Creating Digital Spaces for Linguistic Diversity

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I’ve just returned to North Carolina from a trip to Montreal where I was greeted everywhere with the beautifully inclusive salutation of a lilting “Bonjour Hi.” My response of either “bonjour” or some form of “hello” in English signaled how the conversation would continue. It was a great reminder of how fluidly multilingual communities can work and how limited I often feel as a monolingual English speaker.

As someone interested in both multilingualism and multimodality, I’ve been thinking in recent years about how we can use various modes, particularly online spaces, to more fully explore a multilingual curriculum. How can we encourage writers to play with composing in various mediums while reflecting on the intersections of multilingual spaces, particularly in the digital realm? How can we get students to recognize the richness of their language use, whether they are mono or multilingual or somewhere in between? One digital space that can be especially ripe for this kind of work is an ePortoflio.

I teach a First-Year Writing class comprised of half self-selected multilingual writers and half “native” English language users. The curriculum is the same as in other First-Year Writing classes in the program, but it has a World Englishes theme, where we recognize, read about, and acknowledge that there are multiple versions of emerging English being spoken and composed across the world and we inquire into that idea throughout the semester. A core component of the class is an ePortfolio as the capstone project for the semester that counts for at least half of the course grade. The ePortfolio project has been an amazing place to create opportunities for linguistic diversity from all students. We have room to explore how we compose in inventive ways, like through text messaging in Arabish/Arabic chat language where Arabic-speaking students use numbers to represent Arabic language sounds not available in English script. Or how the popularity of massively multiplayer online video games has fueled many non-English speaking students to learn English in order to understand and play such games. Or how we might remediate an assignment from one genre to another. It’s a great opportunity to talk about the creation of various webtexts and how these function with a wider audience than we might normally consider when writing only into the classroom space. In order to help students practice the kind of work we do in the ePortfolio, we compose with intention in a number of digital spaces throughout the semester. One place we do so is in a weekly Writing to Explore assignment.

This Writing to Explore, or WTE, asks students to respond to different prompts each week aimed to offer opportunities for playing with the ideas we need to consider when creating an ePortfolio. It might be something rather simple like inserting images into a Word document, or something more complex, like cultivating awareness of how hyperlinks work rhetorically and then practicing how to create them. For example, here is an excerpt from a sample WTE assignment prompt:

The Curious Pleasure of Peeving: Read this article on writing pet peeves and then spend some time exploring one of the five hyperlinks in the article. Respond to how you see these hyperlinks working. What do they offer the reader that isn’t offered in a non-digital text? What did you learn from moving into and out of the original text? Suggestion: include some hyperlinks of your own (for good reason) in your response.”

From this particular prompt, students start to understand how the website of their ePortfolio is hypertextual by nature and is meant to highlight connections between the work they have done throughout the semester.

Another WTE asks students to consider how they read online texts by responding to a number of online articles about the topic in order to cultivate awareness of how readers tend to read in online spaces:

Reading on-line: Read this article about how we read online. Respond to its content while exploring your own relationship to reading online texts. Think about how digital content is present in this article and others you read. You may also want to read the hyperlinked article about the practice of breaking up on-line articles into more than one page with the dubious hyperlink name of I hate the widespread practice (which you are also free to comment about).”

Through these assignments, by the end of the semester, students have had multiple opportunities to practice the work they need to know how to do for the ePortfolio.

Another assignment that has proven to be a good place to cultivate multilingual awareness is a genre remediation assignment. Students write a literacy memoir in the form of a narrative and then choose how to remediate this assignment into another genre. Students have created digital cartoons, obituaries, Word Clouds through Worlde or Tagxedo), movies, Powerpoints, Prezis, flow charts, posters, and a host of other interesting ways to re-think how to present their work while we study genre. By thinking of genre as a social act, something we perform, rather than a static and formulaic set of conventions, we are able to have rich conversations around expectations, how language works, and often the cultural variations in how genres operate.

By the end of the semester, students have increased their awareness of how multimodality can offer various ways of exploring multilingualism. The “native” English writers see the multiplicity of dialects within our class and have room within the ePortfolio to reflect upon their own relationship with Standard American English as one of many dialects; multilingual writers reflect upon their own use of language, and in particular, composing in English. Finally, we have a shared online space to see each other’s work, talk about it, and appreciate the multiplicity of language use that we all employ.

About Author(s)

Jan Rieman is Associate Director of First-Year Writing at UNC Charlotte in the awesome University Writing Program. Her research interests are faculty professional development, translingual pedagogies, and program assessment practices.

2 Comments

  1. Fascinating read! I am such a huge fan of this idea about the fluidity of language and how different literacy backgrounds can contribute, in a real way, to students’ understanding of what language is and what it can do for them. I am so curious about the idea you present at the very start; how language cues can trigger audience reaction in a real way. I have been very curios myself about the intricate relationship between language/genre/text/audience and I saw something this week that made me think even more about this. “Caroline Edits Papers” (Google Search>First Image) is a flyer created by a Physics student at The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She writes very authentically and very boldly in this flyer (with plenty of profanity peppered in for good measure), attempting to solicit students who need help with editing papers. The flyer is hilarious and real but draws upon Caroline’s particular linguistic style to become more effective. Although not multilingual, this flyer is a perfect example of how language is so flexible and adaptable, serving whatever social situation it needs to. PS: I put the link in the website box above. PPS: She now has a job interview to be a Copy Editor because of the flyer 🙂

  2. Tonya Wertz-Orbaugh on

    I haven’t really thought much about the intersections of multi modality and multilingualism. This gives me some new things to consider!

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