Learning In-Between Languages And Cultures

It’s a crisp night in Albuquerque, at the end of a very full month, after 3 hours on a plane with too many ideas bubbling in my mind, at the beginning of an exciting conference. Time to finally kick off this blog…

The Silent E

I often remember this one time that my daughter was reading a story aloud to me. She hesitated at an unfamiliar word. She pronounced each letter carefully and then looked at me to check if she’d gotten it right. I said: Ah, that’s that tricky silent “e,” and she sighed and said in a slightly annoyed tone: “That’s why Spanish is so much easier than English. I like reading in Spanish because all the letters sound like themselves!”

Sometimes I share that little moment with participants in my workshops. I usually don’t reveal my relationship to the child, I just ask them what’s happening in the story and how old they think she was when she said it. They always observe that there is analysis contrasting the ratio of letter-to-sound correspondence in each the two languages, but they usually do not guess that this child was in pre-kindergarten when she made this observation.

I don’t share this moment to boast about my kid being able to read at a young age. I share it because many people, myself at the time included, don’t realize how capable (even really young) kids are of this kind of metalinguistic thinking. You may think, well, this kid is the child of a bilingual educator…her mom is teaching her two languages, she’s overhearing mom talk shop, her mom talks to her directly about this stuff…she’s immersed in it. And that’s true. But what if immersing a child in opportunities for learning multiple languages and engaging in metacognitive discourse wasn’t rare?

So this memory (and 20 years of living and breathing bilingual education) got me thinking…about this idea that has been bubbling and percolating in my mind and permeating my work for a while now…

Let’s really talk about all the learning that bilingual/multicultural kids do in between and across languages and cultures. And to make that easier, I’ve defied the conventions of hyphenation and capitalization so that we can force this idea of “Learning In-between Languages And Cultures” neatly into the acronym: LILAC.

LILAC in a Nutshell

Our bilingual students are constantly engaged in learning in-between languages and cultures. This isn’t new. And it isn’t new for teachers to appreciate it and incorporate it into their practice. And it isn’t new to examine these translinguistic and transcultural aspects of bilingualism, though there seems an exciting new wave of research and renewed attention to them currently.

But, to my mind, there is a new something that we still need…to make this implicit aspect of schooling for bilingual children, explicit. To make these often unnoticed skills and understandings that are particular to bilinguals, seen and heard. To validate and protect spaces for bilingual education practices that embrace a truer, fuller, more dynamic, and holistic view of bilingualism.

In this era of standards-based curriculum development, we have no standards that address the learning that is unique and most relevant to bilingual students. We have content and social emotional learning standards that we apply to everyone, but these are designed from a monolingual orientation. They do not capture the full and nuanced picture of what multilingual/multicultural kids can/should know/do, nor do they reflect what it means for multilingual/multicultural kids to grow as multilingual/multicultural learners in healthy, empowered ways. We have language development standards that help us understand how bilingual kids progress through acquisition of each of their two languages (each part of the bi- in bilingual) but we don’t have a clear way to really attend in our planning and teaching to the translinguistic dynamic of bilingualism.

Though we don’t have anything at the echelon of Standards to anchor our attention to the dynamic nature of bilingualism, many teachers are attending to it anyway. Sometimes they do it in a clandestine cross-linguistically-focused mini-lesson in schools that have an English-only culture, sometimes as an overt component of units in pro-biliteracy school settings, but without an anchor at the curricular level–something that grounds these units and lessons and practices and binds them together throughout the entire curriculum–it makes it hard to work coherently and consistently toward clear learning goals reflective of dynamic bilingualism. (Think of it this way: If you are developing units using backward design, there is nothing established to work backwards from.)

So I started to ask myself and fellow educators questions like these:

What unique knowledge and skills do  bilingual/multicultural students have?

What knowledge and skills are required of bilingual/multicultural students that are not necessary for monolingual students?

What expectations do we have of bilingual/multicultural students that we don’t have of monolingual students?

And as the answers came, 5 categories seemed to emerge.

We expect bilingual/multicultural students to:

  • Engage in cross-linguistic transfer*
  • Demonstrate meta-multilinguistic awareness
  • Demonstrate meta-multicultural awareness
  • Demonstrate sociolinguistic awareness
  • Engage in translanguaging

I have named this collection straightforwardly, Expectations for Learning In-between Languages And Cultures (LILAC). Absent any official translinguistically-oriented Standards, I’ve used these Expectations (for what are standards really, but expectations?) to include LILAC explicitly and intentionally when designing learning experiences for students.

I humbly offer this attempt to articulate these expectations to my fellow educators as a tool to bring learning in-between languages and cultures more firmly into the curriculum planning process and more visibly into the foreground of our practice. My hope is that by acknowledging, articulating and centering this learning–framing it as a set of expectations–we can design curriculum, assessment and instruction that honors, supports and maximizes the translinguistic and transcultural understandings and skills that are unique to our bilingual students.

So now you know what I think of as a “nutshell.”

I could talk about this stuff all day long. Hence the need for a blog.

More LILAC Stuff

My colleague and friend, Maggie, kindly documented a truly brief summary representation of LILAC at the end of one of my workshops. It is kind of a TPR-gone-wild moment. In the spirit of modeling risk-taking and not being afraid to look/sound goofy (an important spirit for all educators but especially those who teach English learners), I am sharing that video here.

LILAC Expectations Dance

You can also check out the Infographics section to find more resources about the LILAC schema.

*See some new thinking on LILAC in a subsequent post.


  1. Amazing, yet pragmatic insight that is valuable to dual-language and transitional bilingual ed., for sure, but also helpful to ESL programs that seek to support, value, and encourage native/primary/first language development. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for mentioning your daughter’s thoughts as a preschooler. I teach Kindergarten and I think the LILAC experience takes on another level when the students don’t have (much) print literacy or print awareness to fall back on (yet). They are learning names for these concepts as they find them, just as they are learning to label their world. The amount of learning and understanding that they encounter on their journey as emergent bilinguals is amazing; I hope that one day their skills are validated in our tests and standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your comment! Young multilingual children generate such wonderful translanguagings–we are often struck by the fantastic cuteness, but we don’t always recognize how sophisticated they are in observing, constructing meaning, and communicating so effectively using all the ways they know to express themselves. If we are too rigid an only take the external view of languages as systems, we risk shutting this down. And as you point out, we perpetuate this rigidity and miss out on really understanding what they know and can do when we persist in monolingually-oriented and culturally myopic assessments.

    Liked by 1 person

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