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What is multilingual literacy?

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  • Don Osborn
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 26, 2003
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      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
      multilingual literacy?

      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 Connection"]

      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 ]

      Re-Defining Literacy
      *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...

      Don Osborn
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