5 February 2023

Language and literacy for youths of Keluarga Malaysia

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By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Adelina Asmawi

To understand youth of the 21st century, we have to start with a fundamental question to education; What is literacy? It in its simplest form, it simply means to read and write; but there is also a need to incorporate all of the language, knowledge and competencies that youth must have in various subject areas and skills.

There are individuals who are great at video games, building model cars or fashion designing. Each of these skills has a language of its own. While one’s literacy skills may be average or below average for reading Shakespeare or a textbook, that same individual may be a master in the language of medicine or photography.

blue red and green letters illustration
Social media plays a big part of communication ecosystem for the youths (Pic by Unsplash)

We must ask how we identify with literacy as a citizen reading the local newspaper for latest news, as a driver of a car reading signboards on the streets, as a consumer making meaning of the prices, descriptions and pictures on the products sold in the store, as a lifelong learner using Google search, and as a global citizen getting connected with people from any part of the world via emails. Each requires certain skills needed to navigate that system. It requires a discourse unique to that task that you must use to interact with that system and others in it, including the use of #hashtags, Retweets, @someone, LOL, OMG, 👍.

Educators have to pay attention to how our youth interact with literacy. What are they reading? What are their hobbies? What technologies are they using and what do they encounter on a daily basis, that require special navigation tools that we call literacy?

We have to recognize that our youth do not always look at these things as skills or as literacy – something that they can bring to the table. If we can get them to see their hobbies and talents as skills and tools, we can improve their appreciation and literacy across multiple content areas.

For example, a student can write and perform a song in a history class to demonstrate their understanding. Other students can create a video or a play to show what they have learned in a Mathematics class.

We are saying that they can and they should. We are dealing with a generation of digital natives – since the time they were born they have been using this technology, but we still need to teach them to use this tool safely and effectively. There is a new set of rules that we need to teach them – internet safety, plagiarism, and how to find credible information.

So, today, as we celebrate United Nation’s English Language Day, the question is what does this mean for language and literacy education of the nation? We have to recognize that it is through language and how our students use that language to interact with others that cause learning.

This is because learning is rarely an independent activity. The idea of living in a global community is making it remarkably simpler to acquire knowledge and interact with others who share similar passions. It is therefore no longer acceptable for educators to take centre stage and regurgitate information. We are on the sideline as a coach now.

macbook pro displaying group of people
Interaction and communication are conducted globally, bridging the various hitherto gaps (Pic by Unsplash)

We also need to start recognizing the rich and diverse languages that work together with English language and ways of learning what our students are bringing into the classroom. We need to reignite the flame and connect with the right places that lead our students to success.

No matter what the content area, we need to invite students to absorb and use the appropriate discourse and take home an identity related to that discourse. We are preparing tomorrow’s scientists, writers, engineers, artists, musicians, doctors and sportsmen; therefore, if we do not give them the tools that they need today, we are failing our team, our Keluarga Malaysia.

We need to really think about what literacy means in the 21st century. How do we ensure that our youth are literate? We need to harness their strengths and give them tools to succeed and overcome their weaknesses. Is it important to learn to read and write? Of course, it is but in this digital age, we need to learn (or re-learn?) to communicate in the updated language of the people.

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people

William Butler Yeats
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Adelina Asmawi

The author is an Associate Professor and Head, Department of Language and Literacy Education, Faculty of Education, Universiti Malaya. She may be contacted at adelina@um.edu.my