Chow, Rey. Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 169 pp.

Mélissa Gélinas


Colonialism, as anthropologist David Scott1 reminds us, played a crucial role in making colonised subjects the conscripted objects and agents of modernity (9). A core aspect of this conscription was the necessity for the colonised “to learn – and learn to inhabit as much as learn to transform – Europe’s natural and conceptual languages” (Scott 16). Thus, emerged “the scene of postcolonial languaging,” Rey Chow’s main object of inquiry in Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience. In this recent book, languaging denotes a context-based experience of language that is both personal and shaped in interaction with others. In order to probe the depths of this scene across biopolitical, geographical, racial, and class lines, Chow’s book conjures up a constellation of figures: young Obama’s encounter with a close-up photograph about skin colour; Fanon’s anguished memories of hearing himself called a “Negro” in metropolitan France; contemporary offshore call-centre agents having to emulate the American or British accents of the customers they serve; Derrida, the Algerian Jewish French monolingual, meditating upon his ties to French; African writers debating the place of English in their lives and art; the translator/narrator as traitor/mourner of intercultural equivalence; Cantonese-speaking writers of Chinese foregrounding orality through food and consumption; Chow’s mother, a radio broadcaster, scriptwriter, and producer, airing Cantonese instead of the standard, official languages of British Hong Kong (i.e. English and Mandarin); and, finally, glimpses of Chow herself, reflecting upon moments of (postcolonial) historical import from her childhood. The evocation of this wide array of incarnated experiences allows Chow to paint vivid and multifaceted tableaux of “the scene of postcolonial languaging,” all the while overturning the burden of negativity with which it has long been associated.


As Chow explains, the colonial situation has shattered “any illusion of a natural link between a language as such and those who are, for historical reasons, its users by default” (41). With colonialism, groups of people have been required to adopt and/or adjust to another group’s language for purposes of social organisation and mobility, without the reverse also occurring. Nevertheless, for Chow, the experience of language as imposed from without and the deeply felt, modern awareness that the “reality of languaging” is essentially a prosthetics, “an impermanent, detachable, and (ex)changeable” add-on, endow the postcolonial subject with a positive prescience that reveals “the untenability of ‘proper’ (and proprietary) speech as such” (15). No one can ever be expected to inhabit discourse as a native speaker: the native speaker is but a personification of an uncorrupted origin which does not, in fact, exist, and cannot endure (58). Chow’s book thus clearly articulates a deep conceptual shift in the field of postcolonial studies: it opens the door to a postcolonial inquiry empowered to proceed beyond a rhetoric of loss and effacement, “even when loss is embodied and intimately felt” (17).


In chapter one, “Derrida’s Legacy of the Monolingual,” Chow proposes a novel reading of Jacques Derrida’s autobiographical account of his relationship with the legacy of French in colonial Algeria, as provided in his Monolingualism of the Other; or the Prosthesis of Origin (1998). If it is possible to surmise that this particular relationship must have influenced the philosopher’s lifelong process of coming to terms with language (including most of his deconstructive endeavour), Chow reminds us that Derrida remained reluctant to analyse language strictly in terms of colonialism, and that he considered that “all culture is originarily colonial” (qtd. in Chow 29). A purely postcolonial vision of language, for Derrida, would run the risk of veiling “the truth about language” (30). While Derrida’s logic is entirely reasonable, Chow argues, it does little to help us think the ongoing (postcolonial) inequities among languages, as they are experienced in various parts of the world.


It is, consequently, to the nitty-gritty of those inequities that Chow turns her attention to in the second chapter, “Not Like a Native Speaker: The Postcolonial Scene of Languaging and the Proximity of the Xenophone,” which is the chapter that is the most aligned with the book’s argumentative framework, as outlined in its introduction and title. Evoking her own experiences of colonial education in Hong Kong and the stances taken respectively by Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in their epic debate on the language choices faced by postcolonial African writers, Chow here fleshes out the notion that unites the volume as a whole: “the postcolonial scene of languaging.” Defining the native speaker as one of the last repositories of epistemic unities, produced and reproduced through the “exclusion of discontinuity,” Chow concludes by inviting us to hear, in the work of writers of multiple ethnic and cultural descents who transform the English language, an emerging domain of languaging she terms “the xenophone” (58-9). For Chow, xenophone creativities are ineluctable signs of “a collective refashioning of the mass experience known as postcoloniality,” one that invites us to think “the postcolonial scene of languaging” beyond the captivity of melancholic loss (60).


The implications of the “affect of unfinished grieving” (71), as they pertain to the domain of cultural translation, are then further considered in the next chapter, “Translator, Traitor; Translator, Mourner (or, Dreaming of Intercultural Equivalence).” For Chow, the Freudian concept of melancholia has inspired much critical productivity. Yet, the flip side to the recent “melancholy turn” in academia, as Chow indicates, might well be the blinding injunction “to live in diversity hereafter” (72). However important, linguistic and cultural pluralism cannot adequately address the postcolonial legacies of temporal inequity and global unevenness, as they affect cultural translation. Chow brings this chapter to a close by advocating, with philosopher Paul Ricoeur, for intercultural equivalence: “the equivalence and coevalness between cultures, however dissimilar those cultures might seem, ought to be a type of potentiality we seek and explore – that is, regardless of the number of languages involved and even if only one language appears in use” (75; emphasis in the original).


Chapter four, “Thinking with Food, Writing off Center”, examines the writings of two postcolonial Hong Kong authors: the poet, essayist, and fiction writer Leung Ping-kwan and the cultural critic Ma Kwok-ming. Brought together on the basis of the numerous references they make to food consumption in contemporary Hong Kong culture, the inclusion of these figures to the volume constitutes a fortunate and bolstering twist to Chow’s exploration of “the scene of postcolonial languaging.” This addition allows Chow to focus on eating as a means to display an orality other than a linguistic (vocal) one. In the context of the minoritised status of Cantonese vis-à-vis Mandarin and of Hong Kong’s repatriation to China, ingestion, she suggests, can be seen as a strategy to portray underrepresented people, relationships, artifacts, and ways of life.


In “The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood,” the fifth and last chapter, Chow presents a mini-memoir of one domain of languaging in her native Hong Kong: the realm of radio broadcasting. Chow’s memories of a childhood spent with a mother who scripted and produced Cantonese radio plays are presented in the context of the language practices under British colonialism (and the particular class stratifications it created), as well as the broader linguistic problems of Chinese populations in diaspora.


Overall, as her long-time readers would expect, with Not Like a Native Speaker, Chow presents students and scholars alike with an innovative and well-spun book that further extends her contribution to critical theory, cultural studies, literary studies, and postcolonial theory. The scope of materials covered allows Chow to address a relative lack of critical attention to language issues in Anglophone postcolonial studies – a topic that has been much more present in Francophone settings, for instance. At the same time, the book transcends the realm of Anglophone studies by covering, in chapter four and five, Hong Kong language practices.


One potential limitation of the book is the absence, in the introduction, of a clear, in-text development of the crucial concept of languaging. In the endnotes, Chow does trace her borrowing of the concept to A.L. Becker’s Beyond Translation (1995), and briefly quotes his definition of the term: “For Becker, the term language refers to a system of rules or structures, whereas the term languaging refers to an open-ended process that combines attunement to context, storing and retrieving memories, and communication” (Chow 125). While the content of the second chapter does clarify Chow’s own use of the concept, the reader may have hoped for a more explicit approach to this core notion throughout the book, and especially given the recent proliferation of varied uses of the term (and extensions of it) in fields such as cultural studies and sociolinguistics.2 This may have further strengthened the cohesiveness of a volume whose various parts pertinently revamp the conceptualisation of language in the digital age, by addressing a variety of meaning-making units (e.g. writing, skin tones, sound effects, mute inscriptions), all of which are entirely germane to Chow’s critique of languaging as a postcolonial experience.


In conclusion, the legacies of colonialism still inform the linguistic experience of the vast majority of people around the world. That said, under the conditions of today’s late (and blatantly unequal) modernity, that experience is simultaneously rendered more complex by global demographic movements and the ubiquity of media and communication technologies. In the twenty-first century, more and more people are faced with the need to grapple with shifting and positional language hierarchies, their impact on their lives and identities, and their consequences on the elaboration and deployment of the cultural productions they engage with. In this context, if languaging evidently continues to exist as a postcolonial experience, it is not exclusively a postcolonial experience – something Chow’s book does acknowledge, despite a title which appears to misleadingly understate this dimension. It is precisely under such circumstances that Not Like a Native Speaker ultimately spells out its increased significance: the book consolidates postcolonial studies, all the while extending its takeaways well beyond this realm.


Works Cited

Scott, David. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2004. 


Mélissa Gélinas is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Screen Arts and Cultures. In her dissertation, she examines multilingualism and linguistic "markedness" in twenty-first-century cinema and literature. Her research areas include film and media studies, literary studies, postcolonial theory, translation studies, and sociolinguistics. 


1. Along with Talal Asad. C.f., Asad, Talal. "Conscripts of Western Civilization." Dialectical Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, vol. 1, Civilization in Crisis. Ed. Christine Gailey. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. 333-51.

2. C.f., for instance, Walter Mignolo’s chapter “Bilanguaging Love: Thinking in between Languages” in Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (2012) and Janus Spindler Møller and J. Normann Jørgensen’s article “From language to languaging: changing relations between humans and linguistic features” (2009). 




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