Why linguistic landscapes are awesome

One day in 2011 a friend of mine and I were returning to Russia from a trip to Finland. Just as Vancouverites would drive over to Bellingham to do some casual shopping, we used to go to bordering towns of Finland on regular basis. That day, the trip followed all the same stages: shop, eat, take photos, pass the custom and passport control, drive back. My camera was on my lap, and luckily since I was not driving, I could leisurely look from the window on the changing landscape, when I saw a billboard. It said Welcome to Us. In large red letters against an image of a peaceful lake with a big rainbow over it. This billboard was so fascinating that I immediately took a photo. So, started my extensive collection of use of written text on public signage, something that as I later learned is termed as linguistic landscape.

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What made me stop and snap a photo? Was it the size of the billboard? Its placement? The choice of colours and font? Or was it the choice of language? In fact, its was all of it together. Linguistic landscapes are made from multimodal texts that convey their messages through multiple semiotic systems at the same time. Linguistic landscapes—beautiful fonts, vibrant colours, images, languages, layouts—are captivatingly beautiful. However, their careful analysis can reveal messages that are not immediately recognized. These messages present evidence of larger sociocultural processes in the society—such as fascination with the English language in Russia—or of emergence of new linguistic context of the locality—such as increased immigration to a certain city.

As a scholar of sociolinguistics, I study how people use languages in multilingual societies. Think about it, somehow, we know that if you are trying to say something to an international audience, your best bet would be to use English. You can expect a restaurant Mamma Mia to serve Italian cuisine in some form, just as La Cigale is understandably a French Bistro in Kitsilano, though maybe you would expect to have cicadas there for dinner. You know to expect signs in Cantonese in Vancouver’s Chinatown and in Mandarin in Richmond. You can actually map the city of Vancouver through analyzing what languages are used in what areas. You can also try and understand the thinking behind the creation of certain signs in certain languages.

However, in multilingual societies, people are constantly juggling languages, cultural practices, and modes of communication. In multilingual societies, speakers don’t simply rely on one system of sounds, words and grammar rules at a time, but constantly create a fluid multilingual system. Take metro Vancouver. It is incredible in its ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. In fact, a recent article in Vancouver Sun called our city “one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet”. Why do we know that?  We have signs that are written in many languages at the same time. A multilingual individual can easily read a menu or a sale advertisement, drawing on whichever languages they speak. Having access to multilingual linguistic landscape legitimizes that speaker’s multilingual practices.

Since time immemorial people wanted to communicate their presence. The first forms of symbolic communication were petroglyphs, rock carvings, color, etchings on stone walls. Some of petroglyphs are as old as 40,000 years. Today they open a window into deep complex cultural practices of the societies that created them. In 2017, humans have access to a multitude of modes of communication: words, images, colours, textures. This is why, when talking about multilingual linguistic landscapes we are really talking about a deeply human desire to carve out a space of belonging, to communicate their presence. I hope that my talk will help people see the beauty of multilingualism and inspire them to embrace the linguistic diversity of our society. I hope that we will find the languages around us fascinating and not threatening. Multilingual linguistic landscapes help us embrace human creativity that is continually reshaping our society and makes it vibrant. All we need to do is take a closer look around.

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