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National Languages – Global Markets

Tomorrow's Research

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Languages in higher education are suffering multiple challenges, not least of all those of an all pervasive functionalism and of the global dominance of English.  Academic departments of modern languages are fighting for survival and struggling to articulate justifications for their existence.  In the midst of the gloom and supercomplexity comes the discovery of a central weakness in modern languages as a relatively new discipline in its own right. 


The posting below looks at the role of language in the development of the nation-state and beyond.  It is from Chapter 1, The Politics of Language in the book, Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field, by Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez.Published by SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. © copyright Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez 2004. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research

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National Languages – Global Markets


Creating ‘imagined communities’ 

In the construction of nation-states, the defining moment is the drawing of territorial boundaries; that is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition.  As Benedict Anderson (1991) discussed, national projects are concerned with the creation of ‘imagined communities’ whose shared identity may be coterminous with the spaces contained within boundaries, but is principally formed around a shared identity expressed first and foremost in a common language.  In every case, the adoption of a shared language of community is also an act of exclusion and denial, the creation of self and other, of civilizations within the city walls and barbarians at the gate. We are now witnessing this process re-enacted on a global not just a national level as we build new Towers of Babel. We need to learn to live with Babel, and without its Tower.

The centralization of power in the Iberian peninsula under the Catholic kings and Charles V began with the dominion of Castilian; the creation of contemporary France began with the suppression of Occitan.  The subsequent creation of identity rests on the formulation of national myths, epic narratives of order drawn from chaos, which are set in pre-history. Thus nationhood is inseparable from identity, as the eighteenth-century philosophy Herder argued.  His notion of a ‘national Soul’ may later have been transformed into the more ostensibly scientific concept of ‘national character’, but the historical depth of the nation-state is mirrored in its language.

In the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as populations have come to see themselves as nations, so they have sought to present their language varieties not only as languages distinct from all others, but also as single, unified languages. (Barbour, 1996: 33)

The link between the nation-state and particular languages is an important one as it has allowed nations to construct a sense of what Barbour (1996: 33) terms a ‘shared public culture’ for the functioning of the state and the economy. Adopted as the currency of politics, economic life and as culture itself, other languages are relegated to the status of a kind of pre-language, to an orality insufficiently refined to bear the weight of communal representation.

Language too was an instrument of the expansion of the nation-state; imperialism expressed itself as linguistic dominion. For the subaltern to find a voice (to paraphrase Spivak) it must be in the language of the conqueror; indigenous Americans spoke Nahua or Quiche only in secret, the slaves musicalized and languaged their Yoruba or Lucumi so that the plantation owners would not recognize it.

Dominance and resistance 

With imperialism and global expansion, the linguistic boundaries are extended beyond the frontiers of the nation-state; there comes to be a differentiation within the cultural space, since the culture may cross many frontiers, yet power – economic, political and cultural – continues to reside in nation-states.  English is the common currency of the British Empire in India, Spanish the language of most of the countries of the South and Central Americas, Russian the lingua franca of twentieth-century Central Asia not only in the communication between center and periphery, but also within the periphery itself.  The colonial subjects communicate in the language of the imperial power, now transformed into the bearer of a universal culture that can only be expressed in the dominant medium.

However, some care is needed here. English and other ‘world’ and ‘colonial’ languages can be languages of resistance, of practicality, of celebration, anger, joy as well as domination, erosion, loss (Brutt-Griffler, 2002). Within the political conflicts and supercomplexity of languaging choices we see the development of intercultural dispositions.  Without an awareness of the histories that inform social and individual attitudes to language learning, and without the action-in-the-world that languaging represents, the project of forming critical citizens for an intercultural world will founder (Guilherme, 2002). Consequently the historical origin of the rise and dominance of ‘modern languages’ is embraced within our definition.

And yet, in the very course of the building of cultural and linguistic hegemony, a deep and enduring contradiction has occurred. For although resistance to the hegemonic power has been expressed in many cases in the recuperation of ‘invisible’, suppressed languages, the imperial languages have themselves undergone challenge, splintering and counter-hegemonic recasting from within.  Thus Caribbean ‘nation-language’ is not mere dialect but a reconstruction of English as critique; Spanish has long since ceased to be the language of the vice-regal bureaucracy and is now a world language adopted as their own by excluded groups in the name of their own cultural counterthrusts. Thus up to 30 million Spanish speakers in the United States have discovered a sense of power through the language of the historic conqueror (Hidalgo, 2001). French is no longer the language exclusive to the Quai D’Orsay and the corps diplomatique – it is spoken, remade, in Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe and in the French colonies of Africa and in a Quebecois emphatic in its difference from European French.

The implication of all this is that the powerful languages of the world may express national identities, or they may be the medium for the expression of other collective identities distinct from or even in conflict with the nation.

Human beings often have complex, multiple identities – local, regional, familial, religious, ethnic; the dominant nationalist ideology dictates that one kind of identity, national identity (often closely linked to language) be paramount. […] Just as an escape from the primacy of national identity can allow other identities to flourish, so an escape from the tyranny of the uniform national standard language can strengthen threatened dialects in small languages. (Barbour, 1996: 42)

Global diversity?

We are not idealizing local languages as forms of resistance. The emphasis for us is on being intercultural, languaging, mutual exchange for mutual enrichment.  In such a context ‘Babel is more like the name of a life force’ (McWhorter, 2002).

The ‘other’ is no longer ‘out there’ in the colonies and in ‘exotic’ far-flung places. The other is no longer, if indeed she was ever, contained within the boundaries of a nation and its one language. It is now not surprising to hear a plethora of languages in the western metropolis. Indeed it is no longer necessary to leave home to encounter members of other cultural groups and native speakers of other languages.

Language has been taken as a key ‘sign of belonging’, yet that belonging has itself become problematic.

At the end of one of my lectures on German tourism a couple of students came up and began to engage with some of the questions I’d been raising about hospitality and languages. I’d mentioned the way that languages work to welcome or to exclude. I’d mentioned that I’d been struck in recent months how often references to asylum seekers are accompanied by references to their major ‘problem’ – their ‘poor’ English.  Perhaps, in our endeavors to offer hospitality, we might reach for the tools of dialogue ourselves, trying out words that make someone genuinely feel ‘at home’.  ‘Just watch a hesitant word of welcome made in a language that is not ours bring back memories of place, and taste,’ I said.

The students tell me their own stories. One has vivid memories of being brought up in a guest house in the North of Scotland and looking forward to the annual visits from a family from Bavaria, how his family began to learn German to speak to their guests, how he was given clothes their son had grown out of. The other student, rather shyly, confesses to volunteering in an asylum centre in the city. ‘I’ve started learning Arabic to help with this,’ she says, ‘and you are so right. I take my homework to the centre and the women are just delighted to help me with my grammar and conversation. I’d never thought about this making them feel at home, but it does, and it makes them smile too.’  

The old notions of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ have broken down, if they were ever really fully tenable. Indeed, as Crowley argues (1996) ‘European History is the deployment of the vision of the monolingual, monocultural nation for reactionary purposes.’ Coulmas (1992), by contrast, investigates the correlation between the number of languages spoken and GDP.  His interpretation is similar to Anderson’s, though with less focus on the growth of the nation-state, in that he sees mass literacy (Schrift) as a key reason for the western tendency towards monolingualism in languages which are adapted to the needs of a literate culture.  In some ways, however, there is a circular argument – and while there may be fewer languages used in contemporary literature, there is nevertheless a clear ideological shift towards the recuperation of language as a challenge to cultural hegemony. 

What are the implications for modern languages, then, given the propensity towards universalization of the languages of the materially dominant powers on the one hand and the multilingual reality arising out of the growing movements of population on the other (Bauman, 2000)? Absorption and incorporation may be the preferred option for the powerful; for others – the majority, we suspect – the plurality and diversity of human expression, even within the world’s most powerful languages, is what the intercultural approach, moving from language learning to languaging, can both celebrate and encourage.  The point is that it cannot any longer be sufficient simply to reproduce the cultural models of the dominant classes within the nation-state as if they were the components of a global culture. It is more diverse and more profound by far than that.

Languages in higher education are suffering multiple challenges, not least of all those of an all pervasive functionalism and of the global dominance of English.  Academic departments of modern languages are fighting for survival and struggling to articulate justifications for their existence.  In the midst of the gloom and supercomplexity comes the discovery of a central weakness in modern languages as a relatively new discipline in its own right. It has no clear theory or method of appropriation or knowledge of the world.  It is therefore our task in the next chapter to begin to discover a way forward, to find theory and method sufficient to the task of creating critical dispositions for languaging and being intercultural.

Key References 

Barnett, R. (2000) Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Di Napoli, R., Polezzi, L., and King, A. (2001) Fuzzy Boundaries? Reflections on Modern Languages and the Humanities. London: CILT.

Kelly, M. and Jones, D. (2003) A New Landscape for Languages. London: Nuffield Foundation.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.