B.04: “The Empire Writes Back”: Towards a Geopolitical Paradigm of Translingualism

Reviewed by Eda Ozyesilpinar, Clemson University (eozyesi@g.clemson.edu)

Speakers: Rashi Jain, Montgomery College, “'The Empire Writes Back': Explaining India’s Translinguistic Landscape.”

Sonia Sharmin, University of Georgia

Respondent: Suresh Canagarajah, Penn State University

This session offered a very significant discussion on the connection between geopolitics and translingual approach, making essential reflections on what we, as teachers of writing and communication, can and should do in our classrooms, where there is a lack of awareness of the already translingual orientations of our students. I found the overall theme and argument of the panel extremely timely, needed, and important considering how in our rapidly global/izing age our differences are becoming more apparent and more dangerous than ever. As a response to our current political environment, this session engaged with a question that holds a great importance: “Why should post-colonial societies continue to engage with the imperial experience?...The question of why the empire needs to write back to a centre once the imperial structure has been dismantled in political terms” (Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin, 2002, p. 6). As each presenter engaged with this question, they unpacked how a translingual approach is beneficial and necessary to apply to our pedagogical practices to promote social and cultural justice and equality.

The session started with Dr. Rashi Jain’s talk, titled “’The Empire Writes Back’: Explaining India’s Translinguistic Landscape.” Jain defined translingualism as more of a practice rather than a theory: it is “the ability to use and understand diverse codes across language varieties.” As Jain continued, she emphasized the importance of understanding translingualism as a practice—a practice, drawing from Dr. Suresh Canagarajah, that is “a necessary neologism that goes beyond existing dichotomies and binaries,” a hybrid term that embodies monolingual and multilingual, native and non-native, “a child, borne of experiences that defy the singular.” After establishing this conceptual understanding of translingual practice, Jain moved onto her specific discussion on this practice in Indian context: hybrid spaces of Indian languages and the translingual practices of the hybrid Indian landscapes.

To depict a vivid picture of the India’s translinguistic landscape, Jain first informed us about diversity in India in terms of the different languages being spoken, different languages that belong to different language families. Citing census data, in 1961 there were 1652 mother tongues in India, and in 1991, this number was 1576. According to the 2001 data overview Jain provided, there were 122 scheduled and non-scheduled languages in India. She indicated that these languages in India belong to five different language families: Indo-European, Germanic, Pravidion, Austro-Asiatic, Tibetan-Burmese, Semito-Hamitic. As Jain helped us to get a clear picture on the linguistic diversity of the Indian landscape, she made a remarkable point on why it is important to be aware of this diversity and how, when, and where, for which purposes and to what extent we use language, because “we cannot separate language from identity.” This was a central point to her overall argument, especially considering the strong impact of the British colonialism on the geospatial and geocultural landscape of India and how the colonial rule had shaped the language policy of India, and as a result India’s translinguistic landscape and its hybrid identity.

Prior to British colonialism, India’s language education policy was multilingual, which, as Jain pointed out, “helped to maintain regional languages as a rich and integrated whole.” However, during colonial rule, a two-language policy was adopted. English was taught at elite schools as a medium of instruction along with regional languages such as Hindi-Urdu. To maintain the dominance of English over diverse regional/native languages of India’s landscape, a separation occurred during colonial rule, which brought Jain to her discussion on ‘the curious case of Hindi and Urdu.’ Before the colonial rule, Hindi-Urdu represented the one history of one Hindustani land; however, during colonial rule Hindi and Urdu were separated as a way to separate and break Hindustani history from Hindustan. This created two separate languages that are almost the same except for some differences in vocabulary. This led Jain to another central point of her overall argument: colonial rule designed a language policy with a clear attempt of separating and defining regional languages within fixed and divided borders. Her earlier statement on how language cannot be separated from identity became even more crucial to remember, due to how the colonial re-definition and re-construction of India’s hybrid linguistic landscape was an attempt to break these long cultural and historical connections that constitute the Indian identity.  

However, independence started a different process for the languages of India. Jain stated that, over the last century, English was integrated into the translingual context of India: Indian English and English in the Indian context(s). As she indicated, “English is enriched by its interactions with other Indian languages,” yet it continues to hold a contradictory role in the country. English has a contradictory place in India because the language of the colonizer functions as a ‘gatekeeper’ by limiting access to academic and professional appointments for those who are not able to obtain an education in English. However, while English functions as a linguistic barrier for many in India, it also works as a unifier/bridge among the many regional languages due to how English entered into the linguistic context. This contradictory role of English illustrates how the tension between English and other languages defined the translinguistic landscape of India and how translinguistic landscapes (not only India’s) shape the teaching and learning taking place in our classrooms that are already dominated by English and oriented around the notions embedded by the colonial consciousness.

After depicting a necessary overall understanding of the historical roots of the current translinguistic landscape of India, Jain transitioned into a closer critical analysis of North India’s translingual context. ain used North India as her specific site of study to clarify how the integration of English into the regional languages and various ways regional languages interacted with the English languages have been shaping the translinguistic landscape of India. Jain had adopted four lenses of analysis to examine the linguistic examples of North India:

  1. monolingual lens (English and Hindu translations without each language being integrated in their practice),
  2. bilingual lens (English and Hindu translations as a hybrid practice; the translations are not translations from one language to another, but translated words of English and Hindu being used together),
  3. multi-plurilingual lens (a more advanced and complex hybrid practice; the cross-linguistic and cultural use of different regional languages and English together), and
  4. seemingly monolingual lens (seemingly one language being used dominantly in a text but the practice of language use is creative; integrated/internalized uses of English in a regional language or the use of regional languages in English).

For each linguistic lens, Jain provided examples such as traffic signs, advertisement boards, local shop/grocery store signs, and a cookbook example in addition to media coverage of local and global news. Through these examples, Jain clearly illustrated how each linguistic practice has a role in the overall translinguistic landscape of India. For example, Jain showed us a local news broadcasting intro in which we saw the title “Breaking (Hindu) News (English).” These examples helped us to map the growing integration of Indian vernaculars and English into one another: how different languages entered into the context of different linguistic practice and become organic part of different languages. Using a cookbook example, Jain moved beyond the cognitive use of language and demonstrated how these crossings and integrations also took place in the use of stylistic elements. The cookbook Jain looked at was written in English, yet its presentation and artistic visualization reflected the stylistic nature of the Hindi language through the artistic use of calligraphy.

These examples supported Jain’s argument about the tensions within language ownership. Who decides what and which use is legitimate? The use of different languages, especially English and Hindi, and the hybrid practices in different contexts revealed the impacts of globalization and neoliberal practices. The specific and diverse textual examples were effective in depicting what the translingual landscape of India on the stage of written practices; yet, there are also the oral practices that open up a deeper level of tension not evident in the textual examples. To illustrate, Jain provided an excerpt of an interview that was conducted during the local Indian elections. Jain argued that the respondent (a candidate’s wife) consciously responded in Hindi to the reporter’s questions in English as an act of resistance to the memory of colonial subjugation that the English language still represents. It was a way of empowering and encouraging the people of India to take ownership in their native tongues. Jain used this example to talk about the strong reaction to the still privileged position of English in shaping the education and socio-cultural hierarchy in India: more prestigious schools teach English because it leads to getting more prestigious jobs and becoming more prestigious members of the society.

The monolingual orientations colonial rule introduced into the multilingual context of India have identified the English language as a gateway to better social and economic status, and there are strong implications of this privileged position in classroom practices. Due to the monolingual orientations in India, people have a tendency to identify one another in terms of the level of language proficiency in English. Teachers’ identity in the classroom is defined from the perspective of monolingual orientations, which places the relation to English at the center: Native English Speaking Teachers (NES/T) and Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNES/T). As these monolingual orientations define teachers, they impact pedagogical practices and decisions and as a result define students from the same monolingual perspective: no English, little English, or worse, incorrect English. This results in translingual competencies in our classrooms remaining invisible, because these identities are not effective in reflecting the linguistic dynamic that our students bring to our classrooms where many languages operate simultaneously. Jain proposed attending to translingual teacher, students, and pedagogical practices as an alternative way of defining and identifying teachers’ and students’ more complex and hybrid relations to languages and how this hybridity should be one of the elements in framing more effective and inclusive pedagogical methods.

For Jain, an attention to ”translingualism” and the ”translingual” identity and practice is an alternative that promotes and invokes linguistic, and as a result, social and cultural justice, equality, and diversity that both our students and we as teachers deserve. She supported her final argument through the voices of her students by honoring them. Her students’ relation with English, their difficulty with being identified with their accents, or their little or broken Englishes clarifies the need for a translingual approach in our teaching practices because, as Jain indicated, our students and teachers might already be coming into classrooms with different linguistic orientations. As a result, asJain argued, translingualism is not something we necessarily have to teach to our students. What we need to do is to consider our classrooms as another ‘translingual space’ and hybrid context and shape our pedagogical approach and method around this awareness.

Sonia Sharmin, from Georgetown University, opened another landscape of translingualism in the geography of her home country, Bangladesh, with a focus on the translingual orientations in virtual/digital spaces of Bangladesh’s popular culture. To effectively examine the mixed nature of Bangla/Bengali in the context of virtual/digital spaces, Sharmin adapted the notion of the rhizome from Deleuze and Guattari (1987) because

not every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding…there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogenous linguistic community (p. 7).


Considering how Jain already introduced us to the hybrid landscape of translingualism and diverse translinguistic orientations, Sharmin’s approach to linking translingual process to the rhizomatic nature of language was easy to understand while still being a unique perspective. Sharmin connected the translingual process and rhizomatic nature of language to unpack how spontaneous mixings and crossings between Bengali and English have been a continuous process of forming the translingual landscape of Bangladesh.

Sharmin also started with a brief introduction to the historical background of Bangladesh and Bengali language to inform the audience of the colonial context of her country’s landscape. Bangladesh was part of the British Empire until 1947. Urdu plays a significant role in Bengali language because Bangladesh was also part of East Pakistan. Unlike India, Bangladesh is monolingual, and English is the official language. Sharmin indicated that Bangladesh fought to preserve the mother tongue of their geography of culture for years due to the prominent position of the English language in the country. To clearly unpack the translingual nature of Bengali language, Sharmin explained the role of English in Bengali language.

Bengali language is a mixture of English and Bengali; yet it is also just more than this mixture. More than being a mixed product, Sharmin indicated that Bengali language is a translingual process, a rhizomatic language in the monolingual landscape of Bangladesh. Sharmin explained that there is a spontaneous habit of mixing Bengali and English among the ‘new generation’ Sharmin examined some examples of these spontaneous mixings. She concluded that there was a lack of competency among this new generation both in English and Bengali. To support her central argument, Sharmin provided different examples from her analysis on the language use of radio jockeys of Bangladesh, a game-based forum called “BanglaGamer,” and different advertisements. Yet, her focus was primarily on the radio jockeys’ language use and the conversations she looked at in BanglaGamer.

Sharmin started with radio jockeys’ language use since, as she indicated, it represents the popular culture in Bangladesh. She shared audio recordings of different shows and used these examples to argue that the new way to speak Bengali among the younger generation is highly anglicized. This is especially a trend among college students since it is a sign of belonging to a certain class—a privileged class. This new way to speak Bengali caused some researchers to start using ‘Banglish’ to represent the language, and according to Sharmin this is a very negative form of representation due to fixation on anglicization through code-mixing between English and Bengali. Sharmin continued her examination of the rhizomatic approaches of Bengali language with examples from the game-based forum BanglaGamer. The written conversations she shared with us from BanglaGamer also illustrated the strong impact of code-switching and transliteration on the language use. However, Sharmin also indicated that there is a strong response to the anglicization of their native tongue, especially among writers. These writers appropriate English by bringing words from the Bengali into their writings in English—a reaction and a form of challenging the anglicization of Bengali. She considered this appropriation as a gradual nativization of English.

Sharmin’s insightful and critical examination of the rhizomatic approaches of Bengali made for a powerful analysis of the anglicization of Bengali and nativization of English as different rhizomatic lines in the translingual landscape of Bangladesh. She emphasized how language constantly changes, and without change, a language would be in danger of becoming a dead language. This nature of language creates the necessity for a translingual approach because translingual practice does not value monolingual norms or idealize linguistics structures: it is rhizomatic. Translinguals share a strong language awareness because for them, languages are collections. In the context of change and diverse linguistic orientations, the notion of ‘purity’ in language is concerning because our students enter into our classrooms with strong translingual orientations. As with Jain, Sharmin as well highlighted the value and importance of being aware of our students’ translingual orientations for effective experiences of teaching/learning.

Canagarajah concluded the session by painting a clear image of how all of this is geopolitical. Just the fact that translingualism is disruptive of any structure—by not empowering fixed political systems and/or monolingualism—reveals how being translingual in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts is different due to the influence of multiple geopolitical relations. Canagarajah indicated that even though the panel focused on translingualism in the context of English vs. more languages, translingual process is more than the relation between English and other languages; it is also the relation between languages other than English. This process is definitely not fixated on first language (L1) and second language (L2) (either/or binary relation); it is a process about third meaning, which requires a competence that is neither L1 nor L2, but beyond. And this process is political due to the values of different geopolitical contexts. Canagrajah explained the overall value of this session as historicizing and localizing translingualism in addition to unpacking different meanings and applications of this process. He indicated that we should take translingualism as a practice rather than an idea of resisting and or subverting.


Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, & Tiffin, Helen. (2002). The empire writes back: Theory and practice in post-colonial literatures (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Created by cheryl. Last Modification: Monday 15 of January, 2018 22:45:30 UTC by cheryl.