Suresh Canagarajah is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Applied Linguistics, English and Asian Studies at Penn State University. His recent publication Translingual Practice won AAAL’s inaugural best book award, in addition to the BAAL book prize and the MLA Shaughnessy Award. He is currently studying skilled migration in relation to neoliberal communicative policies and workplace practices. He is a former President of AAAL and editor of the TESOL Quarterly. Suresh had his education and started teaching in Sri Lanka, from where he was forced to flee the ethnic violence in 1994.
Structuralist orientations to linguistics have filtered out the spatiotemporal dimensions of communicative activity to define language as a self-defining grammatical system. Cognition is treated as the locus of grammatical structure and competence. Though developments in applied linguistics have emphasized the place of “context,” it is treated as secondary, passive, or bounded, as in the distinction between competence and performance. Recent developments in mobility, globalization, and technology have motivated a realization that meanings and grammatical forms are co-constructed in situated interactions in an expansive context of social networks, ecological affordances, and material objects. We are becoming more sensitive to space as a defining and generative resource in communicative success. A competence for such success involves one's emplacement in relevant spatiotemporal scales to strategically align with diverse semiotic features beyond language, participate in an assemblage of ecological and material resources, and collaborate in complex social networks. Such a consideration compels us to revise traditional notions about the autonomy of language, separation of labeled languages, primacy of cognition, and agency of individuals. Constructs such as spatialization in geography, rhizomes in philosophy, assemblage in social sciences, and object-oriented ontologies in physical sciences help us theorize competence beyond the structuralist legacy. I will illustrate from my ongoing research with migrant STEM professionals who claim confidence and success in professional communication in the US regardless of their limited grammatical proficiency in English.