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Review of  Language and Mobility

Reviewer: Irene Theodoropoulou
Book Title: Language and Mobility
Book Author: Alastair Pennycook
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 24.2566

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Alastair Pennycook’s fascinating book deals with ways to think and write about language in a context of continuous entering into new places and being out of (familiar) places. It attempts to suggest answers to critical questions that lie at the intersection of sociolinguistics, philosophy and critical pedagogy, such as how and why unexpected languages turn up in unexpected places. It focuses on the complex and multidimensional relationship among unexpected places, language, locality and mobility, by drawing on a wide range of critical moments giving birth to different data sets from diverse historical periods. These data originate primarily from his family history and his personal cosmopolitan experience all over the world and span to more impersonal linguistic practices taking place in diverse contexts, including farewell speeches to British workers in colonial India, a Cornish anthem sung at a festival in South Australia, a country fair in rural Australia, and a cricket match played in the middle of 19th century in south India. One of the core arguments in this book is that language is not, or better still, should not treated as something monolithic but rather as a set of resources, which turn up in unexpected places, and their understanding depends heavily on our ability to critically reflect upon the trajectories of those resources. This argument is developed in a set of different directions.

Chapter 1, ‘Retracing Routes: Manjari Seeds and Nutmeg Trees’, introduces the reader to the idea of ‘mnemonic traces’, a term borrowed by Joseph (2007). These traces are ‘historically loaded shards of exchange permeating the ebb and flow of global social exchange’ (p. 7). Echoing Derrida (1976), Pennycook argues that traces, namely places, people, things and ideas that are left behind, relate to the non presence of the Other, which needs to be invoked to understand the present, past and future. By illustrating how drawing on traces can help understand people’s trajectories in both space and time, he talks about his family’s journey to India by making specific reference to mnemonic traces, including tastes, smells, colors and languages, all of which offer insights into history and wider recollection of the past. In a nutshell, the retracing of people’s and, eventually, our own steps allows us to ‘follow what has been invisibly left behind’ (p. 15) and, in this sense, to search for ‘mixtures that are part of our make up’ (p. 28). Such knowledge and understanding are important inasmuch as they can shed light on how mobility influences language and discourse in the context of globalization. One of the basic tenets of this mobility, according to the author, is the idea of ‘unexpected places’, a term borrowed from Monica Heller (2007), which means that languages can emerge in all sorts of unexpected ways in places that were never thought of as potential spaces for mobility. Such a place is the Hunan countryside in China, which is discussed extensively in chapter 3. Unexpected places are picked up and elaborated upon in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2, ‘Turning Up in Unexpected Places’, teases out theoretically the idea of ‘unexpected places’ by correlating it with mobility, in the sense that the latter is the one that decides whether a place is expected or unexpected. This is due to the options it offers to people in terms not only of which place they can choose to move into but also in terms of who is eligible to move around, how and why. This ‘politics of mobility’ (p. 24) is argued to affect socio-cultural and political structures, which in turn influence the use and change of language. Against this background, the author deals with the analytical need to be alert to exploiting a critical moment by delving into unusual events occurring in places like classrooms. The merit of exploring such a critical moment rests on the idea that we can ‘investigate the pathways of thought that have blinkered our expectations’ (p. 37). In this way, new ways of understanding the history and the overall context of language usage can yield more nuanced accounts of the relationship between mobility and language. One of the dimensions of interest is the relation of self to alterity, discussed in the next chapter.

Chapter 3, ‘Through Others’ Eyes and Thinking Otherwise’, focuses on what it means to ‘think otherwise’ (penser autrement), and also on questioning our assumptions about what we (can) know about others. The illustration involves the appearance of an unexpected object (cheese) in an unexpected place (a rural area in the Hunan Province, China, where there are no cows, hence dairy products are not known locally), which was read differently by different people: for the Americans that brought it to China it was meant as a present and as something to remind them of their country, or as an assurance of belonging or a reminder of the familiar; nonetheless, for the Chinese head cook who was invited to taste it it was just too different, ‘too alien’ (p. 41). Drawing on intercultural communication and philosophy literature, the author argues that to do justice to these awkward critical moments, in which we react differently to the same stimulus, we need to learn how to unlearn. Through this critical engagement with cultural difference he points towards the importance of our becoming aware both of our own ways of thinking and of other possibilities. This is because such thinking should allow us to question the expected, rendering the expected unexpected. In this sense, according to the author, we can engage in a process of useful thinking and ‘unexpecting the expected‘ (p. 45), which through its multidimensionality can help us in the development of socially useful programs, such as curricula.

Chapter 4, ‘Constrained Mobilities: Epistolary Parenting’, looks at the role of letter writing within contexts of separation. More specifically, by drawing on personal letters sent by the author’s grandmother in India to his mother in England in the ‘30s and ‘40s the chapter delves into the ways identities are negotiated across different places in a constant mobility. In this colonial context, where comings and goings of people and letters are considered to be the norm for their communication, Pennycook argues that for those people that home is always somewhere else, ‘life will always have a sense of displacement’ (p. 72), which can be extracted by a meticulous analysis of past letters.

Chapter 5, ‘Resourceful Speakers’, argues for the analytical need to focus not on native vs. non-native speakers of (a) language(s) but on the idea of resourceful speakers, namely people who do not necessarily have a full command of a language but who can use language in such a way as to achieve things locally. In other words, the idea of a resourceful speaker, which is also embraced in the sociolinguistic literature of globalization (e.g. Blommaert 2010), is identified with their ability to be able to shift between styles, registers and genres of speech in such a way that they ‘get local stuff done through language’ (p. 98). Examples include the ability to communicate ideas and information in a regionally peculiar way through the choice of ‘local’ vocabulary and phonetic items, like the Bavarianization of the author’s German, indexed through phrases, like ‘mi hom’ instead of the Standard German phrase ‘wir haben’ or ‘hoost mi?’ instead of ‘hast du mich verstanden?’. By drawing on a number of entertaining anecdotes from his personal experience in countries, like China, Japan, and Germany, Pennycook argues for the need to learn how to learn locally, in order for communication to be as smooth as possible.

Chapter 6, ‘Elephant Tracks’, analyzes farewell addresses given by Indians for the author’s grandfather and his network, while they were working as estate managers in India. The main argument put forward in this chapter is that these farewell addresses provide mnemonic traces of estate and colonial relations between Europeans and Indians, inasmuch as they the echo caste system, linguistic diversity and general sociocultural patterns found in India codified into a distinct rhetorical style and realized linguistically through a wide range of features. The addresses can be located within Indian norms of politeness and interaction but with an ‘overlay of British and colonial relations’ (p. 115). Their style is characterized by a combination of elevated, Latinate vocabulary coupled with more colloquial touches, evident in sentences like ‘venture to avail ourselves of this opportunity’ or ‘rather than selfishly pine at our bad luck our hearts go with you’. On the basis of examples like these the significance of local discursive, generic and stylistic practices is underlined, seen as a major factor contributing towards the organization of social life. It is exactly these local linguistic practices that give birth to the texts, whereby we ‘understand the world’ (p. 126).

Chapter 7, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard’, shifts the analytical attention to critical pedagogy. More specifically, through the analysis of a visit to a language class to observe a teaching practicum, it seeks for ways to respond to critical (unexpected) moments in teaching and to turn them to a wider critical agenda. Creatively and unexpectedly structured based on a Wallace Stevens’ poems, the chapter puts forward the idea that unexpected forms of writing can tell an applied linguistic story in a more efficient way than academic prose. Critical education can be realized through unexpecting the expected and unlearning the learned and its significance for shaping tomorrow’s citizens, who will be able to flexibly adjust to all sorts of sociocultural linguistic circumstances, cannot be overstated. Localization of language through mobility is further explored in the last chapter of the book.

Chapter 8, ‘Beyond the Boundaries of Expectation’, delves into the relationship among movement, mobility and indigenization. Pennnycook discards the term ‘indigenization’ because it presupposes ‘a static context, that absorbs practices from elsewhere’ (p. 156). Instead, he opts for ‘localization’, which blurs the boundaries between what preexists in a society or a culture and what comes from elsewhere; hence, it offers more flexibility in the analysis of mobility and movement in general. As an example, Pennycook talks about cricket. Its popularity among Indian men can be interpreted in at least two different ways - it can be seen as ‘part of colonial culture, because it was seen to embody British ideals of muscular Christianity, teamwork and sportsmanship’ (p. 156). This would be the indigenization perspective. Or cricket can be seen as ‘an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English’ (p. 152), insofar as the game has a set of cultural practices, beliefs and ideologies, which render it more suitable to India than to England (Nandy 1989). In this sense, the local practices of India adopt the imported ones of England. Seen this way from the perspective of localization, cricket has always been an Indian sport. Another example is the use of Cornish in a festival in South Australia. Through his discussion, premised on the idea that languages do not exist as imagined wholes, thus they cannot die, Pennycook makes the interesting point that Cornish is ‘reinvented, recreated, made into a new hybrid object’ (p. 171) in moments when people sing a Cornish hymn. It is exactly in mobile moments like this, in which a language gets renewed, that it carries on existing and inspiring people.

In concluding this chapter, Pennycook suggests that a useful way to think about language and how it is related to mobility and movement is to focus on people’s engagement in local language practices and try to understand what I personally believe to be the core of the author’s main idea throughout the book: how people ‘draw on linguistic resources, take up styles, partake in discourses and do genres’ (p. 172).

Overall, this original contribution to the fields of (critical) sociolinguistics and literacy studies aligns with very recent attempts to retheorize (or rethink) language against the backdrop of globalization as a set of resources, activated in various (un)expected contexts by leaving their spatiotemporal traces in interactions (e.g., Blommaert 2010, chapters in Coupland 2010). One of its assets is the author’s engaging writing style, which tries in an unexpected way to conflate academic prose with literary texts and epistolary writing style, and so bridges the robust academic analysis with lay people’s linguistic and sociocultural choices. It thus provides an analysis which is closer to the people, whose data are analyzed. Nonetheless, I would have welcomed a discussion of different types and levels of unexpectedness, a comparison of these diverse data sets and contexts that the author draws on with a focus on the ways they differ from each other. What are the factors that this unexpectedness depends on? How is unexpectedness different between styles (e.g., formal vs. informal) or registers and genres of speech (e.g., written vs. oral). The individual discussions of unexpected uses of language in unexpected places and contexts is ethnographically-sensitive, but all the same claims are made about language in general. What is missing from a discussion like this, which in my opinion would legitimize the proposed generalizations, is a general typology of factors constraining the function of unexpectedness. Apart from this, such a discussion would also help theorize mobility in the context of sociocultural linguistics. Perhaps the book opens this as an avenue of future research.

In the end, the book serves as a valuable source for everyone interested in understanding how language works in a globalized and globalizing environment, characterized by extensive mobility and movement of people, ideas and products. Exactly because it combines academic and non-academic prose I would recommend it not only to scholars in the fields of sociocultural linguistics and literacy studies but also to lay people who are interested in understanding globalization through the lens of language.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coupland, N. (ed.) (2010). The Handbook of Language and Globalization. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Derrida, J. (1976). Of Grammatology. Translated by G.C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heller, M. (2007). The future of ‘bilingualism’. In M. Heller (ed.) Bilingualism: A Social Approach. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 340-345.

Joseph, M. (2007). Old routes, mnemonic traces. In D. Gosh and S. Muecke (eds.) Cultures of Trade: Indian Ocean Exchanges. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 62-75.

Nandy, A. (2006). The Return of the Sacred, the Language of Religion and the Fear of Democracy in a Post-Secular World. Transforming Cultures Annual Lecture, 12 September 2006, University of Technology Sydney, accessed 15 April 2013.
Irene Theodoropoulou is an Assistant Professor of Sociolinguistics at Qatar University. Her teaching and research interests include discourse analysis, rhetoric, intercultural communication and sociolinguistics of globalization with a special focus on identity construction and language ideologies.

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