Transformative Pedagogies for Gaelic Revitalisation: Report to Soillse of a study of Gaelic-medium teachers' perspectives on the potential of translanguaging as a classroom pedagogy

Joanna McPake, Ann Macdonald, Mona Wilson, Fiona O'Hanlon, Mary Andrew

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Summary: This report This report presents the findings from a small-scale study of teachers’ views on the potential of translanguaging as a classroom pedagogy in Gaelic-medium education (GME). What is translanguaging? Translanguaging refers to the pedagogical use of two languages in a language immersion classroom: both the target language (i.e. Gaelic in Gaelic-medium classrooms), and the other language widely spoken by pupils in the class (i.e. English in the case of most Gaelic-medium pupils). Interest in translanguaging as a pedagogical strategy initially emerged in Welsh-medium education in the 1990s, but has grown world-wide, particularly over the last decade. Several studies have been conducted in Wales and in the USA, and researchers in the Basque Country and in Ireland are beginning to explore the potential of this approach. As far as we are aware, there have been no Scottish studies to date. What are the potential benefits of translanguaging as a pedagogical strategy? It is argued that translanguaging benefits learners in language immersion settings because it facilitates the development of flexible bilingualism – the ability to move easily between two languages – and that this is a factor underpinning certain cognitive advantages that bilinguals are known to acquire by virtue of using two languages from an early age. More pragmatically, proponents of translanguaging argue that it supports both content and language learning in immersion settings, because pupils learn to draw on both their languages to understand and process information. Research methods: As translanguaging is not currently in use as a pedagogical strategy in GME schools, this study set out to explore teachers’ perspectives on its potential. Six groups of practising and prospective GME teachers were invited to take part in professional development sessions run by the researchers. Following a pre-session reading from Colin Baker’s Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (2011) on translanguaging (pp 288-291), each session consisted of a presentation in which the researchers introduced translanguaging to the group; and a focus group discussion, facilitated by the researchers, in which the participants were asked to comment and explore the ideas they had encountered. There were 17 participants in total, from two primary and two secondary schools, and in each case, one from an urban and one from an island location; and a group of future GME teachers, which included prospective primary and secondary teachers. Teachers in this group were adult learners of Gaelic. Analysis: The focus group discussions, which largely took place in Gaelic, were recorded and transcribed, and have been analysed, using a thematic content analysis approach. Findings: concerns and questions The findings indicate that participants had significant concerns about translanguaging. They also raised a number of questions about possible use in GME classrooms. Their concerns derived from a sense that translanguaging is counter-intuitive in the context of language immersion, where the assumption is that the greater the exposure to Gaelic, the better children will acquire it. It contradicts current policy and practice, which mandate Gaelic at all times in the early years and a gradual, but strictly limited introduction of English from the mid primary years onwards. There is a strong consensus among teachers, policy-makers, parents, pupils and the wider community concerned with GME that this approach effectively secures GME pupils’ Gaelic and supports Gaelic revitalisation. Their questions reflect a recognition that English is, nevertheless, in use in GME classrooms, principally because a lack of resources in Gaelic sometimes entails the use of resources in English (particularly online resources). The discussion focused on how these resources are used, and how teachers scaffold the work based on them, to enable pupils to move from English to Gaelic in discussions and written outputs. This led to consideration of whether particular subject areas or particular stages in pupils’ careers are more suited to translanguaging, and whether translanguaging could mediate tensions that teachers sometimes encounter between the demands of ensuring that pupils develop high standards of competence in Gaelic and expectations that pupils will cover the same curriculum as their peers in English-medium classrooms. Participants recognised that the emphasis that proponents of translanguaging place on pupils’ emerging bilingualism differs in some respects from the current focus in GME on pupils’ competence in Gaelic. They considered whether there would be advantages in adopting a pedagogical approach which more overtly addresses this aspect of immersion pupils’ learning. They identified a number of areas in which translanguaging might be of benefit, including helping pupils to make connections between Gaelic and English; helping them to develop metalinguistic awareness in relation to both languages; supporting the learning of a third language; helping pupils to learn through another language; and engaging parents more effectively in their children’s learning. However, they concluded that more research would be needed to demonstrate that translanguaging effectively delivers these kinds of benefits; and that much work would be needed to change current attitudes, given the consensus that current provision meets both learner needs and revitalisation goals. Discussion: In our discussion of the findings, we focus on the following questions that the work has raised for us: •Why is translanguaging on the rise? •What are the goals of Gaelic-medium education and to what extent do current policy and practice achieve these? •How is English currently used in GME classrooms? What are the implications a) for the development of children’s Gaelic; b) for the development of their bilingualism; c) for children’s learning? •Can translanguaging benefit minoritised languages? Conclusions and recommendations In conclusion, we briefly review the most recent literature on translanguaging as a transformative pedagogical strategy noting, critically, that this entails a move from a language immersion model based on the concept of additive bilingualism (where learners add new languages without detriment to those they already know) to dynamic bilingualism (where learners use and expand their full linguistic repertoire to learn). In line with this literature, participants in our study recognised their responsibilities to GME pupils in relation to supporting content learning and providing opportunities to develop appropriate linguistic practices for academic purposes; and expressed a cautious interest in the potential of translanguaging to enhance this work. They also noted challenges in relation to opportunities for recognising pupils’ bilingualism and emerging bilingual identities. Participants felt that further research was needed to establish the effectiveness of translanguaging and we support this view, recommending, therefore, that a research agenda is developed in collaboration with all stakeholders.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationSleat
Commissioning bodySoillse
Number of pages66
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2017


  • translanguaging
  • Gaelic-medium education
  • teacher education and professional development
  • language immersion education


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