TESL NS Fall Conference, 2018
Keynote, Nov. 17, 2018

Plurilingualism Can Do Some Work

Brian Hotson
Director, Academic Learning Services
Saint Mary’s University

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I would like to thank David Packer and the TESL NS conference organizers, as well as ISANS for inviting me and for this opportunity to speak with you today.

Here we are in 2018. We live in Mi'kma'ki. We live in Nova Scotia. We live today in both physical and digital spaces. We live in places that are contested and plural, and hold many different languages, ethnicities, and ways of thinking. We live in places where language, over time, has been colonized, and within this colonization are deep-seated gender and language biases and inequalities. It has taken settler cultures a great deal of time to admit and recognize this colonization, and to begin to make amends.

A new Maslow diagram

A new Maslow diagram

Language instructors and academic support professionals work within constraints. We follow teaching guidelines, pedagogies, and curricula that we often do not have the opportunity to influence. Further, digital platforms are embedded in our work, and the digital is changing how we work. It has also deeply affected academic writing and language. This is a new space––a digital space. The digital is here, it’s dominant, and, because the digital media is constantly changing, it affects change––which creates uncertainty. And, like Nova Scotia, digital spaces and platforms have been colonized, with deep-seated biases, inequalities, and corporate consumer interests. The students we encounter also live within these constraints. My son, for example, is now doing nearly all his school work on a google chrome book, on a google platform, at school, constructed and shaped by a corporation.

Conceptually and practically, technologies and literacies are essentially inseparable (NCTE, 2016). Digital ways of thinking are embedded in our own and our students’ concepts of both living and learning. These are, according to Leander and Boldt, “an existential social companion and learning appendage” (2013). In my own work, I direct a writing centre, a software support centre, and an EAP/writing support specialist. Digital platforms enmesh software and writing, and dictate the kind of writing that can happen, whether it’s MS Word or Excel or learning management systems. There are biases in the language and tools that we use.

Multilingualism can do some work

I’ve called this talk Plurilingualism Can Do Some Work because I see a great many similarities between plurilingualism and multiliteracies. I see this playing out in academic supports all the time. From the Common European Framework, Plurilingualism is “an uneven and changing competence” where “plurilinguals have a single, inter-related repertoire that they combine with their general competences and various strategies in order to accomplish tasks” (CEFR, p. 28). Multiliteracies is also about combinations of competencies and strategies.

For the purpose of this talk I want to think about language broadly to contain digital tools and platforms. I want also consider how students negotiate between these digital languages. Students might be competent with digital tools, but usage does not make them literate.

Facebook, 2018

Facebook, 2018

We may be competent in teaching with these tools. But are we literate in the language of these tools? The 2016 US election, Cambridge Analytica, and massive manipulation of data shows that while we may be digitally literate––the digital language keeps changing (Facebook, 2018). We are only beginning to understand the biases within these digital tools. They are not free or universally accessible. They are corporately owned and not inherently democratic.

The idea of multiliteracies grew out the work of the New London Group in 1996, at the beginning of the Web, as a way to promote education diversity. Their work is based on the concept that “the mission of education…is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life” (Cazden, et al., 1996).

Multiliteracies respond to new “text forms associated with information and media technology.” It also accounts for “differences of culture, language, and gender,” as well as economic, social, and educational inequality, as well as language” (Cazden, et al., 1996).

If multiliteracies purpose to make things more equitable and diverse, in 2018 we need to ask––to what extent can these tools decolonize knowledge and expression, if they are proprietary and, to a large extent, English-language driven?

Gendered digital tools activity

To show the everydayness of digital bias, let’s do a demonstration. I’d like you to take out your phones and open your messaging app. Hopefully, you have your prompt function turned on. I’d like you to type the following, “The doctor said.” What is the pronoun that is prompted by your phone? Now try “The nurse said.” Again, what is the pronoun prompted? Ok - now try “the professor said.” You can have fun with “engineer,” “pilot,” etc. Interestingly, when I type in doctor, I get the emoji for doctor, both male and female, but the skin colour of the emoji is white, while I left the emoji skin colour on my phone on the factory settings, which are not white.

You can do the same with google. Try a google image search of professor, doctor, nurse, or engineer. It reveals the depth of gender and racial bias within these now vital systems, the same systems we use to instruct and support our students.

I took this example for the You’re Not So Smart podcast, Machine Bias (November 20, 2017), a link to which I’ve posted on the page I created for this talk. You can get to the page through the conference website.

Machine bias is based on the past. The data that provides the prompts in your phone comes from a past understanding of the questions asked. Each time someone types, “The doctor said,” and then clicks “he,” this gendered response is re-enforced in the algorithm of the app. In the past in Nova Scotia, as in most of North America, political history is similarly constructed––history of language, rhetoric, and pedagogy is complex and certainly gendered.

A short history of pedagogies in Atlantic Canada

The Mi'kmaq language and its dialects, have been spoken continually in this place for 13,000 years (Nova Scotia Archives, 2018). Mi'kmaq is one of a few North American Indigenous languages to have a developed writing system that pre-dates European contact. Mi'kmaq and its writing system were colonized by the French in the 18th century. The French Catholic clergy developed pedagogies based on this language colonization to Christianize the Mi'kmaq, for assimilation and subjugation. The English simply picked up this colonization, which continues to today.

Education policies and pedagogies under the English in Nova Scotia focused on white settlers, and most often broken down along sectarian lines. Protestant higher education began in 1803 with the founding of King’s College (now Kings College University), in Windsor, NS. There is little doubt about the intention of the school. Here’s a school board member, Alexander Croke, regarding the schools purpose. King’s College is to assimilate “the rising generation to those of the parent state…to teach the genuine use, practice and pronunciation of the English language, which in distant colonies is to apt to degenerate, and that the purity of the language…is undeniably to be found in the Kingdom of England” (Vroom, 1941, p. 37). It doesn’t get much more colonial than that.

Thomas McCulloch, first Principal of Dalhousie College, 1838 (Dalhousie, 2018).

Thomas McCulloch, first Principal of Dalhousie College, 1838 (Dalhousie, 2018).

It’s also in the early 19th century that non-sectarian education was first attempted in Nova Scotia, or at least a version of it. Thomas McCulloch, later first principal of Dalhousie College, founded Pictou Academy 1816 on these principles. His idea was to provide an education free from religious influence (or free-ish), as well as to provide an approach to rhetoric and language-learning that put students first.

He brought these ideas with him as principal of Dalhousie in 1838. If learning Greek and Latin, for example, put in jeopardy a student’s ability to suceed, Latin and Greek, were “a waste of human life adapted neither for the circumstances or the prosperity of Nova Scotia” (Hubert, 1994, 31). McCulloch further writes in 1838, “the community will join me in affirming that…sound judgment [in students] is more valuable than a sackful of words.” It should be noted that McCulloch was known for his writing humor, and he is being provocative here. His Stepsure Letters (1821-1823) were a great influence on Thomas Haliburton’s Sam Slick. You can also read McCulloch’s book, The Nature and Uses of a Liberal Education (1819) which is quite an interesting read.

Daniel Fogarty, Dean of Education,  Saint Mary’s University, 1957-1965 (SMU Journal, 1957)

Daniel Fogarty, Dean of Education,
Saint Mary’s University, 1957-1965
(SMU Journal, 1957)

In 1959, Daniel Fogarty, the Dean of Education at Saint Mary’s University, published Roots for a New Rhetoric. Fogarty was a Jesuit priest and Saint Mary’s was a Catholic university, so the institution’s sectarian position was clear. Yet, Fogarty’s rhetoric looked forward: he says, rhetoric “will need to broaden its aim until it no longer confines itself to teaching the art of formal persuasion but includes formation in every kind of symbol-using” (Graves, 1994, p. 130; Graves quoting Fogarty). Roger Graves, who writes on Fogarty’s work in Writing Instruction in Canadian Universities (1994), positions Roots for a New Rhetoric as a foundation for rhetoric studies in Canada.

This history, though brief, shows the development of language and rhetoric throughout the colonization of Nova Scotia. It’s in this that the 2018 Common European Framework appears. Like McCulloch and Fogarty, the Framework asks instuctors to “design curricula and courses based on real-world communicative needs, organized around real-life tasks and accompanied by ‘Can do’ descriptors that communicate aims to learners” (p. 28). It also asks language teachers to “work backwards from what the users/learners needs” (CEFR, 2018, p. 26). The starting point is the student.

Can multiliteracies provide for students to fully participate in their learning and community? Can digital tools do this work, if the purpose of these tools is to create revenue for corporations?

Problematizing multiliteracies

For linguist Suresh Canagarajah, in his 2002 book, Critical Academic Writing and Multilingual Students, the embedded inequity of Western society and culture is due to the gatekeeping of “disciplinary communities.” Access is blocked by those in authority “wielding standardized forms of language and discourse.” He also says, “As for mixing non-Western languages, there are strict constraints on how much” of this “will be appreciated” (p. 220). Further, “What is valued in Western communities is competence in economically profitable languages” (p. 220). This is why digital media is dominated by English in Canada.

Facts and figures

  • 95% of Americans (aged 13-17) have access to a smartphone (2018)

  • 1.07 billion people on WeChat (2018)

  • 500 million people on TikTok (2018)

  • 94% of Canadians have a social media profile (2018)

(Anderson, M., & Jiang, J., 2018; Statista, 2018; NYTimes, 2018; Canadian’s Internet Business, 2018; )

What these show is that we now live in media, no longer with media. Digital media has become invisible, and we are living, what Mark Deuze (2011) calls, “a media life.” The medium is even now more so the message––technological structures and format informs content, syntax, grammar, and spelling, which then informs style, pedagogy, and instruction. This then ultimately affects knowledge production and acquisition.

Brad Boxberger (Slate, Sept. 2018)

Brad Boxberger (Slate, Sept. 2018)

We see the digital jumping now in the physical constantly. In 2018, Major League Baseball was the first sport to have an emoji as the name on a player’s jersey. During an interview with Slate about the jersey, the player, Brad Boxberger, was asked:

Last year, it came out that Google had made a mistake in designing its burger emoji, and the cheese was actually below the meat. Did you see that?

I did not know that. You can’t have the cheese under the patty, that doesn’t make any sense.

Do you think any older people who maybe aren’t familiar with emojis were confused by it?

“Not really…They don’t necessarily have to be emojis—you could go ‘clip art’ if we’re bringing it back a little bit” (Slate, 2018).

This example show several things regarding emoji as language. Here we have language standardization––a kind of discounting of dialects––of the emoji (Cheese on the bottom! Can’t do that!). Boxberger also reveals a possible derivation of emoji, “clip art.” Older folks––they speak clip art!

“I’m reminding you that Laura loves you, and that you are doing a great job.” – a machine    ( Alexa – Day with Dad, Amazon Echo commercial, 2018)

“I’m reminding you that Laura loves you, and that you are doing a great job.” – a machine

(Alexa – Day with Dad, Amazon Echo commercial, 2018)

We have been colonized by these digital languages, just as we have been colonized by digital platforms––MySpace, Netscape, AOL, and now Google and Microsoft, Facebook and Instagram. We speak their languages and we speak through these tools. In the case of Alexa, Echo, and Google Home, they speak to and for us. These digital languages and platforms have mapped themselves onto our lives.

Digital formats, changing pedagogies

In the writing centre, a long-standing pedagogy in writing centre practice is to work on paper––at SMU, student must bring a paper copy of their assignments, as well as a hard copy of their writing. In this way, students can see the physical and changeable process of drafting and revising, working with pencil, paper, and eraser. Now, as many assignments are delivered wholly online, this pedagogy has changed. As a result, tutoring sessions are now mediated through a digital device and platform. The change is significant. Beyond time lost working with the device and the platform (finding the file, getting wifi), the student’s ability to see drafts, notes, and idea scribbled on paper creates a loss of process, a process where learning takes place.

What is needed, then, is to create a space for students that is both supportive of writing and digital platforms. This can happen with the integration of both digital software and writing support in one unit. What SMU has been attempting is to integrate these traditionally separate services, not only under one unit, but in the tutors who support students. We have several tutors who work both in the writing centre, as well as the software support centre. Applying concepts of multiliteracies allows for an expanded view of digital tools as well as the labour required to support students in 2018.

We need, as education professionals, to become not only competent in the digital tools we use, but to become literate in the language of digital media. We need to hire multilingual tutors who can provide second-language writing students with first-hand writing strategies. We need to become proactive to end embedded biases in digital media tools and software. We need to enact literacy strategies and policies which account for plurilingual students. And most importantly, we need to create visions for teaching and academic support that is framed in social justice modelling.

I’m reminded of a challenge from my colleague, Neisha-Anne Green, who says, “Don’t be an ally. Be my accomplice.”

Thank you.

Don’t be an ally. Be my accomplice.
— Neisha-Anne Green

Quotes, resources, and definitions

Check these out

Machine Bias, (You’re Not So Smart, 2017 (podcast))

Amazon Killed an AI Recruitment System Because It Couldn't Stop the Tool from Discriminating Against Women, (Fortune, 2018)

Moving Beyond Alright with Neisha-Anne Green, (Fashion Institute of Technology, 2018 (video))

Being a digital native isn’t enough, (Scientific American, 2012 (blog))

Amazon Patents “Anticipatory” Shipping — To Start Sending Stuff Before You’ve Bought It, (Tech Crunch, 2013)

Faception is a facial personality analytics technology company.


Thomas McCulloch, (1776-1843), First principal of Dalhousie College, 1838-1842

“Instead of enabling [students] to display their pedantry by interlarding Latin and Greek phrases with the chit chat of life, it would be more profitable to give them an accurate acquaintance with the operation of their own minds, to teach them to classify their knowledge and communicate their sentiments, and to furnish them with those duties, and that knowledge of mathematical and physical science, which would be every day useful to the community and honourable to themselves.” (p. 52)

“Now, instead of ascribing all this to classical learning, I should have supposed that it would have been more natural to have referred it to that mass of sound principle of Christianity are known and believed. I thought we had been past those days in which just views of civil liberty were expected from either Greece or Rome.” (Harvey, p. 53)

“I believe the community will join me in affirming that…sound judgment is more valuable than a sackful of words.” (Harvey, p. 53)

From 1803 and the founding of the first college in Canada (King’s College, Windsor, NS)

“It is the office of all seminaries to give to their pupils, not to receive from them, the tone of character; and that a very principal object of the new institution would be accomplished by assimilating the manner of the rising generation to those of the parent state…We think that is of no small importance to this seminary to teach the genuine use, practice and pronunciation of the English language, which in distant colonies is too apt to degenerate, and that the purity of the language, undebased by local or national accents and solecisms, is undeniably to be found in the Kingdom of England.” (Vroom, 1941, p. 37)

Regarding King’s College (1824),

“It must be evident that one college will be ample for the literary wants of Nova Scotia, and perhaps the adjoining Provinces, for several centuries” (Vroom, 1941, p. 64; speaker unknown).

Dr. Dan Fogarty, J.S., Dean of Education, Saint Mary’s University, 1957-1965
Author of “Roots for a New Rhetoric,” 1959

“Social, political, economic, and cultural change have a great influence on the changing forms of our language arts…the eighteenth century tendency to emphasize grammatical correctness grew no less out of an equally important social need to acquire that correctness as the symbol of respectable status.” (Fogarty, 1959)

Terms and definitions


Literacy is a culturally based practice, driven by dominate cultural forces and historical aspects long embedded in societies. (Cazden, et al., 1996; Cervetti, Damico, & Pearson, 2006; NCTE, 2016)


Multiliteracies negotiate “a multiplicity of discourses,” extend concepts and practice of literacy to account for “culturally and linguistically diverse” societies, and respond to new “text forms associated with  information and media technology,” as well as “differences of culture, language, and gender,” and economic, social, and educational inequality, focusing on “modes of representation much broader than language alone.” Language and “other modes of meaning” are conceptually embedded as “dynamic representational resources” remade by users—students and faculty—“as they work to achieve their various cultural purposes.” (Cazden, et al. 1996), in A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies (1996)

Bibliography / Works cited

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