Reflections on Multiliterate Lives

Reflections on Multiliterate Lives


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853595226
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 03/06/2001
Series: Bilingual Education & Bilingualism Series , #26
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.95(w) x 8.65(h) x 0.71(d)

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The Fortunate Traveler: Shuttling between Communities and Literacies by Economy Class

Suresh Canagarajah is an associate professor in English at Baruch College of the City University of New York. He teaches postcolonial literature, Masterpieces of World Literature, ESL, and composition. His research interests span bilingualism, discourse analysis, academic writing, and critical pedagogy. He hails from the Tamil-speaking northern region of Sri Lanka, and taught in the University of Jaffna from 1984 to 1994. Among his publications are Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching (1999), and research articles in the professional journals TESOL Quarterly, College Composition and Communication, Language in Society, Written Communication, World Englishes, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, and Multilingua. His book Geopolitics of Academic Literacy and Knowledge Construction is to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2001. He has worked with inner-city community service organizations in the South Bronx, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. He contributes to the literary and cultural activities of Tamil refugee groups in North America and Europe.

'You are so fortunate, you get to see the world –' Indeed, indeed, sirs, I have seen the world. Spray splashes the portholes and vision blurs. Derek Walcott, The Fortunate Traveller (1986)

While we are seated under the mango trees outside our house on a warm breezy afternoon in Jaffna chatting in Tamil, my Dad suddenly whispers something in English to my mother and they both sneak into the room inside, letting me play with the maid. They would emerge a couple of hours later seeming tired and exhausted, leaving me curious as to what they had uttered in English earlier. There are other occasions when we'll be talking about some wayward relatives, when my parents would switch to English to discuss some unpleasant episodes that shouldn't be understood by a four year-old like me. Or, while planning my upcoming birthday party, they would quickly switch to English to talk about a gift or invitee they'd like to keep hidden from me. These early experiences would leave a lasting impression on me of English as a language of secrecy, power, and mystery; a language owned by others, not belonging to me; a language that could put into disadvantage those who aren't proficient in it.

Many weeks and months later I would continue to put one and one together, understand with the help of context, guess the meaning, till I gradually began to break the code. Thus, even before I started attending school, I grew into some rudimentary levels of proficiency in English. My parents later learnt – much to their dismay – that they couldn't use English as a secret code any more between themselves. More dramatically, I joined the in-group now, sharing with them jokes, secrets, and gossip that we kept away from the monolinguals around us (like our maid). It was exhilarating to join the exclusive club of bilinguals (at least the two adults in my house) as we teamed up to put others into disadvantage. It would be much later in life that I would become politically sensitive enough to question the unfair power enjoyed by this language. It is after developing this sensitivity that I would understand the need to teach English critically and share its resources widely in my community to democratize its possibilities. But the strategies that helped me acquire proficiency in the language in my pre-school days would remain with me as I strove to become literate in English. These are the strategies: a curiosity towards the language, the ability to intuit linguistic rules from observation of actual usage, a metalinguistic awareness of the system behind languages, and the ability to creatively negotiate meaning in context. The characteristics of humility, wonder, and excitement over the power and complexity of language have also encouraged my coming into voice in English literacy. In an educational context where there was little explicit teaching of writing, and a social context that was predominantly oral in communicative tradition, such were the inner resources required to develop bilingual literacy. Perhaps these are the secrets of everyday learning – characterized by reflective understanding, strategic thinking, and contextual reasoning – that are at the heart of any educational experience. They sustain me as I negotiate the communicative traditions in Tamil and English – not to mention the hybrid discourses of diverse institutions and contexts – as I continue to develop a literate voice as a bilingual.

Childhood Literacy

I was born into a family that was already bilingual. In fact, both my parents were teachers of English, having done teacher training locally. Our relationship with the dual languages was complicated. We used Tamil for everyday oral communication. But the language of choice for literate activities for my parents was English. Literacy in our family involved more reading than writing. Moreover, we rarely indulged in academic or 'serious' reading and writing. Being literate meant the reading of the bible, newspapers, and some light fictional texts. As children, we were given simple books of nursery rhymes and stories that depicted the life of amiable pigs, ducks and sheep. I remember that these books had a gloss and color that was lacking in locally produced nursery readers in Tamil. Writing meant sending letters to acquaintances or business institutions. This was quite frequent in a community that lacks widespread use of telephones. (My family never had a telephone in Sri Lanka.) The relative status of the type of oral/literate and reading/writing activities we did in either language (which has remained largely the same throughout my life) would influence my written discourse. The Tamil of my oral interactions influences the English of my writing. I have used rhetorical skills of Tamil oral discourse in my English academic texts. This is partly because my family hadn't developed a discourse for English oral interactions or that of Tamil written traditions. The awkward tensions it creates and the creative ways in which it has been negotiated constitute the story of my development as a bilingual writer.

Another important reason why my oral discourse in the vernacular influenced my writing is because there was no explicit teaching of writing during my education in Sri Lanka. The language classes in my secondary school in Jaffna did have a component called essay writing (in addition to grammar, speech, and reading). But the writing instruction consisted of teachers assigning topics for our essays, taking them home for correction, and students reading out aloud their exemplary essays in the next class. The correction usually focused on grammatical, syntactic, and spelling errors. A grade was assigned using a vague/undefined notion of expressive effectiveness. With hindsight, I may call this a product-oriented practice towards writing – although there was no explicit rhetorical theory or teaching practice that motivated teachers to adopt this approach.

I emerged as a writer of no mean standing in this background. I still remember an essay in the Tamil class that was praised by my teacher in grade 6. I was asked to read this to the class as a model of good writing. It was one of those ubiquitous topics in secondary school, i.e. the most memorable experience in my life. I adopted some reflexive moves and dramatic twists that impressed the readers. I narrated an incident during an educational tour organized by my school. I first evoke the excitement and fun among the students as we begin the tour in a chartered bus at daybreak. Then I move to the tragic climax around the middle of the tour: as our bus approaches a railroad crossing on one of those bridges common in Sri Lanka which the trains and cars use alternately, the guard rails on both sides close with the bus trapped in the middle. With the train approaching us, I pause before the inevitable conclusion. I employ a stream of consciousness to dramatize the various feelings and thoughts that rush through my mind in a mixture of flashbacks composed of reality and illusion. As the train nears us, I awake from sleep to realize that all that I had narrated was in fact a dream. Thus I cheat the reader. The expressive effects, the emotional climaxes, suspense, excitement, and personal involvement were very much appreciated. This constituted 'good writing' for my vernacular teacher, my classmates, and me during those days.

My English essays were also usually commended. But before I left school I had an experience that taught me that not everything was okay with a style that heightened feelings and sensation. This occurred in the annual essay-writing competition held by the school for the senior classes. There were many subjects given for us to choose from. Knowing my strength, I chose the subject 'A Day in the Life of a Beggar'. In a chronologically structured essay that begins with daybreak and accompanies the beggar as he goes through the streets to beg for food, I end with his monologue under the awnings of a shop where he spends the night. He reflects on his sad plight and is in tears. I bring out the contrast between the plight of the beggar and the indifference of the rest of the society, much of this through the self-pitying musings of the beggar himself. I was certain that the examiner would be moved to tears by this expressive writing and offer me the prize.

But the decision surprised me. The prize went to a classmate, Seelan, who was in the science stream. He wrote on the subject 'Airplanes'. This was a technical essay on the recent developments in aerospace technology. The differences in both our essays were glaring. Seelan had adopted a restrained prose packed with information. (For the record, my friend was from a considerably more anglicized bilingual family that used English as the home language, and was also an avid reader in English.) It is possible that he was more influenced by the literate discourse in English while my writing showed the trace of oral discourse from the vernacular. We must also note here the background of the examiner. Though other English teachers had appreciated my expressive writing in English, this teacher (who was very senior in the school) had done some education in England, held a Master's degree, and was deeply inducted into English literacy. It is possible that this teacher's background made him appreciate a different discourse. But, interestingly, no explanation was given as to why the prize was awarded to the essay on airplanes. Our teachers didn't have the language to theorize decisions and assessments on writing. (There was only a single examiner for this contest, implying the belief that conclusive judgments could be made by anyone according to presumably universally accepted standards.) Since we weren't given any explanations, I was left to learn by trial and error. But one incident of negative feedback was not sufficient to teach me that expressive/emotional writing was not the only or best mode of writing in the world.

College Literacy

There was not much difference in my writing strategy when I proceeded to the more cosmopolitan capital city to obtain my first degree. I was majoring in English. The course work consisted mainly of lectures on literature – from Chaucer to Eliot and after. There was just one course on 'language' – which featured a structuralist approach to the description of grammar. What were called 'tutorial classes' – an hour a week – were reserved for writing assignments deriving from the lectures. A tutor was assigned to small groups of four or five students. The essays we wrote weekly were graded largely according to content. The rhetorically oriented comments were scribbles in the margins, like 'original insight', 'interesting idea', or 'meaning not clear' and the flagging of awkward syntax. The discussions in the class featured our reactions to the content of the essays. In a sense, these tutorial classes were somewhat personalized versions of our other lecture classes. In fact, in some tutorial classes there was very little writing. The hour was spent discussing the assigned texts in a collaborative, discussion-oriented manner. While the English department recognized the need for effective writing skills by assigning an hour for this purpose, there was no understanding about how this was to be inculcated.

I was left to learn by trial and error once again. When one of my essays in the first year was praised by my tutorial instructor for original insights and fresh use of language and was awarded an A, I thought this approach was what was appreciated in the university. I took my style a step further in my next essay. This was on the short story by Faulkner, Dry September. In this story a black man is lynched after being falsely accused of rape by an aging white woman. My essay was an interpretation of the evils of racism. In passionate prose, replete with rhetorical questions and exclamations, I moralized on the implications of the story: 'O why, why should people be judged on the basis of their skin? When will prejudice ever end? When will we begin to look at people as human beings and not as black, brown, or yellow?! ...' This paper was rewarded with an A and praised for its 'powerful language', its very 'personal response,' and relating the text to life.

There was some evidence that this style was not widely appreciated even in Sri Lanka. I recollect that the lecturers who gave me good grades (two of them in particular) had earned their first degrees locally and were doing their postgraduate degrees in Sri Lanka. They were also more deeply grounded in the vernacular literary and language traditions. But our examination scripts were marked by senior instructors who had obtained their doctorates in British universities. Here I didn't fare that well. I didn't see any As for my essays in the final tests. In fact, I remember one of my senior lecturers asking whether I really needed all the exclamations in my essays! (There goes another of my exclamations.) But that was the closest they came to posing a meta-textual (or even textual) comment on my writing. I began to intuit that the exaggerated, passionate, personalized style of writing wasn't universally appreciated in the academic community. But since there was little overt theorization or meta-discursive commentary on styles of writing, it was difficult for me to understand the rationale behind these different responses.

I must remark here, with the benefit of hindsight, that some of the different discursive influences – that of my local communicative tradition and the Western tradition – were coming into conflict in this formative experience of my literacy development. The predominantly oral influence in the vernacular tradition values the feelings, personalization, exaggeration, and hyperbole of communication. The restraint typical of serious Western writing is considered bland and mechanical. It is not surprising that my instructors who were rooted in the vernacular tradition (even though they were teachers of English) appreciated the discursive strengths I brought from this tradition. Of course, teachers who came from the traditional bilingual elite (with postgraduate education in the West) had an instinctive discomfort with this style – although they didn't have the language or tools to explain their preference. On the whole, both kinds of my teachers show the hybrid discursive traditions and styles of textuality that exist in postcolonial bilingual communities.


Excerpted from "Reflections on Multiliterate Lives"
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Copyright © 2001 Diane Belcher, Ulla Connor and the authors of individual chapters.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

Editors' Introduction1
Part ILanguage Specialists as Language Learners
The Fortunate Traveler: Shuttling Between Communities and Literacies by Economy Class23
Initiating into Academic Community: Some Autobiographical Reflections38
Reminiscences of a Multilingual Life: A Personal Case History51
Developing Literacy Can and Should Be Fun: But Only Sometimes Is60
Straddling Three Worlds67
How a Speaker of Two Second Languages Becomes a Writer in a Foreign Language74
From L1 to L12: The Confessions of a Sometimes Frustrated Multiliterate79
My Experience of Learning to Read and Write in Japanese as L1 and English as L296
An Introspective Account of L2 Writing Acquisition110
Writing from Chinese to English: My Cultural Transformation121
Part IICrossing Cultures Across the Disciplines
Learning is a Lifelong Process135
Linguistic Experiences of a Mathematical Career141
Taking the Best from a Number of Worlds: An Interview with Hooshang Hemami150
Growing up Trilingual: Memories of an Armenian/Arabic/English Speaker161
How Can I Help Make a Difference? An Interview with Robert Agunga165
A Professional Academic Life in Two Languages: An Interview with Maria Julia177
On Being a Citizen of the World: An Interview with Luis Proenza191
The Advantages of Starting Out Multilingual: An Interview with Steven Beering200
AppendixGuiding Questions209

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