The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, preface to the Chinese edition

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Jan Blommaert

In a straightforward sense, this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization is an illustration of what the book is about: the effective globalization of discourses, and the arguments and ideas they express. It also illustrates another crucial dimension of the sociolinguistics of globalization: the fact that such forms of globalization are never processes of uniformization, but of vernacularization. The same discourses, arguments and ideas are shared, but in the process they are converted into another discursive structure, grounded in local or regional universes of contextualization. Which is why I see this book not as just a ‘translation’ of the English original, but as a new ‘edition’, a Chinese edition addressing Chinese audiences – many of which may have been able to read the English version of the book – in a different way.

The core theme of the book is mobility: the fact that in an era of intense globalization, a study of language as an immobile, ‘fixed’ and sedentary object is entirely inadequate. Again, this Chinese edition illustrates this point. It is mobility – of people, objects and ideas – that brought the book to the attention of Chinese scholars, and the conversion of the book into a Chinese edition is another step in such patterns of mobility: it can now be integrated locally into existing intellectual and academic cultures. In so doing it will change such cultures, as well as the book itself. I expect new kinds of uptake and interpretation of the ideas articulated in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, new forms of dialogue and new forms of follow-up research.

Another crucial point in the book is that globalization processes are real, situated historical processes. And this point enables me to elaborate the expectations of uptake, dialogue and follow-up research mentioned above.

The Chinese edition of this book appears a decade after the original version. The ideas articulated in it are even older. I started working in this direction in the late 1990s, and produced a steady flow of papers on topics related to the sociolinguistics of globalization, appearing throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The draft of the book was completed in 2008 and summarized this earlier work. If I look back at the real historical situatedness of the book, it was largely written in a world in which the Web 2.0 became an acquired thing, but in which social media, as we now know them, were new and relatively marginal. To mention the social media currently dominant in my part of the world, Facebook was created in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010. Smartphones were rare, and the first iPhone entered the market while I was working on the draft of this book. So when I wrote the book, I could only refer to a world which was globally connected through email, accessed through desktops or laptops (the iPad was launched in 2010), and in which average mobile phone owners used their phones for making calls and sending texts. Traditional mass media – printed press, radio and network TV – were still dominant and hardly challenged by the emerging online blogs or first-generation micromedia.

This world has vanished, of course, and this Chinese edition of my book now enters into a world in which online and offline dimensions of social (and sociolinguistic) life have become intertwined and define our everyday experiences of social and cultural reality. The People’s Republic of China, in particular, has rapidly developed into a society in which social media are immensely popular, in which online entertainment, shopping and banking have become everyday commodities, and in which behavioral digitization and data-driven analysis have reached unmatched levels of sophistication. Several of my own students have been able to document this development in great detail in their doctoral work, and the development is momentous. The infrastructures of globalization, including sociolinguistic globalization, have profoundly changed since I wrote the original version of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. They have changed everywhere, and certainly in China, and this profoundly changed globalization context guarantees a new universe of interpretation for my book, new questions and topics of research to be tagged onto it, new kinds of relevance (or irrelevance) to be attributed to it. I am looking forward to that.

Among the very many reactions I received to the book since its appearance, the ones that I experienced as most gratifying were those in which colleagues and students expressed that the book had inspired them, and prompted them to develop new forms of research taking the proposals I made in the book much further. “Inspiration”, as we know, is not the same as “following” some kind of doctrine or tradition. It is its opposite: it is a form of intellectual liberation in which previously held (and often constraining) frameworks and ideas can be abandoned and new ones can be critically explored. I can say, with a mixture of pride and humility, that the book appears to have inspired large numbers of colleagues and students over the past decade, and has offered them the liberty to explore new directions in their intellectual and academic development.

Thus, there has been substantial and significant research both at the conceptual level – rethinking what “language” may mean within a paradigm of mobile resources, for instance, or coming to grips with the intrinsic instability and complexity that follows from that paradigm, giving concepts such as “(trans)languaging” considerable traction. There has been significant research on sociolinguistic “superdiversity” as a means to describe a new ontology for the study of language in society; on the online globalization of semiotic and other cultural forms and the communities that contribute to their global spread; on new forms of language and forms of language usage no longer seen as linearly connected to a “source” such as English, but seen as forms of vernacular globalization and inflection; on the changing connections between diasporas and their nation-state communities of origin; on the changing nature of translation and interpreting in a globalized world, and so forth. I am not saying that none of this would not have been possible without The Sociolinguistics of Globalization; but the book perhaps offered a timely historical benchmark, a useful anchoring point from which such developments could evolve more swiftly and smoothly, simply because there was a vocabulary, a tentative framework and an ambition in the book that facilitated such developments.

The ambition was, in a way, to think big while addressing the very small details of language and its usage, and to think theoretically while we were doing empirical, clinically analytic work. Theoretically, two issues animated my effort. The first issue was methodological nationalism: the fact that much of sociolinguistic and related research still took the nation-state as an unquestioned unit of analysis, and – by extension – had developed excellent tools for examining local, sedentary and ultimately bureaucratically defined sociolinguistic circumscriptions, but only offered clumsy tools for addressing translocal, mobile phenomena associated with unstable populations dispersed over various sites in the world. In an age of globalization, this national and local theoretical horizon obviously demanded destabilization.

Observe, however, that the nation-state should not be dismissed as a unit of analysis: it had to be precisely located in a range of other scale-levels in any adequate analysis. To give a simple but clear example supporting the argument; the Wuhan corona virus crisis of early 2020 was obviously a local issue in Wuhan, where the first victims fell; but it was also a national issue because of the intersection of the danger of contagion and the hypermobility of Chinese citizens during the Chinese New Year period. This called for stringent measures at the national scale. But it quickly also became a global problem, affecting air traffic between China and the rest of the world and affecting various aspects of the world economy. A Volvo car plant in Belgium, for instance, had to reduce production because the transfer of parts from China had been disrupted by the Wuhan coronavirus crisis. What we see in this example is globalization in its purest form: a phenomenon spreads globally over various scale-levels (the local, the national, and the transnational), and at each scale level it becomes a different thing. The managers of the car manufacturing plant in Belgium did not experience the public health crisis experienced by the inhabitants of Wuhan – they experienced a local economic effect of this transnational phenomenon, largely caused by measures not taken by the people of Wuhan, nor by medical staff or virologists, but by the central government of the People’s Republic. Here, we can see how the nation-state operates as a switchboard between different scale levels in globalization processes, and how what happens at the national level can only be adequately understood when we consider what happened at the other scale-levels. Methodological nationalism is of no assistance here.

The second issue animating my effort was to definitively distance myself from the legacies of structuralism – the scientific paradigm defining the era of the modern nation-state. More in particular, I wanted to offer an alternative to the Saussurean “synchrony” in our fields of study: the emphasis on static, timeless and immobile features of language, and on abstract descriptions of “underlying” principles in understanding language and what it does in the real lives of real people. Language and its users, to me, are concrete things observable in real time and space; they are changeable, dynamic and only relatively predictable in their features, actions and effects. The study of language as flexible sets of mobile resources, unequally distributed over its users and subject to scale-sensitive contextual influences, was my alternative to the Saussurean synchrony. This alternative is paradigmatic, as it has numerous theoretical and empirical knock-on effects on the theory and practice of sociolinguistics. To return to the example of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis, for instance, we must be able to explain the differences between phenomena at different scale-levels in the same globalization process, as well as the nature of its local appearances. Turning to language, we must be able to explain why an accent in English that is seen as an indicator of middle-class belonging in, say, Nairobi or Karachi, becomes an indicator of marginality and inarticulateness in, say, London or Chicago.

While many of the issues I raised here are being creatively addressed in work-in-progress, much of the work remains to be done. It is work to be done by people who are deeply familiar with the new forms of globalization characterizing our social systems nowadays, and adjusted to the extremely rapid changes characterizing these systems. It needs to be done by “globalization natives”, people for whom globalization, including its digital infrastructures, are simple facts of life. Which is why I expect a lot from the readers of this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. I expect this book to be relatively easy and straightforward reading for them, and I invite them to see it as an invitation to fact-check the claims and arguments in the book against their own lived experiences as members of communities that have witnessed tremendous changes over the past decades, most of them defined by the emerging prominence of China in a globalized world. Perhaps the answers I provided in the book will have to be rejected or amended. But I like to think that the questions I raised remain relevant and valid, for globalization and the patterns of sociolinguistic mobility it involves will not end soon – they will intensify.

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Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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