Suresh Canagarajah on Translingualism: A Four Part Interview, Part IV

Shakil Rabbi, PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Pennsylvania State University, spends the hour with Suresh Canagarajah, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor and Director of the Migration Studies Project at Pennsylvania State University, to discuss  the role and position of translingualism amidst neoliberalism, the growth of multilingual students in writing classrooms, and monolingual ideologies.

This fourth and final part suggests that translingualism is still emerging, and for that reason, highlights the importance of role models, mentors, and theorists who influence this orientation about writing.

SHAKIL RABBI: How did you come to understand writing translingually?

Who were the scholars who helped you grow into this position?

 SURESH CANAGARAJAH: What I would say is translingualism is always there as a form of practice in many communities. Translingualism is not a new invention. It is not a new theory. In practice, it’s always been there. The only thing that has been slow is people coming to a realization that they do have a translingual competence or they do have a translingual proficiency.

So in my case, the mere fact that I grew up in a multilingual environment; you know like with three or four languages around me, and also writing in English and Tamil, then moving to the United States for higher education where there are other norms, but bringing my own language resources with me– to begin with, they created a tension. You know, how do you resolve all these different resources you are bringing with you? How do you– What’s the relationship between the languages and literacies you have in your background?

So, in some sense, the tension has been creative. It has generated its own theorization and proficiency on my role, in my part. But you could go in different directions, like some students ignore and suppress all this diversity in their background. But, in my case, I don’t know why, but I was actually always finding ways to develop these repertoires rather than suppress any of them. To put it another way, I wasn’t embarrassed about the other literacies and languages I brought with me. Maybe, it’s a political fact in the sense that me coming from an underdeveloped community and also from a minority community. You know in Sri Lanka we have, we were struggling for identity and autonomy. We had a strong political consciousness. And we were not going to give up our language resources easily. So that helped me to explore ways of putting all this together.

So, but theoretically, that brings me to mentors and scholarship that might have helped me develop or conceptualized translingualism, as a form of practice that has a name, and a label, and an identity– that took a long time. So I would say I can’t think of one mentor but I’m fine with this idea of piggybacking as a kind of scholarly enterprise. It’s a, I think, a term developed by Cheryl Geisler to talk about philosophers in their writing. What she says is, they are in their writing using one philosopher to move to another position, and then using another philosopher to move to another position. It’s like piggybacking. So, I think, that is what I have been doing. And for me, interestingly, it means going beyond English or Linguistics.

I’ve been also learning from say postcolonial scholars, cultural studies scholars, like Stuart Hall, Homi Bhabha, scholars like that, which help me in that my area of focus was not narrow. And I wasn’t focusing only on Linguistics. Because we didn’t have too many good mentors there, you know. Because for a long time, even now, the monolingual ideology is very strong. And a lot of people are slow to develop this position.

So, I’ve always enjoyed reading scholars from other fields.  And right now I’m reading more diverse scholars in geography, in physics, there’s a lot on, you know, on posthumanism. All these scholars are helping me think about translingualism and expand it into new areas, you know, to think about translingualism as a kind of semiotic practice. It is not just about language. It involves, objects, it involves people, it involves ecologies. So I think I’m always piggybacking on other scholars and developing my own point of view, but I don’t think I have just one scholar. I think that is dangerous. If I had just one scholar, I might have stopped my own development at a particular point. But the fact that I’m always looking for new mentors, let’s say in different fields, it has been helping me theorize better.

And I guess I must conclude by saying, translingual practice is by no means completely defined, nor has it stopped developing. The best work is yet to come.

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