On Reelecting Monolingualism

Full talk script here.


A lecture sponsored by: The Princeton University Department of American Studies, Department of French and Italian, Department of German, Department of Anthropology, The Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, Department of Comparative Literature, Program in Contemporary European Politics & Society, Program in European Cultural Studies

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Workshop: Princeton University Program in European Cultural Studies

Graduate Affiliate Working Group on Traveling Identities and Migration (9 April 2019)

Definition: Monolingualism is “the idea that anything […] can be reasonably done, said, or meant in any one particular language, given the proper circumstances. […] It is an artificial plentitude, a communitarian ubiquity that renders a single, centripetal, and heterodox universe of signs recognizable—and has no need for others.” (Invention of Monolingualism, 195)

Propositions for dialogue & debate:


  • Monolingualism is a myth (Barthes), habitus (Bourdieu), a privilege (Sedgwick), a supply-side enterprise. It is not a phenomenon, entity, substance, or state of nature.
  • Monolingualism is an unmarked term, which needs to be critically articulated—as whiteness, heteronormativity, masculinity, etc. have been.
  • Citizenship technologies / administrative procedures have thickened around monolingualism since 1990, as ethnonational forms of citizenship have retreated from normative acceptability.
  • Official languages / legal languages / state languages / constitutionally inscribed languages are not an effective indicator of a polity’s mono/multilingualism, nor of the workings of its juridical systems (Janny Leung 2019).
  • National(ist) monolingualisms are the basis upon which global-translational monolingualisms and commercial multilingualisms are built.
  • National(ist) monolingualisms are expressions of globalized structures of monolingualism—and/or vice-versa.
  • Monolingualism differs meaningfully from linguistic imperialism, linguistic nativism, linguistic purism, and linguistic racism.


  • Monolingualism manifests through its cumulative / interactional effects on persons, and not primarily as a characteristic possession of so-called “monolingual” individuals.
  • The rebranding of bilingual education as global multilingual preparedness (in the US, UK, Germany, etc.) has raciolinguistic (Flores and Rosa 2015) overtones and a monolingualist substructure.
  • Monolingualism corresponds to the embodied, enlanguaged reality of no actual human being (Holquist 2014), and this noncorrespondence is a source of power for monolingualism.
  • Monolingualism has been increasing its ideological, civic, administrative, and technological power since 1990, despite all of the simultaneously increasing evidence of the multilingual subjectivity of citizenries and communities.
  • Monolingualism can become expressed as a counter-hegemonic, decolonial tool.


  • Monolingualism negatively impacts scholars, writers, refugees, immigrants, teachers (Kramsch and Zhang 2017), etc.
  • Monolingualism has little to do with an individual’s competence in multiple languages.
  • Justice (or justice systems) can be more-than-monolingual, but are not yet.
  • Education (or education systems) can be more-than-monolingual, but are increasingly not.
  • Monolingualism has produced features of social, civic, and / or scholarly life that we treasure and would have a hard time doing without.
  • Monolingualism is de jure normative. Multilingualism is de facto normative.
  • Monolingualism is bad and should be canceled.
  • Monolingualism is productive and should be defended.
  • Monolingualism can effectively be resisted, and here’s how:


  • There is a special relationship that endures between monolingualism and literature in most nationalized northern traditions, and this is an awkward fact for literary studies in an era that prizes hybridity and plurality.
  • Other aesthetic fields (film, art) don’t face the monolingual predicament in ways that literary studies does.
  • There are instances of literariness and literary traditions that are entirely unbeholden to monolingualism.
  • Literary / critical theory / linguistics / philosophy / translation studies / etc. have had, for good reason, too little to say about monolingualism.
  • Literature is well equipped to critique monolingualism from within.


  • Since 1990, language(s) has/have crossed the “production boundary” (from non-productive to productive of ‘value’) in ways that financial products were made to do in the 1970s.
  • Languages are now commoditized, not just commodified, in the global, proprietary circulation of meanings.


  • Monolingualism has been able to deploy normative forms of translation, translatability, and (“reactionary”) multilingualism (Moore 2015).
  • Multilingualism is not the same as heteroglossia. Heteroglossia can be monolingual.
  • Monolingualism is not the opposite of multilingualism.
  • The “individual language” is a product of monolingualism.
  • It is possible to think / practice language without “individual languages”, to “disinvent and reconstitute” languages (Pennycook and Makoni 2007) in new ways.


  • Some form of monolingualism impacts my research domain and / or the norms of research & scholarly writing in that domain.
  • Some prevailing narratives in my discipline or field are irrationally constrained by a form of monolingualism.
  • Monolingualism in research is fueled by language-indifference and/or the relegation of language (as a category of analysis) to lowest critical priority (below culture / ideas, etc.).
  • Monolingualism is a profound and often sophisticated epistemological, creative, and procedural constraint.
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Civility and Denunciation in an Age of Linguistic Injustice


Talk script: “Dear friends in Gaza, it is lovely to see you again this afternoon. Thank you for joining me once again to explore some of our shared ideas and hopes and ambitions for the future. I think, when we last spoke two weeks ago, we were thinking about different ways to Palestinize the concept of linguistic disobedience, and I am eager to hear from you about how that goal of Palestinization has been going. Many of my colleagues here around the United States have been inspired by our dialogue and they also look forward to the possibility of speaking with you and learning from you about language, justice, disobedience, injustice, and the like. So if you are willing to meet other colleagues like me for chats like this, just let me know and I can probably help us continue the conversation and widen the circle of participants a little bit.

“I also remember very clearly the questions you posed to me about how linguistic disobedience can be meaningful in our daily work as language teachers, translators, applied linguists, world citizens, critics of empire, and members of communities and families, and I continue to be eager to hear your ongoing thoughts on that subject. So let’s continue to Palestinize some more ideas today.

“We are of course at the 101th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and that is a good a time as any to think about linguistic injustice. And one of the reasons why the Balfour Declaration is an instance and a promulgator of linguistic injustice, and not just general injustice inheres in the text of the declaration itself—the second half of which does something with language that I think deserves more attention. Of course, the first half of the Declaration notoriously conveys the British government’s political sympathy with Zionism and plans for settlement and colonization of Palestine. And that is a general political injustice.

“But the true linguistic injustice comes in the second half of the Declaration, which reads as follows: “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Now the second part of that clause, “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” is clear to me. It proposes that “non-Jewish” communities in Palestine have rights, and that those rights are civil and religious in nature. It further recognizes that there is a possibility that such rights may in future be prejudiced or impugned and that this is a matter of concern. So far so good. It’s relatively clear, meaningful, and propositionally precise, as political hegemons’ Declarations go. And, should such a Declaration be considered binding in some light, offending against its propositions would indeed be a general, political injustice. But the specifically linguistic injustice occurs, I think, before that last clause, namely in the phrase “it being clearly understood that.”

“Now I am a 42-year-old speaker of English, and I’ve been speaking English for all of those years. English is my first language. I’ve written books and books in English and have been educated in it formally for twenty years, and I need to tell you, friends, that I do not know what this clause means: “It being clearly understood that.” And this is the seed of linguistic injustice in the Balfour Declaration, alongside all of its other injustices, of course, which are political, moral, ideological, colonial, and imperial in nature, and with the outcomes and violences of which you and I are compelled to continue living.

“‘It being understood that’ is a linguistic injustice, but it is also an instance of civility and linguistic obedience. To cite the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “I have often seen people uncivil by too much civility, and tiresome in their courtesy.” The phrase “it being clearly understood that” is a linguistic injustice that relies on a fiction of order, decorum, civility, and courtesy that has never existed. From a syntactical / grammatical point of view, we are left unable to identify who is doing the understanding. Who understands? Who understands that Palestinian civil and religious rights are imperiled and must be vindicated? There is no indication in the Declaration about who is responsible for such an understanding. And it’s not just a matter of figuring out the ambiguous subject of the phrase “it being clearly understood” but rather about the temporality of the phrase. Does the second clause follow from the first because the second clause is a purportedly established, historical judgment? That is, did His Majesty’s Cabinet think already that these rights are being protected? Or, is the grammar of the clause prospective and optative, in the sense that it envisioned a future in which those rights will be understood and respected?

“This is a very big difference. Did the Cabinet-level supporters of the Declaration believe that this understanding, this “being clearly understood,” had already been accomplished in their Cabinet room? Or did they suspect and require that such an understanding would have to be arduously built and cared for through certain kinds of political work? These are huge differences. So we have two major zones of ambiguity in this tiny phrase of a declaration which has had such devastating impact for all of you, all of us, for all the world. There is the zone of ambiguity of the subject: who is responsible for understanding, and there is the zone of ambiguity about action and temporality: is this understanding a past accomplishment or a future prerequisite for justifying political empathy with Zionist settlement.

“Now, many of us in this room are language teachers. Many of us are translators, applied linguists, literary critics. And we know that minute, granular word-level and sentence-level details of language are keys to how we make and remake the world everyday We know that if you write, or translate, or teach language in this way, rather than that, you will get profoundly different outcomes and worlds. And we know that, in the case of the Balfour Declaration, we end up living with these language choices for centuries or more and so we can help our students and readers see when a particular linguistic choice—of grammar or vocabulary or formulation—is a linguistic injustice.

“Beyond the ambiguities of subjectivity and temporality that make the Balfour declaration so linguistically unjust is the fact that the formulation “It being clearly understood that” relies on a certain vision of social order and civility, of agreement and common ground. And this is the true linguistic injustice. Or perhaps we should call it a discursive injustice. It relies on a presumption of order and civility to do the work of understanding for us. It overestimates the cognitive and ideological coherence of our societies, the clear order of our societies, and underestimates the work of political education that needs to be done to earn understanding in order to truly understand what it means to not prejudice someone’s civil and religious rights, in this case Palestinians’ civil and religious rights.

“And so we can identify how deliberate linguistic ambiguity becomes linguistic injustice and how linguistic injustice, once committed, can lead to an “age of linguistic injustice” that lasts a hundred years, the Balfour declaration is of course no exceptional aberration. We language teachers could also look at the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 with its red spots on the map for Baghdad and Basra for the British the blue spots for coastal Syria, and the brown spots for an “international administration” of Palestine that was still to be determined. This too is the strange symbolic ambiguity of linguistic injustice at work, and the more we look, the more we find instances where linguistic injustice is somewhat different than moral and political injustice, where a linguistic or semiotic design of a certain kind allows injustice to reproduce itself endlessly.

“And so, as we teachers, translators, and critics commence our work in identifying instances of linguistic injustice as they happen, in the moments where they happen we will notice that a linguistic injustice is not the same as a promise broken. For example, the promise of the Balfour agreement was broken, but that promise-breaking was a general injustice, a political maneuver, but its nature was not quite linguistic. The linguistic injustices we need to identify are not just broken promises or lies or insults or mischaracterizations of the world, they are most often the smaller more unassuming phrases like “it being clearly understood”, which assume a kind of social order and civil consensus that simply never has existed outside of the British aristocracy’s fantasies about itself and which endanger the possibility of language to effectively promote justice and capacity for fellow human beings.

“And that is, I think, what linguistic injustices do: they weaken our ability to be ethical and accountable to one another across time across cultural difference, across gender, across faith, and indeed across languages. I wonder, for instance, not only what the common translation of the Balfour declaration looks like, and particularly how the phrase “it being clearly understood” is rendered in Arabic, and in Palestinian civil conversations about it. Did the Arabic translator or translators preserve the radical ambiguity of subjectivity and temporality of the English original? Or did the translator try to resist the linguistic injustice that the declaration perpetrated, by giving that second clause about civil and religious rights of non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine a clearer path toward accountability and clarity of agency and action?

“What the translation scholar Juliane House calls an “overt translation” of the Balfour declaration in Arabic would preserve the imperious, aristocratic ambiguity of the phrase “it being clearly understood” in an Arabic translation so as to show exactly how that phrase and its context would have been received among a British Anglophone audience. A “covert translation” in turn, still using the concepts of Juliane House, would have used the Arabic translation of the Balfour Declaration as an opportunity to interpret for Palestinians and other Arabic speakers how they, the second-order audience for the declaration, needed to understand the implications of the text’s ambiguity. and to interpret the kinds of British cultural and discursive norms that permitted such a declaration to be formulated in precisely this way. And so I’m very curious now what the discussions were, early on, about how to deal in Arabic with this linguistically unjust phrase “it being clearly understood” Maybe some of you know and you can tell me. But the point is that these kinds of formulations not only reflect linguistic injustice,  but they also allow new ages of linguistic injustice to begin, and as you know, they then last for a century.

“And so, in closing, today, I want to suggest that visions of civility and politeness are often the conditions that allow for linguistic injustice and that we cannot fight linguistic injustice with the tools of decorum and obedience and civility. Martin Luther King knew this in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail, when he decried “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

“Lots of people in the US these days think that civility is the antidote to Donald Trump’s predatory politics of hatred. And yet Black Americans know that this has never been a winning strategy. Ibram Kendi, for one, insists that “If my ideological ancestors did not harass their political opponents, I would still be enslaved.” The great abolitionist Fredrick Douglass knew this too, when he wrote that “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

“And so I’m becoming more and more interested, in this age of deep and dark political and linguistic injustice, in the rhetorical art of denunciation, which goes beyond mere incivility. One person I think has done this extraordinarily well in the age of Trump and the rise of nationalism globally is the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. During one of her comedy specials Nannette, she shocked the audience half-way through by saying that she believed she could no longer do comedy, And her “comedy show” turned into an extraordinarily powerful denunciation of Donald Trump and his culture of sexism, violence, and impunity. There was something magical, masterful in the way Hannah Gadsby was able to break the genre of the comedy show, turning it into a stage for political denunciation. I’d never seen anything quite like it. And so, I want to look for more instances in which denunciation breaks through artificial civility the kind of artificial civility that permits linguistic injustice to grow and reproduce itself socially, and I think this kind of breaking of genre, this denouncing linguistic injustice in the moment of its commission is one of the key pathways toward linguistic disobedience in our time.

But I imagine that you have many examples and thoughts to share, and I also know that Palestinian poets and thinkers have been some of the most powerful artists of denunciation and I’d like to continue to think with you about ways we can together Palestinize the denunciation of linguistic injustice in our history, our world, and our work as teachers and scholars.

Thank you!

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The Invention of Monolingualism, the Audiobook?

Someone I love said the other day there would be a better chance they’d read my work if there was a listenable version. So I’m trying it out to see what it sounds / feels like. This is just the Foreword to The Invention of Monolingualism. If it’s not a total disaster, I’ll keep going with the Introduction. Feedback / tips very welcome.

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The Affront of Untranslatability

A chapter in Duncan Large, Motoko Akashi, Wanda Józwikowska, Emily Rose (Eds.), Untranslatability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge, 2018Untranslatability

Untranslatability is, already on the face of it, a less-than-amicable discourse, prone to offence and to disturbing interdisciplinary peace. Now a century and a half since Whitman’s penning of “Song of Myself,” socalled Untranslatables continue to “sound [their] barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” whether or not they are appreciated when and where they do so (Whitman [1855] 2016: 183). This chapter is devoted not to repairing the word untranslatability’s accumulated impertinences, but to canvassing a range of typical scenarios that, when viewed collectively, might account for the social effrontery inherent in untranslatability as a concept, a charge or a gesture. This is thus not an apologetic exploration, nor one that sets out to delimit the phenomenon of untranslatability as such-as so many other thoughtful investigations in this book do-but is rather an attempt to understand the complex, even chaotic illocutionary force that calling something “untranslatable” routinely unleashes in various scholarly and everyday conversations. To the extent that the reader agrees with the notion that effrontery is somehow immanent in the word untranslatable, and that a variety of typical scenarios of affront collude with one another to intensify for the word an arch and casuistic aura, we may then consider whether the concept of untranslatability is-despite itself-still capable of holding water in scholarly work, cultural politics and indeed activism, and whether any modest adjustments might mitigate its performative excesses thus far.

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Practicing Multilingual Research: A Special Issue of Critical Multilingualism Studies

300-word statements of interest by February 1, 2018

Drafts due for peer review by May 1, 2018

Guest Editor: Emily Linares

“I send a copy [of my first book] to my father. I should have known better. His reply is curt and simple. Why did I have to write my first book in English? Wasn’t French good enough? He had spent several weeks, he said, with an English-French dictionary trying to read the book and had scribbled in the margins all the places where, he said, my English was deficient. He was returning it to me for my information. I remember well my mixed feelings of pity and guilt and the sudden realization that my very interest in understanding the multilingual condition was perceived as a direct affront to some members of my own family.”

                                                                   —Claire Kramsch (forthcoming)

This CMS special issue seeks to draw critical attention to the normative monolingual and linguistic forms that academic scholarship tends to take, as well as to the experience of publishing in an L2, L3, and beyond. In order to explore this aim, we invite auto-ethnographic accounts, discourse analyses, and critical reflections from researchers working in a range of disciplines who have published or created work in a language other than their L1. As a large body of scholarship shows (see References below), thematizing multilingualism in research does not necessarily mean that multilingual research practices are being undertaken.

Some potential arenas and forms for critical exploration may include:

  • critical discourse analyses of research on intercultural competence, L2 literacy, or foreign language education (as well as other arenas), where research results and formats are often divorced from, or only superficially consider, multilingualism as an active mode of research practice;
  • reflections on methodology in multilingual studies where an underlying monolingual mindset is in evidence, as well as recommendations for methodologies that are appropriately sensitive to the multilingualism of subjects, including that of the researcher;
  • empirical studies that explore the role of multilingual reflexivity and practice in research and pedagogy;
  • theoretical reflections on the possibilities and limitations of researching multilingually.

Contributions can also take the form of auto-ethnographic accounts on experiences of publishing or creating in an L2, L3, etc. We define ‘language’ broadly, welcoming, for instance, contributions by musicologists and dancers who write in an “L2 research idiom” about their primary creative language of music or movement—or those who produce creative work in the language of the arts or other symbolic repertoires. Alongside the perspectives of those who have published in English as an L2, we also invite L1 English speakers who have chosen to publish in another language to share the implications of this choice for their ongoing work as scholars, teachers, colleagues, activists, and / or civic subjects. Contributors are encouraged to critically reflect on and discursively contextualize a particularly memorable constellation of experiences producing research in an L2, L3, etc. Contributors are welcome to cite and comment on specific excerpts from the research undertaken. Contributions may explore such questions as:

  • What motivations led you to publish or otherwise create research in an L2, L3, or in a combination of these?
  • What affordances and challenges did this process present? How did the experience of writing in a language other than your L1 influence the form, content, and bearing of your ideas and the habitus of their generation?
  • How did you negotiate your identity (in both your L1 and L2 networks) as a researcher writing in a language other than your L1?
  • What other scholars’ or traditions’ multilingual modes of research have guided your work?

In the general spirit of the Critical Multilingualism Studies journal, we endeavor to house a discussion on “what ‘blind spots’ vis-à-vis multilingual praxis and theory might still persist […]; and to pursue whatever reorientations may be necessary in order to address these adequately” (Gramling and Warner 2012: 4). It is our hope that this special issue will promote ongoing critical dialogue about the potential for a culture of scholarship that is multilingual in content, form, and epistemology—both within and across publications, genres, and formats.

Continue reading

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Transgender Studies Quarterly invites translators & translation curators to publish

Twice yearly, Transgender Studies Quarterly (Duke University Press, tIssueofBlacknesssq.dukejournals.org) print-publishes a short “translations” section of about 3000 words, which features translated texts (literary, interviews, historical, poetic, journalistic, legal decisions, etc.) that have to do with transgender experience in some significant way. Recent TSQ Translations Sections have featured contemporary Turkish trans activists and Black German trans community organizers, and previously Japanese and Italian short literary works in translation. Other Sections have housed first-time translations of medieval manuscripts, contemporary writings from imprisoned trans people, manifestoes, memoirs, original poetry, etc.

The TSQ Translations Section editor extends an invitation to you or a colleague to guest curate (or even just contribute to) a future Translations section. Perhaps you already have a few texts in mind that have been important contribution to transgender life in their original language for one reason or another, but have not yet appeared in English. Perhaps you have a few translations yourself on trans topics and would enjoy having an outside editorial pair-of-eyes on them before print publication. Perhaps you are part of a translation community where these themes are being explored and worked on.

Most of the editing and coordinating are done by the Section staff, so guest editors are primarily responsible for thinking about, identifying, curating, and either translating or coordinating the translation of a few texts (usually 3 or so texts of 1000 words each), usually from one language or theme, which will then appear in English for the first time in TSQ. Note that, since TSQ is focused on transgender studies specifically, rather than on LGB studies, we prefer work that addresses transgender identity in some specificity, though LGB and other subjectivities are always welcome as an additional feature of the proposed texts. Rights to the originals can remain, of course, with the original rights-holders, but Duke University Press requires explicit permission from original authors or editors.

The TSQ Translations Section editor, David Gramling, invites potential guest editors and contributors to contact him directly with ideas, at dgl@email.arizona.edu or @linguacene. Please do share your ideas with him if you are interested in teaming up for this rather uncomplicated, rather time-unconsuming, and free-form type of one-time project. Note that, though TSQ is an academic journal, it has a broad readership and an even broader cultural and political mandate. So diversity of genres, backgrounds, and contexts are most welcome. Experimental and interpretive approaches to “translation” are also encouraged. The next open spot is coming up quickly—Jan 15, 2018.

Though TSQ can’t pay for the translation work, it’s a great way for an emerging translator / scholar / writer to get some shorter work out in a prominent, high-visibility print journal with great in-house editing, reviewing, and proofing. It’s also an important way to render trans and lgbt studies ever more multilingual and planetary, in a moment when nationalist retrenchment is alluring for so many. For more information on TSQ, see the articles below:

Joselow, Maxine (22 June 2016). “A Push for Transgender Studies”. Inside Higher Ed. Washington, D.C. Retrieved 2016-06-26.

Kellaway, Mitch (27 May 2014). “Duke Univ. Press Debuts Academic Journal for Transgender Studies”. The Advocate. Here Media. Retrieved 2016-03-19.

Morgan, Glennisha (16 May 2013). “Duke University Press’ Transgender Studies Quarterly to Publish in 2014”. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-03-19.

Kang, Andy (28 May 2014). “Groundbreaking Transgender Studies Quarterly Released”. GLAAD.org. GLAAD. Retrieved 2012-02-04.

“Archive of All Online Issues”. tsq.dukejournals.org. Duke University Press. Retrieved 2017-01-30.


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