Case study 4

Multilingual Ecologies in the American Southwest Borderlands

What can an ecological perspective on language and translating tell us about the body politic of an arid, rural, border area between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries? What emergent multilingual landscapes can be documented in such a region, from a language-ecological framework and the subjectivities of the individuals who live and speak within them? Borderland regions are often conceived as bicultural only, organised according to two politicized, neighbouring languages that are reproduced as distinct in the national imagination. The language ecologies of Southern Arizona, located on the US/Mexico border, challenge this model of bidirectional exchange. In the twenty-first century, the largely rural, formerly Mexican, and formerly Native lands of Southern Arizona thrive in and through an emergent constellation of languages beyond the presumed English/Spanish divide.

Native Southwestern, Caribbean, Latin American, European, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian languages and dialects produce axes in the traffic in meaning that are often associated with world capitals. Furthermore, new local multiethnolects among these languages are emerging in the encounters between speakers and the languages that they have brought, borrowed, and been born into. The organising principles of embodiment on the border are therefore now increasingly unmoored from the bicultural, diplomatic understandings of previous eras.

This case study, based at the University of Arizona (some fifty miles from the US/Mexico border), has two principal objectives:

  1. To conduct empirical research on the contours of multilingual public life in the contested border area of Tucson and Southern Arizona, through ethnographic research with multilingual arts and cultural organisations, NGOs and public-sector organisations; and
  2. To analyse the microinteractions documented in relation to the broader, ecological context, by drawing on a composite approach informed by translation theory and anthropologies of citizenship and migration and sociocultural approaches to language and literacy.

The research will involve a combination of the following methods: interviewsobservations and focus groups. It will be conducted by David Gramling and Chantelle Warner through the ‘Language Mediation, Interpreting, and Translation (LMIT) Initiative’, University of Arizona.