One Voice, Many Languages
“Read it again!” After reading Wake Up Sloth, a favorite read aloud of mine for launching activism writing projects, we brainstormed problems in the world that mattered to us, changes we hoped to see. Eva, a kindergartner whose story takes her from Venezuela, to Brazil, Miami, and finally, NYC, shared that she is concerned about her family members who are suffering in Venezuela. As kids hurried off the rug, fueled with power to write for change, I knew it would be an important day to confer with Eva.
As a writer, Eva meticulously crafts books with clear pictures and readable writing. She has a firm grasp on spelling, conventions, and genre. My sessions with Eva are typically rooted in elaboration, knowing there are more words to be told inside her, missing from the pages.
“Eva, it sounds like you’ve found a topic that’s important to you. The stories you shared about your family in Venezuela should be told, so people know and can help.”
Eva nodded her head in agreement.
“When I find a topic that’s important, I think about how it might sound if written different ways — as a poem, a story, a letter. I think about how it will be most powerful and follow my writer’s heart.”
After pondering this for a moment, Eva declared, “I want to write a letter to my Grandma and Grandpa in Venezuela.” Off we went to the writing center to search for just-right paper. We returned with a single page filled with lines, no picture box. Just as Eva’s pen met the paper, she looked up at me:
“My grandma and grandpa don’t speak good English. They won’t understand my letter. I want to write it in Spanish.”
I smiled, “You’re thinking about your readers. That’s what writers do, Eva.”
In this moment, I wasn’t sure what was about to happen. Eva has never written in Spanish…would she know how?
Suddenly, the most beautiful words filled the air. Eva was rehearsing her writing aloud, in Spanish. I quickly reached for my phone and recorded her, so she’d remember her plans. But Eva didn’t need that. The words came right back, this time, on paper.
Just as she does in English, Eva said each word aloud, again and again, making sure to record every sound. She stopped to reread periodically, editing mistakes and rehearsing the next sentence. Before I knew it, the page was filled, more than I’ve ever seen her write. I held back tears, unsure if I’ve ever witnessed something quite as beautiful.
“Eva, your grandma and grandpa will be able to read this letter, and I know it will mean a lot to them. When you share this writing with the world, many people will understand it. There are also lots of people who aren’t as lucky as you, and don’t speak Spanish. They need to hear your letter too. Sometimes, writers write in more than one language, to help lots and lots of people read their writing. There’s a fancy word for that, translating.”
Eva raced back to the writing center and returned with another sheet of paper tucked beneath her arm. “I’ll write another copy in English!”
Translating didn’t happen without effort. Eva thought carefully and played with different words until they matched the ones she originally wrote in Spanish. When she got stuck, Eva reread to figure out what came next.
Eva shared her writing with the class. A friend asked Eva to help her translate a poem to Spanish. Many other kids tried writing in a language they use at home, and as kids read their writing to each other, a beautiful melody of languages filled the classroom.
Today, Eva’s audience grew, as she recited her letter to a room full of leaders at TCRWP’s Annual Principal Conference.
How can something so necessary — allowing and encouraging a child to first write, or rehearse, in another language — never occur to me before? Many of us have been asked to write in a new language in our lives. It’s not easy, and surely, not at the same caliber as writing produced in our dominant language. When we limit the language in which kids can write, we limit voice.
I’ve learned that there’s a term for what Eva did, and does, on a daily basis, as a trilingual speaker: Translanguaging. Multilingual speakers do not fully rely on one language or another. Rather, they pull from the structures of multiple languages to convey meaning. My teaching assistant, who is a native Spanish speaker, noticed Eva used both Portuguese and Spanish in her letter.
The work that Eva did while producing writing in Spanish (and Portuguese), strengthened the foundational literacy skills she has been building in English — stretching through sounds, rereading, relying on meaning first, using syntax. Most importantly, Eva found her voice(s), and the elaboration that I for so long hoped to see, followed.
This doesn’t stop with writing, and this shouldn’t end with Eva. As we hope to provide books as mirrors for our kids – books that kids see themselves in, we also need to provide books that kids hear themselves in. Kids need to listen to, learn, read, write, speak languages that they know, and that they don’t know yet.
Eva wrote her letter because she wants a peaceful life for her family. What she may not have realized, is that through her writing, she inspired a change in my teaching. I hope Eva’s story will lead to many, many more.
More on Translanguaging
- What is Translanguaging? EAL Journal
- What Is Translanguaging? Psychology Today
- Constant Leung discussing Ofelia García’s work on translanguaging, at NALDIC’s South London EAL group.
More on Supporting English As a New Language in Writing Workshop
- A Writing Conference With an English Language Learner Using Google Translate, by Anna Gratz Cockerville
- Supporting ELL Students in Writing Workshop, by Stacey Shubitz