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Sommer's Bilingual Aesthetics


Bilingual Aesthetics: A Sentimental Education.

Sommer, Doris. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 344 pgs. Softcover, $19.95. ISBN: 0822333449.

Doris Sommer's Bilingual Aesthetics offers humor and insight into the advantages of participating in more than one language. Sommer's work extends beyond the idea of language to include culture, expression, and general orientation towards the world. The five chapters in the book each delineate the ways and means, by which language allows us to interact with the world around us; as a medium of understanding and exchange, additional languages open up windows of possibility. The occasional misstep and conversational blunder, Sommer argues, are good for us, they keep us in between two worlds and thus thinking and productive citizens.

Although one would assume Sommer writes for an audience fully on board, parts of her introduction reveal otherwise. She persuades the monolingual reader to challenge him/herself out of their limitations:

In today's readjustments to global dynamics, mono is a malady of adolescent societies. The world has outgrown a one-to-one identity between a language and a people. Individual people have also added one identity to another in ways that strain against the very concept of identity. Growing pains can't be avoided in the process of maturing toward tolerance for complicated times. How can we avoid pain, while people and languages rub and irritate one another? But surely there are ways to mitigate the danger of irritation and even derive pleasure from the rub. One way is to recognize multiplicity as a medicine for the monolithic condition, instead of dismissing multilingualism as confusion and then wondering how we lost the ability to listen to reason. The point is not to "disidentify" as some theorists prescribe in order to mitigate identity politics and patriotic violence. It is to supplement one identity with others (XV).

The thesis of the introduction that bilingualism, or multilingualism, makes us interesting is the premise of the entire book and reinforced in each chapter. Sommer engages how language, nation, and identity in a variety of contexts which provide substantial evidence for her arguments. Her discussion manages to artfully include much of the globe and disparate historical periods. From W.E.B. Dubois to a multitude of figures in Latin America, Sommer uses theorists of all types to show the linkage between language, identity, the blurred lines of both, and the possibilities for new perspectives. In her chapter "Irritate the State" Sommer explores various experiences of colonialism (African American, Latino) in light of how people's language ability expands. Sommers positions her discussion in the context of the post-9/11 world and the complexity of relationship among nations in the new global climate. Sommers argues, convincingly, that many over look the role of culture in responding to international crises, but culture is in fact the underlying frame in which responses occur on the global scene. She presents the idea that balance, whether religious, linguistic, or cultural comes from the presence of multiple identities working against one another; “.. I am suggesting that multilingualism demands an agile lingua franca. Competing churches and multiple languages keep any one culture from overlapping…” (95).Rather then focusing on the loss of a language, as often is the case in colonial studies which often highlights the domination of colonial language over original ones, Sommer chooses to examine the hybridity of language in the colonial situation.

Sommer's most intriguing and persuasive strategy is her ability to provide examples of the prevalence of multilingual talent in each chapter. From Marylin Monroe movies, to legal cases in France and the United States, to episodes of Saturday Night Live, Sommer finds the joy of bilingualism and the strength of bridging cultures everywhere. Her analysis of current events and pop culture enliven her discussion and contribute to the relevance of her work in contemporary society.

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar