Languages have always been part of my life. Both of my parents were language teachers, and I was fortunate at secondary school to be able to study French and German alongside Latin and Ancient Greek. A gap year in Brittany before beginning undergraduate studies – as what was then called an assistant à temps partiel – allowed me to gain a good understanding of the politics of language in contemporary France, and also the impact on bilingual communities of the ethnolinguistic nationalism with which republican ideology has been associated in that country for over two centuries now. It also was in Brittany, at the age of 18, that I discovered the work of Victor Segalen, on whose cross-cultural poetics in works such as Les Immémoriaux and Stèles — produced in Polynesia and China – I would go on to write a doctoral thesis at Lancaster University.
As a lecturer in French, I have always been committed to the diversification of the curriculum to include literature and culture outside France – and my own specialism has become the history, literature and culture of the ‘Francophone’ Caribbean and especially Haiti. I have contributed to the development of a sub-field known as Francophone postcolonial studies, an area which has attempted – in response to Harish Trivedi’s mordant claim that postcolonialism has ‘ears only for English’ – to challenge the monolingual assumptions of postcolonial studies and to develop more comparative approaches to colonial history and its afterlives. At the same time, I have long been interested in the development of world literature and travel writing, and in particular in the the risks of Anglophone domination of the phenomena, either in terms of their production or circulation. Although most of my work now depends on cross-disciplinary collaboration, often with historians and geographers, I still actively and firmly identify myself as a Modern Linguist, and consider that Modern Languages has an increasingly important role to play in Arts and Humanities research, enabling approaches that are genuinely comparative or transnational, and challenging methods that are ultimately alinguistic.
Since 2012, I have been AHRC leadership fellow for the ‘translating cultures’ theme. The experience of working with the almost 100 projects linked to the theme has allowed me to rethink my previous assumptions about Modern Languages as well as my own research and teaching practice as a Modern Linguist. I have become increasingly aware that the subfields of Modern Languages, traditionally focused on single languages and even on single nations, have tended not so much to challenge monolingualism as to replicate monolingual practices (but in languages other than English). Michael Cronin has written about the field’s chronic extroversion, suggesting that: ‘If the focus in the past has been very firmly on an integrative, assimilationist approach to the foreign language and culture, with little or no cognizance taken of the native culture or language of the student, it is arguably by a greater attention to the in-between, to the translation dynamic of foreign-language acquisition, that modern language departments […] can have an impact not just on the countries to which their students or graduates are sent but also on the intellectual life of the countries in which they dwell.’ Such an approach – ethnographic, self-reflexive and acknowledging the centrality of translation – means letting go of various assumptions which Modern Languages has long considered foundational, not least the primacy of linguistic competence and the construction of the ‘native speaker’ as a benchmark. It also contributes to what Mary Louise Pratt helpfully called – in the US context – a ‘public idea about language’, allowing us to explore linguistic diversity in a domestic frame and also to see the United Kingdom itself as a multilingual space – a space where English co-exists not only with the tongues traditionally taught as part of Modern Languages, but also with ‘community’, ‘heritage’ and other ‘minority’ languages. At same time, we understand that the languages that Modern Linguists teach and research are themselves diverse as they are spoken across and within different national contexts, and also exist in complex relationships – diglossic and polyglossic – with other languages. As a specialist on literatures and cultures traditionally known as ‘Francophone’, I am increasingly aware of the limits of my own cultural knowledge and linguistic competence as I see French cohabiting with Arabic and Berber in North Africa, with Creole in Haiti, and operating as part of an everyday multilingualism in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, cultural production from France itself increasingly reflects linguistic hybridization, whether this be in detective fiction capturing the multiple languages of the banlieue or in film where questions of multilingualism, translation and language acquisition are becoming widespread as subject matter in their own right. My research additionally draws me into the areas of world literature as well as towards travel writing produced in languages other than those in which I am comfortable, and my reliance on the work of translators is also becoming increasingly apparent.
What I am suggesting is that Modern Linguists have traditionally researched monolingually – or at best bilingually. Recognition of the challenges of researching multilingually means asking different questions and adopting new approaches. In practical terms, this can entail those who conduct language-led research accepting the limits of their own competence and becoming language learners again; it can also involve seeking out new collaborators with complementary linguistic skills and exploring new ways of working together; it can mean a more critically-aware engagement with texts that circulate in translation. At the same time, and perhaps more significantly, the challenge is to adopt the call for a more multilingual consciousness inherent in Edouard Glissant’s claim to ‘“écrire en présence de toutes les langues du monde”, même si je n’en connais qu’une seule’, i.e., to develop ‘une sensibilité nouvelle, liée à la fréquentation d’une poétique de la mondialité’. This ultimately means a destabilization of assumptions that map single languages onto single nations, and the development of an understanding that concepts such as ‘linguistic superdiversity’ and ‘post-monolingualism’ are both presentist and Eurocentric, ignoring the extent to which diglossia or an everyday deployment of more complex linguistic repertoires have always already been present in many cultures and in parts of the world.