Dr. Angel Lin on Classroom Language Education

November 17, 2018

Angel Lin's current focus is language use in the classroom. She’s exploring new theoretical horizons in classroom language education, beginning with the ways that formal teaching and the use of standardized national languages are in tension with ordinary language use. The tensions between standardizing powers and the emergent living processes that they control are a key focus of Angel's language education research. Two examples from her recent research publications are language use in “immersion” or “content-based” language learning and the feeling or affective dimension of language learning.

Dr. Lin questions the foundations of what some think of as normal in language. Her research in multi-modal semiotics uses real classroom examples from around the world to focus on how normal communication often means drawing on and combining more than one system of symbols. Her articles might include a transcription complete with gestures and with indentation clearly showing the timing of quick interactions, like stage directions in a play, or could present one exchange with common phrases in five languages. The idea of just teaching “a language,” or teaching “in” a language, starts to seem doubtful when she explains how typical “translanguaging” can be.

Immersion learning — also called “content-based education” — is one of the areas to which Angel has recently turned her theoretical toolkit. That’s the teaching practice she examines in her recent paper, “Theories of trans/languaging and trans-semiotizing: implications for content-based education classrooms” (2018). In this paper she uses data from immersion classes to show the possibilities of translanguaging as a process of making meaning by combining what we might ordinarily think of as multiple meaning-making systems. She argues that this kind of language use is an essential tool in language learning; that this needs to be counterbalanced against the need to develop a sense of meaning in the target language; and that students would benefit from it if teachers would look at the students’ language repertoires as something they can expand, rather than correct or replace.

Content-based education, immersion, by any name it’s the practice of teaching new languages by “immersing” students in environments where speakers are using the new language (and sometimes only the new language). One of the basic questions in immersion classrooms is how restrictive the immersion should be. Dr. Lin advocates for a balanced approach. Her examples of classroom dialogs show people using language flexibly to communicate and to build understanding as a group. For example, one of the classroom dialogues Dr. Lin analyzes in “Theories of trans/languaging…” shows students using vocabulary from one language during a conversation held in another, using the familiar word to maintain the flow of thought. Another example has a group of students exploring different ways to ask a question until one of them lands on a winner.

Dr. Lin argues that allowing students to use translanguaging in content-based immersion settings will enable students to better connect their emerging and existing language use. She presents translanguaging as a way people use to explore a new language. Without access to translanguaging as part of a meaning-making process, she writes, “what is left in the classroom would mainly be parroting without active ownership of learning on the part of the students.” With a more flexible idea of what’s normal, they instead get to explore around the edges of one language with the words and grammar of another, testing, playing, and using their skills in home languages to scaffold up into the new one. Allowing students to use their home language isn’t just doing them a favour, it’s about giving the learners access to more of the developmental toolkit that will allow them to gain confidence with the target language -- while staying confident in themselves.

Angel Lin’s work doesn’t end after pragmatic questions of how to teach language and content well. In her approach, communication serves a function. Communication is a tool for understanding; understanding allows for compassion; compassion, she hopes, will help us to better co-exist. But what kinds of communication will best lead us to that end?

One of Dr. Lin's answers to the role that scholars play as public servants has been to advocate for more empathetic and contextually informed approaches to languages in the classroom. In one kind of meaning-making, people exchange testable information, like how many corners a square has or the way to test DNA strands for mutations. Another aspect of meaning-making that Dr. Lin thinks has been neglected is what she calls feeling-meaning. How do we communicate feeling? Not always in direct terms, and it hasn’t been a top priority in every education system. Advocacy from scholars such as Dr. Lin ensures that we prepare teachers and students to consider each other as people, practicing understanding and always looking for the best means of communication because, as Dr. Lin put it, “if I can feel what other people feel, then I have a chance to understand them.” This also connects with her translanguaging work, as holding space for students to use their home languages allows them to stay closer with the people who speak them: their families.

Existing language research methods often presume divisions such as “L1” and “L2” (the speaker’s first and second languages). Dr. Lin’s translanguaging research can be read as an attempt to explore and trouble those and other borders by making different assumptions. Using a different set of mental tools and definitions, it’s possible to achieve new insights and results that would have been invisible in a different methodology. That could help people both in the search for truth, and in the pursuit of our responsibility to those in the care of educators.

Angel Lin's advocacy takes dual action, promoting multimodal, plurilingual language use on the twin basis that it's a natural and effective way to communicate and that it's best to promote rather than punish students' connections with any and all meaning-making tools they have at hand, not only in order to empower their use of all forms of communication, but also because our languages can have emotional resonance and personal, emotional meaning beyond the classroom and its limited goals. She encourages readers to appreciate the language resources that students bring with them, including language use that isn’t standard classroom practice. As she puts it, “The aim of education is not to replace students’ multiple and flexible communicative means (both linguistic and beyond linguistic) with school-valued codes,” but to expand the students’ repertoires of communication. By respecting students’ emergent and existing language skills, and by policing the borders between them a bit less, teachers can help students to gain confidence and reconcile their existing language skills with new ones.