Canagarajah’s Model of Translingualism
Theories for describing, analyzing, and predicting the spread of English around the world have constantly undergone evolution and scholarly debate. In his book Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations (2013), Suresh Canagarajah outlines his argument for how English should analyzed as a translingual practice. In chapter four of the book, “English as Translingual,” Canagarajah offers his critique of major theories of English as a global language, including “World Englishes” (WE), “English as an International Language” (EIL), and “English as a Lingua Franca” (ELF). In opposition to these models, Canagarajah challenges the analytical focus of categorizing, classifying, and defining the seemingly endless varieties of English. Instead, he argues that a “more productive undertaking is to identify the processes underlying the construction of all these varieties” (59). He believes that previous models have focused too much on the “product” of varietal Englishes. As he puts it, “These models end up reifying each variety, limiting further changes, and preventing us from being open to studying further diversification. The focus on the product also takes away our attention from the processes of contact, mobility, and sedimentation that underlie these varieties. It also prevents us from understanding the dynamics of meaning-making practices” (56). In other words, models like Kachru’s Inner/Outer/Expanding Circle fail to account for the fact that English is primarily a “contact language” (56).
Canagarajah complicates Kachru’s “circle” theory by articulating how interactions within the circle and at the borders of the circles require an analytical frame of English as a “communicative practice” rather than as “stable [varieties]” (69). He gives an interesting example of two individuals who have to engage in meaning-making practices in order to communicate effectively about a large order of cheese. Canagarajah’s analysis of how they negotiate power dynamics in order to communicate focused heavily on the use of the word “blowing.” He claims that “from a semiotic perspective, even the use of the same form or vocabulary item in a different context may take new indexicality” (69). In other words, the use of the word “blowing” pointed to a new, contingent referent. Considering contemporary semiotic theory suggests that the signifier/signified relationship can never have prescriptive 1:1 matches, this example lends credibility to the notion that what happens in the “contact zones” of language should be a focal point for understanding how English works in communicatative situations.
Canagarajah’s argument resonates with the argument Alastair Pennycook puts forth in his piece, “English and Globalization.” Pennycook, citing Giddens, claims that globalization “may be better understood as a compression of time and space, an intensification of social, economic, cultural and political relations and a series of global linkages that render events in one location of potential and immediate importance in other, quite distant locations (114). Rather than focus on English through the lens of the nation-state, Pennycook, like Canagarajah, accepts that global English use operates in an “uneven world” full of power struggles, but that we need to “[question] the ways in which we have come to think about languages within colonialism and modernity, and regarding the grand narratives of imperialism, language rights, linguae francae or world Englishes with suspicion, this perspective looks towards local, situated, contextual and contingent ways of understanding languages and language policies” (121). In other words, simply labeling each variety of English (e.g. “British English” vs. “Indian English”) is ultimately less productive, since it neglects the complex “flow[s] of information” (114). Certainly, Pennycook doesn’t deny the historical evolution of English, its ties to colonialism, and its potential role for cultural homogenization, but he believes that Robert Phillipson’s argument of English as a force of “linguistic imperalism” misses the point about globalization. Instead, Pennycook posits that “it is also crucial to understand the ways in which English is resisted and appropriated, how English users ‘may find ways to negotiate, alter and oppose political structures, and reconstruct their languages, cultures and identities to their advantage. The intention is not to reject English, but to reconstitute it in more inclusive, ethical, and democratic terms’ (citing Canagarajah, 1999).
Both Pennycook and Canagarajah seem to operate with a similar analytical lens of getting a “ground level” view of English with an emphasisis on the descriptive orientation of sociolinguistic study instead of a classification and prescriptive lens. For both Canagarajah and Pennycook, we need better understandings of how English is used to communicate, rather than simply categorizing and classifying based on linguistic forms and difference. Thus, both scholars challenge previous theories and ask us to consider a more radical framework that moves away from “twentieth-century epistemologies” (Pennycook 121). As Pennycook argues, “globalization requires us to consider whether we should continue to think of languages as separate, distinguishable, countable entities” (116). Indeed, breaking out of this idea of languages, particular varieties of English, as discrete has numerous potential counterarguments, including some of the following objections:
- What methodologies would be valid for studying language from a “translingual” perspective? Valid according to whom?
- If social and personal identities are tied to language, then what happens if we argue that languages are no longer discrete but just a messy, translingual blur?
- If a strong form of translingualism is accepted, how might teaching pedagogy account for the displacement of any notions of standards (i.e. teaching commonly accepted prescriptions)? In other words, what do we say to students who ask us to “tell them what’s wrong about their English” so they can communicate more effectively in high-stakes contexts, like the workplace?
It remains to be seen how “English as a Translingual Practice” might shift knowledge in fields from linguistics to composition to pedagogical practice, but it appears that this model is a perfect candidate for further research and inquiry.
Canaragajah, S. Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. Routledge. 2013.
Pennycook, A. “English and Globalization” The Routledge Companion to English Language Studies, Routledge. 113-121. 2010.