Saturday 15 January 2011

Global individuals

I thought of talking a bit about globalisation today, for two reasons. First, because it is fashionable to talk about globalisation. And second, because I have no idea why it should be fashionable to talk about it.

Globalisation is currently hailed as an exciting, recent development, which is spreading like wildfire as we speak, or email, globally. Just like multilingualism, which is apparently as thrilling, new and infectious. But saying that being global and being multilingual are the fruits of our time forgets that we human beings have been there and done that over and over again since we started being human beings, and fails to interpret our history from these twin perspectives. Were the Islamic Golden Age, or the Viking Age, or the Roman Empire, or the Portuguese Expansion, for example, monolingual local phenomena?

Take another example. Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a linguist, an archaeologist, and an expert in ancient textiles (isn’t this a wonderful combination of interests, by the way??). In her book The Mummies of Ürümchi (or Urumqi, an alternative spelling), she writes, on page 184, that “By 40,000 B.C. people were also carrying far and wide such new language-mediated behaviors as religion and art”. Note: far and wide, language-mediated. People couldn’t possibly be all speaking the “same” language, whatever “same language” might mean.

Note also: thousands and thousands of years ago. It should perhaps not surprise us, then, that the youthful 4,000-year-old mummies that Barber studied turned out to provide evidence of other language-bound globetrotting: these mummies, found in Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin, in North-western China, are of tall, ginger-haired and in all likelihood blue-eyed people. The weaving techniques of the plaid woollen twills that they wore show striking similarities to the ones of contemporary Celtic tartan found in European archaeological sites.

Wow!, I thought, when I first read this book. But then I thought again: Wow!, why? What were these people doing that is remarkable? Travelling, and living and dying away from what we presume was their home? These future mummies couldn’t possibly be speaking just one language either, all the way through their cross-continent trek. But what is it that is remarkable about that too? My current guess is that 2,000 B.C. news reporters would be as excited to learn about Celtic clothes fashion in Tarim as we would nowadays to find remains of an Italian suit in a Brazilian tomb dating from the end of last century.

Perhaps what struck me then was the thought that these ancient people were being global without access to the technology, of the electronic and cybernetic kind, that we nowadays tend to associate with globalisation. But we’re not being global only when we fly, or when we opt for video conferencing because we cannot fly. If I walk to the next village, or if I take my vegetables to market on my donkey cart, I’m also being global – and so is the donkey

Cartoon © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena
In Cruz-Ferreira, M. Multilinguals are ...? 

As individuals, we can’t be global in any literal sense because we’re limited by space and time – our bodies, their stamina, their life-spans. Being global is rather a matter of being not-local. Just like when we talk about seeing “the world” we mean seeing a couple of places where we haven’t been before. Globalisation, in turn, cannot mean uniformity, not least because the “globe” is anything but uniform. We can be global in many different ways.

In order to be(come) global, we usually step on someone else’s territory, usually a territory of whose desirability we became persuaded. Since territories are peopled by individuals, and individuals speak particular languages, linguistic territories are high on the global wish-list. Along our recent Western history, we had to speak Latin, then French, and now English, in order to gain non-local visibility. Globalisation thus commonly collocates with multilingualism, which is probably to be expected, although it can do so in unexpected and even paradoxical ways. For example, if you want to matter beyond your own territory, learn languages; but if you want to take part in current global goodies, learn English and forget your other languages. I’ll have quite a few things to say about these matters in future.

Next time, I’ll attempt to explain how individuals who wish to become international (or global) communicators can be tricked by the uniformity that global territories appear to promise: I’ll be talking about whether “using one global language” means ‘using the same language’.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Using someone else’s language(s). Saturday 22nd January 2011.


  1. One of the consequences of globalization suggested by Jan Blommaert in his book 'The Sociolinguistics of Globalization' (CUP, 2010) is that the boundaries between different languages tends to get eroded. In fact, he claims that terms such as 'French' and 'Dutch' are meaningless in the modern globalized era.

    I suspect that you would not agree too much with this suggestion, as you spent so much effort ensuring your own children were able to speak Portuguese, Swedish, and English successfully, and to achieve this you compartmentalized the different languages and encouraged the children to use each one in the appropriate situation.

    If you have time to read his book, it would be interesting to know your comments.

  2. David: Thank you for this comment and the book tip!
    My children’s management of their languages didn’t take a lot of management, actually. Dad spoke one way, mum another, school another, and they followed suit. There were also mixes, from all five of us, and language switches depending on topic of conversation or on visits by monolinguals, for example. A typical multilingual family, I would say! I’ll blog about language matters at home soon.

    I haven’t read Jan Blommaert’s book (yet), but if what he means is that the names we have for different languages are just convenient labels to talk about slippery concepts, I agree. We also talk about tricky things like beauty and science, and we could argue that even “straightforward” names like cat or chair are less straightforward than we take them to be.

    I understood from what you say that Blommaert means that blurry language boundaries are a consequence of globalisation. I’m not sure whether/how I would agree with that. I had a few thing to say about language boundaries here and here. I’ll really have to check out the book, so I don’t misrepresent him (or you!).

  3. On the subject of recommending books, I found Multilingualism in the English-speaking World (Edwards 200) very interesting as it brought home the historical multilingual reality of many English-speaking countries - which is a result of a well-known period in the history of globalization, i.e. colonization. What I found interesting or Wow! (as you say above) is the fascinating early linguistic diversity in these colonies before English became the 'main' language and uniformity stepped in. But, as you say in your blog, why Wow? Why is it so surprising that these societies would be multilingual? Sometimes the obvious surprises us.

    A comment on eroding boundaries between languages: I'm not sure the French would agree or appreciate the idea. I live in France and witness their strong defense of their beloved language. Of course, I haven't read the book, but will definitely add it on my reading list.

  4. Nayr: You will be pleased to know that Viv Edwards will contribute a guest post to this blog next month. I am as fascinated by her research as you seem to be!


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