Posted on March 29, 2021 by Christopher Reichert


While 2020 was filled with unprecedented challenges, COEHD professor Zhongfeng Tian, Ph.D., remained dedicated to his education and career. While writing and defending his doctoral dissertation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and beginning his new career at UTSA while still living in Boston, the new assistant professor of TESOL/applied linguistics has hit the ground running. His dissertation won second place as the AERA Bilingual Education Research SIG Outstanding Dissertation of the Year for 2021. Tian says he’s honored to win second place.

 “It’s finally like your work got recognized at a national level because this organization is one of the prestigious organizations in our field – it’s kind of a big thing,” Tian said. “It kind of affirms what you have done. For people who go through the dissertation process, it’s a long journey…it’s kind of like a marathon; you put in a lot of energy and a lot of time.”

And for Tian, the journey has been long, beginning in China where Tian received his bachelor’s degree and began working as an English and Mandarin teacher.

“English teaching has always been my passion,” he said. “I like working with students. I want to work with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, from different age groups.”

Tian, who speaks Mandarin, English, and Cantonese, says he is especially passionate about creating multilingual environments for his students. This passion is partly what prompted him to study in the United States, which he says has been hugely influenced by a monolingual ideology.

“I see this deficit in these English-only classrooms existing in many classroom contexts,” he said. “So, I want to disrupt this ideology and create more multilingual spaces.”

To this end, Tian’s focus within his doctoral studies has been a concept called translanguaging.

“Simply speaking,” he said, “translanguaging is a pedagogy – an instructional strategy – that creates multilingual spaces where learners can bring their cultural and linguistic diversity into the classroom.”

“Translanguaging is a pedagogy – an instructional strategy – that creates multilingual spaces where learners can bring their cultural and linguistic diversity into the classroom.”

This instructional strategy forms the basis for Tian’s award-winning dissertation, titled “Translanguaging Design in a Mandarin/English Dual Language Bilingual Education Program: a Researcher-Teacher Collaboration.”

Tian says translanguaging offers a new philosophy of language teaching, in which the knowledge students already possess is viewed as a resource to be utilized and not an obstacle to be overcome. In this way, it differs fundamentally from the standard language immersion program, which requires students to speak, write, and think only in the target language.

“We think that when you learn a language you have to leave everything behind, just immerse yourself in the target language only…but that is not the reality,” Tian said. “We always learn new things based on what we already have. That is just the human learning process. So, translanguaging in that sense…is just a way back to the humanity, how we learn.”

One example of this is by exploring the similarities and differences between two languages. Anytime a student discovers a new cognate and realizes they already know its definition, Tian says they’re already engaged in translanguaging.

“When we learn a new language, we do translanguaging all the time,” he said. “It’s just sometimes teachers choose to ignore those or don’t recognize those as resources.”

Tian says that this inherent exploration of linguistic similarities has led many translanguaging scholars to explore Spanish-English bilingual programs, due to the similarities between those two languages. In contrast, he says there is very little research into Mandarin-English dual-language programs. Despite the perception that Mandarin and English may be too dissimilar to translanguage, Tian disagrees. For example, while the vocabulary and grammar may differ, English and Mandarin share basic word order and sentence structure. Exploring these differences, Tian says, proved helpful to the students he studied.

“Those were really helpful for students to tease out these different linguistic systems,” he said. “Even though they’re third graders…they’re already starting to develop this metalinguistic knowledge to say, ‘okay, in this way that’s how I say Chinese sentences. In that way, that’s how English sentences are being used.’”

Tian believes that such techniques, which he calls crosslinguistic analysis, can serve as a bridge to connect to languages, regardless of surface dissimilarity.

“How you decode a text, how you write a paragraph, those strategies can be transferred,” he said.

However, despite the promise shown by his dissertation, Tian is careful not to overstate his results. Due to the qualitative structure of his research, his focus was not on measuring a change in the students’ language proficiency, but rather on the process that students used.

“I want to make sure to be cautious,” he said. “I don’t want to overgeneralize or overpromise the promise of translanguaging pedagogies, to say to people, ‘this is so wonderful, there’s no drawbacks or challenges.’”

Tian hopes that in the future he will be able to continue his research and quantitatively measure how much translanguaging benefits students. In the meantime, thanks to the abundance of Spanish-English dual language immersion programs in the San Antonio area, Tian is already beginning a new project with Kathryn Henderson Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies . The two plan to interview a variety of school administrators, teachers, parents, and students about their views towards the current immersion model.

“We want to see what the needs are, listen to the community voice,” Tian said. He hopes that elements of translanguaging might be implemented in these programs in the future. 

But one factor limiting Tian is still distance. Despite beginning work at UTSA in the summer of 2020, he still lives in Boston and teaches remotely. Boston has its advantages, including proximity to family and friends, and Tian is grateful that he was able to finish his dissertation and begin his new teaching job remotely.

“I think people working in higher ed, we all have this privilege that we can still work from home…I always tell myself, ‘you are still lucky. You can still work from home and finish your dissertation,’” he said.

Nevertheless, he is excited to move down to San Antonio and begin working at UTSA in person.

“I want to be in an environment where I can have multilingual colleagues – that’s what I have right now at the department of BBL – and really respect and celebrate cultural and linguistic diversity,” Tian said. “I’m seeing that UTSA is doing a great job on this; that’s why I think I chose UTSA as my place where I want to go.” 

But whether he’s in Boston or San Antonio, Tian can be proud of his research and his dissertation.

“For now, this is what it is, so I’m happy where I am.” 

- Christopher Reichert

UPDATE: February 2022

Dr. Tian has won two additional dissertation awards in 2022. His dissertation "Translanguaging Design in a Mandarin/English Dual Language Bilingual Education Program: A Researcher-Teacher Collaboration" has now received 4 awards in total.

(1) 2022 American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) Dissertation Award;
The Dissertation Award began in 2016 to acknowledge a dissertation that demonstrates research excellence, transcends narrow disciplinary fields, and has a broad impact on and implications for the field of applied linguistics as a whole.
*This prestigious national research organization only awards 1 winner annually.

(2) 2022 AERA Second Language Research SIG Outstanding Dissertation Award;
The award goes to the dissertation research that best demonstrates the following criteria:
(a) solid theoretical base,
(b) sound methodology and data collection,
(c) originality, and
(d) promising contribution to the field of second language research.
*They only award 1 winner annually.

These two awards have been shared previously in our COEHD community:
(3) 2022 National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) Outstanding Dissertation Award (Third Place);
(4) 2021 AERA Bilingual Education Research SIG Outstanding Dissertation Award (Second Place).

For more information about the American Educational Research Association Bilingual Education Research Special Interest Group, visit

Tian’s dissertation can be read at .

Dr. Zhongfeng Tian is also named one of the Emerging Research Fellows at the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity.

— Christopher Reichert