“When a senior administrator at Duke sent an email to international students, asking them not to speak their mother tongue in public spaces…it was a sort of small-scale explosive: piercing, violent,” voiced Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies and International Studies Candice Lowe-Swift, her words settling over the Aula like a dark cloud as students and faculty alike listened in solemn silence. Delivered as a part of Lowe-Swift’s opening remarks for “What in the Wor(l)d: Imagining a Multilingual Campus”—put on by the Engaged Pluralism Initiative’s Global Campus Working Group on Wednesday, April 10—the reference to the recent Duke scandal acted as an important segue into discussing intercultural understanding via multilingualism.
Organized as a collaborative effort between several departments and programs, the event aimed to begin the conversation around how to incorporate all backgrounds, cultures and languages into the intellectual and social fabric of Vassar’s community to reflect a global campus. Lowe-Swift urged attendees to brainstorm, “How do we embrace multilingualism in primarily English-language classrooms? What might it mean to embrace our globality?”
Guiding the audience through these questions, “What in the Wor(l)d” featured a panel of students and professors who had prepared remarks on the topic based on their experiences and understandings of multilingualism. The panelists included Kaiqing Su ’21, Biology Professor Colin Aitkin, Swahili instructor Connie Ndony, Japanese Professor Peipei Qiu, Ananya Suresh ’21 and Political Science Professor Andrew Davison.
The impassioned speeches stressed how multifaceted multilingualism is, as some panelists explored the subject through personal narratives, while others did so through a lens of political hierarchies and colonial power.
The first speaker, Su, emphasized that there is a nostalgic exhilaration inherent to speaking the language of one’s own country. She reflected that, for her, reciting a Chinese poem in class “felt like chewing a piece of candy from a lost childhood.” As captivated faces in the audience gazed back at her, she further highlighted how one’s relationship to language is markedly physical, such that the essence of what one is saying might lie in the tone. “Each movement of my tongue, teeth and jaw produce specific sonic effects that are related beyond their literal meanings. These sounds are inseparable from the storytelling itself,” underscored Su.
Other speakers traced distinctly personal journeys with multilingualism as well. Aitkin deliberated on his own experiences as a Colombian man who has difficulty entering the Colombian linguistic community as a result of being white-passing. “When people see me on the street, they’re looking like, ‘Who’s that gringo?’ Navigating whether I have access to a certain community or not, depending on my appearance, is something that has always stayed with me,” stated Aitkin.
Suresh explored how limited access to a linguistic community can signify optimism and opportunity, detailing her experiences with languages like Spanish and Korean that she’s spent years learning: “I still sound like a child, unable to convey complex thoughts. But that allows me to listen more; to take notice of people’s word choice, cadence, fluency. I’m humbled when I feel the difficulty of acquiring a language—the key to worlds and ways of knowing that are not my own.”
While these individual narratives began to construct an embodied experience of what it means to be multilingual, Ndony, Qiu and Davison widen the conversation using a slightly different approach: one that aimed to blend the personal and political. Ndony focused on the violence of Western colonialism, its propagation of a singular Eurocentric language and consequently, its privileging of a mode of thought constrained to that single language. Ndony asserted, “Monolingualism often ends up meaning monoliterature,”—words that acted as an apt transition to Qiu’s speech. Qiu first recited the contents of an email that a student currently abroad in Copenhagen had sent to her, detailing microaggressions she had recently encountered in relation to her Asian identity. Qiu then comprehensively reflected on the political meanings that imbued the student’s experiences abroad, tying them to wider structures of linguistic oppression. Finally, Davison drew the panel discussions to a fitting close, reflecting upon how language becomes political through the very act of storytelling. Left with extensive ruminations on multilingualism, audience members were then given space to consider their own experiences and thoughts on the topic in table discussions. Soon after, each table shared summaries of their conversations, buoyed by the ideas people presented regarding how multilingualism might function as a normative part of one’s campus life.
As Aitkin had stated in his speech, “There’s a word somewhere or a sound somewhere, in some language, that can just communicate what you are feeling in a way that other languages may not be able to. And if we could know all of those languages, how beautiful would that be. And if we could teach them to each other, how beautiful would that be.”