Multimodal Matters

Linguistic meaning is created in relation to diverse symbol systems (icons, space, color, gesture, or other representational systems) and modalities of communication (writing, sound, visuals, touch, and body), not to speak of diverse languages. If we need a grammar or rules for this mode of communication, it will be a grammar of multimodality—that is, it will contain rules that account for how language meshes with diverse symbol systems, modalities of communication, and ecological resources to create meaning. (Canagarajah “Lingua Franca” 932)

We note the similarities between Canagarajah’s compelling argument about multilingual literacies and the current understanding of the productive affordances of multimodal composing. In our examination of our students’ multilingual literacy narratives, we assert that modality matters. We can’t help but notice the richness of the narratives as a result of access to voice, gesture, tone, especially when compared to the print literacy narratives our students have produced. We argue that in multimodal form, these texts “carry meaning across geo-political, linguistic, and cultural borders, and . . . take advantage of multiple semiotic channels” (Takayoshi and Selfe 2).  Multimodal L2 literacy narratives offer important layers of meaning, both as students produce the texts and as we read/experience them in the DALN.

As one example of this richness in the multimodal pieces, we offer a paragraph from Sky’s print literacy narrative in conjunction with a clip from his multimodal piece. To fully appreciate the expression of all five students in various modes, we highly recommend viewing the full DALN entries for each student:

In his print literacy narrative, Sky relates the story of his arrival in England and his initial dismay at not being able to understand the language around him:

See, even though I am constantly writing about how I was bad in English, I was not aware of this before I departed for England. Actually, I thought I was pretty decent at it, and I even told myself not to worry, that soon enough, my genius in English would be in good use. Oh, I wish I hadn’t thought like that! Because not only did my skills not shine in anything, I could barely understand anybody when I got there. I remember that there was this moment when the cab driver that was picking me up from the airport said something like, “Where ya going mate?” and all I heard was, “mehmehmehmeh, meh?” If that’s not torture, what is? (Tian Wei Wang)

He shares the same story in his film:

In all five of the literacy narratives in this exhibitthe three crafted stories and the two interviewsthe audio, visual, and multimodal narratives offer layered data about the symbolic practices that give shape to literacy and linguistic spaces and experiences. While each of these contributors is certainly capable of offering autobiographical literacy information in print form, in the crafted, multimodally composed contributions more so than in their print pieces, we find the presence of the students, the voices of the students, and the vision of the students much more vibrant and more effective at conveying who they are choosing to be and what they are thinking.

There are several caveats that must accompany this statement. First, we are not suggesting in any way that it is not possible for a bilingual or multilingual student, or any student for that matter, to share an autobiographical literacy narrative in a very compelling way in print. There are many, many contributions in the DALN, including some from these students, and out in the world that provide evocative and provocative print literacy narratives. Second, we are certainly not the first to notice the power of visual and audio elements of storytelling. Nevertheless, we argue that in the multilingual literacy landscape, audio, visual, and multimodal material make it almost impossible to fall back on standard labels (ESL, L2, foreign, other) that might come easily to mind when reading an “imperfect” print text. The voicing of these stories, the performance of narrative identity, even in image, brings the interesting person, the living being, to the fore and combats the very human urge to “other” and to apply easily accessible stereotypes. Again, this is probably true in of all of the DALN audio, visual, or multimodal contributions, but these elements carry an important weight for the storytelling of those our dominant culture typically others.

continue to gallery of full-length literacy narratives/interviews

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