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Modern Language Research in the frontier of digital culture (English)

Guest blog by Marcelo El Khouri Buzato


Marcelo El Khouri Buzato

In this guest blog, Marcelo El Khouri Buzato of the State University of Campinas, Brazil, discusses the analogue and digital frontier of Modern Language research. 

Not so long ago -or maybe indeed quite long ago, because fifteen or twenty years are today denser in history than they used to be- there was a great deal of talk, in education, about "computers as a second language." The idea was to think of digital interfaces as a new type of writing, and of their conventions, icons, windows and methods (click and drag, copy and paste, etc.) as a new grammar that everyone had to learn in order to be able to participate in modes of offering and receiving information, mobilizing and being mobilized by another, by a culture that is digital. Even when we speak of digital as a method, and consequently of digital literacy, the metaphor survives in the words of educators such as Marc Prensky and his "digital natives" and of mediaologists such as Lev Manovich and his language of new media. 

Today, the digital is so familiar to us, so "maternal" in the sense of our dependence on it, that even the icons that we produced to allow the digital to mobilise us cognitively bypassing the verbal have become  "language" in a way. Ask a young man what that little square with two small empty rectangles positioned on top of the interface of a word processor is, and he will say that it is the "save" button; he will never say that it is a "floppy disk". What used to be a visual representation of a floppy disk became a convention, a symbol, a logogram like $ or @, a word, after all. This is how the past of language, in this case written language, revives in the becoming of digital: within the tense and creative conviviality between the semantics, syntaxes and pragmatics of machine and culture.

Thus, those who research (or teach, or learn) modern languages ​​are necessarily researching (or teaching, or learning) in a transcultural environment, in which the "natural" and the "technical" precipitate a more "modern" language, therefore also more hybrid, more or less like the cultural environment of a Brazilian "evangelized" curumim (word of Tupi origin, which generally designates indigenous children) and general language spoken at the end of the 17th century. The vernacular born in the zones of contact between computers and natural languages ​​is not, however, only made up of symbols and syntactic structures: it reveals itself mainly in the new ways of acting on one another through and with language. It is steeped in the values ​​and methods which, together with the available mechanisms of representation, open up another mentality.

For example, one of the ways to show hospitality to a stranger among Brazilians is (was?) to, kindly, greet him when he stops you on the street to ask for information. For that reason, an important part of Portuguese language courses as an additional language teaches (taught?) something like "Hello, can you tell me where/what/how..., please?". There is something universal, or almost universal, in this pragmatics, because it is linked to an ethic that is established by the gaze exchanged between two humans, as Emmanuel Lévinas explains, and therefore independent of the languages, phonemes, phrases or lexemes used. Nevertheless, in the Brazil of smartphones -we have one per inhabitant, mathematically speaking- this behaviour has become something considered rather rude, or taken as a lack of digital literacy, or ingenuity, or resources to buy a smartphone, by the requester.

Things can get even more complicated when two different languages ​​come onto the scene -something the digital should favour, but not necessarily. For instance, once, after landing in California, I bought a mobile SIM card, and upon leaving the store, I wanted to call home and give them the new number. Realising that I did not know the code for international long distance calls from the U.S., I instinctively asked a teenager on the sidewalk what "the code to call abroad" was, to which he replied, surprised: "Did you Google it?" I said no because I had just bought the SIM card and still did not have Internet -which was an excuse not to have asked Google before bothering a stranger- yes, I feel that Google is closer to me than a human in the street. Is it just me?

The young man was willing to "Google it" for me, but he could not because, like me, he did not really know what "dial out code" meant, possibly because it made no sense to know these things in the age of voice over IP in California. Feeling that I was abusing his cordiality, I borrowed the boy's smartphone and searched in Portuguese. I thanked him, smiling. "No problem!" He said, climbing onto his skateboard and putting his cell phone in the back pocket of his shorts.

Before the digital, especially in a small Brazilian city, the situation would have generated a dialogical current, in which each one who did not know the answer would pass the question to the next passer-by and so on until there was a solution or someone broke the chain for lack of choice. As Mikhail Bahktin explained, natural languages ​​are alive, expanding and transforming, through these statements in dialogical chains, in a way analogous to that of the cells that pass on their DNA to their neighbours, before dying, since life is precisely this passage, this movement, and not the cell itself.

Books, media, means of transportation, and other resources of literate-modern-industrialist culture have helped and still help these chains to extend themselves over time and space, but, at the same time, to make the language more "conservative", because they carry lifeless statements, detached from their immediate cultural context, more immune to accidents and mutations. And so language-technology relations used to be.

With digital media, things are changing fast. Not only does it make less sense to ask for dial out codes to other people, but also to know dial out codes and code names to mobilise machines is becoming unnecessary, even in the case of passwords, because of biometrics.

It is not that the machines are – I doubt they will ever be- able to mobilise and be mobilised by a natural language like a well-informed teenager would be, even with a foreigner. It is that digital agents are insistently programmed and trained to try to simulate the discursive behaviour of natural language speakers, so that we can teach them to participate in the chains that hold the languages alive, correlating our desires, emotions, needs and identities with their statistical, algorithmic and logical meanings. Acting as "delegates", as Bruno Latour puts it, machines want to participate in the dialogical currents that keep languages alive, because this living stream of data and metadata is what they need to use in order to bring us, for consumption purposes, what we, ourselves, are yet to know that we desire, or to think about in words.

So, I think the "trialogue" between me, the Californian teenager and Google is a good analogy for one of the ways in which research in modern languages ​​and the flowering of digital culture are intertwined. It is not an "exchange of services" as in the case of corpus linguistics and other branches of the digital humanities versus natural language processing and text mining. It is about how signs, values, methods, rituals and mentalities are made in the borderland between meaning, information and emotion or, as Karen Knorr-Cetina and her colleagues say, in the transition between the social and the post-social imagination.

Anyone who does research in modern languages ​​needs to be willing to do fieldwork in this border area. Just as the subject who knows when it is right to ask something to a passer-by or to Google it, whoever researches on this frontier will inevitably acquire a kind of bilingual, interdisciplinary, intercultural competence that is at the very heart of the phenomenon we call digital culture; even though most think, or want, the digital to eliminate the ambiguities of the human and cultures that languages ​​protect like nobody else! As a good code-switcher, the language researcher who comes up against the boundary between the propositional/computational component and the illocutionary/axiological component of meaning and life does not have to go back or break it. Their job is precisely to show that asking (receiving) information from a stranger on the street will always be legitimate because the language lives on it, and we live in the language; but also that asking Google or lending Google to those who ask are two symmetrical gestures of solidarity between strangers.


Cited work:

BAKHTIN, Mikhail. Estética da criação verbal . São. Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2003.

LÉVINAS, Emmanuel. Totalidade e infinito. Trad. José Pinto Ribeiro. Lisboa: Edições 70,

KNORR-CETINA, Karen. Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies. Theory, Culture & Society, v. 14, n. 4, p. 1–30, 1 nov. 1997.

KORTZ JR, William J. Computers As a Second Language: For Teachers Too! Learning Technology newsletter, v. 3, n. 1, 2001. Disponível em: <http://lttf.ieee.org/issues/january2001/index.html#11>. Acesso em: 15 jun. 2017.

LATOUR, Bruno. Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In: BIJKER, W.; LAW, J. (Org.). . In Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992. p. 225–258.

MANOVICH, Lev. The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.

PRENSKY, Marc. From digital natives to digital wisdom: hopeful essays for 21st century learning. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin, 2012. 


More on the subject: 

BUZATO, Marcelo El Khouri. Can reading a robot derobotize a reader? Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada, v. 49, n. 2, p. 359–372, dez. 2010. Disponível em <http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0103-18132010000200004> Acesso em 15 jun, 2017.

 BUZATO, Marcelo El Khouri. Mapping Flows of Agency in New Literacies: Self and Social Structure in a Post-social World. In: JUNQUEIRA, Eduardo S. BUZATO, Marcelo E. K. (Orgs.). New Literacies, New Agencies: a Brazilian perspective. New York: Peter Lang, 2013, p. 22–49. (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies).

BUZATO, Marcelo El Khouri. Towards a theoretical mashup for studying posthuman/postsocial ethics. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, v. 15, n. 1, p. 74–89, 2017.