Translingual / Transcultural Competence: an operational approach to the MLA report

The 2007 MLA report calls for a reevaluation of our curricula, approaches, and methodologies with the goal of fostering translingual and transcultural competence (TL/TC). Comparing an instrumental view of language learning to a constitutive view, the report outlines specific goals and analytical skills for students. In addition to acquiring functional language abilities, students “are taught critical language awareness, interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception. They acquire a basic knowledge of the history, geography, culture, and literature of the society or societies whose language they are learning; the ability to understand and interpret its radio, television, and print media; and the capacity to do research in the language using parameters specific to the target culture.” (MLA p. 4)

For me, this implies a language program that not only allows for immersion in the target language, but also fosters critical framing and transformed practice (Kern 2000). The classroom provides students with an opportunity to occupy a third place (Kramsch 2006), where they can operate between native/target languages and cultures, in order to think critically about both.

The specific goals defined in the MLA strive to foster the education of speakers who are able:

  • “to operate between languages”
  • “to function as informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers in the target language” (proficiency allows both linguistic and meta-linguistic exchanges)
  • “to reflect upon the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture”
  • “to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies”
  • to recognize their own heritage, traditions, and metaphors that inform their own culture to see themselves “as members of a society that is foreign to others.” I adapted this from the MLA report’s “to grasp themselves as Americans,” as this is a problematic statement. Here at UC, we have many international students and, according to a report from 2007, 66% of Berkeley undergraduates had a least one parent who was born outside the US.
  • “to relate to fellow members of their own society who speak languages other than English” and recognize that they may be ‘foreign’ to other members of their own society (MLA pp. 4-5; italicized print indicates my comments/adaptations)

The analytical skills that students can acquire throughout their years of university study, both in lower and upper division courses, include:

  • Proficiency in the target language, allowing them to converse with educated native speakers through both linguistic and meta-linguistic exchanges;
  • Solid command as well as an analytical knowledge of specific metaphors and key terms that inform culture;
  • Understanding how a particular background reality is reestablished on a daily basis through cultural subsystems (MLA pp. 4-5).

These cultural subsystems include a variety of cultural objects and artifacts: mass media, literary and artistic works, stereotypes (self, others) developed and negotiated through texts, cultural metaphors, symbols of sites of memory, or buildings, historical figures, popular heroes, monuments, currency, culture-specific products, literary and artistic canons, landscapes, fashion, cuisine (see MLA pp. 4-5 for a complete list). All cultural artifacts become an object of critical study and exploration in a curriculum that develops multiple literacies.

A literacy-based approach can foster TL/TC competence in students in advanced academic program settings and allow students to occupy that third place between languages/cultures; our goal is to raise awareness, developing a metalanguage that allows for critical re-examination, interpretation/translation. Students become more aware of the cultural heritage and metaphors that inform the target and their own native language.

It is helpful to outline specific goals that we communicate to students, fellow instructors, faculty and administrators. Emphasizing the constitutive view of language learning, and defining translingual and transcultural competence through practical examples, is important to ensure the quality of our students’ education, but also to emphasize the importance of language programs in critical economic times.

For example, we can reconsider the metalanguage used in our department and student goals, our course descriptions and syllabi. The following is a short, straightforward adaptation of the online catalog course descriptions for second year French:

Intermediate French — French (FRENCH) 3 [5 units]
(Previous) Building on foundation established in first year, trains students in listening, reading, writing, and speaking French. Review and refinement of grammar.
Description (Revised): Building on foundation established in first year, trains students to develop an awareness and appreciation of the culture of the French-speaking world, and refine their skills in listening, reading, writing, and speaking French.

Advanced Intermediate French — French (FRENCH) 4 [5 units]
(Previous) Advanced training in listening, reading, writing, and speaking French. Review and refinement of grammar.
Description (Revised):  Further development of an awareness and appreciation of the
culture of the French-speaking world and advanced training in listening, reading, writing, and speaking French. An introduction to the analysis of texts.

These revisions allow for transparency in the link between language and culture and underline the constitutive goals of language learning.

Over the past semester, I have developed several sample classroom activities that demonstrate the fostering of translingual and transcultural competence. These activities are based on the current textbook, as well as film clips from the BLC film clip library, and other outside supporting materials. Here is an example of an activity included in the third semester French course textbook. This is an advertisement to invite tourism in southern France.

The slogan reads “Liberate the cicada within you” (Libérez la cigale qui est en vous). Students encounter this ad at the end of a chapter which opens with a fable from 17th century author Jean de La Fontaine, “La Cigale et la fourmi.” Thus, they are already familiar with the literary metaphors informing this ad. The cicada is also an insect that sings throughout the summer, and which they may know from films based on Pagnol’s texts, or learn in the introduction to this ad in the text.

Focusing on transcultural competence, the instructor would ask the following questions: “What traditions inform this ad?” (literary, cultural, geographical) “Do we use fables (or other literary texts) in American ads?” A discussion could follow about the cultural metaphors that typically inform American or other ads.

Focusing on translingual competence, students could be asked to translate the slogan into English. They might discuss whether or not a literal translation would be meaningful to an English speaker, and attempt to find an equivalent such as “liberate your inner child” or “liberate the child within you.” They can compare the metaphors informing the French and the English slogans. The teacher might then animate a whole class discussion of the American connotations of the word “childlike” (and its complement, “childish”), and compare these to the qualities of the cicada implicitly celebrated in the ad (rebelliousness, a free-spirit, independence, playfulness), returning to a focus on transcultural competence.

A follow-up activity could include filling out a survey about the amount of time they and/or their friends and family devote to leisure activities, and compare that to a survey completed in France. Students might compare the amount of time dedicated for holidays and paid vacations in France to conventional vacation allotments in America.

A further discussion, written assignment, or exam might ask students to call upon their critical framing skills and answer the question “If you were a business manager in France, could you use La Fontaine to motivate your workers?” All three of the analytical skills identified by the MLA (listed above) are practiced in this activity with an emphasis on translingual/transcultural competence.

In addition to clarification of goals and specific, practical classroom activities, an ever important and ongoing question remains that of assessment, both of the students, and of the program. Assessment of students can take the form of portfolios (see Euba, 2006 Fellow), language and culture (b)logs (Tuomainen and Gipson, 2007 Fellow), as well as oral and written exams.

The MLA report calls for communication and collaboration across departments and fields of studies, as well as inter-departmental communication to help bridge the gap between upper and lower division courses. I look forward to further collaboration with my colleagues and all those interested in revisiting the way we teach today.


Byrnes, H., Weger-Guntharp & K. Sprang (Eds.) (2006). Educating for advanced foreign language capacities. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Byrnes, H., & Maxim, H. (Eds.). (2004). Advanced foreign language learning: A challenge to college programs. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

“Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” (Modern Language Association, 2007),

Kern, R. (2000). Literacy and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (2006). From communicative competence to symbolic competence. Modern Language Journal, 90(2), 249-252.

Swaffar, J., & Arens, K. (2005). Remapping the foreign language curriculum: An approach through multiple literacies. New York: Modern Language Association.