Translanguaging in Self-Access Language Advising: Informing Language Policy

John Adamson and Naoki Fujimoto-Adamson, University of Niigata Prefecture, Japan

Adamson, J., & Fujimoto-Adamson, N. (2012). Translanguaging in self-access language advising: Informing language policy. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3(1), 59-73.

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This study investigates language advising in a self-access center (SAC) with the purpose of informing language policy. This center is located in a new Japanese university and has shifted from an initially teacher-imposed ‘English-only’ language policy into one which encourages “translanguaging” (Blackledge & Creese, 2010, p. 105) between the students’ and center advisors’ (termed as mentors in this center) L1 (Japanese) and their L2 (English). Data from audio-recordings of interaction with advisors and students and between students themselves, interviews with mentors, and student questionnaires all reveal how translanguaging occurs in practice and how it helps to create a learning space in which the “local, pragmatic coping tactics” (Lin, 2005, p. 46) of code-switching offer a more viable approach for learning than under its initial monolingual policy. Mentor interviews and student questionnaires indicate generally positive attitudes towards translanguaging; however, some students still favor an ‘English-only’ policy. Conclusions reveal that a looser language policy in the center is emerging in which mentors now guide students towards their own individualized language policies. It is argued in this paper that this “code choice” (Levine, 2011) in language use is therefore aligned more closely to the principles of student-direction in self-access use.

Keywords: self-access, translanguaging, language policy

This study investigates the issues surrounding language policy in a self-access center (SAC) in a Japanese university. Its primary purpose is to highlight how an initially strict ‘English-only’ policy has been reformulated in light of views and observations from the center’s users – students and center advisors (mentors) – from student questionnaires, mentor interviews, and audio recordings of student talk and mentor advisory sessions. The practice of “translanguaging” (Blackledge & Creese, 2010, p. 105) is put forward as a key concept here. Translanguaging is basically the mixing of languages, or code-switching, in bilingual educational settings. Whereas code-switching is a term to describe the interactional changes between languages in various contexts, translanguaging is a process in which code-switching is seen as a tool in a pedagogical approach to negotiate meaning in classroom settings, particularly multilingual ones. Not without controversy, it is nevertheless seen by Cummins (2005) as a bilingual strategy instrumental in building motivation and language awareness. With this potential, we take this approach as viable for our particular self-access center.

The paper firstly provides contextual details concerning the center, and then critically analyzes the key areas of the literature relevant to language policy in educational settings. After explaining the methodology, the triangulated data will then be presented and discussed. Conclusions and implications for this particular center are then drawn which may have some resonance for other self-access centers seeking to formulate language policies.


This SAC was established in April 2009 at a new four-year university in Japan. A committee steers its operation and comprises English language and content faculty, and its three mentors. Mentors maintain the center and its resources, and provide language learning advice to students. The university has three main fields of study with English as the medium of content instruction for some subjects. All first grade students take compulsory English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classes to prepare them for the academic demands of content lessons in English. The SAC’s role is to support students in their learning of languages and also content, meaning that advice is needed for academic study in the students’ L1 and other languages.

The center is located in a well-equipped, large room with internet-linked computers, a reception area, tables, chairs, sofa and a carpeted area which can accommodate roughly fifty students. Resources for self-study consist of English graded reader collections, DVDs, grammar reference materials, games, authentic content curricula reading materials. There are also some self-study materials for Chinese, Korean, and Russian. The English language resources are integrated with the EAP curriculum by giving course credit for use of graded readers and audio CDs. Daily visits have grown from approximately 15 students per day in 2009 to 70 in 2011 as the university has increased in size. Along with integration with the EAP program, workshops are given by mentors to support essential academic skills, for example, academic writing.

Upon its establishment in spring 2009, the SAC’s new committee consisting of language teachers and mentors met to formulate various policies of operation, one being language policy. At that time, the committee decided to adopt an ‘English-only’ language policy in the center with a line separating the mentors’ reception area from the rest of the room. In the space near the reception desk, students were allowed to speak either English or Japanese, but in the area beyond that a strict ‘English-only’ policy was put in operation. After opening, students had to be frequently reminded of the policy and some students voiced objection at not being allowed to use Japanese. Students with lower proficiency and lesser motivation to learn languages visited the center less frequently than the more proficient and enthusiastic students. Questionnaire feedback and comments to teachers and mentors suggested that the monolingual policy was causing some students to avoid using the center. A reassessment of the policy was discussed in committee meetings in the summer of 2009 and, despite objections from some teachers, the original ‘English only’ policy was replaced with a more relaxed version meant to encourage all students to use the SAC facilities.

Aims of the study

The reformulation of the language policy was seen as an on-going objective for the committee after the initial experiences of the first year of operation. As the first policy had been decided upon by committee members, it was thought best to avoid the top-down nature of such policy formulation for its revised version. For this purpose, evidence was drawn from the actual use of languages by students and mentors, student questionnaires, and mentor interviews. There was, in essence, a shift in policy-making from a top-down style to one with a more bottom-up orientation and therefore informed by students and mentors rather than decided upon by teachers. From its opening, the committee had been researching various aspects of the center’s use (resources use, extensive reading, student autonomy, curriculum integration) by means of annual student questionnaires which asked students about how they used the center. In order to investigate their language use in the center in more detail for the purpose of this study, these data were supplemented with audio-recordings and interviews specifically related to language use in the center.

Literature Review

The literature in the field of translanguaging is relatively new, but studies into its related themes of code-switching, bilingualism and multilingualism are well-documented (Baker, 2006; Blackledge & Creese, 2010; Garcia, 2009; Martin, 2005; Williams, 1996). Much of this research is based on investigations into language use in classrooms or society, whereas the context for language policy in this study is that of a self-access center where principles of autonomy and student choice should be fostered (Gardner & Miller, 1999). By autonomy and choice, Lynch (2001) refers to the situations in which students can study on their own and the skills they need to develop for self-directed learning. Lynch (2001) explains that this process is influenced by factors such as whether the institution encourages or inhibits self-study, the sense of responsibility that students need to adopt to achieve it, and finally, their rights to determine their own direction in learning.

Some centers are similar to classrooms where immersion language education adopts a “two solitudes” approach (Cummins, 2005) to language acquisition. This approach to language acquisition separates languages so that the students’ L1 is not regarded as a resource in learning another language. As a consequence, L1 use is not permitted in some self-access centers. This approach is challenged in this study on two grounds. Firstly, the top-down imposition of policy which forbids the student L1 fails to develop student self-determination and “code choice” (Levine, 2011, p. 3) in the decision-making process. Levine (2011) sees the rights of students to make their own strategic choices in code-switching between their L1 and the L2 as important resources in language acquisition, and also in their development of life-long learning strategies. Furthermore, a self-access center may differ fundamentally as a “learning space” (Savin-Baden, 2008, p. 13) from a classroom. “Learning space” is a conceptualization of classrooms or any place where learning takes place, formally or informally. The interactional rules of a classroom may be typically made by teachers, termed by Savin-Baden (2008, p. 13) as “striated” spaces, as opposed to “smooth” spaces (p. 13) in which rules are negotiated, challenged and determined by learners themselves. Following this argument, if self-access centers are truly “smooth” spaces in which principles of autonomy are nurtured, then students’ abilities and rights to choose their language code in that learning space need to be exercised and developed. That process of making languages choices between the students’ L1 and L2 may be flawed and require reflection and advice as to its effectiveness (Candas, 2011). Without the opportunity to choose, self-determination as an underlying principle becomes limited to making strategy choices about language use unrelated to what actual language codes may be best utilized.

Secondly, if students’ L1 and their target L2 are allowed to intermingle, as in “translanguaging”, the reality of natural code-switching in multicultural societies is mirrored (Canagarajah, 2006) as bilinguals utilize the “ethnolinguistic repertories” (Benor, 2010) at their disposal to achieve everyday tasks. This suggests that banning students’ L1 is not conducive to preparing students for language use in non-institutional, particularly multilingual, contexts. Proponents of translanguaging view L1 use positively as a linguistic resource in study and non-study environments to develop “local, pragmatic coping tactics” (Lin 2005, p 46). Furthermore, it develops the flexibility to “shuttle between [language] communities” (Canagarajah, 2006, p. 26) and provides “safe” language practice opportunities (Martin 2005, p. 80) for less linguistically proficient or less motivated students.

However, a translanguaging policy must consider the consequences of feelings of “dilemma” and “guilt” (Setati, Adler, Reed & Bapoo, 2002, p. 147) among students more accustomed to learning languages without access to their L1. Also of importance is the actual effectiveness it has in developing language and strategy skills. If given choices how and when to switch languages, students assume an empowering self-managing role of their own language acquisition and reflect upon those choices (Cummins, 2005; Blackledge & Creeese, 2010), which, in terms of self-access use is a metacognitive skill essential in autonomous learning. Studies into student-determined strategy use in self-access by Candas (2011, p. 201) reveal that students engage in “loose piloting”, in which they switch strategies in seemingly inconsistent patterns. This was termed as “organising circumstance” in earlier studies by Spear and Mocker (1984, p. 4) and basically implies that students do not apply study strategies to certain tasks as planned. It may be the case that they are intentionally experimenting with a variety of strategies, or alternatively, that they have forgotten what strategy is best to use. If applied to code-switching practice, then this too implies that inconsistencies of use may occur and some teacher or mentor advice concerning their “habits or routines” may still be of benefit in making students reflect on their choices (Candas, 2011, p. 201). Essentially, this suggests that translanguaging may require some monitoring if implemented.


An ethnographic archive of self-access use has been compiled since 2009 in the center to facilitate research into the various facets of its operation (resource use, metaphors, management). It adopts a methodology of data collection from multiple sources: questionnaires, interviews, casual conversations, audio-recordings of interaction, and statistical calculations of student and materials use (see Adamson, Brown & Fujimoto-Adamson, 2011). For the purpose of this study, data concerning language practice in the center come from the following sources: questionnaires gathered from all 240 first-graders across the various fields (January, 2010) at the end of their first academic year; audio recordings of talk between volunteer student assistants and mentors (November, 2010), among a group of students (January, 2011), and between a student and a mentor in an advisory session (September, 2011); and finally, data from long interviews with mentors (November, 2010).

The limitations of this methodology lie primarily in the small amount of data available from naturally-occurring talk between students, and students and mentors. Additionally, the presence of audio-recorders coupled with knowledge of the research aims given to students through informed consent could possibly lead participants into unnatural code-switching, or even avoiding it due to feelings of guilt.

Findings and Discussion


The first set of data to be presented and analyzed emanates from questionnaire responses from all first-year students (240 students) at the end of the first year of SAC’s operation. There are three main fields of study at the university, one in which the majority of 160 students take some content classes in English, and two smaller fields (both approximately of 40 students) in which content is delivered exclusively in Japanese. The researchers expected that the majority of students who take content classes in English visiting the SAC would report that they used more English than Japanese in the center. Unexpectedly, however, the reverse was found. On average, the 160 student majority reported that they use English and Japanese equally time-wise, yet the 80 students from the two smaller fields reported that they use English more often than Japanese. Upon further investigation of the questionnaire responses, by asking mentors and students from those two smaller fields it became clear that the latter students’ use of English was more confined to simple exchanges concerning borrowing and returning resources, whereas students in the larger field of study were more likely to try to use English initially in more challenging speech events (enquiries about study skills, writing structure and grammar) but code-switched into Japanese when they felt unable to cope lexically. When examining the data for the length of time spent in the center, the 160 students stayed considerably longer per visit than the other 80, showing perhaps that in these visits they attempted to engage in interaction in English with mentors, and each other, in demanding tasks. Students in the two smaller fields were less likely to spend their time in the center for such purposes, instead frequently visiting it for quick borrowing and returning purposes. The use of formulaic language in such exchanges by this group may therefore account for their more frequent English usage.

When asked about the initial ‘English-only’ language policy marked by a line in the SAC, most students reported that they code-switched in this area between English and Japanese on various tasks, but one student was quoted as saying: ‘the border is meaningless’ as many students did not adhere to the language policy. Another student asked: ‘Why don’t mentors force people to speak English?’ These quite strong views were echoed among a minority (7) of the 160 students only, yet they are a sign that there is an expectation, or belief, concerning language acquisition that the “two solitudes” approach (Cummins, 2005) of strict language separation should be an aim for the center. Significantly, it was clear that these students viewed the mentors as gate-keepers of language policy in a formal “learning space” (Savin-Baden, 2008).

Audio-recordings of interaction

In the first of three sets of long audio-recordings (all with students’ consent), two female SAC assistants (student volunteers helping the mentors with simple tasks in their free time) were recorded in November, 2010 interacting with two mentors. The student assistants were engaged in the task of preparing some Halloween decorations for the SAC. While cutting and coloring in a table adjacent to the mentors’ reception desk, talk switched thematically between their task and their recent social activities. It was observed that the students spoke a lot of English, especially when enquiring about how to make the decorations and where to place them in the center. When the task-focused talk became linguistically difficult, or when directions needed to be confirmed with the mentors, the students tended to code-switch to Japanese, as in ‘Kore wa yaranakute mo ii desuka?’ (We don’t need to do this, right?). The mentors themselves conversed with the student assistants exclusively in English. In terms of how the students’ code-switching was constructed, intersentential switching was the norm, i.e. languages were switched on a sentence by sentence basis. Interestingly, when the talk changed to non-task themes of their social activities, intrasentential code-switching – word injections of Japanese inside English sentences – was more common among the two student assistants, for example: ‘We had yakiniku for dinner’ (grilled beef), or ‘We had nanka… a difficult time at the bus station’ (nanka means ‘sort of’ or ‘like’ to express vagueness in Japanese). The delineation between inter- and intra- sentential code-switching in this case was dependent on the theme, and, in the latter, Japanese injections also depended on the lexical difficulty of what the student assistants wished to convey.

In the second interaction from January 2011, six male students were recorded in the center in their English Speaking Society weekly meeting. Although this interaction did not involve the mentors in any social or advisory capacity, it is an example of student to student interaction in the center with mentors available to assist in any communication breakdown. In this sense, the recording does not represent an advisory session, but nevertheless is a speech event which could involve advice and is also informative as to how students formed their own language policy.

The students talked on three themes: campus and daily life, international politics, and learning English mainly in English. Some intrasentential code-switching was observed involving Japanese word injections of difficult, specific lexical items such as soran-bushi (traditional sea shanty songs), shogatsu (New Year),and zoni (traditional New Year soup). Intersentential code-switching was observed occasionally when students excitedly wanted to push the conversation forward, for example, when one student said: ‘Yoshi, tamaruze pointo ga’ (OK, I’m collecting points). The response from another member to this was insightful in that he said ‘Yes, but no Japanese is allowed,’ which not only shows the intersentential nature of their code-switching, but also the enforcement of their own language policy for that meeting. In that respect, it was unnecessary for a mentor or teacher to intervene in the “loose piloting” (Candas, 2011, p. 201) of one student speaking Japanese as his peer took on that role. Interestingly, it was not enforced when one-word Japanese intrasentential code-switching occurred, but only for longer sentence interjections as illustrated above.

The third recording in September, 2011 was between a female student and a mentor in an advisory session concerning an essay. For this linguistically demanding task, both student and mentor spoke mainly Japanese, with English used in an intrasentential manner for specific lexical and grammar items; for example, the mentor explained pronoun use as follows (English injections are underlined):

Travel agency toka, Paris no maeni a ha iranai yone, at jyanakute in ne’ (When you use words like travel agency etc, you don’t need ‘a’ in front of Paris, not ‘at’, but ‘in’, OK.)

Some rare instances of intersentential code-switching only occurred in greetings and at the end of the advisory session, as in:

Mentor: Very good. Well done.

Student: Arigato gozaimasu. Thank you.

Overall, the audio-recordings illustrate the code-switching mechanics of translanguaging in three micro contexts. More data is needed to be able to find clearer patterns; however, from our findings, code-switching from speakers’ L2 (English) to their L1 (Japanese) appeared to depend very much upon lexical and thematic difficulty in the case of when more linguistically competent speakers (mentors) were in interaction with possibly less competent student assistants. The different context of the English Speaking Society was interesting in that students switched from their L2 to L1 only for short unknown lexis, perhaps illustrating how students of similar competence were prepared to continue interacting in their L2 despite conversing on difficult themes. The final mentor-mentee advisory session was similar to the first student assistant to mentor interaction in that talk switched quickly from the L2 to L1 when complex essay-related themes were under discussion. A possible avenue for further exploration would be to monitor code-switching according the contexts and participants’ positioning towards each other and to see if status plays a role in code-switching choices. Finally, of some importance for students and mentors, in the analytical process itself one mentor-researcher noted the awareness-raising value for herself, and possibly for students themselves, in listening to the recordings.

Mentor interviews

In November, 2010, in-depth interviews were held between one teacher-researcher and three mentors on language use in the center, during which four themes emerged: translanguaging, guilt, the mentors’ observations of student language use, and the idea of mentors as potential language role models for students.

The first theme explored what happened when the mentors themselves translanguaged. Mentors unanimously stated that they switched into Japanese to explain grammar, essay structure, and discuss study skills as the previous monolingual policy restricted them in effectively discussing such complex issues in the students’ L1. One noted that she felt it essential to speak Japanese ‘when the eyes go blank,’ or when students simply smile, both paralinguistic signs of non-comprehension. Translanguaging into English occurred when simple, functional interaction was needed, for example, returning and borrowing resources and asking about their availability.

The second theme of guilt, as discussed in the literature (Setati et al, 2002), addressed whether mentors perceived such feelings among students, or harbored them themselves, when using Japanese. None was reported, one mentor commenting that ‘it’s natural they speak in Japanese because I’m Japanese.’ However, another mentor who had regularly observed the male students’ English Speaking Society noted the self-regulating measures taken by students themselves when intersentential code-switching occurred. This student-enforcement of language policy could possibly lead to some feelings of guilt being imposed on students not abiding by their own rules. Asked if mentors felt any pressure to enforce the old monolingual policy in the first year, some did confirm that they felt extremely uncomfortable with this ‘teacher-like’ role. The looser policy which emerged in the latter part of the first year of operation onwards came as a relief, one commenting that ‘it felt good to be able to discuss individual language policy with students, rather than try to keep in place a monolingual policy.’ This requires some time spent with students unsure of which languages to use in various tasks and may also involve much ‘trial and error’ when students attempt to implement their own policies, a scenario which resonates with the inconsistencies of “loose piloting” reported by Candas (2011, p.201).

The third theme focused on the mentors’ observations of when students used English, potentially an insightful contrast with questionnaire data from students about when they claimed to use English. Mentors said that students generally attempted to use mostly English when preparing for English presentations, or completing speaking class tasks, both tasks which were set by teachers. Alternatively, some highly-motivated students were observed to regularly speak in English simply to improve their speaking.

The fourth theme addressed Murphey’s (1996) “near peer role models” to which on mentor remarked that a common feeling existed among students that admiration was shown towards both mentors and senior students who spoke English in the center. Another mentor commented that students regarded it as ‘cool’ to speak in English, creating a possible ‘trickle down effect’ to students less confident in using English.

Conclusions and Implications for Further Research

Findings from this small-scale study on language use and policy reformulation in a SAC suggest that diverse expectations and voices exist. Many students and all mentors in this particular university see translanguaging as a means to create a “learning space” (Savin-Baden, 2008) in which “safe” language practice (Martin, 2005, p. 80) can take place, especially for those less confident or motivated to conform to an ‘English-only’ policy. The concept of translanguaging as a learning strategy to enable “local, pragmatic coping” (Lin, 2005, p.46) in various tasks was generally accepted, yet a substantial minority of the students still saw the center as a place where language learning would be better if separated from their L1. This suggests that a minority expected mentors to adopt the role of policy enforcers, although the majority clearly did not harbor strong objections to the relaxation of the initial language policy.

Translanguaging in practice was observed in three cases, the findings of which suggest that code-switching and language use may depend on task type (teacher-determined homework or originated by students themselves), and its difficulty (simple borrowing and returning interactions or more demanding enquiries about essays and study skills). Clear patterns of “loose piloting” (Candas, 2011, p. 201) were difficult to trace in the data and may simply require more recordings over time, as well as monitoring by mentors.

The role of the mentors in language policy formulation in the center was adjudged to be pivotal as they could observe student interaction and shape it in advisory sessions. Since they saw translanguaging as a welcome relief from the initial monolingual policy, their role has evolved into one in which they no longer need to enforce a monolingual language policy which discouraged some students from using the center. As mentors now discuss and help students reflect upon their own personal language use, they seem to conduct a type of advising which encourages students to adopt a more autonomous learning style. In addition, it creates the type of self access center “learning space” that Savin-Baden (2008) outlined, which also is more conducive to student exploration of their own “code choices,” as described by Levine (2011).

Notes on the contributors

John Adamson, Ed.D., teaches EAP at the University of Niigata Prefecture, Japan. He is Senior Associate Editor of The Linguistics Journal and Asian EFL Journal and is interested in Teacher Development, interdisciplinarity, self-access, and journal editorial systems.

Naoki Fujimoto-Adamson is a SAC mentor at the University of Niigata Prefecture. She is an Associate Editor of Asian EFL Journal and has a MA in ELT from Essex University and MEd from Leicester University.


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