In cleaning house, I came across this rather long post that has been hiding away as a draft since mid-December. It’s still a draft and it’s still unfinished, but I haven’t posted yet this year so I should put something up.
The debate about the meaning of the term ‘transliteracy’ is pretty damn entertaining, if you ask me. For the record, I’ve adopted the term ‘transliteracy’ in a very specific way. That is, I treat transliteracy as a second-order concept for instructional use: a literacy-about-literacy, if you will. Here’s my reasoning…
‘Transliteracy’ is treated as an extension of the term ‘literacy’, so everyone starts there. Here’s my simple definition of ‘literacy':
Literacy is the ability to read and write in a particular language.1
- Linguistic competency, and
The former allows us to recognize that a certain string of symbols is an instance of written language, that certain glyphs correspond to certain phonemes, that we should read left-to-right or right-to-left or boustrophedon, etc. Linguistic competency is akin to understanding (more or less) the syntactic, phonetic, and morphological rules so that we can “sound it out”. On the other hand, comprehension is the ability to extract meaning from the written language2. Note that comprehension requires linguistic competency (though not vice-versa). But, whatever…I’m supposed to be addressing transliteracy…
Consider the linguistic competencies involved in reading a book in English: the understanding of the alphabet, the understanding that ‘?’ indicates a question, ‘!’ indicates a surprise, tiny numbers at the ends of phrases are directional cues3, etc. And that’s just parsing sentences, a whole range of other competencies are introduced by the medium itself. For example, English-language books are read from left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Books also make use of indices, bibliographies, tables of contents, page numbers, and a range of other features that point to specific linguistic competencies. Where it gets even more interesting is the way in which digital media often have unique syntactic elements independent of print. In a previous post I gave the example of the hyperlink. On Twitter we see the hash-tag and the URL shortener. When editing Wikipedia we have brackets, asterisks, and quotation marks. The list goes on, but the part I want to point out is that the mechanics of “print” literacy are expanded online. So, given that literacy requires comprehension and linguistic competency, if you can successfully comprehend a website (making use of the added syntactical rules) then you exhibit literacy in a domain with a slightly different set of linguistic competencies from print. But, you can’t say that a person who has never been online, but is a voracious reader of books, is illiterate. So, literacy does not require comprehension in multiple domains. In fact, comprehension in multiple domains is just an instance of having multiple literacies. But, how do we move between them?
‘Transliteration’ and ‘Translation‘
Think back to the example of reading German. If you are a native English-speaker, yet you can comprehend German and understand the articles in Der Spiegel, then you are literate in German. In a sense, you are translating. Translation is simply the ability to communicate meaning from one written language into another. This is distinct from transliteration, which is the one-to-one mapping of signs (graphemes, phonemes, etc.) between languages. Translation preserves meaning but not necessarily syntax. Transliteration preserves syntax but not necessarily meaning. Either way, we are talking about moving between different languages, but facility with both a book and a Twitter feed is, ostensibly, happening within the same language. What gives? The answer is found in the expanded linguistic competencies.
Within the English language, digital media have introduced a range of new domains with new linguistic competencies required for comprehension. The neat part is that, in many cases, these new syntactical techniques are conceptually tied to other domains. When reading or writing in different media, our reading brains make these connections behind the scenes.4 These connections come to the surface when we try to teach a new language or skill. This is why we make analogies between different formats: hyperlinks are like footnotes, hashtags are like words in the index, Wikipedia is like an encyclopedia, JSTOR is like a file-cabinet, etc. When we can comprehend information in multiple domains we exhibit multiple literacies. When we can step back and compare different linguistic domains, we engage in a second-order literacy: a literacy about literacies. This, I contend, is the meat of transliteracy. It isn’t about learning how to use a particular digital tool. It isn’t about social media. It isn’t about new media, augmented reality, immersive story-telling, or any of that jazz. Transliteracy is about our ability to understand when and how we move across an ever-expanding realm of linguistic domains.
‘The Value of a Second-Order Literacy’
I’m approaching transliteracy as a means for approaching certain aspects of information literacy, particularly the cognitive abilities involved in moving from one linguistic domain to another. Of course, information literacy also includes concepts of evaluating authority, locating relevant information, understanding proper sources, and a range of other skills; to me, transliteracy only addresses the rather specific IL area of linguistic competency. That’s all. Information literacy is a a general concept; transliteracy is a specific concept entailed by information literacy. Moreover, even though I think that we already engage in transliteracy, that doesn’t mean transliteracy is the “same old stuff”. Criticisms along the lines of “why do we need a new term/buzzword for what we already do” or “isn’t transliteracy just doing information literacy well” miss the point. It’s like asking “isn’t the Socratic method just doing instruction well?” Sure, we already engage in transliteracy, but by giving it a name and discussing it, we can better understand how to incorporate it into our instructional practices when we teach information literacy.
1 This is very close to Brad’s definition of literacy in his post ‘On Transliteracy‘. Thanks Brad!
2 For the sake of simplicity, I’m only focusing on reading for now
3 …that send you to the footnote at the bottom of the page
4 I’d use the term ‘subconscious’ but I don’t want to be associated with any bullshit Freudian psychology