“Linguistic Landscape and Superdiversity”: Reflections on LAUD 2016

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 10.17.31 PMTwo weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining the LAUD Symposium, a biennial linguistics event in Landau, Germany organized by Martin Pütz and colleagues at the University of Koblenz-Landau. Following past years’ topics that included intercultural pragmatics, cognitive psycholinguistics, and cognitive approaches to L2 processing, this year’s theme was “Linguistic landscapes and superdiversity in the city”—a fact that has made April quite a month for LL, at least in my corner of the world! (more on AAAL and LL8 below).

LAUD 2016 was beautifully organized and it was a real pleasure to be there, with scholars whose work in linguistic landscape and related fields I’ve been following for quite a while, and others who I have just begun to get to know. Here in this post I thought I would round up a few of the key themes that stood out for me given my own particular interests. Since I wasn’t able to make but a fraction of the talks, which were divided into three tracks except for the six plenaries, I won’t try to summarize the entire event.

First, I was struck by the ways in which researchers are pushing the boundaries of modes and manners of knowing in and of the linguistic landscape, in the first person. 

Of course, debates about the boundaries and appropriateness of the “linguistic” of linguistic landscape have been going on for years and are encapsulated in many people’s minds in the terms put forth in Jaworski and Thurlow’s 2010 volume, Semiotic landscapes. But at LAUD these seemed to take on an added urgency: in her opening plenary, Elana Shohamy remarked that the field is in fact “free and open” such that “almost any topic goes, as long as it’s public space.” She reiterated her stance that LL has long since left behind the strict determination of Landry & Bourhis that it only include publicly visible and fixed written texts. LL in this view can be heard (the “linguistic soundscape”) or otherwise perceived; it may have as much to do with ephemeral events and embodied practices as it does with the fixity of bilingual billboards or shop signs. This was a point made strikingly in Adam Jaworski’s plenary on the ‘nonverbally’ commoditized landscapes of gesture and expression, realized in such forms as poster advertisements and shopping mall mannequins that make use of ‘silence’, the smile(y face), and exaggerated poses made to ‘style the space’ and sell their wares. Building upon his recent work with Emi Otsuji, Alastair Pennycook made what was for me perhaps the most forceful provocation/invitation for LL researchers to look beyond the ‘signs’ that are available to any single mode of perception (in this sense their “smellscapes” may help us to get beyond any-scapes) and consider the emergences of meaning that become possible with people’s multisensory engagement with surrounding physical, social, and symbolic environments. “Translinguistic landscapes” should, he argued, incorporate semiotic acts of all kinds, and intersectionality offers possibilities for seeing beyond the intentionality of signing/signed acts.

Second, at the opposite end of the scale (if there were such a thing), the growth of LL corpora, immanent big data approaches, and GIS applications stood out.

The first talk I attended after the opening plenary was Barbara Soukup and Will Amos’s, “Towards a canon of variables in quantitative LL research”. Their efforts to enable more variationist sociolinguistic approaches through systematization of LL data gathering and categorization techniques created an early place from which to think about the scaling of findings and, reflexively, the refinement in research questions needed for researchers in different settings to work across contexts and ’datasets’. While it wasn’t clear to me how easily any one exhaustive classificatory scheme could travel in this way, papers such as Ulrich Schmitz and Evelyn Ziegler’s—a study of attitudes in Germany’s Ruhr region based on a corpus of about 25,000 pictures and 120 interviews—brought to the fore the urgency of continuing to foreground conversations about perennial questions of definition in LL: of neighborhood, site, or ‘territory’ under consideration; of the purported unit of analysis; and of semiotic, social, geographic, and human variables. Talks that employed GIS-informed data processing and mapping techniques, such as Isabelle Buchstaller and Seraphim Alvanides’ vibrant representations of ideological influence on the presence of Marshallese in the Marshall Islands and David Wrisley’s dynamic crowdsourced projects in Beirut, demonstrated new layers of urgency, as the artifacts of researchers’ analyses become representational landscapes of their own.

Third, technology writ large, in the form of mobile device use, techniques of visualization, and virtual linguistic landscapes, seemed to bring these first two concerns crashing together, with uncertain results.

In the Q&A following Shohamy’s opening plenary, debate over whether mobile devices should be used when walking through the public space (since when you’re looking at your phone, you’re not looking around) soon morphed into debate about how mobile devices transform ways of looking at and making the linguistic landscape, and what the implications are for the transformation of public space (what makes space public anyway? And how is publicness defined differently by different social actors in different geocultural settings?). The tension between ‘bigger-data’, more consciously technologized approaches to LL research and the need for locally-situated, idiosyncratic methods was illustrated for me nowhere more poignantly than in Durk Gorter’s contributions. On the one hand, he argued in his plenary for the value of large corpora, and ‘standards-based’ approaches to research methods (and to image-taking techniques in particular), while on the other hand he asserted the need for individual researchers to analyze their own data always with respect to their own research questions (other people’s photo collections in this sense have limited value in answering your questions, he said). Leaving behind the certainty he expressed in the meta-analysis of LL methods and techniques that occupied the majority of his talk, he ended by pointing to a number of new and emerging technologies with possibly transformative, possibly disruptive effects on the already tentative relationship between the linguistic landscape researcher and ‘the field’. This anxiety (a label I’m taking the liberty of applying here in this blog post to a tension I felt between objectify, subjectivity, and mediation in LL research methods; certainly not one expressed or likely intended by Gorter) was partially resolved for me in the talk by Rodney Jones, on landscapes of surveillance. Recalling the pioneering work of Ron and Suzie Wong Scollon in developing geosemiotics and nexus analysis, Jones argued that places are becoming “surveillant landscapes” not just from the top-down orders of government authorities, but also because of everyday people’s willing inscription of themselves into and as landscape via constant use of mobile devices, through which they “share” their location and any number of other kinds of personal data. I was fascinated by Jones’ point that even as we use our devices to better perceive and, yes, surveil the linguistic landscape, through a twist on the Bourdieu—>Scollon & Scollon idea of “historical bodies”, we allow landscapes to “remember us” and assume ownership of the digital traces we leave behind.

It’s of course impossible to do justice to these and the many other talks given at the LAUD Symposium. But these thoughts have remained with me and carried me forward into other linguistic landscape engagements this month. First were talks at a pair of colloquia at AAAL two weeks ago in Orlando, on visual practices in LL research (convened by Francis Hult) and language teaching and learning in the LL (convened by Hiram Maxim and Sébastien Dubreil). And now, at the end of the month, I have been typing these words on the planes, buses, and trains conveying me to Liverpool for the 8th annual workshop on linguistic landscape, where I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to take these and other ideas up again, all in the company of a wonderful and unique group of scholars that has become akin to a traveling family over the past decade.

Here I’ll leave off with a link to my talk at LAUD 2016, once again with thanks to Professor Pütz and all the volunteers who made it possible. I hope to return to Landau one day!

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