Cover image of the review
Marian Abboud with Think + DO Tank, To Love and be Loved... I Will Live To Tell, 2024. Mixed media installation. Photo: Document Photography

Language Exchange


4 May 2024
Fairfield City Museum & Gallery 24 Feb - 8 Jun 2024

In the plantation colonies of the Americas, monocrops went hand in hand with monolingualism. The goal was to create standardised conditions in order to ensure predictable outcomes and massive profits. For the ruling colonial power, interlingual communication was a contaminant and a threat to the regimented structures of the plantation. According to Haitian anthropologist Michel Rolph-Troulliot, the formation of Creole languages was a miracle that was not supposed to happen. In their “free” time, slaves would cultivate their own gardens at the edges of the plantation, talking across fences, mourning their loved ones, learning new songs to work to, caring for neighbours, and teaching children. These were illicit acts of cross-cultural communication that subverted the rigid social world.

The plantation model exemplifies how the ascent of a single language to a dominant status is never an innocent or accidental phenomenon. Currently, no language has reached the scale and influence of English. And in its wake, English leaves mangled, marginalised, and extinct languages. In the 1980s, there was an intensive push to establish English as a global lingua franca. For instance, Sir Richard Francis stated in a 1989 British Council Report: “Britain’s real black gold is not the North Sea oil but the English language. It has long been the root of our culture and now is fast becoming the global language of business and information. The challenge facing us is to exploit it to the full.” English is therefore another crop to be exported, to saturate global markets and squeeze out local products. The British Council Report makes explicit the real material conditions underpinning linguistic imperialism. Colonial languages don’t just describe resource extraction and commodification: they operationalise it.

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