Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What can multilingualism do for the study of literature?

David Gramling, author of The Invention of Multilingualism, answers the above question, and many more, following his book launch on 20 September.

What similarities do you see between the languages you know?

The most consequential similarity I see between German, Turkish, Spanish, French, and English is that they are ‘named languages’ whose elite, standardized forms are well funded and supported through instructed language learning opportunities in the United States. These are languages that are already very powerful on the world stage, and which have benefited from ongoing colonial, military, and securitarian interests during my lifetime. So there’s no denying that my own multilingualism is populated by, as Alison Phipps says, “too many colonial languages” (2019, p. 1).

Do you believe monolingualism benefits a country/society?

I do not, but I understand why my previous work may have given this impression. Polities, communities, and families can be, and are, extraordinarily effective and nourishing to their members while using multiple languages. For me, there is no silver lining to monolingualism, just like there is no silver lining to heterosexism or racism. In fact, monolingualism is—I believe—a barrier to Truth itself. It hurts our ability to figure out what is actually happening in the real world. Some court systems (The European Court of Justice, for instance) have adopted multilingual procedures—not just to politically represent different languages adequately, but to rely on multiple languages in pursuit of truth and accuracy in assessing evidence (see page 62 onward in my book).

Should a mixture of two languages (ie. spanglish) be considered a new language/dialect/slang?

Yes! Communities and language-users are always many steps ahead of the language-label-makers (whether they be linguists, policy makers, computational engineers, or academics). It’s important to listen carefully to what human communities and their various members say (explicitly and implicitly) about their language repertoires, and to defer to them about how they wish for their language to be regarded in public and scholarly discussions. Sometimes these ideas are quiet and subtle, as Eve Tuck (2011, p. 36) reminds us, but no less essential.

Can we speak about ‘multilingualism’ as decontextualised notion? I haven’t seen the book yet I’m afraid but so far you’ve spoken about very particular discourses of multilingualism from an anglocentric perspective. People use different languages in hugely complex ways, so is the aim of the book to critique a particular neoliberal interpretation of multilingualism?

I don’t believe multilingualism is ever treated as a “decontextualized notion” throughout the book. Perhaps I could refer the questioner to pages 54–64 to begin with, and then we could talk further! Certainly, the aim of the book is much broader than finding fault with just linguistic neoliberalism, though that kind of critique is certainly an important part of its argument. Whether or not a book written in English can effectively shake off Anglocentrism is certainly a question I struggle with, and readers will let me know whether they think I’ve made a useful contribution in that effort. Whatever the case, I remain responsible (as a teacher and scholar) for dismantling raciolinguistic, anglocentric monolingualism, with the resources that are available to me, and with the body and mind that I have.

In the book, do you compare multi- and plurilingualism?

No. This is from page 12 in the book: “Conscious that European policy-makers and thinkers often distinguish pluri- and multilingualism (as individual competence and societal phenomena, respectively), I have not found reason to fully adopt this distinction myself. I find that the dynamic and ambiguous interplay between these two realms (the societal and individual) is where most of the crucial intersubjective phenomena explored in this book dwell.”

Does this ‘native speaker’ notion also emerge in the kind of discourse(s) that you are involved with?

We need to have the courage and foresight—not to mention the real-world awareness— to abandon the native speaker notion entirely (unless Indigenous communities choose to retain it for decolonial purposes). The costs of the concept’s use—racist, nationalist, colonial, and essentialist as they are—are far too high a price to pay for holding on to an easy way to judge or simulate competence. As Claire Kramsch already indicated in the 1990s, speakers with no claim on nativism/nativeness are often the most vividly effective languagers around us, without ever relying on the social normativity of the ‘native’ paradigm. Unfortunately, though, artificial intelligence technologies are quickly adopting the “native” as a prohibitive benchmark in their algorithms for sorting oral linguistic data. In this way, the power of the native speaker concept is actually increasing in our technological environments and in our age. We need to put much more effort into dismantling linguistic nativism, and what Vijay Ramjattan calls accentism (see also the Accentism project at accentism.org.) As an academic department head at a large university, I have removed any reference to “native” or “native-like” in any of our hiring practices or program learning outcomes for our students. We can’t loftily critique such a concept without aligning our everyday practices with that critique.

To what extent do the notions of multilingualism on the one hand and multiculturalism go hand in hand in the way that is impossible to talk about one without talking about the other?

In many places I research, for instance Germany, the multiculturalism discourse in the 1980s and 1990s proceeded at the expense of talking about practical linguistic diversity. Indeed, monolingualism was thought of as the silver bullet for an acceptable German multiculturalism: if only people shared a language, they would respect and communicate about each other’s other differences (religious, ethnic, etc ). I believe we’re often still in this strange historical phase where people think a shared language is what’s needed for diversity and multiculturalism to feel good. This presumption serves the interests of already powerful and dominant interests in society. So, though I think there could be a world in which multilingualism and multiculturalism harmonize, the history of the two discourses has been full of friction, jockeying, misrecognition, and the hypocrisy of what I call “cosmopolitan monolingualism”.

Is there a sort of moral panic in the Anglo academy around language and political power? Are motives always so impure? How does the level of oppressive political structure (standard language ideology etc.) mesh with stories of individual transformation, such as what David spoke about from his own autobiography?

It’s a great question. There is absolutely a panic around language and political power in the Anglo-academy—that’s a great term! Anglophone institutions are reasserting their control over knowledge, in both gross and subtle ways. The educational institutions I’ve worked at are now tending toward a more anglocentric, monolingual curriculum every year, despite the increasing linguistic diversity of their student bodies. It’s a profoundly cynical development: universities are just giving up on instructing languages, and relying on multilingual students to fend for themselves and “do multilingualism” for us all. Figuring out how standardized languages relate to individual transformation in 2021 would mean listening to learners at length about their multilingual experiences—and encouraging them to talk in detail about those experiences in a new generation of memoirs and testimonies.

What can multilingualism do for the study of literature and vice-versa?

My next book is called Literature in Late Monolingualism (Stanford University Press, 2023), and it’s my first ever book about literature! I’m very excited. I hope to answer this question throughout that next book. Here’s a bit from the intro to that new book, and it indicates my own puzzlement about this question you pose: “Throughout my early professional training, a lot of smart people around me seemed quite assured that the relation between literature and multilingualism must enjoy a kind of Most Favored Nation agreement, treasured if sometimes strained. Indeed, conferences, seminars, and calls for papers energetically anticipated this relation in the last quarter-century, presuming this union between literature and multilingualism to be both an epitome and a ballast of humanistic well-suitedness—in the academic humanities and for the trade publishing industry alike. Literature must be essentially multilingual on some level, mustn’t it? The shimmering, assonant relation ‘muLTiLinguaL LiTeraTure’ seemed a magic just-in-time key—promising to open for literary scholars a certain monstrous lock.”

Purchase David Gramling’s The Invention of Multilingualism here.

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