Multilingual Writing as Rhetorical Attunement

By Leonard, Rebecca Lorimer | College English, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Multilingual Writing as Rhetorical Attunement


Leonard, Rebecca Lorimer, College English


Alicia grew up in Argentina, attending bilingual Spanish-English schools while learning Hebrew. Alicia's grandparents were Arabic-speaking immigrants to Argentina, so Alicia's use of their Arabic phrases is a family tradition. She took French in high school because she was "curious" and learned basic Portuguese from the "bunches of books" her family would buy when they traveled to Brazil. Alicia moved to the United States to attend a small liberal arts college and graduated four years later, marrying a fellow student and finding a job as an ESL teacher in the Midwest.

This tidy summary presents an impressive and eclectic multilingual life, offering an important reminder of the vast range of literate experiences writers carry from one place in the world to another.1 It previews Alicia's numerous rhetorical resources shaped by as many languages, cultures, and institutions. But this brief biography belies the intricacy of a literate life in practice. As Alicia says, the language repertoire she has developed over time is "just complex":

I learned Hebrew through Spanish. So Spanish and English are connected, Spanish and Hebrew are connected, but there's no connection between Hebrew and English [she draws a triangle on the table]. What I'm trying to say is that when I'm talking to somebody that speaks Hebrew and English my mind is a total mess because I feel like I have to listen in English or Hebrew then translate into Spanish, then switch to English or Hebrew, then back. [. . .] Well I can, but eeoooo, it takes double the time.

Alicia details the "mess" of multilingual experience, not denigrating what she charac- terizes as productive chaos, but highlighting the difficulty of marshaling any literate resource in an act of communication. So although scholarship has rightly suggested that multilingual writers be encouraged to compose from the full expanse of their languages and literacies, such championing can suggest that multilingual writers' resources are fixed and stable, traveling with them from one location or language to another as an unchanged repertoire of knowledge and skills. But literate repertoires do not move as static, fully formed resources with writers. Instead, writers call on or create literate resources in the process of making do, asserting themselves, or communicating on the fly in specific rhetorical situations. In fact, these activities of creating and adapting language reveal the rhetoricity of writing across languages. This essay describes the shape of this experience and explores its rhetorical qualities: How does writing among languages create a rhetorical sensibility? How do multilingual writers act on this sensibility in their everyday lives?

The accounts of six multilingual writers that follow show how writing across languages and locations in the world fosters what might be thought of as rhetorical attunement: an ear for, or a tuning toward, difference or multiplicity. Rhetorical at- tunement is a literate understanding that assumes multiplicity and invites the negotia- tion of meaning across difference. By virtue of their daily experience with language variety, the writers in this study are tuned toward the communicative predicaments of multilingual interaction. Predicaments are idiosyncratic and ordinary moments in which rhetorical strategies are practiced but also created. This essay moves through these moments, exploring writing activities that reveal the negotiated, flexible qual- ity of language, and showing that multilingual writers are not aware of this quality a priori, but come to know-become rhetorically attuned-over a lifetime of com- municating across difference.

STUDYING MULTILINGUAL PRACTICES

The argument I present here is based on an analysis of life history interviews con- ducted with twenty-five multilingual writers in the Midwestern United States, selected through snowball sampling (Patton).2 As a group, these writers are immigrants to the United States from seventeen countries, speaking twenty-two languages. …

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