(Un)learning cognitive and linguistic imperialism in English: Towards transepistemic language education (by Paul Meighan-Chiblow)

Just as I was finishing up a draft of this BILD post, I came across a very relevant and timely blog post on my Twitter feed, Can we ever unthink linguistic nationalism?, by Dr. Ingrid Piller and Dr. Aneta Pavlenko. I’d like to add to this discussion and dialogue by proposing the potential of transepistemic language education. Tranepistemic language education is a way of learning, teaching, knowing, and being which enables respectful and non-hierarchical knowledge co-creation while we engage with languages, peoples, cultures, and lands. I present transepistemic language education as a means to foster more spaces where we can: (1) (un)learn cognitive and linguistic imperialism in language learning and teaching, and (2) envisage languaging that is not only in service of the nation state.

For the purposes of this post, I will focus on English, a lingua franca with considerable global economic and political power. English, like many dominant nation-state languages, is a language with a colonial and imperialist legacy. There is a well-documented and ongoing history of how colonial “elites” and governments have weaponized English to colonize and disenfranchise nondominant cultures and “vernacular/inferior” languages under the tenets of “civilization”, cognitive imperialism (Battiste, 2013), and linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1992). This view of English as a “superior” language is exemplified in the colonizing and imperial belief system of the “elites” of the British empire where Great Britain acts,

as a mighty teacher – and while she sits in her matchless powers of political supremacy, commerce, wealth and literature – these influences will combine to diffuse the language, with all the excellences kindred to it throughout the whole world. (George, 1867, p. 4)

Languages, and the English language, do not exist in a vacuum. Cognitive and linguistic imperialism has led to linguicide, historicide, and the genocide of the peoples colonized by the British empire, such as that perpetrated by the residential school system in Canada. In many cases, this colonial (hi)story is omitted in our history or language books and/or plainly avoided in many forms of curriculum. English language speakers, on an epistemic level, can transmit a colonial and imperial mindset to this day, a mindset or worldview typically accepted as the “norm” or unquestioned in mainstream Euro-North American education and society. For example, culturally and environmentally destructive categorizations, such as labelling respected areas of land as “wasteland” or water as a “resource”, can mean we become more complicit in their mistreatment and (environmental/epistemological) racisms (Kubota, 2020; Meighan, 2021).

Language is not only a neutral, abstract, and decontextualized code for conveying universal cognitive categories. An emphasis on language-as-code is ethnocentric, linguicentric, and human-centered and completely disregards the historical, political, social, ecological, and spiritual embeddedness of language. Language-as-code also makes it easier for language to be conveniently packaged or labeled as a profitable commodity to meet the demands of capitalism or linguistic imperialism and nationalism. However, languages shape and create worldviews, values and behaviours, and are not disconnected from the political, sociocultural and ecological contexts which evolve around them (Meighan, 2021). In other words, we language on an epistemic level where more than just language as transaction or code (written or spoken) exists. I consider it essential to view language holistically (e.g., humans, more than humans, nonverbal communication) and look beyond language wielded in service of the political economy or nation state to understand more deeply the relationships that language and languaging can promote or diminish. It is therefore fundamental to question and (un)learn the origins and perpetuation of cognitive and linguistic imperialism in English language teaching (ELT) as part of an ongoing decolonizing process to move towards more relational and respectful transepistemic language education.

Envisaging transepistemic language education

We—as educators, educational stakeholders, and/or societal agents—could language in a more respectful manner which no longer disregards nature or the “Other” and enables cognitive and linguistic decolonization. Epistemic (un)learning can enable this shift in awareness and a way of seeing the world from a critically reflective perspective (Laininen, 2019) that does not only uphold “monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism” (Piller, 2016) or “neoliberal valorizations of diversity” (Kubota, 2020). In English language education, we could start this process by: (1) learning from earth-centered, not only human-centered, perspectives, and (2) decolonizing our thought processes and mental models in English. As Laininen (2019) explains, “the main goal of education would be to give future generations tools for thinking and seeing the world differently, constructing their own worldviews, and acting to create a sustainable future” (p. 187).

I propose that we do this by enabling transepistemic language education which (1) stresses the broader cultural, emotional, and environmental impact of languaging, and (2) activates respectful sharing, co-creation spaces and “trans-systemic knowledge exchanges” (Battiste, 2013). For example, transpistemic language education could begin by learning from earth-centered (ecocentric) worldviews which do not have legacies of cognitive and linguistic imperialism. Indigenous worldviews, different and varied across nations and the globe, share some key characteristics, such as the principles of reciprocity and relationships between communities and the local environment (Wilson, 2008). An earth-centered view of language—which critically reflects on how we describe, experience, and ultimately treat the environment and our fellow beings—could enable us to decolonize thought processes, mental models, implicit assumptions, and taken-for-granted “eurocentric logic”. For instance, the current negative, uninviting, (colonial) definition of water as “tasteless” or “odorless” in the English dictionary is in stark contrast to the kincentric and relational belief systems and worldviews encapsulated in many Indigenous languages (e.g., the view of water as a life-giving and -sustaining spirit with memory) (Chiblow, 2019).

In transepistemic language education we can also learn English by sharing insights from our own heritage languages and cultures of which we have personal, lived experiences. The stress on personal, lived experiences is intentional, to avoid perpetuating elite cultural spectatorship, appropriation, romanticization, fetishization, and/or epistemic trespassing. In a relational sense where we start from the experiences of the self, we can share how we have each related to our surroundings (e.g., people, the environment) at certain points in time (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and how our worldview and language has evolved (or not) in that time. We can also share experiences and understandings we may have in our heritage culture/language (i.e., disfranchised cultures/languages as a result of colonialism which have emotive and cultural significance; Meighan, 2019). For example, in one of my classes, I shared some words in my endangered language Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) that speak to Scottish landscape and what can typically be found or encountered there, such as such as Clett na Cairidh (rock of the weir), from the Old Norse klettr (a rock, a cliff), to denote a place to catch fish in my home islands of Uibhist a Deas (South Uist). We (learners and I) also collectively shared similar experiences with/of the land and the Indigenous placenames we knew or had come to know (in this case, in Turtle Island as I was teaching in Tkaronto [Toronto]). All these experiences can be shared in a story, drawn, written, video- or audio- recorded in a critical self-reflection log, or Worldviewer,as part of a decolonizing English learning journey (Meighan, forthcoming; heritage language pedagogy) which activates and fosters deeper respect, connections and meanings between languages, peoples, lands, and cultures.

By (un)learning cognitive and linguistic imperialism and sharing epistemic insights in a relational way, it is hoped that transepistemic language education can enable more equitable, respectful, transformative, and de/anti-colonial ELT for all multicultural and multilingual learners.

Author contact information

Email: paul.meighan@mail.mcgill.ca
Twitter: https://twitter.com/PaulJMeighan
Website (with copies of publications): www.paulmeighan.com


Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich.

Chiblow, S. (2019). Anishinabek women’s Nibi Giikendaaswin (water knowledge). Water, 11(209), 1–14.

George, J. (Rev.). (1867). The mission of Great Britain to the world, or some of the lessons which she is now teaching. Dudley & Burns.

Kubota, R. (2020). Confronting epistemological racism, decolonizing scholarly knowledge: Race and gender in applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics, 41(5), 712–732.

Laininen, E. (2019). Transforming our worldview towards a sustainable future. In J. W. Cook (Ed.), Sustainability, human well-being, and the future of education (pp. 161–200). Palgrave Macmillan.

Meighan, P. J. (forthcoming 2021). Bridging the past, present and future: How heritage language pedagogy can create a global and sustainable worldview in the English classroom. In C. E. Poteau & C. Winkle (Eds.), Advocacy for social and linguistic justice in TESOL: Nurturing inclusivity, equity, and social responsibility in English language teaching. Routledge.

Meighan, P. J. (2021). Decolonizing English: A proposal for implementing alternative ways of knowing and being. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, 15(2), 77-83.

Meighan, P. J. (2019). An “educator’s” perspective: How heritage language pedagogy and technology can decolonize the English classroom. TESOL Journal, 1-5.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Piller, I. (2016). Monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 11(1), 25–3.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Fernwood Publishing.

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