What is multilingual literacy?
- The topic of this group brings together at least two major concerns:
what it means to be multilingually literate and how to achieve that,
and what kinds of language & literacy policies in multilingual
societies can facilitate people more fully using their languages
(reading, writing & more).
So the question arises, relating mainly to the first concern, but
important to be able to more fully discuss the second: What is
As a starter, and hopefully a catalyst to discussion, here are a few
definitions of "literacy" from a quick web search (and a serious
reference to reading as "unnatural"), though they don't really
reference bilingual or multilingual issues:
The 1992 and 2003 [U.S.] National Assessments of Adult Literacy use
the following definition of literacy:
"using printed and written information to function in society, to
achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential."
This definition goes beyond simply decoding and comprehending text to
include a broad range of information-processing skills that adults
use in accomplishing the range of tasks associated with work, home,
and community contexts.
[NCES, "Defining and Measuring Literacy"]
There are two basic interpretations of literacy. One is the
acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills. The other is the
attainment of quality of life standards - meeting basic needs.
WLC's concept of literacy goes beyond one of reading, writing and
numeracy to one of ensuring people acquire the life skills and
knowledge necessary for development. We believe that illiteracy is
rooted in the prevailing social, cultural and economic conditions of
a country. Illiteracy is linked to poverty, disadvantage and
exclusion. Literacy is an essential element in the struggle for
justice, human dignity and equality.
[World Literacy of Canada, "Defining Literacy"]
Literacy is more than individuals acquiring numeracy and reading
skills. A broader understanding of the issues makes the connection
between literacy and peoples' relationship to society.
[Roeher Institute, "Literacy, Disability and Communication: Making
The most common meaning of the term literacy is the ability to read
and write. It is generally understood that in order to participate in
the cultural, economic, and political life of this society, it is
essential that citizens be able to read and write. When minimal
competency is of concern, the term becomes functional literacy: i.e.,
the essential skills required to read instructions and complete job
applications, to read newspapers and access other sources of
information and entertainment, and to maintain banking and tax
records, as well as other common requirements of contemporary
society. When specialized knowledge and competencies are of concern,
other terms emerge: one recent and familiar example is computer
The second sense of literacy is the state of being well educated,
well-informed, and knowledgeable in the realms of philosophy,
history, politics, literature, music, art, theater, science, and
technology. It is the quality of educatedness that enables one to
participate more fully in the cultural, economic, and political life
of the society. The term cultural literacy has emerged to refer to
this array of competencies.
[Defining Literacy, by William T. Stokes ]
*The Definition of the 80's and 90's: Language proficiency (reading,
writing, listening, speaking) using conventional media.
*The Digital Age Definition: The ability to listen and speak, and
read/write fluently through text, images, motion video, charts and
graphs, and hypertext across a range of media.
Scribner (1988) gives us three basic metaphors underlying most
beliefs about literacy: literacy as adaptation, literacy as power,
and literacy as state of grace. Literacy as adaptation is "a
transformative tool for changing existing social relations. Literacy
as power is an instrument for praxis to promote a more just society
as it "empowers" students by breaking the `culture of silence' within
which they are otherwise confined" (Walsh, 1991). But the dominant
metaphor in American society, according to Wiley, is literacy as a
state of grace:
Traditionally, literacy as state of grace represents literacy as a
kind of salvation in which the literate person or the literati are
considered to have special virtues. According to Scribner (1988, p.
77), literacy as a state of grace is a metaphor that helps perpetuate
the belief that there is an intellectual or "cognitive great divide"
between literates and nonliterates. A major focus of this book
involves a critique of views derived from this metaphor as it appears
in both the general literacy literature . . . and as it is reproduced
in some of the dominant theoretical constructs in bilingual education
theory . . . (Wiley, p. 3)
[Jule Gómez de García, Book Review: Wiley, T. G. (1996). Literacy and
language diversity in the United States]
It has long been argued that learning to read, like learning to
understand spoken language, is a natural phenomenon. ... [However],
learning to read is not only unnatural, it is just about the most
unnatural thing humans do.
Clearly, if reading was natural, everybody would be doing it, and we
would not have to worry so much about dealing with a "literacy
crisis" or a "literacy gap." According to the National Institute for
Literacy and the Center for Education Statistics, over 40 million
adults in [the U.S.] alone are functionally illiterate, and despite
our best educational efforts, approximately 40% of our 4th graders
lack even the most basic reading skills. These staggering numbers
provide evidence that reading is a skill that is quite unnatural and
very difficult to learn. Clearly, if we are ever to come close to
teaching all children to read, it will require the most focused and
artful instruction from the most knowledgeable and skilled teachers.
[Sebastian Wren, "Ten Myths of Reading Instruction"]
Several other definitions of literacy are offered at:
So basically literacy is more than just reading and writing (and
numeracy), but just imparting reading skills is already a challenge.
And certainly a multilingual setting adds other complexities...