Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps. A review.

Phipps, Alison. Decolonising Multilingualism: Struggles to Decreate. Multilingual Matters, 2019. A review by Andy McCullough.

I’ve been asked to review the best book I’ve read in recent years on language. Hands down, it’s this book. This is a book by an academic, but it made me cry. This is not a Christian book, but it moved my spirit. It’s not a big book, but it is large, if you get the difference.

What does the title, Decolonising Multilingualism, even mean? There are a lot of books and articles with “decolonising” in the title, and in our work and passion, this is a really, really important word. To “decolonise” we have to first accept that the world in which we live has been chronically wounded by various colonialisms, which have done violence to marginal, minority and indigenous communities, in the name of progress, of science, and, yes, even of religion. As people who care about Christian witness, we must learn to listen to these voices, to immerse ourselves in these narratives, and, even more importantly, to see the gospel as a liberating, decolonising force. Our gospel, which has so often been seen as a perpetrator, or at least an ally, of colonial violence, must be re-learned as a decolonising movement and defender of the powerless.

This is a book about language, about the violence done to languages by our colonial past, and especially about how language is to be learnt.  Western ways of approaching language-learning; as a project, as a logical grammar, as ink on a page, are so often inadequate. “Let’s stop pretending our ways of knowing, our epistemologies, are the only valid ways of knowing something,” writes Phipps. Language is more than printed words on a page to be mastered, it carries memory and honour and culture and music and spirituality. It is holistic. It must be entered into. These are all things we agree with, aren’t they?

Here are some things Phipps can teach us about experiencing a new language:

  1. To learn a language you must immerse yourself in a community.

In the book she describes immersive experiences in Aotearoa-New Zealand and East Africa. “I situate myself in a variety of roles, but primarily as a language non-knower in situations where the normal power relations of language are reversed.” She puts herself in intense, hyper-local communities, without recourse to textbooks or dictionaries, so that the frustration and disempowerment of being totally dependent and not understanding anything might be part of the learning experience. Challenging, hey? As Christians, we would call this incarnational.

  1. To learn a language is kinaesthetic.

“It would be learned standing, moving, walking and especially eating. Lessons would begin in music, as a song is easier for the vocal training of pronunciation than speech.” This is a profound truth, not just about how language works but also about how humans learn. Classrooms and textbooks are inadequate. Actions and movement are instructive. Languages must be “worn,” not just memorised.

  1. Pain and dislocation are important aspects of learning.

We know this because cross-cultural workers go through culture shock, sickness, loneliness, and other challenges in their desire to enter a new culture. But this is also always true of people who have relocated not through choice; refugees, migrants and stateless persons who have to learn a new language through the grief of their dislocations. Language-learning without grief is merely cerebral. And cerebral learning is insufficiently life-changing. It is pain which internalises language.

  1. Language-learning is entwined with survival.

Although this is a book about language, it is full of the stories of people – whether migrants seeking a new life through a new language, or indigenous communities fighting for survival as their idiom and environment are eroded. Language is so often embedded in the land, the physical environment, in place as well as in immaterial culture, traditions, songs, poetry and the like. So gospel practitioners with a passion for all nations must care about indigeneity. And language-learning without a fight for survival feels like privilege.

Although this is a book about language, it is full of pain and hospitality and advocacy and refugees and poetry. All of these are things we care about. And we have so much more to learn. Phipps, in helping us think about how we learn, is helping us think about our Christianity, because ours is a religion of humility, of honouring the other, of a readiness to listen and learn and grow.