A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

The Global Inevitable: A Review of Canagarajah's Translingual Practice

Review of Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relation, by Suresh Canagarajah 2013; Routledge

Matthew Overstreet, University of Pittsburgh

(Published: June 2, 2016)

“Cherish your life! Do not cross railing,” reads the sign in the park across the street from my apartment in Urumqi, northwest China. This sliver of global English, while insignificant in itself, reminds us of the inexorably international nature of the language of Shakespeare. English, and English instruction, is a global enterprise. Perhaps no one theorizes this fact better than Suresh Canagarajah. In 2013’s Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations, Canagarajah uses the practices of multilinguals, particularly those in the contact zones of South Asia, to articulate a comprehensive theory of language use. According to Canagarajah, language is inherently fluid and formal distinctions between English and other are not particularly productive. “Communication,” he writes, “transcends individual languages” (6). Linguistic interactions also transcend talk and text, inevitably implicating “diverse semiotic resources and ecological affordances” (6). His term “translingual” seeks to capture this dynamism—the steady mix of tongues, interpretations, bodies and objects which shape the communicative act.

In Canagarajah’s understanding, homo rhethorica is a practical being. In a given encounter she may utilize gestures, a bit of French, a string of nouns and an iPhone. She doesn’t necessarily disregard language norms, but these norms are always up for negotiation. In this view, meaning, and indeed form, are always “situational, arising from the modes of alignment between participants, objects, and resources in the local ecology” (27). Communicative competency is therefore best understood as performative. It is not “self-standing language or mental systems that guarantee meaning” (32). Instead, it is language users’ ability to achieve alignment between norms, forms and objectives. How this is accomplished—what moves and mindsets allow people from different backgrounds to cooperate—should therefore be the primary object of scholarly inquiry. Canagarajah terms this a “practice-based perspective” (27).

It’s easy to see how Canagarajah’s understanding of language could be productively utilized in various areas of rhetoric and composition. His inclusion of affect, the embodied, the material and space and place as integral components in the communicative encounter speaks to the interests of many in the field. Canagarajah’s view of language is only one component of this book though. His larger goal is to trace translingual practice. He is upfront about his investments, stating that it is his “mission to rediscover the South Asian tradition of translingual communication,” and to use that tradition to develop “healthy forms of global citizenship” (18). To accomplish this, he first turns to an analysis of South Asian translingual practice. Drawing on an array of historical and linguistic sources, Canagarajah shows that in South Asia, community has traditionally been based on shared space, not common language or culture. This stands in sharp contrast to Western understandings, which since the rise of the “Herdian Triad” in the eighteenth century, have conflated language, place and community (20). The resulting monolingualism was politically expedient, but notably artificial. Even in Western Europe, he argues, communicative interactions have often been understood in translingual terms. Now though, postmodern social relations— hybrid, high tech— have made such terms essential.

In chapter four, “English as Translingual,” Canagarajah compares his translingualism with other models of global English. He finds that these other models, while laudatory, fall short in that they are too formalized, relying on notions of shared community, shared structure or an essentialized vision of a “native speaker” (66). He makes clear that in a translingual situation, language users are not moving towards native norms; instead, they are making new norms. To demonstrate, he analyzes a conversation in which an Egyptian businessman and his Danish colleague reach a shared understanding through what appears, to an outside observer, to be nonsensical, “broken” English. In chapter five, “Translingual Negotiation Strategies,” he discusses the moves which allow for such an encounter. Translinguals, he finds, rely heavily on contextual factors (106). Attitude is also key. Throughout his varied examples we see application of the “let-pass-principle,” a relaxed attitude to misunderstandings, ambiguities and mistakes (88). Certainly this finding will come as little surprise for anyone (like me) who has struggled to communicate in an unfamiliar tongue.

Chapter six, “Pluralizing Academic Writing,” will be of interest to many compositionists. Here, Canagarajah expands on his vision of code-meshing. As Canagarajah presents it, code-meshing entails challenging language inequality through discursive mastery. Codemeshers signal their knowledge of the norms associated with elite genres (such as academic writing), but at the same time, bring in their own codes “in measured ways for significant rhetorical and performative reasons” (113). By encouraging the strategic use of minority languages, Canagarajah argues that codemeshing “enables us to address the process of pluralizing written discourse,” while displaying “sensitivity to the dual claims of voice and norms” (109). Mainstream “code-switching” arguments, on the other hand, such as those advanced by Lisa Delpit and Peter Elbow, impose a sort of “diglossia” which alienates minority speakers (112).

Though an argument could be made that Canagarajah’s vision of codemeshing includes too much dominant code and not enough meshing, he views his position as inherently progressive. I’m inclined to agree. Instead of waiting for change, strategic codemeshing allows minority language users to make change happen now. Of course, for those of us located in English departments, long accustomed to the meshed prose of Toni Morrison or Junot Diaz, this argument may feel rather intuitive. After all, numerous scholars have argued for the rhetorical deployment of everyday language (see Gerald Graff’s Clueless In Academe). Canagarajah suggests though that such views, through on-going codemeshing, are poised to make their way into other, more “objective” disciplines. I believe, and I’m sure many would agree, that this would be a step forward.

As an example of a successfully codemeshed piece of academic writing, Canagarajah presents Geneva Smitherman’s 1999 essay, “CCCC’s Role in the Struggle for Language Rights.” The accompanying analysis contains some good practical advice. For example, Canagarajah notes how Smitherman first frames her argument within academic discourse conventions, thereby establishing her authority. She forgoes scare quotes, subtlety indicating that terms such as “blessed” and “my girl” are (or should be) part of mainstream discourse. Her most extreme variations, on the other hand, are embedded in dramatic depictions or in “alternate spaces” within the text (120). Overall, Canagarajah views Smitherman’s practice as a compromise, “something we can all live with—till more spaces are available for other Englishes” (121). I imagine that many writing teachers, aware of both language politics and the importance of discursive competency, would agree. As editor of an academic journal, Canagarajah writes that he will accept codemeshed essays if they are “rhetorically justified, strategic, and displa[y] a critical and creative design” (123). This also seems to be a good standard for writing instructors.

In chapter seven, “Negotiating Translingual Writing,” Canagarajah takes us into his classroom. His translingual orientation treats text as “co-constructed in time and space” with “parity for readers and writers in shaping meaning and form” (127). He draws a distinction between this approach and modernist Western orientations, which view the text as autonomous. Once again the “let-it-pass” principle is key. In translingual literacy, the reader must give up the notion of mastery. This point is demonstrated by a detailed analysis of student interaction with a codemeshed essay. This essay includes symbols, French, Arabic and other atypical codes. Still, the students are able to understand. Through a depiction of his “dialogical pedagogy” Canagarajah shows how he fosters this understanding (133). This entails the writer sharing her justifications for translingual moves and the teacher and other students providing feedback as to what they did and did not grasp. In such an environment, error (a key word—as always) is understood not as deviation from native speaker-norms, but as those moves which fail to gain collective uptake (187).

In the final three chapter of Translingual Practice, Canagarajah again zooms out to explore translingualism in non-classroom settings. First, he interviews skilled African migrants living in English-speaking countries about their language practices. Instead of perceiving conflict or tension between their Englishes and those of their host countries, these migrants express pride in their ability to communicate effectively, indicating no desire to shift to “high prestige” or “native” English varieties (160). In this, Canagarajah locates a key aspect of translingual practice—the notion of “fragmented multilingualism” (162). Translinguals, rather than valuing competency in whole languages, use bits and pieces of language as “portable resources” (162). Again, results are privileged over norm adherence.

Canagarajah next turns to an expanded analysis of the cognitive traits associated with translingual practice. He finds that procedural knowledge, not propositional knowledge, is key. Translingualism requires the ability to engage in “alignment”—to create new grammars and codes from whatever linguistic or environmental resources are available (174). Successful translinguals are also uniquely able to respond to the alignment needs of others. This requires a “cooperative disposition,” a sort of communicative ethics which combines linguistic awareness, openness to diversity and the ability to learn from practice (180). This is what Canagarajah’s pedagogy seeks to foster.

The concept of alignment lays the groundwork for the book’s final chapter, “Towards a Dialogical Cosmopolitanism.” Here, Canagarajah demonstrates how translingual practice can provide a model for a new form of cosmopolitan relations, one that achieves solidarity not through shared values, but through shared being. In this model, communication and community arise from the ability “to align disparate values and features for common goals” (196). Again practice rules. Canagarajah’s vision of “dialogical cosmopolitanism” is interactive and negotiated—“It is not given, but achieved in shared interactions” (196). Overall, at the end of this exhaustive study, the reader is left with a sense that such an understanding—while admittedly optimistic—is indeed possible. Canagarajah makes a strong case that his desired form of cosmopolitanism has always existed. Our task is simply its recognition and widespread application.