Asymmetry of Language Relations

I'm going to take the time here to discuss an idea that has come as a tangent off the current research that I'm doing into soft power and public diplomacy in China. One of the core assumptions at the heart of the American political theorist Joseph Nye's concept of soft power is that Italian socialist philosopher Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony must be able to hold true, not only within national borders, but across them as well. While I think we can all see how certain cultural objects, especially ideational things like "democracy" or "market capitalism" can become quickly dominant because of American cultural hegemony, Nye argues that the spread of English around the world is an advantage for America's hegemony (though how England, Canada and other native English speaking countries benefit is unclear). "If they can think in American English, they can think like an American", is one of the ideas that Nye promotes in various writings promoting the idea of soft power.

But another American political theorist, Richard Rose, has convincingly argued against this idea in a paper entitled, "Language, Soft Power and Asymmetrical Internet Communication". The argument is basically that power relations between linguistic groups are often best explained by the question: who understands the other better? The spread of English around the world reduces incentives for Americans to learn other languages, while foreigners are able to better understand America through their learning of English. In the book Charm Offensive, Joshua Kurlantzic notes how while most American diplomats to China arrive relatively unaware of even simple Chinese customs, more than a few Chinese diplomats could give complicated accounts of the internal politics of American political parties. If that's the case, then the spread of English around the world actually is the result of attempts to challenge American hegemony, by understanding American culture better.

A criticism of Rose's idea from within Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony might be that when two groups are operating within the discursive frameworks of a "hegemon" language like English, native speakers will possess an advantage from the greater flexibility their advanced knowledge gives them. But I think ultimately, Rose presents a new way that we should look at attempts to promote a nation's soft power through language. Do Confucius Institutes, Goethe Institutes, Alliance Francaise and the multi-various efforts of the English speaking world actually gain a "power" advantage over those who they train in the language, or do they allow language learners to subvert the power structures within that language?

Empower yourself. Learn a language.

Click Here to Read More..


Time to start blogging again... reading through this, I realized that I really need to do more writing and work on this poor, neglected blog, that has been laying dormant for over half a year now.

Update on what I've been up to lately... spent the last half year reacclimatizing myself to Canada. Worked on my French, didn't really speak Chinese much, took a break from it all. I ran and was elected to the student society's board of directors (fair bit of responsibility as it's a multimillion dollar operation), Chinese helped though, I gave speeches to the Chinese students association and they helped mobilize the international student vote for me. Chinese, not just useful in China.

Currently getting back into the swing of things, Chinese-wise. Listening to podcasts again, reading 南方周末 regularly again, thinking about trying to return to my goal of translating a 南方周末 article a week. Working on my thesis, the topic of which has evolved significantly since I've returned. Writing about the role that minorities are playing in "soft power", as soft power becomes the dominant discourse of Chinese foreign policy-making. I may expound on some of the ideas that are coming up in that process in the weeks to come.

It's interesting looking back over the old posts and remembering the direction my research was taking over a year ago, when I was still in Shanghai and focusing on minority language conflict, specifically Shanghainese. Living in Beijing really effected my interests and I started look at the language of policy in China, and the various intersections of discourse, culture and policy. I'm going to try and follow up soon with a post, that brings my early and current research together, and discuss the idea of the asymmetrical nature of lingua francas.

Click Here to Read More..
China Student Blog is the intellectual property of Dylan Sherlock. Please feel free share anything you find here,
provided you give proper attribution and a hyperlink back to the original article.