12.1946, Review: Belcher & Connor, Multiliterate Lives

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-12-1946. Wed Aug 1 2001. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 12.1946, Review: Belcher & Connor, Multiliterate Lives

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Date:  Wed, 01 Aug 2001 15:35:58 -0400
From:  Guillaume Gentil <guillaume.gentil at mcgill.ca>
Subject:  Review: Belcher and Connor, Reflections on Multiliterate Lives

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Wed, 01 Aug 2001 15:35:58 -0400
From:  Guillaume Gentil <guillaume.gentil at mcgill.ca>
Subject:  Review: Belcher and Connor, Reflections on Multiliterate Lives

Belcher, Diane, and Ulla Connor, ed. (2001) Reflections on Multiliterate
Lives. Multilingual Matters Ltd, paperback ISBN: 1-85359-521-7,
vii+211pp, GBP 19.95, Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 26.

Guillaume Gentil, McGill University, Montréal, Québec, Canada

REFLECTIONS ON MULTILITERATE LIVES is a collection of 18 personal,
first-hand, accounts, in narrative and interview format, of the formative
language learning and literacy experiences of highly successful
second-language (L2) academic writers. By trying to find out how these
writers became so successful, the editors aim to help the students,
teachers, and researchers of L2 writing better understand how advanced L2
literacy can be achieved.

ABOUT THE EDITORS. The editors of REFLECTIONS are well-known specialists in
applied linguistics and TESOL with special interests in L2 academic writing
and English for specific purposes. They introduce themselves with a short
biography and a photo on page 1. Diane Belcher began her career in TESOL as
a teacher of English literature and composition in the People's Republic of
China. She earned a Ph.D. in English from the Ohio State University, where
she currently serves as the director of the ESL Composition Program. She has
co-edited "Academic Writing in a Second Language" and "Linking Literacies:
Perspectives on L2 Reading-Writing Connections." Born and raised in Finland,
Ulla Connor earned a Ph.D. in education and English linguistics from the
University of Wisconsin. She has taught English as a second/foreign language
and applied linguistics in the US, Finland, Japan, Venezuela, and Slovakia.
She has authored "Contrastive Rhetoric: Cross-cultural Aspects of Second
Language Writing."

EDITORS' INTRODUCTION. In the Editors' Introduction, Belcher and Connor
discuss their rationale for collecting autobiographical narratives of
successful L2 literacy development, and they provide an overview of the 18
accounts that follow. Pointing out the wealth of recently published
narratives by language educators, writing teachers, and language learners,
they argue that autobiographical narratives of language development can be
"rich sources of data" for L2 acquisition researchers and a "powerful
teaching tool" for language teachers and language learners. In addition to
being "highly personalized" and "easy to relate to," narratives of language
development provide "windows on ... (the) conscious use of language-learning
strategies" and "can increase learners' awareness of their own learning
processes." Belcher and Connor further point out the need to provide
examples of successful users of more than one language so as to inspire L2
students and their teachers.

The editors then explain their selection of contributors. They aimed to
include "multicompetent language users" "from a wide range of academic as
well as linguistic and educational backgrounds," and from "core
English-speaking countries" (e.g., Australia and the US) as well as "the
periphery" (e.g., Hong Kong) and English-as-a-foreign-language environments
(e.g., Japan and Finland). Belcher and Connor also aimed for gender
representation. In terms of academic backgrounds, contributors were selected
from among two groups: L2 specialists in applied linguistics and the
teaching of English, and L2 academic writers from the physical and social
sciences. Whereas the former may provide "a linguistically informed view of
language learning and academic literacy learning," the latter may share
"their insider awareness of what it takes to attain and sustain advanced
second language academic literacy in fields that most language teachers are
only able to view from the outside." Another rationale for this dual
selection is the editors' concern to forestall the criticism that
linguistically informed accounts may be "lacking authenticity" whereas
accounts by "naive language users" may be "lacking accuracy." Among the 18
contributors, 10 are language specialists and 8 are academics from other

The editors do not discuss how they approached the contributors, but they do
provide a list of their questions and instructions to the contributors in
the Appendix. The instructions were simply to freely draw from the list of
questions about literacy development and "compose an L1/L2 autobiography
that would help both L2 learners and teacher-research better understand how
highly advanced L2 literacy can be achieved." Contributors apparently had
the choice of either composing an autobiography or having an interview with
one of the editors. Among the 18 contributors, 13 composed an autobiography.
The other 5, all in the non-language specialists group, opted for an

The remainder of the book is divided in two sections, with Part 1 including
the 10 contributions from the language specialists and Part 2 the 8
contributions from the academics in non-linguistic fields. Part 1 is
organized by area of origin (South Asia, Northern and Central Europe, North
America, and East Asia), whereas Part 2 is organized along disciplinary
lines, moving from the physical and mathematical sciences to the social
sciences and concluding with two university presidents. Although from
diverse origins, all contributors to part 2 currently reside in the US.
Contributions range from 4 to 17 pages long, and are diversely informative.
They are varied, often poignant tales of struggles and successes. Each
contribution is accompanied by a short academic biography and a photo. At
the risk of oversimplifying richly textured narratives, I present a brief
overview of each contribution, followed by the identification of possible
themes and patterns, and a critical evaluation.

OVERVIEW OF PARTS 1 AND 2. Struggling to decipher and meet the often
competing expectations of American, British, and Tamil scholarly
communities, Suresh Canagarajah vividly describes the creative tension
between appropriating available conventions and discourses, and cultivating
one's voice in the academy. Also from South Asia, Vijay Bhatia recounts his
L2 academic development in terms of finding a "niche" (the right academic
field for one's talents and interests) and being socialized into an academic
community with a mentor's help.

Raised in Finland as a balanced Swedish and Finnish bilingual, Nils Erik
Enkvist believes that he has grown as a multilingual, multiliterate linguist
"through exposure and osmosis" and that developing student writers should
therefore "experience a large body of different texts brought from a wide
range of contexts." Also growing up in a bilingual Finnish-Swedish
environment, but conscious of his status as a member of the Swedish-speaking
minority in Finland, Hakan Ringbom is one of the two contributors (with
Adina Levine) who learned English academic writing without completing a
graduate degree in an English-speaking country. Currently a professor of
English in Finland, he stresses the importance for non-native writers to
rely on "competent native language consultants who also know something about
your topic."

Immigrating from Austria to Australia at age 6, and currently a professor of
English education in the US, Anna Söter recounts her transition from
Australian to US academic writing as well as the challenge and the necessity
to maintain her first language, German.

Growing up in a bilingual and biliterate Russian-Lithuanian environment,
Adina Levine recounts how her school and university education in Russian and
English classical literature helped her adapt to the new demands of English
academic genres when she immigrated to Israel. Andrew Cohen, a US born and
raised multilingual linguist who also immigrated to Israel but then returned
to the US, compares his struggles and strategies to acquire academic Hebrew
with his fluency in spoken and written English, and his effortless
acquisition of many other languages.

Born and raised in Japan, Ryuko Kubota and Miuki Sasaki attribute their
successful academic literacy development in English in part to their L1
literacy development in school and at home, and to their "post-undergraduate
immersion experiences" in North America. Whereas Kubota has continued her
academic career in the US, Sasaki has returned to Japan and now publishes in
both Japanese and English.

Born and raised in China during the Cultural Revolution, Jun Liu attributes
his successful literacy development in English in part to his early literacy
experiences in Chinese and English, and to the confidence he gained through
asserting his L2 social identity as a competent ESL writing teacher.

Opening PART 2, Ming-Daw Tsai, from Taiwan, recounts how he learned to speak
and write English so as to pursue an academic career as a professor of
chemistry in the US. Despite receiving formal training in English in his
native country, he became fluent in written and spoken English for
scientific communication only after he moved to the US to attend graduate

Born in France but living in the US since the age of 9, Louis de Branges
points out the role of his fluency in French, English, German, and Russian
in his academic career as a professor of mathematics.

Born and raised in Iran and now a professor of engineering in the US,
Hooshang Hermani's advice to foreign science students is to try to
understand the host culture and develop a sustaining philosophy of life
through non-scientific pursuits, instead of focusing exclusively on thesis
research. Raised in Lebanon in a triliterate environment (Armenian, Arabic,
and English) and now a professor of nursing in the US, Anahid Dervartanian
attributes her success as an English academic writer in part to
collaborative writing with good English writers, extensive reading, and her
American husband's respectful editorial feedback.

Currently a professor of human and community resource development, Robert
Agunda's journey from rural Ghana to the US academe exemplifies how one key
to successful academic writing is to find an inspiring research area that
will provide a niche and "calling."

Born and raised in Puerto Rico and now a professor of nursing in the
continental US, Maria Julia's successful academic writing development in
both Spanish and English is the tale of a struggle to gain and maintain
self-confidence as a writer and contributor to her field. Also a native
speaker of Spanish (from Mexico), but living in the US since the age of 11,
University President Luis Proenza recounts how Spanish still plays a role in
his professional career and has enriched his English writing, even though
English has long become his dominant language. Like Luis Proenza, University
President Steven Beering moved to the US during his early teens, after
growing up in a trilingual (German, French, English) European environment.
Questioning the value of bilingual education, Beering's advice to "succeed
as Americans" is "to act out" as a speaker of the majority language while
cultivating family ties and celebrating one's roots in one's first language.

CRITICAL EVALUATION. A question that naturally arises with such a collection
of diverse life stories is to what extent knowledge can be generalized about
multiliteracy development through highly personal and idiosyncratic learning
experiences. In their introduction, the editors echo one contributor's
(Ryuko Kubota) warning that "her personal experiences and observations are
not generalizable, situated as they are 'at a certain time and location.'"
Another contributor, Nils Enkvist is frank about his embarrassment to
indulge in "a highly egocentric apologia and confession of a kind [he]
associates with modes other than scholarly writing." As he points out,
"every bilingual and multilingual person will have a highly personal and
idiosyncratic past." The editors themselves hardly venture any
generalizations beyond emphasizing the "great distances" traveled by the
contributors "to arrive at their wished-for destinations" and recognizing
their contributors' "obvious strengths ... as remarkably self-aware
learners of language and of much else." They offer no conclusions or
discussions, even tentative ones, and their introduction is limited to
three pages about the research rationale and research design, followed by
a rather lengthy (14-page) overview of the narratives.

Yet, as Nils Enkvist remarks, even a subjective and "partly exotic" case
history can also be "partly typical enough." Despite the diversity and
uniqueness of the narratives, the attentive reader can identify emerging
patterns that can be instructive. For instance, it appears that all
contributors have developed L2 academic literacy through extensive exposure
to and practice with various academic genres in the L2, often through
prolonged immersion in an English-speaking environment (many contributors
have earned postgraduate degrees from English-speaking universities in the
US, Canada or Britain). The two contributors who do not mention in their
accounts such prolonged English or L2 immersion, Ringbom and Levine, were
born and raised in bilingual environments (Finnish and Swedish, and Russian
and Lithuanian, respectively), and have received extensive training in
English literature and applied linguistics.

It also appears that many contributors were raised in a richly literate,
often multilingual environment, and were socialized into literacy practices
at home and at school from a young age. Most contributors (especially in
Part 1) have enjoyed reading and writing since a young age, and some were
rewarded for good writing during school. Few were taught writing strategies
explicitly, but some improved their understanding of writing by taking or
teaching English composition classes, or reviewing others' work. It is
unclear to what extent the contributors' metalinguistic awareness has played
a central role in their L2 academic development, but it is clear that most
contributors are very articulate about the elaborate strategies they employ
to analyse and improve their writing.

Contributors vary in their judgement about the usefulness of native speaker
feedback in their academic literacy development. Some warn against academic
gatekeepers such as reviewers and editors, and expose the unspoken bias of
their American colleagues toward supposedly non-native writing. On the other
hand, other contributors value native speaker feedback, especially when
coming from competent language consultants or compassionate critics (e.g.,
advisors, spouses, and parents). Many contributors recount how their
confidence level in their writing abilities has been boosted or undermined
by various responses to their writing. It seems that for many contributors,
gaining and maintaining self-confidence as an L2 writer through
other-recognition has played a key role in their L2 academic literacy

Contributors also vary in the age at which they began to speak and write in
an L2, the context (foreign, second, postcolonial) within which they learned
their L2, the extent to which they acquired L1 literacy prior to L2
literacy, and the extent to which they are truly biliterate or multiliterate
academics (many contributors use mostly or only English for professional
purposes). A careful analysis of the narratives may allow other patterns to
be identified and hypotheses to be formulated about L2 literacy development.
By providing rich, first-hand research material, Belcher and Connor trust
the intelligence of the readers and invite them to do their own inferencing.
However, they may have helped the readers by presenting biographical
information in a more systematic manner, for instance in the form of tables,
or by suggesting emergent patterns across narratives. Whereas the freedom
that the contributors enjoyed in selecting various aspects of their literacy
development provides insights into the contributors' understandings of their
own development, it does not facilitate the comparing of narratives and
inferring of patterns. Arguably, each narrative is informative in its own
right as providing a window on literacy experiences that readers can relate
to and learn from. However, if the aim is not so much comparability and
generalizability as it is "thick description," perhaps an alternative to a
collection of 18 narratives might have been to provide fewer, but more
in-depth case studies of L2 academic writers. As it stands, the present
collection is stimulating and thought provoking, but it may leave some
second language acquisition researchers and language learners wanting to
know more about how the contributors achieved advanced academic literacy in
a second language and in more than one language.

These minor reservations notwithstanding, MULTILITERATE LIVES meet the
editors' objective to demonstrate the rewards of multiliteracy through
compelling examples of successful academic writers. The collection is likely
to be inspiring for second language writers and their teachers, and it
provides rich data for researchers of second language acquisition and
literacy. It would make an excellent reading for a course on L2 literacy

Raised in France and formerly trained as a biologist in France and the US,
Guillaume Gentil is a sessional course lecturer and doctoral candidate in
second language education at McGill University. His doctoral research is a
case study of scientific biliteracy development and identity construction.
The reviewer wishes to thank Jennifer Hradzil for her help in proofreading
this book review.


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