Exploring the geopolitics of language and literature migration – Fellows’ seminar by Regenia Gagnier

10 February 2023

“Money flows freely through finance, investment, wealth, tax evasion. People move, with greater difficulty, through borders, boundaries, offshore tax havens, and states as migrants, refugees, exiles, travellers, taxpayers, tourists and guests. Culture, the topic of this seminar, is like a banyan tree, taking root and spreading wherever it goes, drawing sustenance from diverse conditions and changing in response to its different environments (Rabindranath Tagore). Something is always given—and given up—for what is received (Fernando Ortiz),” said Regenia Gagnier of the Department of English at the University of Exeter.

STIAS Visiting Scholar Regenia Gagnier during her seminar on 7 February 2023

Gagnier discussed characterisations of culture, modern global literary circulation, distinctions between Global and World Englishes, and the criticisms levelled against them from the decolonising/provincialising agenda.  For her project she will develop a broad methodological approach to the geopolitics of language and literature migration focusing on issues like debates in language protection versus laissez-faire; the economics of language and linguistic justice; and the deployment of English and Anglophonism. In terms of world literatures, she will focus on transnational, rather than national, literatures, “that is, on the frictions of encounter, whether coerced (colonial, postcolonial, neocolonial) or voluntary (modernisation, liberalisation) in Literatures of Civil War (Irish, Korean, US American, Chinese, African); Literatures of Diaspora (Jewish, Sinophone, Afropolitan); and Literatures of Partition (India/Pakistan, Palestine/Israel, China/Taiwan, Cyprus, Ireland, Korea, Vietnam) and Apartheid.

“Literature often gives us access to a lifeworld, a place we inhabit,” she said. “Globalisation is often seen as a process, a juggernaut that acts on the lifeworld. Paradoxically, as academic Eric Hayot has pointed out, more communication often means less community, more difference means less diversity, and more speed often leaves us with less time.”

“In telling the two main stories of Global and World Englishes, I don’t want to reify them, for they are entangled, not mutually exclusive, but rather, as educators, we need to consider both possible risks and benefits.” “While I’m here I’m working on African languages and literatures in contact. I want to learn from the people around me.”

Story 1 – English as a global language

Gagnier began by explaining the growth of English as a global language focusing in detail on specific countries.

Although the concept of a national language is relatively new and a global language even newer, she explained that “from the industrial revolution onwards English circulated as a global language via transport, communications, technology, science and empire. Between 1780 and 1930 English speakers rocketed from 12 to 200 million through language migration and Anglophone settlements in Australasia, Canada, South Africa and the USA. During colonisation the International Phonetic Alphabet attempted to universalise metrics in currencies and languages, and languages came to be seen as the base of states, rights and entitlements.”

“After World War I US English became the chief language in world organisations, advertising, media, cinema, radio, internet, tourism, Seaspeak and Police Speak. American English often being seen as more neutral and not the language of a coloniser.”

English currently ranks third in terms of native speakers behind Mandarin and Spanish, but up to a third of the global population has some English competence.

At national level language use is often complex. India has one billion citizens and 415 languages and dialects of which 22 are recognised in the Constitution including English. In the 1950s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru divided the states along linguistic lines, exhorting citizens to learn other languages to promote unity and increase multilingualism. He also emphasised how English could promote internal understanding while also connecting the country to the outside world. English use today is often linked to the caste system, with some Dalit activists emphasising English as a skill for development.

China, however, offers the only case in human history of systematic efforts by a state to learn another language in an attempt to make the external world transparent in a short space of time. This was not reciprocated by the West.

Gagnier highlighted the May the Fourth and New Culture Movements from the early 20th century onwards as spurring the move away from traditional Confucian values towards science and democracy – “the greatest rejection of tradition in world history – the French revolution looks tiny by comparison”.

Since the 1970s Opening Up, English has become compulsory for all schools and university students; in the 1990s many Chinese academics returned from the UK and US; in the 2000s English programmes were introduced in higher education; in 2014 the Office of the Chinese Language Council International became the Ministry of Education Centre for Language Exchange and Cooperation; and in the 2020s China started opening Schools of African Studies.

“By contrast the USA started as an official nation of immigrants at a time when equating language and national identity was gaining ground. By the early 20th century the US overtook Britain as a military/economic power, and by the 1890s English-only policies were introduced. By 1906 English language ability was a precondition for US citizenship.”

However, she pointed out that 9/11 brought adjustments to language policies. From 2002 language programmes were introduced aimed at meeting the needs of national security agencies. “There was a push to balance Xenophobia with biliteracy and dual-language education in states like California, New York and Utah”.

Gagnier also focused on the growth of Corporate English seen as a neutral-competency language in multinationals like Lenova, Samsung, Nokia, Audi and Lufthansa; the shift from language as an individual and civil right to a language of global economics, technology, international relations and diplomacy; and the push specifically by tech-industry investors to educate in various countries via digital technology teacher-proof, neutral, unaccented English.

But a different story and perspectives also emerged.

Story 2 – Decolonising the neoliberal world and provincialising English

Gagnier explained that after colonisation as an explicit political order was destroyed, the rhetoric became one of modernity (progress, development, growth) despite continuing coloniality (backwardness, poverty, misery, inequality, racism, sexism and exploitation).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union neoliberal ideology intensified and the Third World mutated into the Global South. “With a world or global language seen as ‘an intervention of Western imperialism’ according to Njabulo Ndebele (1987) and a western agenda setting combination of national and corporate funding”.

New themes of renaissance also emerged. In 2003 Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued that “the development of our languages is the prerequisite for African Renaissance” while ideas like translanguaging, metrolingualism and Afropolitanism spread.

Gagnier pointed to  different models of thinking about the world including Ubuntu emphasising connected humanity, interdependence, collective prosperity and Nepantla highlighting in-between-ness – the ‘middle’ between indigenous and dominant cultures.

“All of which necessitates critical ways to think about language. Although language is not the only issue, and it’s also not just humans who are affected by language,” she added, giving examples of the effects of transcultural processes on nonhuman species and built and natural environments

“World English is inflected English influenced by other languages,” she continued. “We use English for our own purposes with our mother tongues, which should not be sacrificed. Global English is more of a triumphal neoliberal story driven by global economics. But they are entangled, and as educators we need to ensure that more is always given than is given up.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu



Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

Related to this article

News categories



STIAS is a creative space for the mind.