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  • Researching Multilingually in German Studies:A Brief Retrospective
  • David Gramling (bio)

For about a decade now, the notion of multilingualism—whether conceived as a practice, a method, a textual feature, a personal possession or a civic ideal—has been out on the vetting tables of the humanistic disciplines. Researchers, from history and linguistics to film and literature, tend now to openly acknowledge that nation and language never did map onto each other as neatly as (the multilingual, low-German speaking) Johann Gottfried Herder may have wished, and we accordingly suspect that the many languages (and kinds of language) long salient or suppressed in “German-speaking” territories may require new tools, concepts, and formats for inquiry. This growing sense that methodological monolingualism may be a serious stumbling block on the path of critical endeavor has found confirmation of late in ample—and disciplinarily inconvenient—sources of multilingual evidence. German authors like Zafer Şenocak now write novels in Turkish, while ethnic German teenagers learn some catchphrases in Russian or Kurdish from their (postmigrant) friends, so as to avoid the parietal scrutiny of their teachers. Refugees fleeing Syria in 2015 often came to know the sitting German Chancellor first from the affectionate Twitter hashtag “ميركل_الحبشية#” (Merkel the Abyssinian), while American “war on terror” television serials like Homeland have gone on casting sprees around Berlin, scouting out German-speaking Arabs to depict the show’s terrorists and provide authentic-looking Arabic graffiti for its stage sets.1 All the while, a growing share of the statutes now governing German, Austrian, Swiss, Luxembourgish, and Lichtensteinian civic and commercial life have been composed not in German, but in some translational permutation of the twenty-four official languages of the European Union. The German language, abruptly decoupled from its ethnonational customs over the course of the 1990s, has irrevocably joined World English in becoming what the Australian applied linguist Alastair Pennycook calls a “language always in translation.”2

Early on in this century, the academic impetus to study multilingualism arose in part from the work of psycholinguists like Ulrike Jessner, Britta Hufeisen, and Peter Ecke, who began to investigate the cognitive-processing features of the “multilingual lexicon.” Under the aegis of what Jessner calls a “dynamic model of multilingualism,” [End Page 529] these scholars researched interlanguage transfer effects and parasitism in speakers who command more than two languages.3 A decade later, the Germanist Yasemin Yildiz first theorized the “postmonolingual condition,” aptly characterizing the discomfiture that transnational and hybrid linguistic phenomena have engendered in cultural production and scholarly research alike.4 Even in an axiomatically translingual field like German studies, this postmonolingual paradigm shift has augured daunting implications for those of us reared in the days of diplomatic bilingualism, when deep philological training in one (additional) scholarly language was arguably adequate—when topped off perhaps with a translation exam in Latin, ancient Greek, or French along the way. Many of us had originally made our commitments to German on the basis that doing so was, on its own merits, a robust rationale for researching and living beyond monolingualism. The expertise that was to emerge out of that rigorous scholarly bilingualism was, we wagered, itself a more than defensible contribution to the sustenance of our disciplines and the knowledge they convey.

With that bilingualism as a resource and (at times) an ethics, we underwrote in good faith the various imperatives of interdisciplinarity emerging over the course of the 1980s and 1990s as best we could. Some of us knew languages beyond German and English, thanks to our upbringing; others did because of family, previous careers, or formal training. Whatever the case was, we more-than-monolingual Germanists weathered trends and participated in “turns,” investing our and our students’ attentions into new and urgent domains of inquiry—feminist studies, queer studies, affect theory, secularism studies, refugee history, literatures of migration, Black German studies—fields for which the German language itself appeared to offer an unimpeachably wide, beautiful, and complex catchment area for analysis. Most of us did not feel that our shared bilingual basis was itself ideological, nationalistic, or methodologically restrictive. Human finitude being what it is, we bristled in recent years at the uptick in teaching-heavy job...


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