Bilingualism in Literacy

The socially embedded nature of literacy is such an enormously large concept and category that it is impossible to fully cover it in one blog post. It is something that can be written about for decades without being entirely understood or explored. So I certainly won’t come to any definitive conclusions here today. What I want to do, instead, is to synthesize the concepts of sponsorship and bilingualism, especially as it pertains to the duty of composition instructors the linguistic heritage of students.

Because literacy sponsors have such a tremendous impact on the literacy practices and events of students, they have to take responsibility for the biases and beliefs that define their views of what literacy is. This might sound like an obvious statement, but as we saw in Moll & Gonzalez and Dyson & Smitherman’s articles, literacy sponsors (i.e. teachers, family members, and media sources) are the elements that influence whether or not students maintain their dialects and culturally embedded language practices. These practices are incredibly valuable, not only to students and their families, but also to our culture (whether we acknowledge it or not). After all, the United States is one of the only countries in the Western world where bilingualism is the exception, not the norm.

I believe it is our responsibility as writing instructors to teach grammar in so far as it relates to fluid thoughts and the presentation of critical thinking. But when a focus on grammar begins to impede a student’s voice it becomes problematic. We can see this through the students who become frustrated and unable to write because they are afraid of making grammar mistakes or afraid of using the wrong words. This happens even at the collegiate level of writing. Therefore, even though understanding the culturally based linguistic practices of students is a skill that can only develop over years of practice and study, we owe it to our students to allow them to express themselves in ways that respect the cultures they come from. We can certainly help them learn how to write in a variety of voices in order to appease the audiences that will demand linguistic conformity, but we can also teach them how to subvert the cultural norms by maintaining their heritage and linguistic voice.

But let’s get to the real talk. As a very white, very monolingual person, in many ways I do not feel qualified to teach bilingual learners how to embrace bidialectalcism. I feel that students would have more to teach me about their dialects and their ability to express ideas than I could ever hope to teach them. I value the research of people like Moll & Gonzalez and Dyson & Smitherman, but I also feel like much of these concepts must be learned from practice, not textbooks. As long as a teacher creates a class where students can embrace their own literacy practices while also learning how to adapt (not assimilate!) to “traditional” linguistic practices, I think students can continue to value and expand their local literacy practices in meaningful ways.