Keynote Lecture: Disinventing Monolingualism in Modern Languages Research


The Italian Cultural Institute, 39 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8NX
Friday 2 and Saturday 3 December 2016

Teaching and research in Modern Languages are conventionally structured in ways which appear to insist on national or linguistic specificity. Work on the transnational inevitably poses questions on the nature of the underlying framework of Modern Languages: whether the discipline should be construed and practised as the inquiry into separate national traditions or as the study of cultures and their interactions. These structures seem inadequate at a time when the study of cultures delimited by the concept of the nation/national identities is becoming more difficult to justify in a world increasingly defined by the transnational and translingual, and by the material and non-material pressures of globalization. Challenging the assumption that cultures are self-contained units that correspond to sharply defined national boundaries must become an essential part of all disciplinary fields and sub-fields that make up Modern Languages, as they seek to avoid the risk of methodological nationalism and of participating in the very structures that it is their purpose to critique. At the same time, how might the transnational acknowledge the residual pull of the nation as a potent, albeit porous, container of cultural identity, and broker of citizenship?

A great deal of research within Modern Languages is already, albeit often implicitly, concerned with the transnational dimension of culture. In so doing, it poses questions about language, translation and multi-lingualism; about the set of practices that make up a sense of location and of belonging to a geographically determined site; about the notions of temporality that obtain within cultures; about modes of understanding subjectivity and alterity. All these questions are of fundamental importance for the study not only of the contemporary world, and its likely future, but for the study of the past.

The aim of the conference is to explore how the ‘cultural’ and the ‘transcultural’ cannot be studied in isolation but rather need to be seen as part of a complex system of circulation which goes beyond national boundaries, canons or linguistic discreteness. The conference aims to bring together researchers who are working on the transnational across Modern Languages and whose work poses questions both on how we study culture and how we produce a version of Modern Languages that is fully respondent to practices of human mobility and cultural exchange.


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New book on multilingual cinema

multilingualscreenFrom Bloomsbury’s publicity blurb: “The Multilingual Screen is the first edited volume to offer a wide-ranging exploration of the place of multilingualism in cinema, investigating the ways in which linguistic difference and exchange have shaped, and continue to shape, the medium’s history. Moving across a vast array of geographical, historical, and theoretical contexts-from Japanese colonial filmmaking to the French New Wave to contemporary artists’ moving image-the essays collected here address the aesthetic, political, and industrial significance of multilingualism in film production and reception. In grouping these works together, The Multilingual Screen discerns and emphasizes the areas of study most crucial to forging a renewed understanding of the relationship between cinema and language diversity. In particular, it reassesses the methodologies and frameworks that have influenced the study of filmic multilingualism to propose that its force is also, and perhaps counterintuitively, a silent one. While most studies of the subject have explored linguistic difference as a largely audible phenomenon-manifested through polyglot dialogues, or through the translation of monolingual dialogues for international audiences-The Multilingual Screen traces some of its unheard histories, contributing to a new field of inquiry based on an attentiveness to multilingualism’s work beyond the soundtrack.”

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New book on interpreting in the KZs

interpretingFrom Bloomsbury’s publicity description: “This significant new study is concerned with the role of interpreting in Nazi concentration camps, where prisoners were of 30 to 40 different nationalities. With German as the only official language in the lager, communication was vital to the prisoners’ survival. While in the last few decades there has been extensive research on the language used by the camp inmates, investigation into the mediating role of interpreters between SS guards and prisoners on the one hand, and among inmates on the other, has been almost nonexistent.

On the basis of Primo Levi’s considerations on communication in the Nazi concentrationary system, this book investigates the ambivalent role of interpreting in the camps. One of the central questions is what the role of interpreting was in the wider context of shaping life in concentration camps. And in what way did the knowledge of languages, and accordingly, certain communication skills, contribute to the survival of concentration camp inmates and of the interpreting person? The main sources under investigation are both archive materials and survivors’ memoirs and testimonials in various languages.

On a different level, Interpreting in Nazi Concentration Camps also asks in what way the study of communication in concentration camps enhances our understanding of the ambiguous role of interpreting in more general terms. And in what way does the study of interpreting in concentration camps shape an interpreting concept which can help us to better understand the violent nature of interpreting in contexts other than the Holocaust?”

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Translation in the Digital Age

A lecture for Humanities Week, October 2015. Responses welcome. Video thanks to College of Humanities External Relations and Nate Mehr.


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New Book

IOMCoverAdvance reviews: “An extraordinary and illuminating book, spanning literary and cultural studies, applied linguistics, social and cultural theory, and more. Original, brilliantly presented, provocative, and extremely timely, The Invention of Monolingualism is likely to be a blockbuster with its far sighted argument-a little in the vein of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things in terms of scope and boldness. It will be of great interest to not only literary and cultural studies readers, but also to applied linguists and social scientists as well.” Claire Kramsch, Professor of the Graduate School, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Photo credit, matthew thorsen, “the family organ”.

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MOOC: Multilingual Learning for a Globalised World

This free online course (beginning April 4) will explore multilingual education and how it can impact and improve education and broader society.

Understand why languages matter

Our languages are an essential part of who we are as human beings. They are instruments of communication and are often a source of dignity and of human pride. Our life experiences and views of the world are bound up in our languages. Our sense of self might be strengthened by our ability to speak the language we choose or curtailed by our inability to understand the language that speaks to us. Some scholars even say that the right to speak one’s languages should be established as an essential part of the right to be oneself. They suggest that this language right should be honoured in all forms of communication.

In this course, you will explore how people’s language practice, and the personal connection people have to the language(s) they speak, provoke important philosophical and pedagogical questions around the ways we form personal relationships, engage in business relations and even view the world around us.

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Workshop: Researching Multilingually in an Era of Neo-Orientalism

Thursday, April 7, 3:30-5:30pm, Marshall Building 491

Questions for Discussion

  • What is monolingualism and how does it inform research methods, formats, disciplines, and concepts?
  • What effects does monolingualism (as a social phenomenon or research method) have on the subjects we research and seek to understand—whether those be historical, sociological, textual, anthropological, political, or aesthetic?
  • What are the pitfalls, pleasures, and benefits of researching multilingually?
  • Under what conditions is translation itself a complex research activity, rather then a mere instrument for rendering data legible / communicable?
  • How do Orientalism, Neo-Orientalism, and other forms of epistemic reification thrive on monolingualism and/or certain kinds of “reactionary multilingualism” (Moore 2015) or “soft multilingualism” (Noorani 2013)?
  • What kind of structuring role is played by the academic lingua franca of English?


Preparatory Reading:

Gramling, David. 2014. “What is Turkish-German Studies Up Against? Thigmotactics and Occidentalism.” Colloquiua Germanica. 44.4: 382–395.

Gramling, David. 2014. “The Invention of Monolingualism from the Spirit of Systematic Transposability.” Philologie und Mehrsprachigkeit [Philology and Multilingualism], edited by Georg Mein und Till Dembeck. Winter Verlag. 113-134.

Moore, Robert. 2015. “From revolutionary monolingualism to reactionary multilingualism: Top-down discourses of linguistic diversity in Europe, 1794-present.” Language and Communication 44: 19–30.

Noorani, Yaseen. 2013. “‘Hard and Soft Multilingualism.” Critical Multilingualism Studies 1.2: 7–28.

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