go in the dark time. (Observation, 02-08-2019)
At the end of the project during a parent-teacher conference with Ms. Kors, John was able to share his project with his mom. John and his mother shared a tender moment reflecting on this experience while speaking Tigrinya. John’s mother then shared more about their experiences as refugees with John’s teacher, elaborating on why this project was so meaningful to her and her family.
John’s story can help us think deeply about the ideas we are trying to express in code and our motivations, purposes, and intended audiences. To tell his story, John brought in knowledge and practices related to computing, but also related to the social history of his region of origin, and to his family history. He leveraged practices typically taught in language arts related to storytelling.
We believe that, similar to how we teach writing across the curriculum, computing should be connected to domains outside pure computer science – like family, community, and school disciplines. The most important computing conversations touch communities in different ways and know no disciplinary boundaries. When educators guide students to connect computer science to conversations they are having in other school subjects, in their homes, or with their on-and-offline communities, they can enrich learning across the curriculum, and support a more culturally responsive approach to school and learning. There’s no best model for this: teachers might infuse CS into other subjects, or incorporate units into a stand-alone CS class to explore the intersections of computing and diverse fields and domains.
When we bridge school and home knowledge by putting them in conversation with each other, we take up a “syncretic” approach to learning. The term “syncretic” helps us highlight that when people bring practices from different realms together, we create new kinds of literacies out of the tensions and sparks that result, transforming and improving what and how we learn (Gutiérrez, 2014). In contrast to creating classrooms where everyday and out-of-school knowledge is seen as a pathway to more sophisticated forms of school knowledge (sometimes called hybridity in research like in Gutiérrez et al., 1999), syncretism highlights the new ideas that can emerge when home and school knowledge are both treated as legitimate forms of knowledge and brought together. For example, when Elizabeth Acevedo joins language from her various communities in her poetry, she not only brings poetry into the conversations in her community, but she also advances poetry itself. And when John carefully selects which text-to-speech voices he wants to code into the Scratch sprites depicting his family members, he opens up new conversations with his teachers about programming and representation of age and gender in digital media.
We call the merging together of literacies from different school disciplines, from computer science, and from home and community syncretic computational literacies. Teachers can design for “syncretic computational” conversations. For example, one PiLa-CS bilingual middle school science teacher, realized that her students were talking about Hurricane María shortly after it devastated Puerto Rico in the Fall of 2017. She considered what was “computational” and what was “scientific” within that conversation, and developed a unit that guided students to use Scratch to create computational models of the impacts of the storm, leveraging their own personal experiences and family histories related to hurricanes and storms. (for more on this unit and others like it, see the PiLa-CS Educator Resources page)
When supporting teachers to think “syncretically,” we encourage them to start conversations that enable their students to draw on literacies from three areas:
Ways of reading, writing, speaking, creating and interacting with the world learned from friends, family, and other communities. In short, all the conversations that are outside what school traditionally centers. This could include literacies that connect to home languages, but also any kind of talk that isn’t part of official, academic language, whether it is a television show, a dinnertime conversation, or an online fan site.
Ways of reading, writing, creating, and interacting with the world from school subject areas, such as scientific discourse in science class, literary discourse in a language arts class, and so on. Just as a scientist learns to have a certain kind of discussion around hypotheses and data, or a mathematician learns to use a certain kind of argument for a proof, or a poet learns to play with and defy the grammatical patterns of prose, students are learning specialized ways of talking and thinking in their school subjects. These literacies help students communicate with others in and about those disciplines.
The real-world conversations students can use code and computing to take part in, include not only the way professional programmers might talk to each other, but also other CS literacies that underpin computing in a variety of settings. This can include the ways expert spreadsheet users debug their macros, the ways digital artists talk about and share their work, or the ways students express their concerns with the ethics of hacking or modding games.
All three of these types of literacies—community, disciplinary, and computational—already exist in the world and to varying degrees for our students. But they are not equally valued, and rarely are they brought together. School curriculum often undermines and devalues the knowledge of bi/multilingual learners’ communities. And, even among academic disciplines, CS is often held apart, seen as an inaccessible, arcane way of thinking that only people who have a “techy” bent are able to comprehend.
As CS education becomes a universal part of the K-12 schooling core, practitioners have the opportunity to challenge this state of affairs. Instead of constructing walls and boundaries around the field, practitioners can view and work towards syncretic goals for CS education, valuing community knowledge as it overlaps with and exists alongside knowledge from computing and other disciplines. If we want to achieve CS for all, we have to both dismantle our ideas about it being a separate and esoteric way of thinking and communicating. One of the best ways to do that is by breaking down the barriers between computing conversations and all of the other conversations our students are having. Because computing is such a new area of conversation for many students, it also provides opportunities for emergent bilinguals to leverage being able to think strategically about language, to anchor computing in diverse cultures, and to bridge home and school conversations. We are bound to create new, exciting avenues for computer science when it can include the richness of multiple named languages, and interweave with the powerful ways people learn to use the languages of different academic disciplines.
Looking at CS from a syncretic perspective means drawing inspiration for learning environments from the many conversations about, with, and through code that occur in spaces beyond formal CS classes and professional programming jobs. It means noticing and surfacing the tensions between the different ways of knowing, computing and using language that come together in these conversations. Having syncretic conversations empowers students to use code to serve their communities, push-back against inequitable computing practices, and support their growth and identity development.
Syncretic computational literacies is a mouthful; if it helps, the PiLa-CS project also frequently calls this idea “the three circles.” The idea is simple but powerful–you can use the three circles to understand the types of emerging literacies students participate in. You can also use the three circles to brainstorm what kinds of conversations students could have in class, and how to design units to support students to have these conversations in your classroom. The three circles can inform how you use the translanguaging pedagogy framework of stance, design, and shifts. For instance, three circles can be used to think about how to respond in the moment with shifts as students bring in language to the classroom—how can I embrace and link how the student is using language to other literacies? Or, it can be used as a tool to think about designing units or activities. The worksheet below is an example of a tool you can use to bring three circles thinking into unit design.
Three Circles Worksheet
Designing and developing syncretic computational conversations in classrooms is one way to promote equity in CS education. Doing so breaks down traditional boundaries between school disciplines and communities that have systematically marginalized bi/multilingual learners. It helps us change what counts as academic knowledge in a way that uplifts the brilliance bi/multilingual learners already bring to the classroom. And it helps us envision what it would be like to have generative computing conversations not only in the offices of tech companies, but throughout our society and with youth.
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 In this chapter we use the term, “bi/multilingual learners,” to emphasize these students’ linguistic resources. We also opt to use this term because it is strengths-based. We use it synonymously with emergent bilinguals. These terms stand in contrast to terms such as English Language Learner or Limited English Proficient.
 Note that John was not the student’s given name – it is a pseudonym this student wanted us to use to refer to him in our writing.
 For example, Chinese American families sued the San Francisco United School District (SFUSD) in 1974 to protest the school district’s lack of meaningful education for Chinese speaking students in the district. As a result of this ruling, it was decided that schools had to provide students new to English with support to access the curriculum. Puerto Rican activists, also in 1974, sued the New York City Board of Education and the settlement, the Aspira Consent Decree, declared the right to transitional bilingual education and English as a Second Language for New York City students. While both pieces of legislation established bilingual education programs, language injustice persists within and outside of these bilingual programs for racialized bi/multilingual students.
 As one example, before the partition of India and Pakistan, the northern part of the Indian subcontinent was said to speak a single language termed Hindustani. However, after India and Pakistan were separated and began to entrench their political differences, the differences in language use in each region became codified as Hindi and Urdu. Social pressure increased to use Persian derived words in one country and Sanskrit derived words in the other.