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In the tertiary education sector, there is currently great interest in how conceptions of academic language, multiliteracies and multilingualism overlap and influence each other.

Academic language
Multiliteracies
Multilingualism
Language: diversity and equity issues
Teaching and the question of bi- and multilingual diversity

Academic language

The term English language competence is used to mean the ability for students to use the English language in a variety of spoken and written contexts. The focus is on students demonstrating the knowledge they have of the English language by using it to communicate in a wide range of academic and social contexts. This distinguishes English language competence from the narrow focus of language as a formal system concerned only with correct use of grammar and sentence structure, from a view of English language as the ability to organise language to carry out a variety of communication tasks while completing their university studies. These may range from a simple task, such as discussing work with fellow students, to complex tasks, such as writing an academic paper or delivering a speech to a professional audience. In a university context, these are also called academic language or English for academic purposes. English language competence is distinct from the measurement of language proficiency at a given point in time, such as provided through language tests (IELTS, TOEFL, etc.).

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Multiliteracies

The Literate Futures Project (LFP, Department of Education and Training, Queensland Government), defines multiliteracies as follows:

‘The term multiliteracies implies many literacies. It acknowledges that literacy goes beyond language alone, embracing other modes of representation which arise from technology and the impact of culture and context. The term multiliteracies acknowledges that, in some cultures, some modes of representation have more authority than others, hence the need to view literacy as embracing forms of representation other than those of the printed word.’

In particular, the LFP identifies three core components of multiliteracies:

  • ‘acknowledging and understanding that cultural and linguistic diversity lead to multiple literacies
  • embracing the diverse literacy practices offered and demanded by the new information technologies
  • engaging in social critical literacy practices enabling active citizenship and shaping one’s social future’

Multiliteracies thus present two challenges to our understanding of cultural diversity at UTS, and in Australia and the globalised world today:

1: the growing importance of cultural and linguistic diversity (bi- and multilingualism) is central to our capacities for dealing with globalised communications, international labour markets, and local community interactions (Cope and Kalantzis, http://www.alea.edu.au/).
2: new communication technologies are expanding and changing our understandings of literacies so that written language or modes are increasingly interacting with visual languages or modes, as well as audio and spatial modes (Cope and Kalantzis, http://www.alea.edu.au/; Kress 2000, 2003)

While this is not the place to elaborate in depth about new communication technologies, it is pertinent here to emphasise that good teaching and learning practice in an increasingly multiliterate world requires teachers to be alert to issues of student access to such technologies, and to be aware of which UTS student constituencies might be excluded or left behind by those technologies.

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Multilingualism

Multilingualism is the capacity of a speaker to inhabit and function in two or more distinct language communities. Bi- and Multilingualism are the human norms; in a global sense, monolingualism (functioning in one language community) is a minority linguistic reality.

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Language: diversity and equity issues

As with internationalisation, the growing recognition of the importance of multiliteracies and multilingualism in teaching and learning, and in thinking about academic language, at UTS requires deeper understanding of international cultural diversity and the equity issues raised by bi- and multilingualism.

A number of terms to describe language use, facility, acquisition and learning may proceed from assumptions that do not recognise multiliteracies or multilingualism. For instance:

  • languages other than English are ‘foreign,’
  • monolingualism is the Australian norm,
  • each of us has a single ‘native’ language,
  • any other language we might speak must have been acquired independently of our ‘native’ language.

Attention to the assumptions underlying the terms we use goes some way to acknowledging and valuing bi- or multilingualism as a valuable feature of multiliteracy and teaching and learning practice.

The following is a list of terms in everyday use in Australia.

Community language/s
This term generally refers to the non-Indigenous languages other than English that are spoken in Australia.

English competence
This term is used to mean the ability for students to use the English language in a variety of spoken and written contexts. The focus is on students demonstrating the knowledge they have of the English language by using it to communicate in a wide range of academic and social contexts. In a university context, these are also called academic language or English for academic purposes. English language competence is distinct from the measurement of language proficiency at a given point in time, such as those provided through language tests (IELTS, TOEFL, etc.).

ESL
This term is an acronym for ‘English as a second language.’ It indicates that English is a person’s second language; it does not indicate the person’s competence in English, or in other languages.

‘Foreign language’
This expression is often heard in Australia to designate languages other than English, thus implying that only English is the national or ‘native’ language: e.g. ‘I am not good at learning foreign languages.’ The expression is best avoided as it denies that Indigenous languages, and languages spoken among immigrant communities, are Australian (not foreign) languages.

According to the 2006 Census, the 10 main languages spoken in Australian homes are (in descending order): English (15.6 million), Italian (370,000), Greek (252,000), Cantonese (245,000), Arabic (240,000), Mandarin (221,000), Vietnamese (195,000), Spanish (98,000), German (76,000), and Hindi (70,000). Hundreds of languages, including many Indigenous languages, are spoken in Australia.

Language acquired in infancy
A number of terms are used to refer to the language acquired in infancy: first language, L1, native language/tongue, home language, background language, heritage language and mother tongue. Note that such terms exhibit a monolingual bias in that they do not readily account for people who acquire two or more languages in infancy/early childhood.

Languages acquired after infancy
A number of terms are used to refer to languages acquired after infancy: second language, L2, foreign language, additional language or target language. Note that such terms exhibit a monolingual bias in that they do not readily account for people who acquire two or more languages after infancy/early childhood.

LBOTE
This term is an acronym for language background other than English.

Whilst NESB (Non-English Speaking Background) is commonly used at UTS, it should be noted that LBOTE is gaining currency, and is a term that many groups prefer.

LOTE
The acronym from Language other than English.

Monolingual/ism, Bilingual/ism, Multilingual/ism
Bilingualism (bidialectism) refers to the ability of a speaker to inhabit and function in two distinct language communities. Multilingualism (multidialectism) refers to the same process but involves two or more language communities. For most of the world’s peoples, bi- and multilingualism are the norm. A monolingual ethos often denies multicultural realities, as in claims that ‘Australia’ is a monolingual English-speaking country. Care should be taken to avoid the assumption that monolingualism is universal.

NESB
This term is an acronym for ‘Non-English speaking background.’ It is used to indicate that a person’s language background is not English; it does not indicate the extent of the person’s knowledge of English, or of other languages.

Different definitions of the term NESB are used in different contexts. For example, at UTS a staff member is classified as being from a non-English speaking background if English is not the first language spoken as a child. The DEEWR definition of NESB students is those students who have lived in Australia for less than ten years and speak a language other than English at home. While useful, neither approach accounts for bilingualism or multilingualism and the very common experience of speaking two or more languages at home as a child.

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Teaching and the question of bi- and multilingual diversity

It is currently accepted that the concept of competence in a language such as English is multi-dimensional. One conceptualisation of competence is that described by Canale and Swain (1980). Their model suggests that there are four separate dimensions or 'four competences' underlying communicative competence. The term 'competence' refers to knowledge of language items, as well as the ability to use that knowledge to carry out an activity. The four competences referred to are discourse competence, sociolinguistic competence, grammatical competence and strategic competence. At the same time, the provision of courses in English needs to recognise that many students have linguistic and transcultural competence in two or more languages and cultural communities.

Multiliteracies thus have an impact on best practice in the development of academic language and learning in English. That practice has shifted from the provision of decontextualised tuition in generic study skills, such as academic reading and essay writing, to language and literacy development integrated into the curriculum of the mainstream subjects students are studying for their degrees. As the reading and writing practices that students need to learn are specific to their discipline, in an integrated approach, the literacy demands of the discipline become an explicit part of the subjects that students study.

The development of academic language and learning is best embedded in the mainstream curriculum of the subjects that students study. This kind of teaching leads to high quality learning for students and a high degree of equity. If, on the other hand, academic language and learning is assumed rather than explicitly taught, many students, particularly those from marginalised groups, are disadvantaged.

Recognising multiliteracies is one way of addressing perceived communication problems (linguistic and/or personal) in classrooms. It allows recognition of the complexity of such problems in a learning environment, and of the challenges posed by multiliterate students. Students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) have sophisticated language skills, often speaking two or more languages, but may have an inadequate command of English. Some of these are international students, while others are local students of migrant backgrounds. To cope with such complexity, teaching should aim to anticipate and bridge different worlds, for example, by accepting that students’ prior experiences in language and learning are more likely than not to be diverse, and often different from that of their teachers.

Acknowledging linguistic diversity in teaching and learning does not mean that teachers need to become proficient in two or more languages in order to teach or to address multiliteracies. Rather it involves valuing the skills and competencies of students from bi- or multilingual backgrounds, and when appropriate, providing times and/or spaces in which teaching may have ‘multilateral’ linguistic inputs (Schwarzer 2003).

For example, students who are required to do literature reviews in many disciplines are often obliged to find sources in English. Providing space for them to discuss sources written and published in other languages is one strategy for acknowledging the linguistic diversity and skills of those students.

Another strategy for encouraging increased awareness of multiliteracies in the globalised world is to encourage all UTS students, irrespective of Faculty or professional specialisation, to undertake studies in language and culture as part of their elective or sub-major studies whenever possible.

At UTS, Academic Language and Learning lecturers are academics such as those working at the ELSSA Centre. They work with students and staff and collaborate with faculties to integrate the development of students' academic language in their area of study. More information about these academics is available at the Association for Academic Language and Learning (AALL) website (opens an external site). ELSSA academics can assist teaching staff and students with understanding.

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