Multilingualism and Multiliteracies in an Outdated System of Education

Globalization is rapidly changing our society, but schools haven’t been able to keep up. Paul Kei Matsuda’s article “Teaching Composition in the Multilingual World” and “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures” by Courtney Cazden, Bill Cope, Norman Fairclough, Jim Gee, et al. discuss a few of the ways our current education system is failing to prepare students to succeed in a globalized world.

In “Teaching Composition,” Matsuda discusses the importance of making writing courses accessible to students whose first language isn’t English. The population of college students is rapidly growing more diverse, and many international students face writing challenges that native English speakers don’t. For example, Matsuda points out that writing is practically a second language for native speakers, so it’s even more of a challenge for second language writers to figure out complex systems of grammar that don’t exist in their native language (40). 

Not only would making writing courses more accessible benefit multilingual students, but it would also benefit the monolingual English speakers who must prepare to write for a global, multilingual audience (50).  I whole-heartedly agree that monolingual students are woefully unprepared for the demands of working and researching in a globalized community, especially in comparison to scholars from countries where multilingualism is the norm. I wish American schools would start preparing students for this reality as early as elementary school, when children are malleable enough to learn new languages and to be more open minded about communicating with diverse communities.

Although I agree in theory that “all sections of first-year writing courses [should be] ESL friendly” (45), I have reservations about implementing this strategy in the classroom. Of course, inclusion of diverse students and viewpoints is always a positive, but it’s unfair (to both teachers and students) to place additional expectations on teachers to cater to such a broad population of learners while not making any structural changes to the education system. Giving teachers a few extra hours of training to “work with a broader range of basic writers” (46) isn’t enough to account for the tremendous societal changes that globalization is causing. 

The idea that our education system needs to make major changes in order to adequately prepare students for a globalized world returned to me as I read “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.” This article is dense, yet it also manages to discuss a wide breadth of issues that affect our education system in the modern world. (Well, at least it was modern when the article was written; though most of their ideas are still relevant, the authors do believe that “information superhighways” and a future filled with “virtual shoppers” are ludicrous, sci-fi fantasies [64]. Both the internet and Instacart would disagree.)

One relevant issue the article discusses is the transition of our society into “fast capitalism” or “postFordsim.” We are no longer in an Industrial Age of production lines and strict managerial hierarchies (66), but our education system still functions as though it’s preparing students to work in an early twentieth century factory. Again, I’m struck by the dire need for structural changes to our outdated education system. I watched a great video on this topic in my undergraduate Social Foundations of Education course. It covers a lot of topics similar to the ones in the article in a much more palatable, less jargon-filled way.

I can’t cover all of my thoughts on this stimulating, informative, thorough, and extremely academic article; there are so many thoughts and questions I could raise about metalanguages or subcultural differences or the broader impacts of fast capitalism and globalization, but I want to focus on a key idea that resurfaces throughout: Students must be designers of social futures. 

This idea that students must be “active participants of social change” (64) is the core of what I believe education should do; a good education must prepare students to enter society with the skills, knowledge, and empathy necessary to become leaders and to make positive changes in their communities and the (now globalized) world. 

In order to revitalize the education system to teach students to function in this globalized world where multiliteracies are a necessity, the authors believe that educators, through the process of “Designing,” must use the “Available Designs” (or the current educational resources and discourses) to create the “Redesigned” (which is a new, “transformed” resource more relevant to modern society) (74-77). This section of the article is very theoretical and academic, and I wish the authors could give more concrete ideas about what a “Redesigned” education system that accounts for mulitliteracies and our rapidly changing society would look like.

Ultimately, after reading both articles this week, I’m even more convinced that our education system needs to undergo radical, structural changes in order to meet the needs of students in an ever-changing and interconnected world.

Published by M.E. O’Neill

Graduate student at Kean University studying English Writing.

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