What’s the Difference Between “Translingual” and “Transnational” Composition?: Clarifying the Relationship between two Terms

by Carrie Kilfoil, University of Indianapolis

Lately, I’ve been thinking about two related terms—“translingual” and “transnational” composition—and the occasional slippage between them. In my own work and in the work of others, I’ve noticed a tendency to use these terms together or almost interchangeably. But languages and nations are very different things, at least according to the way most of us define them. For the purposes of this post, I’ll define a “language” as a socially situated, historically shaped, and culturally resourced system of meaning-making practices and a “nation” as a geopolitical entity, a means by which people, and what are assumed to be their “defining” norms and relationships, are consolidated into social and material space. These definitions will be fleshed out in the following discussion.

Perhaps the urge to conflate “translingual” and “transnational” composition stems from the fact that, despite their differences, languages and nations share some important commonalities and are deeply intertwined. As Mary Louise Pratt, following Benedict Anderson, observes, nations are “imagined communities”: vast, distributed social networks conjured into being through a particular “style” of imagining. Nations are imagined as “limited by ‘finite, if elastic boundaries,’” sovereign, and communities of “a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’, a fraternity” (49). Pratt goes on to describe this imagining as “utopian,” in the sense that nations are seen “as islands, as discrete and sovereign social entities,” embodying social values that, in reality, they frequently fail to uphold (50).

Languages, too, Pratt argues, are “imagined communities,” as evidenced by ways in which they have been traditionally studied. Modern linguistics has approached the “speech community” as a “unified and homogenous social world” of so-called “native, speaking face to face in “monolingual, even monodialectical situations—in short, the maximally homogenous case linguistically and socially” (50). Like nations, the languages that speech communities represent are often imagined as embodying static, “standard” (communicative) norms and values, which often fail to show up in real linguistic practice, necessitating distinctions between langue and parole, competence and performance, in linguistics. Finally, as Pratt observes, this conception of languages as bounded and monolithic social entities exists as a “devise” for imagining the community of the nation-state, whose fraternalism depends on a common language as “shared patrimony,” binding the community across time and space (50).

In Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations, Suresh Canagarajah describes the link between languages and nations in terms of monolingual ideology. Monolingualism, Canagarajah explains, is based on an “equivalence of language, community, and place,” such that each language is “stamped with the essence of the particular community it is associated with” and “the language [is] capable of naturally expressing only the values and thoughts belonging to that community” (20). Community itself is imagined as homogenous and bounded by geographical spaces “colonized for one language or another” (21). As Yasemin Yildiz has argued, this one-to-one equation of language, community, and territory leads to the popular (and incorrect) assumption that “individuals and social formations…possess one ‘true’ language, their ‘mother tongue’ and through this possession [are] organically linked to an exclusive, clearly demarcated ethnicity, culture, and nation” (2).

If monolingual ideology links languages and nations together, what I have elsewhere called “translingual ideology” (Kilfoil) complicates relations between them. The term “translingual” has been applied to composition in different ways, sometimes to refer to the presence of L2 writers and writing in composition classes and other times to refer to writing pedagogies focused on consciously shuttling between national languages and/or language varieties. However, in their 2012 opinion-piece, “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach,” Horner et al. use the term to refer to a “disposition of openness and inquiry toward language and language differences” that resists the monolingualist reification of language, nation, and sociocultural identity (311). A translingual disposition sees the heterogeneity in all linguistic practice, even communicative acts that we are conditioned to see as taking place in one language and culture (see Lu and Horner), and supports approaches to writing that recognize and work to enhance writers’ creative capacities to work across languages, dialects, genres, and registers to meet various communicative exigencies.

According to this framework, “translingual composition” can be identified with “transnational composition,” in the sense that transnational approaches to writing scholarship often require us to engage in very deliberate and visible cross-language work and/or involve analysis of literacy practices that are easily identifiable as “translingual” in the context of increasing sociocultural diversity in higher education. As Christiane Donahue has argued, transnational writing scholars need to “develop rigorous practices and a grounded vocabulary for collaborative literacy research across national contexts,” (235) which involves using their full range of linguistic resources, including their knowledge of patterns of speech and writing associated with other national languages. Moreover, as Rebecca Lorimer Leonard, Kate Vieira, and Morris Young have observed, while transnational inquiry in writing “should not be conflated with nor limited to the study of multilingualism,” “including language in analysis can reveal how writers make sense of their own practices or how they position themselves across multiple cultural, linguistic, and political contexts” (X). Analyzing the ways in which writers work across so called “national languages” in various global-local contexts is one way to apply a transnational focus to composition, insofar as Lorimer Leonard, Vieira, and Young define “transnational” as “an optic or analytic that traces how individuals build social fields across real or perceived boundaries” in the context of global change (VI).

While some transnational work may be more recognizable as “translingual” practice or inquiry than other forms of composition scholarship, I think it is important not to conflate translingual and transnational composition. Doing so risks suggesting that working across national borders is the goal of translingual approaches to composition, and, conversely, that transnational work in composition cannot take place without the use of a variety of language codes associated with different nations and/or the analysis of writers’ multilingual practices. A language is not a nation, and we must be careful to avoid monolingualist readings of terms like “translingual” and “transnational,” which can be used more productively to resist the reifications of language and nation inherent in monolingual ideology.

According to the mission statement for the Transnational Composition Group of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, transnational composition aims to:

  • Address concerns about the role university-level writing teachers play in the commodification and spread of U.S. programs of composition instruction and theory in light of current global geopolitical relations.
  • Explore questions related to language choice, language standards, literacy practices, identity, power, and pedagogy as these relate to international literacy instruction and scholarship.
  • Provide a forum for exploring ways to expand the conceptual horizon of U.S. teachers and scholars of college composition and those teaching and studying postsecondary writing internationally.
  • Engage in and work in coordination with the International Researchers’ Consortium to support responsible transnational exchanges of ideas and research findings about writing and its teaching.
  • Share various approaches to postsecondary writing instruction and practice taken by different nationalities and research on literacy work in a variety of locales across the globe so as to explore the ways in which forms of writing instruction, beliefs about writing, and literacy practices encouraged in one locale do, and might ideally, interpenetrate writing instruction, study, and literacy work in other locales.
  • Develop proposals to revise current CCC and CCCC policies to increased the visibility of international scholars participating in the annual conference, encourage more attendance by international scholars, and develop new resources to allow for greater transnational scholarly exchange.

These bullet points indicate “transnational composition” is concerned with aspects of writing,  teaching, and research which include, but are not limited to, translingual writing practices. Transnational composition involves understanding writing and writing teaching as practices that take place in a variety of locales and fostering exchanges of ideas and resources across national borders to develop our perspectives on and ability to respond to these practices. Though issues of language and language plurality run through transnational composition, its focus is not restricted to them. While translingual composition scholarship has been enhanced by transnational composition research (see the “Selected Bibliography” in Horner et al.’s opinion piece, which cites scholars from across the world), it is not the sole application of this research or domain of “transnational composition” more generally.

Both “translingual” and “transnational” composition push composition studies to move beyond monolingualist approaches that restrict its work to“a” language and/or nation, imagined in static, homogenized, and mutually dependent terms. By resisting the monolingualist urge to conflate these terms and, instead, recognizing the complex relations between them, I believe we can maximize our potential for developing innovative approaches to disciplinary work in the global-local contexts of contemporary writing and teaching.


Works Cited

Canagarajah, Suresh. Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations.       London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Donahue, Christiane. “‘Internationalization’ and Composition Studies: Reorienting the Discourse.” College Composition and Communication 61.2 (2009): 212-43. Print.

Horner, Bruce, et al. “Opinion: Language Difference in Writing–toward a Translingual

Approach.” College English 73.3 (2011): 303-21. Print.

Kilfoil, Carrie Byars. “Beyond the ‘Foreign’ Language Requirement: From a Monolingual to a Translingual Ideology in Rhetoric and Composition Graduate Education.” Rhetoric Review 34.4 (2015): 426-444. Print.

Leonard, Rebecca Lorimer, Kate Vieira and Morris Young. “Special Editors’ Introduction to Issue 3.3.” Literacy in Composition Studies 3.3 (2015): VI-XII.

Lu, Min-Zhan and Bruce Horner. “Translingual Literacy, Language Difference, and Matters of Agency.”  College English 75 (2013): 586-611.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Linguistic Utopias.” The Linguistics of Writing: Arguments between Language and Literature. Ed. Colin MacCabe, Nigel Fabb, Derek Attridge, Alan Durant. New York: Methuen, 1987. 48-66. Print.

Yildiz, Yasemin. Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. Print.





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