our words make worlds

Critical digital literacies in modern languages …or… a critical take on digital modern language learning?

Guest blog by Heather Lotherington

Heather Lotherington

We continue our guest blog series on digital mediations with the theme of ‘critical digital literacies’. In this guest blog, Heather Lotherington of York University, Canada, explores the place of modern languages in an age of digital communication and examines language and ideology in digital/mobile mediations of language learning.

The connotative sphere of modern languages is thorny territory for critical digital literacies. The term modern languages is a solidly modern concept: a living language in this multilingual world, distinguishable from the classical languages of ancient times now dead to au courant communication. Modern languages thus relate to time-space: they are here, as terrestrially grounded, and now, as experienced in real time. 

In practice, though, modern languages do not equally represent all living languages, preferring an assortment of politically privileged European languages (e.g., French, German) over those with culturally exotic origins (e.g., Japanese), lower visibility in Europolitics (e.g., Macedonian), immigrant spread (e.g., Sylheti in London), linguistic roots in political oppression and commercial opportunism (e.g., Jamaican Patwa), and so forth. Moreover, the ambit of modern languages must be artificially extended to describe linguistic use in the cybersphere, where culture is no longer terrestrially grounded, and time-space is stretched elastically to create a sense of what Scott (2015) terms everywhereness: instant interpersonal connection across time zones and geographic areas. Digital culture thus foils the socio-political boundaries of modern languages. 

Luke (2012) lays out the social justice imperative of critical literacy, which traditionally asks: “What is “truth”? How is it presented and represented, by whom, and in whose interests? Who should have access to which images and words, texts, and discourses? For what purposes?” (p. 4). These hard questions drove the path-finding adult literacy approach forged by Freire in 20thcentury Brazil, whose“problem-posing education” (Freire, 1970/ 1998, p. 60) was about reading the world past the word: moving from functional literacy to critical consciousness raising. 

The political interrogation of the relationship between the reader and the words on the page presents a conundrum for modern language learning agendas in digital circulation. Modern languages are selective out of the gate, their politically-bounded, culturally-correct foundations inapplicable in digital communication, where, btw, written pages have morphed into multimodal screens, and genres have formed with conventions appropriate to 140 character input (tweets), read-write (R/W) co-authorship (wikis), indexical linking capability (hyperlinks), and more J. How do modern language courses ground linguistic goalposts: norms, skills, conventions, genres, discourses? Not digitally. 

In the world of language learning, a modern language connotes a foreign language, a label that linguistically sorts them from us by political geography. Labels such as modern or foreign language are alien to the cybersphere where language use is not tied to territorialized cultures where decisions on grammatical correctness, social appropriateness, lexical choice, pronunciation, and so forth are made. New conventions that have evolved in digital spaces: texting forms (brb), tweet grammars (#MeToo), digital performatives (like me on Facebook) have people accusing youth of inventing new languages, which, actually is happening, but not quite as imagined. For Alpha, a Hollywood film set in the ice age, a University of British Columbia anthropological linguist coined a faux ancient language. Speaking of dead languages, you can take conversational Latin online, too, though all native speakers having died a considerable time ago, the pronunciation would be up for grabs. 

My current research focuses on language ideology and pedagogy in apps—third-party applications designed by software developers for mobile devices—offering what might be thought of as modern language courses. Mobile language learning is booming. Apps are easy to download and cost free (at least initially) or inexpensive. Their portability and affordability make them attractive options for language learners: finally, that opportunity to pick up Italian, polish up high school French, learn some Spanish before taking that vacation in Cuba! But apps are developed by software designers for users, not for learners, their imperative, economic, not academic. Popular apps feature the worst of modern language learning in any medium, their portrayal of what language is and what it does, particularly inappropriate for digital communication (Lotherington, 2018).

Digital communication offers new canvasses for communication that use the pixel, not the letter, as the base unit in encoding (Cope & Kalantzis, 2004), enabling mashability in digital design, such that images and languages are co-encoded. This makes multimodality fundamental to digital text creation. Moreover, digital communication is interactive and globally connected, so reading and writing, skills separated by the text processing technologies of the industrial era, have merged as read/write (R/W) potential. Material is located using massively powerful search engines, copied and pasted, edited, commented on, parodied, remixed (see Shakespeare remixes). Most importantly, the consumer of text has the wherewithal to be a producer. Material is thus not only located and read in online spaces, it is shared, reviewed, revised, recast and remixed. How can the syncretic processes of digital textual creation be taught in the isolated skills drills used in apps that reinforce memorization of static vocabulary, rather than opening up the world-shaping potential of digital multimodal communication?

Mobile digital access is linked into global positioning satellites (GPS), which position the learner in the physical world while connecting the learner to the digital via mobile wifi access. Small screen input invites increased use of voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI). These technological developments entangled in political culture, social use, economic needs, and cultural affiliations have shifted how we use language, who (and what) we communicate with, and how we express ourselves far beyond the scope of memorizing vocabulary lists.

Modern second and foreign language teaching parses language into four skills: reading, writing, speaking, listening. These skills responded to the communications media and academic priorities of past centuries. Skills and competencies relating to 21stcentury learning typically include: critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, collaborative learning, and digital communication skills, moving away from functionally mastering the page and towards critical and creative making. What we require is a critical take on modern language learning to consider how language and language use have changed in postmodern communication. Postmodernism is hardly an unproblematic concept; but in the face of reactionary nationalistic politics, reframing modern languages for postmodern digital communication is where we need to go. 


Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2004). Text-made text. E-learning and Digital Media1(2), 198-282.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of the oppressed(New Rev. 20th anniversary ed., M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1970).

Lotherington, H. (2018). Mobile language learning: The medium is ^not the message. L2 Journal, 10(2), 198-214. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7v93n9xq

Luke, A. (2012). Critical literacy: Foundational notes. Theory into practice51(1), 4-11.

Scott, L. (2015). The four-dimensional human: Ways of being in the digital world. London, UK: Heinemann.