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Seminar: Literacy in contact - Reading and writing in multiliterate speakers along the Silk Road, 5 Apr

Australian National University

Date: 22 March 2019

Seminar: Literacy in contact - Reading and writing in multiliterate speakers along the Silk Road,

Speaker: Brendan Weekes, University of Hong Kong

When: 5 April 2019, 3.30pm-5pm

Where: BPB E4.44 (Baldessin Seminar room, Level 4), Baldessin Building, ANU


The UN General Assembly has declared 2019 as the Year of Endangered Languages. According to UNESCO, at least 2500+ spoken languages are currently vulnerable or extinct. A mere ten (Chinese, English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese and French) are "linguistic hegemons" - each having at least 100 million speakers and accounting for over 51 percent of the global population. Half of these are written with an alphabet (including Cyrillic) and half are not. For the non-alphabetic group, native speakers read and write in the logographic (e.g. Chinese) or the syllabic writing systems (e.g. Devanagari) or both (e.g. Japanese). In the other nearly 6000 languages that are spoken by less than one million people, Latin, Arabic and Chinese writing systems dominate. Literacy increases educational opportunities as well as economic development – increasingly by extending options for ‘texting’ in electronic media. Multi-literacy is a feature of education in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. In the 21st century, access to social media and policies on better literacy will deliver more multi-literate speakers. This is a global phenomenon due to widening access to technologies including smart phones, social media and apps. Growth in multi-literacy brings new (and not so new) questions to the foreground. Multi-literacy is ancient (e.g. the Rosetta Stone) due to multilingual spoken language contact. Ideology and trade meets new technology via symbols and thus multi-literacy develops via the printing press. In the coming century, ‘digital citizenship’ will be the grand challenge since access to global networks becomes necessary for new opportunities and potentially producing barriers for many others. Although the documentation of multi-literate speakers has a history in education, linguistics, philology and psychology it is not prominent in global education policy as yet, with programmes to increase literacy reserved for the hegescripts e.g. English. Neglecting diversity in writing in developing countries could lead to further inequalities globally when speakers of a minority language are forced to become literate in a non-native language e.g. indigenous peoples taught literacy in English.

Brendan WeekesBrendan Weekes has been researching literacy since his PhD studies in the early 1990s and "cross-scriptalism "since that time. This work matured into psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic studies of bi-literacy across scripts with a focus on the BRIC nations. He is Principal Investigator (PI) of projects supported by the Research Grants Council (RGC) in Hong Kong by the Chinese Government (State Key Laboratory) and he has secured resources from international bodies (NSF) to support his work which extends to studies on bi-literate bilingual speakers in Brazil, Cyprus, Greece, India, Italy, Mongolia, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK. Weekes has developed a conceptual framework for multi-literacy globally based on research methodologies developed in Australia, China, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Singapore, Slovakia and Turkey. This framework has implications for understanding multi-literacy in context and in contact along the old Silk Route - recently resurrected by strategic policy initiatives in our region and recast as the "One Belt One Road and String of Pearls initiatives". I will outline the constraints of multi-literacy and the implications for policy makers in Eurasia including the East, North, South, West and the Southeast of Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and consequences for multilingual nations in the South Pacific. He is also an Associate Investigator with CoEDL.

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