Tomoka Sato

Vernacular Cosmopolitanism in the Context of Neoliberalism:
The Case of Plurilingual Asian Students in Japanese Higher Education

My main research interests are the impact of political economy on multiculturalism, bi/multilingualism, and the acquisition and use of languages, specifically how neoliberalism, inequality, and social class impact the acquisition and use of languages. In this report, I would like to introduce my recent study.

Block,D., Gray, J., & Holborow, M. (2012).

Against the backdrop of the fact that the number of foreign students from Asian countries studying in Japan has been increasing since the Japanese government started promotional activities to that end in 2009 in the name of globalization, I investigated such Asian students studying in Japanese universities. They have been educated in the wave of the neoliberal era in Asia which began at the turn of the millennium 2000 (Park, Hill, & Saito, 2012), and most of them are plurilingual and so-called young cosmopolitans who cross international borders to study. The aim of this study is to understand whether, how, and to what extent Asian students studying in Japanese universities have been influenced by neoliberal modes of thinking in the development of their plurilingualism and to investigate their behavior as cosmopolitans.

1 The concepts of “multilingualism” and “plurilingualism” are frequently confused and used interchangeably. However, the Guide for the Development of Language Education Policies in Europe (2003) created by the Council of Europe differentiates between “multilingualism” and “plurilingualism.” According to this document, “multilingualism” is used when referring to a nation’s social structures, whereas the term “plurilingualism” is used when referring to individual language competence.

According to Flores (2013), in Western contexts, only affluent populations can become plurilingual, or what he calls “mobile plurilingual elites” (p. 23), and he identifies plurilingual subjects with neoliberal subjects in that both types try to fit the needs of global capitalism. In addition, as some applied linguistics scholars (e.g., Block, 2014; Flores, 2013; Kubota, 2014) point out, becoming plurilingual is generally linked to notions of cosmopolitan citizenship, and the goals of becoming cosmopolitan are very much a privileged-class aspiration. Skutnabb-Kangas (2009) and Flores (2013) term this type of cosmopolitan citizenship the "neoliberal citizen." This implies that plurilingualism parallels the production of a neoliberal subject who fits the needs of global capitalism and transforms plurilingual skills into a commodity that serves the interests of transnational corporations. Furthermore, Werbner (2006) gives a concrete example of Chinese citizens as neoliberal cosmopolitans who “lack the kind of cultural openness and sensitivity" (p. 11) that marks members of the wealthy jet-setting Chinese living and studying in the U.S. with multiple passports and homes in several countries. In a similar vein, Vandrick (2011) comments on the presence in American universities of what she terms “students of the new global elite,” referring to those international students, especially from non-Western countries, who cross borders and feel a sense of belonging both everywhere and nowhere.

Thus far, only neoliberal cosmopolitanism has been highlighted in Western context, and cosmopolitanism and plurilingualism in Asian (non-Western) contexts remain underexplored. In addition, cosmopolitanism from a critical/postcolonial perspective is missing in much of the applied linguistics literature. This is due largely to a current preoccupation with neoliberalism.

Werbner, P. (Ed.). (2008).

Grounded in an interpretive and a critical/postcolonial approach, this study explores plurilingualism in relation to the learning of additional languages and vernacular cosmopolitanism in relation to expansion of the boundaries of one’s own self by expanding the self’s experiences.

Drawing on the notion of vernacular cosmopolitanism (Werbner, 2006, 2008) including its family concepts of cosmopolitanism and Nussbaum’s (1996, 1997, 2003) cosmopolitanism as its main theoretical framework, this study challenges the popularized idea of neoliberal cosmopolitanism.

Vernacular cosmopolitanism is first discussed within postcolonial states in connection with citizenship, equality, dignity, cultural rights, and the rule of law, and it blends the contradictory notions of global enlightenment (the urge to expand one’s horizons and cultural identity from the self and a wish to connect with a wider world) and local specificity. Vernacular cosmopolitanism is also a synonym for what Appadurai (2006) calls “cosmopolitanism from below,” a notion closely connected to Appiah’s (1998, 2006) “rooted cosmopolitanism,” which proposes that cosmopolitans retain their ties to morally and emotionally significant communities, such as families and ethnic groups, even as they espouse notions of tolerance and openness to the world, transcend ethnic differences, and assume moral responsibility for the other. Based on these theoretical assumptions, I identified the following questions to be explored:

1. What beliefs do Asian students studying in Japan hold about language learning? -Why do they learn foreign languages one after another?
2. How do they feel about Japanese attitudes toward them in Japanese society?
3. How do they view their home country and other cultures?
4. As vernacular cosmopolitans, how is their sense of social morality and social justice cultivated?

To this end, a narrative approach to data collection and analysis was adopted. Data was collected mainly from the life stories of six participants from different Asian countries over a period of one academic year through two semi-structured interviews complemented by email communication and SNS contact through, for example, Facebook Messenger. This was followed by thematic analysis. Following Rowan’s (1981) view that force-fitting the words of participants into theories derived from other sources is inappropriate, the themes I identified were not predetermined but grew out of the narratives in dialogues with what emerged from my participants.

The Subject and Power (Foucault, M., 1982).

The findings show that the notion of neoliberal cosmopolitanism is contested by the existence and intercultural activity of vernacular cosmopolitans, which contributes to fill in the gap in applied linguistic literature. However, they also reveal that the notion of vernacular cosmopolitanism focuses too much on agency, the ability or will to act of individuals, while it neglects structural pressures, power relations, ideologies and discourses that construct subjectivity. As the participants’ narratives demonstrate, they feel discriminated against by Japanese, and they are under pressure to conform to given social power, structures, norms, discourses and ideologies in order to enter real Japanese society. Individuals are subjected to them, and individual subjectivity is constructed through them, and then agency- the ability and will of an actor to act in a given environment, more precisely, “the ability to be willing to be open to others and the world and the ability to engage in cosmopolitan action” (Sobré-Denton and Bardhan (2013, p.68)-is exercised. Based on the findings, I conclude with an exploration of the relationship between power, agency and subjectivity which draws upon Allen (2002) and Foucault (1982) in order to point to a critical perspective on the notion of vernacular cosmopolitanism as a way forward. Finally, for the future studies, I propose a cosmopolitan pedagogy not only from the notion of vernacular cosmopolitanism but also from a critical perspective on cosmopolitanism.


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