multilingual cities: Honolulu

Living in Hawai’i now for a good chunk of time, Honolulu to be exact, I’ve become somewhat familiar with the multiple languages I hear around me on a daily basis.  Languages like Cantonese, Korean, Tagalog, Ilokano, and Samoan.  I’ve even embarked on the process of learning one of the languages I became interested in after moving to Hawai‘i: Japanese. I hear Hawaiian often, but mostly in fragments with phrases here and there that have become familiar to most living in the islands (Unfortunately, I rarely hear fluent speakers of Hawaiian, except at the university or when I travel to outer islands or visit with speakers who have learned the langauge in immersion schools, but this is changing as the language continues to be revitalized).

Also, I often hear Pidgin, the creole language of Hawai‘i.  I even find myself using intonational, lexical and syntactic features of Pidgin sometimes too, even though I often sense ethnolinguistic boundaries with the use of Pidgin that make it a problematic linguistic resource to draw on for those that aren’t perceived to be ‘authentic users’ of the language (an authenticity usually ideologically associated in the broader discourse in Hawai‘i society with ethnicity, social class, and/or being born and raised in the islands, i.e. “local”).

the urban sprawl of honolulu, looking down from Palolo Valley


Driving down HI in Honolulu, an ‘interstate Highway.’

The extraordinary linguistic diversity of urbanized areas of the U.S. like Honolulu isn’t all that surprising, considering incredibly multilingual cities like Los Angeles and New York City.  But the ethnic and linguistic diversity in Hawai‘i, and in particular the “language ecology” of Honolulu, provides a good example to illustrate some of the more recent terms sociolinguists are using to describe what happens in these sites of language contact.

Terms like codemeshing, polyglot dialog, receptive multilingualism, crossing, polylingual languaging, plurilingualism, translanguaging, metrolinguistics, fused lects, third spaces, transidiomatic practices, and translingual practices are being used more and more as sociolinguists grapple with the complex realities of language use “in the wild.”

Just taking a walk down Kalakaua Avenue, a couple mile stretch of street that courses through the heart of Waikiki, and you’re bound to see and hear a variety of linguistic practices, the consequences of globalizing trends that continue to bring people from diverse backgrounds together.  These new conceptual tools are becoming more and more useful to account for the dynamic ways people negotiate this linguistic diversity that doesn’t fit into the boxes of ‘bilingualism’ or ‘multilingualism’.

Kalakaua Avenue

Even these two terms, bilingualism and multilingualism, which in the past have been sufficient to describe the learning and use of more than one language, are being questioned more and more by applied linguists, sociolinguists and others who see them as increasingly inadequate because they are still grounded in monolingual ideologies of language.

Describing a speaker or a society as bilingual or multilingual draws on a few assumptions, one being that using the term “bi/multilngual” operates off of a binary of mono/bi or uni/multi. Before I started thinking about all this stuff a bit more in grad school, my idea of being bilingual or multilingual was essentially having equal control over more than one language, or being a “balanced bilingual.”  But even for very proficient users of multiple languages, ‘balanced’ mischaracterizes what’s really going on with these ‘multilinguals,’ when we examine either their language processing psycholinguistically, or their language practices sociolinguistically. 

Another assumption that is explored in-depth by Makoni and Pennycook (2007) delivers a pretty strong, critique of “languages-as-a-bounded systems.” That is to say, even the notion of ‘a language’ like “English” or “French” is an ideological outcome of historical processes that originated in the formation of nation-states in Europe where linguistics practices were fused to a national identity.  An example would be how historically, Parisian French became the ‘standard’ French variety spoken in France, often through various means of linguicism towards the range of diverging varieties that existed in France at the time (a point which is glossed over fairly quickly on Wikipedia’s article on the history of the French language, as the “period of unification, regulation and purification or latinization” beginning in the 17th century or earlier I wonder?).

But this ideology of standard/non-standard really goes way back if you consider that all the Romance languages spoken in Europe during the Roman Empire and long after its fall were referred to as “Vulgar Latin,” vulgar here meaning ‘common,’ or ‘vernacular.’  So, without going too far down this rabbit hole, the ideology of the terms ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ have deep sociohistorical roots.

Soaking up some of these arguments for shifting our perspective on very basic ideas of ‘what language is,’  which largely has been encouraged, I think, by the growing number of empirical studies of language use in everyday life “out there in the wild,” I’ve been drawn more and more towards seeing “language” as “diverse linguistic resources” and from a “linguistics of community” to a “linguistics of contact” (See Hymes and Gumperz work if you’re interested in this but also Rampton 1999 to get a nice summary of this). André Martinet, a French linguists back in the day argued this point more or less more than 50 years ago:

“There was a time when the progress of research required that each community should be considered linguistically self-contained and homogenous…Linguists will always have to refer at times to this pragmatic assumption. But we shall now have to stress the fact that a linguistic community is never homogenous and hardly self-contained…linguistic diversity begins next door, nay, at home, and within one and the same man.”
– Martinet 1953: vii

So, to address this issue of communities and contact, and with an eye towards shifting the “monolingual orientation” that is said to influence much of the public discourse (and research agendas) in various fields of linguistic research, as well as on issues of language policy on multilingualism, applied (socio)linguistic scholars like Ofelia Garcia, Suresh Canagarajah, and Ben Rampton have introduced terms like ‘dynamic bilingualism,’ ‘translingual practices,’ or “multiethnic youth urban vernaculars” to account for the ways people actually use the multiple linguistic resources available to them ‘in practice’ in dealing with all of the interactional problems that come up in everyday life.

Related to this, an area of research falling under the term ‘polylingualism’ (or polylingual languaging) coming out of a European context is summed up well by Rampton (2010):

“…to challenge the default status often given to the idealization of bi- and multilingualism as the shared command of two or more languages-as-bounded-systems, Jørgensen introduces the notion of polylingualism, which he uses to characterize situations of social change where people use fragments from differently valued languages that they don’t speak proficiently or share with their interlocutors, where linguistic forms can be hard to link to designated source languages, where we-code/they-code (or minority/majority language) interpretations over-simplify, and where the linguistic combinations often stand out to participants as non-routine, not just to analysts (Jørgensen 2008:169).”

Coming back to the islands of Hawai‘i, then, reenvisioning language as linguistic resources in zones of global contact gives us an interesting lens on how these resources change over time, and how these resources come to be valued differently by different people in different times and places. Pidgin or Hawai‘i Creole is a fascinating case in point, seeing as how it historically has been a heavily stigmatised language, especially in educational contexts, but still continues to thrive despite what might seem to be the hegemonic and privileged variety of American English that would seem to wipe it out.

Why does Pidgin continue to thrive despite what some might call the homogenizing-bulldozing force of “Standard English”?

Marcia Farr has written on this, but in the context of Chicago, and describes the fact that stigmatized or ‘non-standard’ language varieties continue to persist because of ‘opposed linguistic markets.’ As she writes, ‘non-standard’ “ways of speaking persist, formal education notwithstanding, because local markets provide sites in which these ways of speaking are valued” (p.1171).

This is most definitely the case in Hawai‘i as both teachers and students use Pidgin to accomplish the goals of building relationships and doing learning integral to everyday education (but this is far from universal across the islands, especially in the urban area of Honolulu where there are linguistic enclaves of language use due to factors like social class, ethnic and linguistic background and globalizing influences like immigration and tourism).

So the point (or argument) of all this I suppose if there is one, besides just trying to get some of my rambling thoughts out of my brain so I can organize them a bit better, is this:

Seeing how people are actually using language in urbanized areas where there is immense linguistic diversity should shift our perspectives on language from a linguistics of community to a linguistics of contact, where deeply held assumptions of what language is will need to recognize an ever-growing body of empirical research that is making it less and less feasible to think of a ‘language’ as some kind of coherent thing.

How this perspective will influence other disciplines more entrenched in views of language-as-a-bounded system (linguistics and psycholinguistics for example) or the arguments for whether it even should influence other fields will be interesting to see.  This is because there may be very good reasons for holding on to these assumptions in order to get work done on research that is pushing our understanding of how language works in new directions and by asking very different kinds of questions.

I’m just not sure what these reasons would be.

I’m especially interested to hear from people who have some interesting experiences with diversity from urban environments they’ve lived in or travelled through in the past.



I took the featured image for this post on the ridge above Hanauma Bay overlooking Maunaloa Bay and Diamond Head.  You can see the lights of Waikiki in the distance.

city lights

2 responses to “multilingual cities: Honolulu

  1. Thanks for posting this Gavin. I’ve been immersed in the same literature and unfortunately largely deprived of people to talk about it with, so it’s helpful to see what you make of it. I definitely connected with your experience of appropriating pidgin. I’ve noticed a similar thing with myself and AAVE (extremely common in Atlanta). I find that I often attempt to draw on it often in moments of resistance to white racism (not surprisingly I suppose), but as a white man it’s difficult to say that my usage of it is always respectful and even I intend it that way it’s difficult to imagine that it would be interpreted that way.

    • Hi Nic, thanks for your comment. Your use of AAVE is an interesting case and while there’s very limited use of it here in Hawaii, it helps inform some of my ideas on how Pidgin is used by ethnolinguistic outsiders more generally. I think the example you mention about resisting white racism points to both how it is a resource of simultaneously styling both your own and others’ identities, and your success in “pulling it off” without offense, since it always could be a risky practice, may be largely dependent on the kind of social relations you’ve established with speakers of AAVE you use it around. I’ll be presenting on some of this stuff at AAAL in Portland next week, so it will be interesting to hear what people think about it.

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