Horner, Bruce, et al. “Language Difference in Writing: Towards a Translingual Approach.” College English 73 3 (2011): 299-317. Print.

  • Abstract (from CE): Arguing against the emphasis of traditional U.S. composition classes on linguistically homogeneous situations, the authors contend that this focus is at odds with actual language use today. They call for a translingual approach, which they define as seeing difference in language not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening.
  • While it hasn’t yet reached official disciplinary agreement (like the other language diversity statement SRTOL), I would argue that this is one of the most progressive steps toward developing a multilingual language policy for the college composition classroom.  This essay extends a lot of work first advocated by Horner, Lu, Trimbur, and Canagarajah w/respect to WE.
  • The authors note that despite the prevalence of a plurality of Englishes worldwide our classrooms still take an abstract, universal norm – a “linguistically homogenous situation” as the place from which our pedagogy proceeds.  This operates to the exclusion of other dialectics and WE’s (299).
  • Working from the foundations created by SRTOL, the translingual approach views language difference as a fluid resource to be preserved, developed, and utilized – instead of seeing language difference only in terms of rights, this doctrine sees them as resources (300).
  • Attending to the power relations of linguistic difference, Horner hope to develop a fuller understanding of what produces the appearance of linguistic conformity; further, they hope to understand “what that appearance might and might not do, for whom, and how” (300).  Further, they also recognize how standard englishes often exclude particular voices and perspectives that conflict with the dominant ideologies/linguistic practices of a particular era. (301).
  • The authors note that “standard English speaker” and “Standard Written English” are bankrupt concepts because they don’t pay heed to the heterogeneity and hybridity of spoken and written Englishes the world over (301).
  • By recognizing the “heterogeneous, fluid, and negotiable” facets of language in contrast to the fixed, uniform standards I feel like this piece is extending much work in rhetoric and philosophy that argues, in Fuchs’ words, “against essentialism” toward contextually specific, emergent subjectivities (or should I say singularities?!?) (301).
  • The two types of response to language difference (historically) in the U.S.: 1) traditional approach – seeks to eradicate linguistic difference in the name of achieving correctness, defined as a writers’ conformity with a putatively uniform, universal set of notational and syntactic conventions that we name Standard Written English; and 2) the acknowledging difference approach – seeks to recognize linguistic difference as an individual right; however, it assumes that each of these sets of language practices that are “deviant” or different are only appropriate for particular “specific, discrete, assigned social sphere[s]” (302).  These sphere’s might include “home,” “street,” “academic,” “business,” and “written.”  This approach is problematic because it fails to recognize the presence of some sphere’s language in other spheres (the “street” in the “academic” for example); furthermore, it fails to acknowledge the problematic of power in linguistic difference (e.g., Why can’t I use “street” in the academy?).  Horner claim that both of these approaches to language are “monolingualist” in that they assume a hierarchical relationship between language systems instead of embracing the fluid movement of different language codes in the pursuit of new rhetorics, epistemologies, and peaceful futures (303).
  • How to redefine the terms of “fluency,” “proficiency,” and “competence”:

o    Because language is never a static entity and because language learning is always evolving the notion of “comptetence” must be redefined so that “mastery. . . include[s] the ability of users to revise the language that they must also continuously be learning – to work with and on, not just within, what seem its conventions and confines” (303).

o    Proficiency – This shouldn’t be measured by a speaker/writer’s ability to meet some abstract set of norms; rather, it should show the range of different language practices they can draw on creatively to produce meaning.

o    Fluency  – “Deftness in deploying a broad and diverse repertoire of language resources, and responsiveness to the diverse range of readers’ social positions and ideological perspectives” (304).

  • How does a translingual perspective effect ESL/Bilingual education?  It is commensurate with forms of ESL that do not seek to replace the knowledge of one language with another.  It also supports the granting of academic credit to students attempting to broaden their language repertoire.
  • How does a translingual approach effect language rights, immigration and state language policy?  First it rejects any positions that don’t honor the fundamental human right to speak the language of one’s choosing.  It also rejects any use of language policy and doctrine as a simple veil for racist discrimination policies toward individuals of other race, citizenship status, or ethnicity.  (305)
  • How does a translingual approach effect writing programs?  First, it requires that the profession make good on extending professional development opportunities to faculty and staff to develop a better understanding of language difference.  Second, it would advocate for the interaction/collaboration with foreign language departments in new and exciting ways.  Third, it would require a more rigorous engagement on the graduate student level with the second language requirement (ouch! J).
  • So, are there standards in this new doctrine or not?  Yes – if by standards you mean quality writing, then yes, standards exist; however, this means the teaching of standards as historically situated, variable, and negotiable (307).
  • My students are all monolingual – so what does a translingual doctrine offer me?  Well, it is likely that your students are not all monolingual – they use a lot of dialects of English in different forums and their digital life provides an audience that certainly isn’t monolingual; hence, this doctrine is a good rhetorical move for your student-writers.  Finally, encouraging more just, ethical approaches to difference in students will – optimistically – lead to a more open and inquiry-driven approach to difference (instead of vilification).


1.     The translingual approach: This approach sees difference in language not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening.  When faced with difference in language, this approach asks:  What might this difference do?  How might it function expressively, rhetorically, communicatively?  For whom, under what conditions, and how?  The possibility of writer error is reserved as an interpretation of last resort.  (299-300).  The translingual approach encourages reading with patience, respect to perceived differences within and across languages, and an attitude of deliberative inquiry (300). The translingual approach argues for 1) honoring the power of all language users to shape language to specific ends; 2) recognizing linguistic heterogeneity of all users of language both within the US and globally; and 3) directly confronting English monolingualist expectations by researching and teaching how writers can work with and against, not simply within, those expectations” (301).

2 Responses to “Horner – Language Difference in Writing: Towards a Translingual Approach”

  1. Vershawn Young

    I really admire this page, and I am using it in my teaching this semester. In fact, a whole group of us are relying on the clear, straightforward explanations you provide. Thank you for this resource.

  2. justin

    Hi Vershawn,
    Thanks for the kind words! Just trying to make a notes database as I can’t seem to remember anything that I read! Glad y’all are finding it useful — I’ve been wanting to make a notes database across different folks in the field. If y’all are taking notes like these, lemme know and I’ll see if we can link everything. I know there’s a bunch of Syracuse folks doing the same thing. Hope you’re having a great semester! — justin

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