Literacy in Theory and Practice: Language ideologies

Language ideologies are the beliefs, strategies, attitudes to explain the language they use and practice. Semiotic in nature; your ideology influences your language use. Language can influence identity construction. Media ideologies are the metalanguage that emphasizes the technologies we use to communicate. Its beliefs and attitudes people have towards media that they use or don’t use. It doesn’t actually determine how they use it but does shapes it. It’s beliefs, not necessarily practice. Language and media ideologies don’t also align and thus creates new situations for people to work around and/or coordinate. If they do align, they reflect local ideas and performances. These ideologies are multiple, locatable, partial, positioned and contested.

There are ideologies for the designed and the user (implied and actual). Madeline Akrich argues that every technologies has an implied and actual user. There is a presupposed narrative about the users and mobility of the technology. Tension exists then when technology travels and impacts the actual user. Every medium stores utterances differently; utterances then can be imagined to be coherently linked or similar across contexts. Semantic (written) replication may be less important than the physical manifestation (sound, form). Repetition is an achievement in each of these ideologies; repetition reflects what is valued. Because contexts change, to reproduce a language or media ideology takes labor from participants. Authorship is bound up with mediums.

Technology calls for a structure and an imagined audience. No medium is introduced in a vacuum. New medium alters how we understand/perceive/use old media. Old media effects new media reception. Media ideologies are always in play with remediation.

Brian Street’s book focusing on writing as a medium and the ideologies around that medium. He has a marxist perspective. Scholars have to be aware of their own language and media ideologies.

Literacy in Theory and Practice, by Brian V. Street

Introduction: Street takes the introduction to establish a dichotomy that exists when scholars think about literacy. Literacy for Street means, “the social practices and conceptions of reading writing” (1). Literacy has come to be understood through two models, the autonomous model and the ideological model. “The model is a single direction in which literacy development can be traced, and associates it with ‘progress’, ‘civilization’, individual liberty and social mobility” (2). The ideological model of literacy which “recognizes the culturally embedded nature of such [social] practices” (2). This model is dependent on social institutions, learning these practices depends on social structure, the way we learn them constructs their meaning, implies literacies (8). He foreshadows his coming sections about the literacy programs of Iran and UNESCO to strengthen his case for literacy within the ideological model with specific mention of social construction and stratification (12-13). Autonomous model is a-historical and a-cultural. It is very deterministic. It’s predictable and has predictable effects and is transformative. Street writes directly against this and in fact says that this model is a locatable ideology that performs power relations. 

Section 1: Literacy in Theory
Chapter 1 The Autonomous Model: 1 Literacy and rationality: This chapter discusses the autonomous model in more detail; the model implies that literacy is neutral and technical and is often equated with cognitive capacity and development. To not be literate then, is to not be modern or smart. This acts as a universal truth by which to measure societies (28-29). It privileges written texts and written language (24). It also privileges western educational practices (34-35), since if others don’t show competency in these, they are pre-modern subjects. Structurally, the use of language “involves classification, abstraction, and the selection by specific criteria or elements from a largely undifferentiated universe” (36). 

Chapter 2 The Autonomous Model: 2 Goody: This chapter follows the philosophy of Jack Goody, who believed literate/non-literate was more useful than traditional schools of thought because “writing makes the relationship between a word and its referent more general and abstract, it is less closely connected with the peculiarities of time and place than the language of oral communication” (44). Moreover, oral societies communicate “all beliefs, and values, all forms of knowledge between individuals in face-to-face contact” (45). But Street cites other scholars who refute this claim, saying there was a shift from social memory to written record. There is a technology of intellect that constructs the literate mentality (47). But this technology is not neutral, in fact, it is a product of “political and ideological processes and institutions” (65). 

Chapter 3: Literacy and Linguistics: Linguists are also guilty of privileging written language over spoken language (67). We often try to speak similarly to how we would write, but speech rules don’t depend on rules of written language (69). Lyons argues for language-systems; this “encodes meaning through grammar, phonology, and the lexicon and the question of how this system is used differs from that of how linguists analyze and describe it” (72). But this still gives us the dichotomy of objective/subjective because a language system “offers no cultural context in which to make sense of such systems” (80). Somehow writing is seen as the objective form of knowledge (93-94) and 

Chapter 4: The Ideological Model: The ideological model implies looking at literacy and other factors (political, economic, social), but not technology (96). Street takes up technologies though and says that for sure technologies influence literacy because of matters of access/wealth (97). Moreover, oral traditions have been privileged in communities like the Brahmen in India. This chapter directly challenge that idea that written texts are objective knowledge (102). Literacy in some instances (Canada) became associated with classes and levels of danger, i.e. illiterates were associated with working class and thus were dangerous to social order (105). This meant that those societies had to construct programs for teaching the “right” kind of literacy and that the illiterate would have to buy into the kind of literacy they would need for their position in society (107). Literacy training thus trained speech habits, thus homogenized language use toward a dominant order (108). This hidden curriculum in schools and libraries helped train the middle class (109). 

Section 2: Literacy in Theory and Practice
Chapter 5 Maktab Literacy: Street uses the Iranian Maktab as an interesting case study to support the ideological model of literacy. Maktabs were the traditional religious schools in Iran in the 1970s, before the revolution (1979). Maktab literacy is distinct because it is constituted by very specific practices. They mix oral and literate models of literacy. On the one hand, mullahs had to memorize and recite passages from the Koran and Hadith. On the other, it required one to be able to read Arabic and Persian script (134). This mixture of oral and written practices transmitted knowledge (137). Maktab literacy did not create an inflexible system, but rather enabled writers to add commentary. But writing commentary wasn’t privileged because it was the literal act of writing, but the political process of contributing to the religious community (151). Flexibility here turned into commercial literacy, where maktab literates adapted their maktab literacy to meet demands of the market (152). 

Chapter 6 Commercial Literacy: Commercial literacy though is tricky and dependent on the maktab literacy possessed in the village or town in question. Street writes, “maktab literacy…facilitated the development of a new commercial literacy practice and associated skills. it was the presence of this practice and these skills, together with the advantages given by the organization of small-holdings and the distribution system” (159). Maktab literacy enabled the growth of commercial literacy and thus the growth of economic growth. Street says that literacy is not an individual matter, but ideological. It’s “a social construction of reality embedded in specific collective practices in specific social situations” (176). Social group members may have varying level of competency but they do “share a common ideology and a common understanding of the meanings of that literacy” (176). 

Section 3: Literacy in Practice
Chapter 7 UNESCO and Radical Literacy Campaigns: 

Chapter 8 Adult Literacy Campaigns in the UK and the USA: 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s