Literacy Discourse and Linguistics: Intro


James Paul Gee, a practiced linguist, says that language has many interpretations. For instance, one can speak with the perfect grammar but not know how to deliver his/her message or express one self.This is where Paul Gee’s statement comes into play that “it is not just what you say, but how you say it.” In other words, “saying-doing” is very important. Expressing one self with the appropriate grammar and hold the right attributes depends on the situation. For purposes of demonstration, Paul Gee uses two different responses to a question between two different interviewees (two different women) and an interviewer. In both cases, he focuses on the grammar and how each interviewee delivers her message. In both situations, the participants fail to answer the question properly by lacking of Paul Gee’s “saying-doing.” The first participant uses the wrong grammar and the second one uses the wrong values. However, Gee extends his idea of “saying-doing” to “saying-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” to use the language properly. Rather than saying all those words and running out of breath, Paul Gee simply defines his “saying-doing combination” of actions using the word Discourses, with a capital D. As defined by Gee Discourses are “forms of life” which identifies oneself and his/her attributes or characteristics. In other words, Discourse is an “identity kit” which characterizes who you are and what you do.

How Discourse is acquired?
Discourses are obtained through social interaction with other individuals whom have already mastered Discourse. The way individuals master Discourses is through their development in their characteristics and quality as well as their behavior in society. However, no social practice or communication means no Discourse.

In order to demonstrate how Discourse builds up in your personality Paul Gee divides Discourses into two categories: Primary Discourse and Secondary Discourse. Primary Discourse is the “primary socialization” one has initially in their lifetime. Our first encounter with primary Discourses is shaped by the characteristics and values we first adopt from our parents and home. Secondary Discourses are such values that we adopt in school, work, experience from other individuals outside of home or different communities, or any other type of social interaction that alters or develops your values as a person. Gee compares primary and secondary discourses to the first language and second language one learns. The two discourses can be in conflict with one another, as with languages there are different rules for grammar or one can forget how to use their secondary discourse and fall back on the first one.

Paul Gee breaks secondary Discourses into two components: dominant Discourses and non-dominant Discourses. Gee discusses the classification of those individuals who form part of the dominant Discourses or non-dominant Discourses. Dominant Discourses means anything related to a good social status, for example, wealth or prestige, or as Gee would call it, “ acquisition of social ‘goods.’” In the other hand, non-dominant Discourses allows unity between individuals with common interests using a certain social network, but this does not mean there is an increase in social ranking.

Literacy, Gee defines, is the mastery or fluent control over a secondary Discourse. He also describes it as being liberating because it can be used as a “meta-language” for critiquing the way other literates affect people and society. He explains his definition with two theorems. The first theorem is discourses/literates are not like languages because you are partially speak a language but you cannot partially be part of a discourse. According to Paul Gee, “You are either in it or you’re not” portrays the idea that if you fail to satisfy the description of Discourse then you have no identity. This can mean two things to the person who is already a master at Discourses: you are either a pretender or a beginner. However, is one is identified as a “pretender to social role” is said to lack of fluency and therefore viewed as an outsider to society.The second theorem is primary discourses can never really be liberating literacies because a liberating literacy critiques on the meta-level using language, words, attitudes and values. Primary discourses cannot verbalize the use of meta-knowledge.

Discourses are primarily learned through talking and doing, because those come first, before reading and writing. Some discourses are learned in school. For example a discourse can be taught by English teachers, composition teachers, or studies-skills teachers. University teachers are given the impossible task of having their students master a discourse “late in the game”. He makes an analogy to learning a second language. Learning a foreign language cannot be taught in the classroom, one truly learns when one is immersed into socially communicating with the language and it is easier to learn in your youth.

When true acquisition is not possible, mushfake may result. “Mushfake” is a slang term generally used by inmates to describe achieving something despite the lack of resources available, essentially to make do with what you have. An example given in the text is prisoners using their underwear to create hats to prevent head lice. Gee applies this word to mean a situation in which someone is able to join a discourse that he does not belong to by acquiring enough knowledge and skill, to make it seem like he does belong.

Gee continues the chapter by retelling a story of a five-year old girl who tells the story of her birthday party by pretending to read a book. She copied the way she saw her mom read a book and through this she used her primary discourse to learn a secondary one. Gee calls this process filtering which means elements of secondary discourses are filtered into the primary discourse. The significance of this story is that the girl can “speak beyond herself” but she cannot critique her story, therefore this is not a liberating literacy.

The second part of the chapter introduces the question: What is literacy? First he gives us another definition of what discourse is: “a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or “social network”. Gee describes his discourse being a linguist. He has learned to speak, write, behave and think like a linguist. In this section Gee gives many other definitions. Acquisition is the process of acquiring a skill subconsciously by going through the process of trial and error. Learning is gaining knowly consciously through being taught. Literacy is the control over the use of language in secondary discourses. The chapter ends with the reiteration that discourses are best obtained through acquisition not learning.


" It is not just how you say it, but what you are and do when you say it." (pg. 525)

"A Discourse is a sort of 'identity kit' which comes complete with an appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize." (pg. 526)

"You are either in it or you're not." (pg. 529)

“Discourses are connected with displays of an identity, failing to fully display an identity is tantamount to announcing you don’t have that identity, that at best you’re a pretender or a beginner.” (pg. 529)

"Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction, but by enculturation into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse." (pg. 527)

"Acquisition is a process of acquiring something subconsciously by exposure to models and a process of trial and error, without a process of formal teaching." (pg. 539)


We agree with Paul Gee’s definition of Discourse, “saying-doing combination”, and the way it serves as a form of identification for each individual and to those around him/her. Discourses do not simply apply to your background information but also on how you communicate and your behavior. An example that doesn't satisfy Gee’s “saying-doing combination” would be going to a fancy restaurant, not properly dressed, but speaking in perfect language, while ordering a Pepsi. One must satisfy all actions described by Gee in order for our language to make sense.

According to Paul Gee secondary Discourses can only be obtained through institutions, workplace, or social interaction with other members from different communities. The only way to alter your characteristics are through people who have already mastered Discourses. Take for example a student who is homeschooled and a student who goes to a public school. Although they are learning the same material based on their age. Would it be possible that the student who attends a public school develop into the secondary Discourse faster than the homeschooled student? Or maybe the homeschooled student will grow faster into the secondary Discourse because of the serious measures this student will take in his/her characteristics while strengthening his foundations that built up his personality while being in the primary Discourses.

We agree with the way Gee uses the term “mushfake” to apply to not truly belonging to a discourse. For instance, a person who does not regularly partake in art, takes an art class. The person may learn the history of art, the techniques of drawing, painting and sculpting and learn about famous artists but that does not mean he belongs to the discourse. He may having the “saying” part but is not a master at the “doing” part. We do believe, however, that one may become part of a discourse after being socially immersed in it for a long time because that is how one learns a secondary discourses.

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