Can Multilingualism Be Simulated?


  • Brian Lennon University of Pennsylvania


simulation, machine translation (MT), Delavenay, computational linguistics, artificial intelligence (AI)


The term “multilingualism” is often used to mark one of the human social and existential behavioral conditions produced especially by experiences of migration and displacement, but also by special intensities of education. To the extent that it stands in contrast with “monolingualism” as marking the state-managed sovereignty of a nationalized standard, or written dialect, “multilingualism” is also often used to mark the violation of de jure or de facto state-managed codes for public (and certain forms of private) communication, including those employed in and for the regulation of both labor and education. If “multilingualism” is in some ways thus often imagined as a litmus test for what we might call the humanity of a state exercising its monopolies of both knowledge and force, it might be worth considering the question of whether multilingualism can be simulated, as the spoken and written production of the state-managed code itself can now be simulated by software. For the fact is that multilingualism has long been simulated, in this way, in and as the unintended and unwanted mark of failure in efforts to computerize human communication. Such “simulated” multilingualism ought to be understood as a product not of the complexity of human social life as such, but rather of interesting breakdowns in the use of computers to manage that complexity, particularly the complexity of linguistic confusion.

Author Biography

Brian Lennon, University of Pennsylvania

Lennon is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. His research interests and teaching areas include contemporary literature and culture, literary and cultural theory, and media studies. He has published on topics at the intersection of computing and media, translation, multilingualism, and genre theory. His work has appeared in the scholarly journals symplokē, diacritics, Postmodern Culture, ebr, Comparative American Studies, Criticism, Configurations, and Revue française d’études américaines, as well as in a range of literary journals, arts magazines, and collections. He is the author of In Babel’s Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States (University of Minnesota, 2010), a study of literary multilingualism, and City: An Essay (University of Georgia, 2002), a suite of autobiographical fragments.