Modern Languages

Transnational Modern Languages: A Handbook

By Jennifer Burns and Derek Duncan (eds)

TML Handbook

The term ‘handbook’ probably suggests some kind of guide or even instruction manual informing the reader what they need to know to get on top of a particular topic. Transnational Modern Languages: A Handbook has a different set of ambitions and priorities, not least because ‘Transnational Modern Languages’ as a subject area is still to be determined and defined. While ‘transnational’ as an adjective has become familiar both in descriptions of the global mobility of people and things and in critiques of international capital, it has had little impact on how Modern Languages has thought about itself as a disciplinary field. Modern Languages largely deals in the language and culture of European nations. Colonial conquest and settlement were responsible for the world-wide dissemination of the languages we study, and we often extend this legacy in a non-decolonizing approach to how we map the world. For instance, to look at ‘francophone’ territories rather than just France diversifies the geographical reach of the French language, but retains the centrality of French as the most important vehicle of knowledge. This centrality is reinforced at home with languages such as Breton or Basque relegated to the realm and temporality of regional folklore. France is hardly unique here. Yet as people move in increasing numbers across the globe and national territories become more multilingual as well as multicultural, questions around the structure, function, and purpose of the role of language teaching and learning are urgent. Does current practice simply cling to an anachronistic fantasy of monolingual national integrity? To what degree do the social and political implications of that fantasy impede the necessary diversification and decolonization of our disciplinary field? Is it enough to extend our reach to the study of colonial and postcolonial culture when the very structure of the discipline is a (re)statement of European supremacist thinking and practice?

The books in Transnational Modern Languages bring a radically different perspective to the study of language and culture emphasizing factors such as diversity, mobility, proximity, multiplicity, and connectedness as privileged means of grasping how languages and cultures interact and change. This work accounts for cultures differently and by extension demands a new model for Modern Languages as an area of research and study. A Handbook is the core methodological text of the series offering a malleable set of resources and critical approaches for thinking language study and research beyond the monolingual frame. Amongst other things, it invites collective work on practices of decolonization and diversification.

While the other volumes in this series look at transnational connections emergent from a single language area, A Handbook adopts a more fluid approach focusing on broad, thematic questions of how languages and cultures come together. The 30 or so short essays in the book are based on a selection of keywords which the authors use to explore and map out new territories of interest. Words such as ‘flow’, ‘routes’, ‘knowledge,’ ‘event’, or ‘performance’ act as prompts for the authors to reflect on the diverse ways in which the transnational may be experienced, felt, and thought. The list is intended to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. We could have chosen other words, and other authors would have worked differently with each producing alternative transnational configurations of meaning and affect. Sometimes the chapters make explicit links between cultures, but often the potential of parallel realities is what stimulates transnational thinking. For instance, the essay on ‘Cities’ focuses on Rio de Janeiro, but the questions it raises about gender, violence, and urban development are not specific to Brazil. Indeed, it is precisely through the articulation of transnationally conceptualized research questions that A Handbook takes shape. Additionally, a strong sense of the transnational as a lived local reality informs many of the contributions. The authors’ approaches and writing styles vary, but as part of a collective endeavor, their works suggests how a transnational engagement with the study of languages and cultures can speak to, as well as from, contemporary realities of demographic movement and change. Together these essays offer evidence of what Modern Languages as an intellectual discipline offers to understanding real world challenges.

Most of the essays work with material in one or more of the most commonly taught European languages, yet their geographical range is more extensive. Argentina, Cameroon, Chile, East Timor, Namibia, the United States, and Vietnam are some of the locations which authors have chosen as useful sites across which to investigate transnational mobility, connectivity, and belonging. Their timeframe is long, reflecting Modern Languages’ acute sense of the historical density of cultural and linguistic knowledge. The authors of ‘Routes’ map histories of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean to link trade in Antiquity to the perilous journeys of present-day migrants from Syria. ‘Borders’ investigates barriers to human mobility now. ‘Cosmopolitanism’ is posited as an essential term for grasping patterns of cultural and linguistic exchange in Medieval Europe. ‘Futures’ suggests how transnational thinking and practice across Modern Languages offer indispensable tools for addressing climate change and ecological disaster across cultures. What brings the essays together are the skills in cross-cultural analysis characteristic of Modern Linguists and in particular the ability to work closely and intensely with the semiotic systems which form the backbone of our discipline. Critical reflection on language and language learning in a transnational frame sit alongside essays on Digital Humanities, film, comics, novels, and poetry. The recent emergence of cross-cultural ethnography as an innovative methodology in Modern Languages informs the work in ‘Communities’, ‘Event’, and ‘Sound.’

Most of the book’s contributors teach and research in Departments or Schools of Modern Languages in the UK and US, yet some come from very different geopolitical and disciplinary areas. Aurelie Zannier-Wahengo teaches French at the University of Namibia. Peter Campbell is a marine archaeologist ( and Alice Kettle is a renowned textile artist who works collaboratively with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and in Europe ( Margaret Hills de Zárate is an art therapist who has worked with victims of torture in Chile and the Chechen Republic. Claudia Peralta specializes in bilingual education for young refugees in the US. What all the contributors share is a commitment to cultural diversity and a critical approach focused on the patterns and politics of cultural communication and exchange. Perhaps the essay which most effectively sums this up is Hilary Footitt’s ‘Multilingualism,’ an indictment of the ‘language indifference’ of international development and the serious disadvantages this indifference causes for the recipients of the aid they seek to administer. Three essays on ‘Translation’ express the importance of linguistic and cultural mobility to work in A Handbook, and the two essays on ‘Me’ reinforce the necessarily subjective investment we have in what we choose to study and the transformative effects of that choice.

The essays in A Handbook are diverse, but come together through their conviction that language matters. How languages are managed or negotiated both politically and individually, in the long term and on a day-to-day basis also matters. UNESCO’s work on language diversity and access to information as an urgent global issue is just one example of this. One of the primary aims of A Handbook is to offer its readers a set of tools for thinking about language learning in ways which exceed the ethno-nationalist frame in which they have conventionally been studied. Essay headings don’t mention language or geography because their relevance lies in the research questions they ask more than the information they provide. They are prompts or invitations for lateral or creative transnational thinking. Indeed, creative practice and analysis are a defining features of this project.

A Handbook is not a reference manual. The essays are not set out in obvious sequential order – there would be no reason for the reader to start at the beginning and read on through until the end (they might of course choose to do so). A Handbook bears more resemblance to a collection or album which the reader might dip into making connections across the essays according to priorities of the moment. Essays may be read in isolation, but we would hope that the reader would assemble and reassemble the collection through re-reading as new connections and interests emerge. It is left to the reader’s creative and critical agency to refine the transnational pathway in Modern Languages we hope to have opened up.


Transnational Modern Languages: A Handbook is part of the Transnational Modern Languages series.

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  1. Pingback: Transnational Italian Studies within Transnational Modern Languages: A Book and Handbook Presentation - The Society of Italian Studies

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