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In order to engage linguistic minorities to develop their literacy skills, they cannot continue to be disenfranchised in libraries and in the wider society and they need to be allowed to define or re-define themselves. Re-definition of "literacy" as it applies to linguistic minorities needs to take place in order for librarians to be able to provide them with appropriate literacy services. This re-definition challenges the mainstream (dominant culture) concept of literacy and includes (1) examining the socially-contextualized nature of literacy, (1) expanding the definition of literacy that takes into account the language and cultural knowledge of linguistic minorities, and (3) understanding the strategies for coping and transitioning across diverse 'discourse communities' or socio-linguistic contexts. Then, can librarians outline strategic directions for delivering appropriate literacy services to linguistic minorities. In this paper adult literacy is emphasized.
Mrs. Wong (fictitious name) was in her late 60s when I met her and unlike my mother she was a buzz of activities, more of a social butterfly than her own children. She had immigrated to Canada in her 50s and already knew English because she was raised in an upper middle-class family in Hong Kong, had received private schooling, graduated from high school, and was well-read. In Canada, she joined advanced ESL classes to improve her English, took arts and crafts classes at a community recreation center, was an active library user, swam regularly at a public pool, and completed translation jobs on her home computer.
These stories only begin to demonstrate the literacies that can exist in immigrant communities. They reveal that the extent to which a person is literate in their heritage or other languages can depend on their culture, social role, education, economic status, and length of residence in their native or adoptive country. For example, the National Adult Literacy Study (NALS) shows that those with higher educational attainment had higher levels of English literacy on all scales. (Kirsch et al., 1993) These stories also demonstrate differences in the extent of coping, acculturation and socialization in the dominant culture of their adoptive countries.
If we were to classify my mother using the National Literacy Act of 1991 of the United States, she would be illiterate. In this Act literacy is defined as "an individual's ability to read, write and speak in English and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and one's knowledge and potential." This is clear evidence of an elitist approach to defining literacy. Further examples can be found in the research literature. In two studies of limited English literacy categories of a pejorative nature were used. The Survival Literacy Study (Harris, 1970) used three catgeories: low survival, questionable survival, and marginal survival, and in the Adult Performance Level study (Northcutt, 1975) the three categories used were functionally incompetent, marginally functional, and functionally proficient. Despite being able to cope with a limited English or Spanish vocabulary and a help network made up of family and friends, my mother would be considered illiterate in both her adoptive countries except in the local Chinese communities.
The literature on literacy reveals that literacy is social in nature. It shows that literacy has had different definitions during different historical periods and the extent to which one is literate is different depending on the situation or social context. Newman and Beverstock (1990) have traced the changes in the definitions which have included the ability to sign one's own name, the ability to read and write, the number of years of formal schooling, and attainment of fourth grade level functional literacy. These definitions have emphasized the acquisition of technical skills while other literacy experts have drawn attention to literacy as situationally or socially defined. "We enjoy the richness of multiple literacies - the literacy of our specialized field of endeavor, the jargon of our favorite sport or hobby, the dialect of our hometown or ethnic group." (Newman and Beverstock, 1990; p. viii) This view of multiple literacies is the broader definition of literacy librarians need to adopt which values the actual abilities of linguistic minorities and serves as the source from which to develop dominant language literacy. It is an adaptive approach where "...it may be more useful to consider literacy as a continuum and the goals of adult literacy programs to be less those of combating illiteracy and more of expanding literacy..." (Crandall and Imel, 1991; p. 3)
A broader definition of literacy that is socially-contextualized also needs to recognize (1) the literacy of coping as practiced by my mother and other immigrants, i.e., strategies for coping and transitioning across diverse 'discourse communities' or socio-linguistic contexts including the use of a support network of family, friends, community members, (2) the impossibility of fitting in literacy classes in an immigrant's busy work schedule, (3) the need to take care of family responsibilities first, especially for women, (4) the acceptance of conventional roles, e.g., my mother accepted the fact that she was not an educated woman and didn't need to be, especially since she overcame the odds and learned to read and write in Chinese, (5) the extent of education attainment can be an indicator of familiarity, or lack thereof, with educational institutions and practices, (6) literacy in the heritage language needs to be assessed, (7) ethnic media may be the preferred source of information, (8) isolation may be experienced at two levels: from their own ethnic communities and from mainstream society, and (9) linguistic minorities are extraordinary at coping without dominant language literacy, especially if there is an ethnic community. The conditions in which linguistic minorities find themselves may be self- or institutionally-imposed, and reflect both their readiness to embark on a path of literacy and the challenge for librarians and other literacy workers.
Still others come from cultures where there are different cultural uses of literacy than in the United States. In these cultures, specific classes or groups, such as business people or religious leaders, may have strong literacy skills, while others, such as farmers and adult women, have no experience with reading or writing at all. Recent immigrants include the Hmong of Cambodia who do not rely on a written language at all.
Although many of these adults have acquired conversational skills in English, they often lack the readings and writing skills necessary for access to training, job mobility, or success in regular ESL classes. (NIFL, http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/report4/rep36-40/rep40-02.htm)
Among the major findings of the NALS is that White adults scored significantly higher than every other racial and ethnic group on the three literacy scales used: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. The limitation of the NALS was that it was "a survey of literacy in the English language - not literacy in any universal sense of the word. Thus, the results do not capture the literacy resources and abilities that some respondents possess in languages other than English." (Kirsch et al., 1993; p. 13) Although international literacy data now exist on twelve countries (Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, Australia, Belgium (Flanders), Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) that participated in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), again the literacy standard is that of the dominant language. The IALS is the first multi-country and multi-language assessment on adult literacy allowing comparison across cultures and languages (IALS, http://www.nald.ca/nls/ials/introduc.htm). The limitation of most literacy studies is their failure to recognize the other literacies of linguistic minorities. These may include cultural literacy, heritage language literacy, sign language, and braille.
Librarians may be perceived by linguistic minorities as gatekeepers and representatives of the dominant culture who offer literacy services in their own terms. It is thus essential that emancipatory literacy and the concept of multiple literacies guide the development of literacy services for linguistic minorities. Literacy services and activities can include:
As we enter the millenium to be able to provide appropriate literacy services to linguistic minorities librarians need to broaden their definition of literacy, rethink their delivery mechanisms, and embrace emancipatory literacy as an approach to self-determination, self-empowerment, civic involvement, and life-long learning for linguistic minorities.
Baynham, Mike. Literacy Practices: Investigating Literacy in Social Context. London: Longman, 1995.
Crandall, JoAnn and Imel, Susan. "Issues in Adult Literacy Education," The ERIC Review, 1(2): 2-5, April, 1991.
Giroux, Henry A. "Introduction," In: Literacy: Reading the Word and the World by Freire, Paulo and Macedo, Donald. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Harris, L. and Associates. Survival Literacy Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.
Hill, Maggie. "The New Literacy: Beyond the Three Rs," Electronic Learning, 28-34, Sept. 1992.
Kirsch, Irwin S. et al. Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, September 1993.
Krashen, Stephen D. Every Person a Reader: An Alternative to the California Task Force Report on Reading. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates, 1996.
National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). What Kind of Adult Literacy Policy will Help All Adults Develop the English Language and Literacy Skills They Need to participate Full in American Life? Summary paper prepared for a policy forum on Achieving the National Education Goal on Adult Literacy, June 23-24, 1994, Washington, D.C. (http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/report4/rep36-40/rep40-01.htm)
Newman, Anabel Powell and Beverstock, Caroline. Adult Literacy: Contexts & Challenges. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, Inc., 1990.
Northcutt, N. Adult Functional Competency: A Summary. Austin, TX: University of Texas, March 1975.
Internet Resources for Literacy Instruction:
International Adult Literacy Survey http://www.nald.ca/nls/ials/introduc.htm
Literacy Online http://www.literacyonline.org
National Adult Literacy Database (NALD) http://www.nald.ca