What role does “translanguaging” play in space?

Humanity’s engagement with space is often an international affair. In the case of the International Space Station, for instance, many countries have contributed to its development and have sent astronauts to crew it. Astronauts with different backgrounds speak different languages, but they need to communicate with each other. One way they do this is by “translanguaging,” combining linguistic and communicative resources to understand each other. To learn more about translanguaging in space, we spoke to Emily Finer, a senior lecturer in Russian at the University of St Andrews.

What is “translanguaging”?

Translanguaging refers to mixing languages when you speak, read, or write. It describes how people who speak more than one language communicate in a world enriched by migration and mobility. It goes beyond what we normally think of as language, including communication through combinations of words, emojis, videos, and gifs. The linguist Li Wei has identified translanguaging spaces – for example a Polish shop in London – where new language configurations are created through multilingual and multimodal communication: signs, conversations, gestures, technology, etc. For me, it’s a refreshing way of thinking about language that goes beyond the traditional perception that languages “belong” to nations. It challenges the way we teach and learn languages at school and university. It encourages us to move beyond learning to speak a “standard” form of a “foreign” language.

Why is this relevant to space?

The International Space Station is a wonderful example of a translanguaging space… in space! While the official language of the ISS is English, the Soyuz module that takes the crew there operates entirely in Russian. Russian cosmonauts all speak English and astronauts from all around the world take Russian lessons as part of their training in Star City, Russia.

I research how the international crew members communicate with each other off planet. When astronaut Anne McClain said in an interview, “we have to all speak the same language when we work in space,” she didn’t mean that everyone must speak English, Japanese, or Russian. Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko explained what really happens on the ISS: “We most often spoke a blended language: space runglish. When Tracy [Caldwell-Dyson] asked me something in passing, I never had a problem. I could always understand her. And the other way round, when I’d ask her to help with something or show her that I wasn’t managing to rotate some component, there was no need to explain. It is a conglomerate of Russian, American, and technical education. The result? 100% communication.” This is exactly the sort of translanguaging space described by Li Wei – where people combine the full range of their socio-cultural resources, including gestural, visual, native, and learned languages.

How is this relevant to future missions?

It would be a shame if the introduction of SpaceX and Starliner meant astronauts would no longer need to learn Russian to operate the Soyuz. Astronaut Peggy Whitson has said that interpersonal, “soft” skills will be just as essential in long-duration space missions as technical competence. As part of our 2021 theme “Mapping the Approach to Exoplanets,” the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science is currently exploring the challenges that discovering life outside the Solar System will pose. Linguists have found that multilingualism encourages cognitive functions and contributes to creative thinking. This kind of linguistic flexibility, which is demonstrated by the ISS crew, will be all the more important when it comes to settlement in space or, potentially, communication with extraterrestrials.

What other opportunities are there for folks to pursue dual interests in language and space?

My astrophysicist colleagues in the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science are increasingly interested in the relationship between science and science fiction. It is obvious that science fiction is informed by scientific discoveries, but it also works the other way around: scientists are inspired by science fiction and they sometimes write it themselves. Liu Cixin’sThree-Body Problem and Carl Sagan’s Contact both forecast how individuals and societies might react to communications from outside the Solar System. Science fiction from different cultures can offer ways for scientists to communicate complex ideas to the general public.

In addition to reading science fiction from different times and places, I would also encourage people to translate it or write their own. In her 2013 essay “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?” N. K. Jemisin asked, “Why did I have to travel to the margins of speculative fiction to see anything of myself? Why was it easier to find aliens or unicorns than people of color or realistic women?” I would add another question: Why do space explorers and extraterrestrials always seem to speak English? I find that science fiction is quite unimaginative when it forecasts how we will communicate. Monolingualism, particularly English monolingualism, is such a dominant force in global publishing that it’s rare for books to represent translanguaging or invented languages. I hope that science fiction will learn from the creative translanguaging practices used by the ISS crews and that a range of human languages will continue to be used – and blended – in space.