Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology

.تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

Christian Junge (Arabic Studies, University of Marburg, Germany)

Christian Junge. Photo by Judith Affolter.

English is, without doubt, the dominant academic language of our time, especially in the natural sciences, where materials are often taught and published in English. On the contrary, in European humanities, scholars of literary and cultural studies, linguistics and philosophy teach and publish quite widely in minor academic languages, such as German, Italian or Polish. By so doing, they emphasize that language is more than merely a technical means of knowledge production, it is a Weltansicht (Humboldt), a form of thinking and viewing the world, as Jürgen Trabant has elaborated in his recent manifest for European multilingualism, Sprachdämmerung: Eine Verteidigung (Dawn of Language: A Defense).[1]

European humanities facilitate a plurality of knowledge with this plurality of languages – yet often remain within the limitations of the nation states and their official languages. While Trabant refers to the official languages of the European Union, such as Swedish, Maltese or Hungarian, he rarely mentions the importance of migrant languages, such as Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Kurdish or Chinese. In order to overcome the Eurocentricity of the humanities in Europe, area studies concerned with non-Western regions turn the rest of the world (or what has often ignorantly been referred to as the rest of world) into centers of our world; they “provincialize Europe,” as the postcolonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has described it.

General Argument

Area studies provide European humanities with a non-Eurocentric plurality of knowledge. However, they increasingly neglect the plurality of non-European languages by teaching and publishing mostly in English (or French) but not, for instance, in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi or Persian. This development runs the risk of “language-less” area studies that do not care about linguistic plurality and neither explore nor invest in it.

In this regard, I argue, area studies are in need of language-inspired humanities, making use of postcolonial philology. Many scholars of the humanities who are working on non-European areas have a general philological interest in the languages of these areas. Postcolonial philology, in addition, embraces the ambitions of postcolonial studies and advocates linguistic plurality; it engages actively in emancipatory language practices by teaching and doing research partly in and about non-European languages, such as Arabic, Hindi or Chinese. This does not mean doing without English, French or other European languages but rather adding non-European languages to seminars, journals, conferences and collective volumes. Postcolonial philology facilitates epistemic and linguistic plurality.

The Case of Arabic Studies in Germany

Turning now to the humanities of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that are based in Germany, I take the example of Arabic studies and start by illustrating the language problem with an anecdote. Some years ago, I met a German colleague from German studies who got a position in Japan. “How do you teach German studies in Japan,” I asked him, “in English or in Japanese?” He replied: “In German, of course!” I was struck by this “of course” since all Arab professors at German universities that I have met teach either in English or in German but never in Arabic. Is Arabic more difficult for German students than German is for Japanese students? Or does European academia have a different language practice than Japanese academia? And what is the cultural capital of non-global languages such as German and Arabic?

Many recent initiatives in Arabic studies abroad seek to turn Oriental philology into a postcolonial-sensitive philology. They no longer content themselves with doing research on the MENA region but seek to do research with the colleagues from that region. Using the words of Wolf Lepenies, they seek to create “intercultural learning communities.”[2] In order to achieve this goal, some of these initiatives emphasize the need to use the languages of the Arab world more actively. This refers mainly to Modern Standard Arabic but may also include Arabic dialects, Amazigh languages (i.e. Berber languages), Kurdish, Hebrew or French, which reflect the linguistic variety of the MENA region. In this regard, postcolonial philology seeks to create intercultural and multilingual learning communities.

Three Goals

A postcolonial Arabic philology shares, in my understanding, three goals: a linguistic, an epistemic and an ethical goal. The linguistic goal aims at teaching Arabic as a modern and active academic language. In this regard, Arabic is not only a source language but also a language of knowledge production, as it is used in Arabic conferences and publications. Teaching academic Arabic aspires to qualify students linguistically to access and practice academic Arabic.

The goal is not only to speak and write Arabic more actively but also to facilitate access to the knowledge that is produced in Arabic, which emphasizes the importance of dealing more closely with the publications of our Arab colleagues that are published in Arabic. This means making Arabic knowledge production more visible in European epistemic discourse, discussing it critically on an equal footing and looking for common research interests.

This also helps us to become aware of our own academic positionality in light of the possible inequality in academia, which leads to the third goal, that is, to raise ethical awareness. When we, as nonnative scholars of Arabic, speak and write in Arabic and address an Arab audience, we definitely leave our comfort zone and often experience linguistic and epistemic vulnerability, which may eventually lead us to reconsider the embedded privileges in the form of a relationship that connects us with our Arab colleagues. In the end, we all share this vulnerability in different contexts and languages. This ethical awareness, together with the linguistic competence and epistemic curiosity, are the bases for creating intercultural and multilingual learning communities.

Best Practice Examples

How do recent initiatives realize these goals? Let me give three examples. Some German universities have started teaching parts of the academic curriculum in Arabic, often in the form of a co-teaching between a native and a nonnative lecturer. Barbara Winckler from the University of Münster and Anis Ben Amor from the University Tunis El Manar piloted an intercultural and multilingual translation project within the framework of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA), where German students of Arabic studies and Tunisian students of German studies collaborated on translating German and Arabic literary texts into the respective other language.

Eylaf Bader Eddin, Sherif El-Habibi, Assem Hefny, Christian Junge and Vera Tsukanova similarly started the ongoing halqa arabiyya (Arabic circle) at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Marburg. This is an initiative that consists of a research colloquium where students and scholars present and discuss their work in Arabic and a series of short video lectures in Arabic with Arabic subtitles in order to make it more accessible for nonnative students and scholars.

Moreover, and again within the framework of the Arab German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Enass Khansa and Bilal Orfali, both from the American University of Beirut, together with Barbara Winckler and Christian Junge have been running a series of bilingual summer schools called Arabische Philologien im Blickwechsel – نحو دراسات عربية برؤى متعددة for several years. During those summer schools, young academics from European and Arab universities are given the opportunity to present their research in an international context, to discuss new and pioneering approaches to Arabic philology, literature and culture, and to actively practice the academic language they are less versed in. Most of the European junior scholars would usually be presenting their research for the first time in Arabic, while some of the Arab junior scholars would be using English for the first time. By doing so, the summer school program creates a postcolonial-sensitive forum where scholars meet as equals, knowledge about the Arab world is produced together with scholars from Arab universities and Arabic is used as an academic language on an equal footing with English.

In addition, postcolonial philology often seeks to reach out to society in order to make its epistemic and linguistic plurality meaningful beyond the academic ivory tower. In this regard, the Fachverband Arabisch, a professional association promoting the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language, recently founded by Peter Konerding and colleagues from the University of Bamberg, seeks to promote Arabic as an official school language that might be taught along with other foreign languages, such as Latin, Greek, French and Russian.

Adopting a Non-European Language!

The humanities are often labelled as ambiguous “soft sciences” as opposed to the seemingly exact “hard sciences.” However, this ambiguous softness is also the strength of the humanities, since it foregrounds the linguistic plurality, epistemic complexity and ethical interrelatedness of the world. Area studies helps scholars to move beyond the Eurocentric European knowledge and show how the rest of the world are, in fact, centers of our common world. In order to meet the challenges of a multilingual global world, area studies can profit from postcolonial language-engaged humanities that take into account the areas’ languages more closely. We can only form intercultural and multilingual learning communities on an equal footing by incorporating such a linguistic competence, epistemic open-mindedness and ethical awareness.

The Lebanese-born French writer and thinker Amin Maalouf together with a group of European intellectuals have demanded that citizens of the European Union adopt a third language, in other words, a “personal adoptive language,”[3] in addition to their mother tongues and English language, in order to foster mutual intercultural understanding within the European Union. In this case, adopting a language means getting intellectually and affectively in touch with this language and making it meaningful for personal or professional purposes. It is in this vein that scholars of postcolonial humanities should adopt a non-European language.

Postcolonial Arabic philology abroad seeks to qualify and encourage nonnative students and scholars to leave their linguistic comfort zone by dealing more closely with studies written in Arabic and presenting their research in Arabic. Similarly, it welcomes native students and scholars of Arabic studies to teach and do research in Arabic. This means, in brief, to reach out to the knowledge that is produced in the area we are working on, namely, the Arab World, and to translate it to the area we are working in, namely, Germany or Europe. Only if we, as part of the humanities, resist the monolingualism of dominant academic languages, will we be able to stay in close contact with the different knowledge societies, including those of the Arab world, Germany and Europe. In this regard, area studies and postcolonial humanities matter to European humanities because, together, they provide the latter with an epistemic and linguistic plurality beyond Eurocentrism.


[1] Jürgen Trabant, Sprachdämmerung: Eine Verteidigung, Munich: C.H. Beck, 2020.

[2] Wolf Lepenies, “Das Ende der Überheblichkeit”, DIE ZEIT 48, 1995 [accessed 04.02.2021].

[3] European Commission, “Promoting a ‘personal adoptive language‘ strengthens multilingualism and intercultural dialogue, concludes the EC group of intellectuals”, European Commission Website, 2008 [accessed: 02.03.2021].

Christian Junge has been a lecturer and researcher in the field of modern Arabic literature and culture at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Marburg since 2015. He studied comparative literature and Arabic studies in Berlin, Paris and Cairo. He received his PhD from the Freie Universität Berlin with the study Die Entblößung der Wörter (Exposing Words) on literature and language thinking in the work of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyāq (d. 1887). His recent book project Affective Readings deals with the society and emotion in/of Egyptian literature from 1990 to 2020. His recent publications in postcolonial studies include “Touching Language!”. He is a member of the Arab German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA), co-director of the summer school program Arabische Philologien im Blickwechsel – نحو دراسات عربية برؤى متعددة, and founding member of the halqa arabiyya.

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Citation: Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Reserach, 08.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27805.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 8. April). Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 21. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut0d

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Eine Antwort

  1. 27. September 2021

    […] Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, […]

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search