Multilingualism and Its Discontents

Greetings from Ireland! (The way they say it here, there is aspiration in the intervocalic /t/!)

I’m at the University of Limerick for my first international conference, giving the first presentation of a research project that is entirely my own. Truth be told, this is pretty exciting! And the conference itself, the 11th International Symposium on Bilingualism, is really neat. It’s an academic conference, but it’s not just for theoretical linguists. Anyone who studies any aspect of bilingualism is here, from anthropologists to psychologists to education researchers. Since we’re in Great Britain, lots of folks who work with Celtic language revitalization have come; there also seems to be a bias toward Europeans/Westerners and research done in Europe and North America.

There are over 900 abstracts being presented as talks and posters by delegates from over sixty countries, with every morning or afternoon holding between twelve and twenty (?!) concurrent sessions. It’s sort of overwhelming. I’ve listened to so many great talks already (and some not so great ones, but that’s bound to happen at a conference of this size), sticking mostly to sessions that focus on heritage language speakers and ethnic identity or bilingual cognition and codeswitching.

I gave my talk this morning in a session that was pretty sparsely attended. I was somewhat grateful for this, since having too many people listen to me would have made me more nervous. Some talks I attended had seventy, eighty other folks crammed into the small classroom, but I think the average has been more like twenty.

Fortunately, those who did attend my talk were great audience members who listened respectfully and had positive feedback for me at the end. Although my presentation wasn’t 100% where I would have liked it to be, I gave it my best shot. (I’m feeling much more relieved now that it’s over and done with.)

Being in academia has its ups and downs; there are some days when I wonder if I’m doing anything right. But it helps when your friends and colleagues (shoutout to Alice, Melinda, and Charles!) attend your talk to silently offer moral support. It also helps when strangers (who look like they have more experience than you and could actually be famous researchers) tell you that your work is interesting! When people whip out their phones during your talk not to check their texts, but to take photos of your data. When they ask intelligent questions at the end. When they request a copy of your slides. After this morning, I felt validated in a way that can’t come from the well-wishes of one’s friends and classmates, because people who had no reason to give me their time or attention did, and were even happy to.

I’m still a novice academic, but I do feel like I’m in the right place. Now, I can fully enjoy the rest of the conference and be wowed by the cool ideas I’m hearing, without worrying about my own work or constantly feeling like I need to Do Better to fit in.

– – –

I want to switch gears here and report on this afternoon’s plenary talk (in Irish English, that’s [pʰlinəɹi]!) that I found to be wonderful, though it seems that the overall reaction was mixed.

The featured speaker was Alexandre Duchêne, whose work I was not familiar with but should really begin paying attention to. His research subject is multilingualism as a concept, a commercialized object that he calls Multilingualism, Inc. (hearkening to Food, Inc. and other discourses of corporatization). He spent a few minutes lauding the achievements of bilingual and multilingual studies as a relatively young academic field: bringing awareness of multilingualism in society into greater prominence since the early 90’s, productively complicating older linguistic theories, and even positively influencing language-related public policy in some cases. But the rest of the lecture was a gentle criticism of all the ways that the academy stands to lose (or has already lost) control of it, because multilingualism, like any other subject of scientific study, can be turned into a tool for economic profit, corporate or nationalist gain, and the perpetuation of social inequality.

Mr. Duchêne shone a stark light on multilingualism as a business (e.g., advertising that says, “Science has proven that your kid will be smarter if he’s bilingual; enroll in our Mandarin-only daycare today!”; or advisers that say, “You need to know a foreign language if you want to be competitive in the job market”). While multilingualism arises naturally in individuals or communities who need to solve a communicative problem, in the progressive parts of rich Western nations, it is celebrated only insofar as it can be appropriated and commodified. In addition, only certain types of multilingualism are legitimized: Spanish and Mandarin are useful now, and French is sexy, but how much do we care about the Navajo-English bilingual community? Speaking English with a foreign accent is a sign of bilingualism, but why is the Brazilian accent attractive while the Japanese accent is stigmatized?

And as academics, are we complicit in promoting these very narrow views of who multilinguals are or allowing (quasi-nationalist) monolingual ideologies to flourish in our heterogeneous countries? (Fun fact: English is not the official language of the United States. We have no official language. And yet…)

As the people who discover that there are (some) cognitive advantages (in some cases) for (some) bilinguals, are we guilty of allowing public erasure of the ongoing debates over the ideas that are packaged and sold from these discoveries?

As the scholars who contribute to an ever-proliferating lexicon of new behavioral models, new schools of thought, and new coinages for language behaviors (e.g., “translanguaging”, “neo-native speaker”, “Dominant Language Constellations”), are we aware of how much of the push behind this academic creativity comes from the publication mill and the “knowledge economy” (i.e., journal$$$)? From our need to write interesting grants and design brandable projects that spotlight the latest jargon in order to win a limited amount of funding?

Or did you think that you are truly only driven by a thirst for knowledge, a calling to teach, and/or some noble social cause?

Are we aware that the ivory tower — such an old, White, patriarchal institution — has always been a part of an unequal system of distributing intellectual, social, and economic capital? If we join it, even if it is in order to put food on the table, how can we simultaneously confront it and prevent this new-ish field of multilingualism from going the same way as every other?

Keep in mind that all of this was delivered as featured talk at an academic conference. There were journal and textbook vendors right outside the doors of the auditorium, and Mr. Duchêne was informing us that buying them was buying into the System. Brilliant! But he also said that every one of us, by having paid to be present on the campus of this institution of higher education and enjoy the intellectual bazaar, was also now a part of the knowledge economy. Whew. And while he stressed multiple times that none of this was inherently bad, the final point was that it does also need to be deconstructed.

He encouraged all of us to take on the social responsibility of being in academia. To identify when and how we involve ourselves in Multilingualism, Inc. and look for opportunities to divest, or to pour our own resources into helping the underprivileged even within our own circles or research sites. To make sure our advocacy is not in bed with either monolingual or multilingual ideological regimes. To remain humble in our continuing quest for “legitimate knowledge” and keep the debate going outside of our ivory towers.

This plenary talk was so full of such rich and engaging ideas. It was also, admittedly, filable under the “White man tells a room full of white people to be more aware of their whiteness” trope. But overall, I think this was great stuff, and it was controversial, and it was necessary. We dream of a world where individuals and societies are as multilingual as they see fit, with full social support for the inevitable conflicts this brings, and without too much (if any) capitalistic pressure or sway. Until then, may we all be more open and communicative… in whatever language(s) we desire to use.


Word of the Day: the Gaeltacht ([ˈɡeːl̪t̪əxt̪], or “gale-tuct”) are the small rural, mostly western costal regions of Ireland in which Irish (or Irish Gaelic) is traditionally spoken. Decades ago, most native speakers of Irish lived in the Gaeltacht, but due to age and emigration, these populations are shrinking. New speakers of Irish, which some call “neo-native”, are learning Irish in school (and not from their parents), which is great in eyes of some who desire revitalization, but does not help the declining cultural and economic situation of the Gaeltacht.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in conference, musings, summer, what even is linguistics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Multilingualism and Its Discontents

  1. Haha, first reaction to your opening: What intervocalic /t/ in Ireland??? Congratulations on your talk! That’s great that people were engaged and interested; I’m happy for you! And thanks for the food for thought related to Duchêne’s plenary.


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