Monday, 3 August 2015

Linguistic Landscape 7 Workshop in Berkeley. Part 1

In May I had the pleasure to attend the 7th Linguistic Landscape Workshop at the University of California, Berkeley. Since I use the Linguistic Landscape (LL) approach extensively in my research on education-related ideologies, I was happy to learn about new developments in the field. Listening to the presentations, I found two recurring topics being especially relevant for my studies. First: what is the role of the researcher in the documentation and analysis of linguistic landscapes? As it is a field where thousands of photos and videos are analyzed day by day, the question emerges both in a practical sense (how to choose the angle, the scope, the format, etc. for the image we will analyze) and at a theoretical level (what frameworks and analytical methods are available and appropriate for our studies). Secondly, I think numerous contributions made very good points in connection with the relationship between the researchers and the researched communities, raising issues of ethics and social impact. Last but not least, since this was my first visit in the States ever, and I got excited of the cultural heterogeneity I experienced during this wonderful week (but more about this will come in the second part of this post).

Part of the Berkeley campus and the town as seen from the top of Sather Tower or Campanile, a symbol of the university. My image.

Instead of giving a full report, now I try to present some of the ideas that inspired me the most. As you could notice, the workshop was not yesterday, so I had time to think over a couple of issues in the past months.

The papers were presented in three parallel sessions, so it was impossible to listen to all of them. But, thanks to the organizers, you can read a lot about the papers and discussions on a collaborative writing space that contains even photos and handouts. You can also read all the abstracts online.

So, what about the documentation of the landscape? In academic texts, everybody uses spatial-visual metaphors all the time when presenting the studies. We take a standpoint from which we approach our topic; we can't include everything in a paper, so we focus on something, and so on... and, of course, we do our analysis within various frames. For many years, I used these expressions as dead metaphors since I always worked with written texts or voice-recorded interaction. But hey, in LL studies, these words literally mean something! The LL7 workshop was a great place to discuss that the 'technical', 'theoretical' and 'analytical' parts of LL work are really intertwined because we do visual studies. Let's take an example from Steve Daniel Przymus' work:

Landscape from the car seat: Tucson, Arizona. Image: Steve Daniel Przymus. With permission.

As you can see, the image – as many others in Steve's corpus collected in Tucson, Arizona – was taken from a car. You can see the street names as parts of the road sign system, and as part of the natural landscape (trees, sky, etc.). And, of course, the physical features of the car quite strongly influence the sight the camera can capture. I really liked that Steve's presentation included a short data session part at the beginning: he placed photo prints on the tables in the room and our task was to share our personal conclusion on the photo collection. Steve emphasized the importance of what he called the framed perception of signs that influence our ideologies on a given place. His paper concluded that the English and Spanish street names are involved in discussions on two competing local approaches to education, namely, an English-only and a bilingual scheme. 

Bilingualism or multilingualism manifests itself in the form of shop windows and other forms of public signage as well. Monica Barni, Carla Bagna and Sabrina Machetti shared their research experiences in connection with the interpretation of the signs. Nowadays, there are many signs that display not only languages that are unfamiliar for the researcher but also scripts that are unintelligible for them. So even researchers with a doctorate can be illiterate in certain contexts... One of the solutions they found was that they carried out their fieldwork with local multilingual helpers who translated some of the signs – but, of course, this method can't reveal the whole complexity of diversity of an area. But how can we draw the borders of an 'area'? There are many LL studies with titles like 'Multilingualism in the LL of Y municipality', or 'Diversity in Z's X district', etc. Will Amos worked a lot in Liverpool's Chinatown, and he faced the challenge of defining the location he investigated. There were, for example, maps published by the tourist office that marked an area as 'Chinatown', and there were also official bilingual street signs that contributed to the construction of 'Chinatownness'. But how do locals perceive 'Chinatown'? Amos used a questionnaire to answer this question: pedestrians were asked to mark the boundaries on a map that did not include the 'official' borderline.

Turning our head (and camera and ears) towards people who create, consume, interpret and challenge public signage, and including them as part of the landscape – these ideas were in the center of a couple of discussions after the presentations. Figures in LL papers usually contain signs without people. It's easy to understand: the authors share some background information with the readers for the analysis, and they primarily want to share 'the sign itself'. For example, I can show you a sign from Vienna that points towards the direction of tourist destinations:

Sign in Vienna, Karlsplatz. Capture from my video.

For the first sight, it's not totally clear how this sign is situated, how it works and what context it fits. From the following video (my recording), you can see that this sign constantly changes and that it's placed on the pavement where thousands of people step onto it. The sign shows the direction while it is literally 'on the way' towards churches, museums and other popular destinations:


So, as the video shows, signs are surrounded, or even trampled by people. But how do people interact with signs? In the paper we co-authored with Petteri Laihonen, we investigated this question. We built on photos and video recordings of classroom interaction that show teachers and students in interaction with the schoolscape, reading, creating and arranging signs, and using them in many other ways for their purposes. As a case study, we showed how pupils co-produce a poster in an English as a foreign language lesson: how they negotiate what text and image to contain, and how they refer (both verbally and physically, e.g. by pointing) to the poster in the frontal presentation of their topic, when their work is hanging on the wall. We tried to call attention to practices and processes that contribute to the emergence, the use and the interpretation of signage in educational spaces. We also showed regulatory elements; for example, when a teacher corrected the spelling of one of the posters by striking out and overwriting certain words. In connection with our presentation, I was happy that I could meet Sune Vork Steffensen here in Berkeley as well (we've met in Jyväskylä earlier), and could listen to the paper he co-authored with Christian Mosboek Johannessen that emphasized the importance of an ecological approach to LL. Their theoretically oriented study also focused on how people interact with signs, and proposed the use of video cameras, rather than only photo cameras, in LL research. Their thoughts were really encouraging and showed that video-based schoolscape studies are not built on silly ideas :-) By the way, from a schoolscape point of view, Anne Golden and Elizabeth Lanza shared interesting thoughts about the interconnedctedness of multilingual displays, practices and policies in a Norwegian school. They showed how the school they investigated aimed at promoting the languages and identities of immigrant students, their families and communities. I will visit Norway in October, so I hope I will learn more about Norwegian schoolscapes and education policies. It would have been great to attend David Malinowski's paper on learning languages with the help of the LL, but unfortunately I couldn't be there since it was in a parallel session. However, it's conforming that I can read his study on education and LL in the new Linguistic Landscape journal ("Opening spaces of learning in the linguistic landscape").

Before I turn to the second main topic of this post (i.e., relationship with the researched communities), I think it's important to mention how Claire Kramsch summarized many of the questions I referred to in the previous paragraphs. Kramsch challenged the metaphor 'reading the linguistic landscape' that appears in many publications (including a couple of mine as well). This metaphor seems to be handy, especially if we consider that the field of LL studies emerged from the analysis of written signs, and it constantly grew towards the investigation of bodies, sounds and semiotics in general, in physical and virtual space (for virtual LL: Maimu Berezkina gave an interesting talk about the LL of the online communication of Norwegian state offices). However, Kramsch claimed, it is not only the researcher who 'reads': research technology also codes and encodes many things, and the use of various cameras and recorders influence our findings. Jessica Adams and Emily Linares showed that the influence of the technology can be quite extreme as GoogleTranslate is able to transform the scene we are currently observing, as the following video advertises (for more information, see a recent article):

Just to continue this technology line, I share some linking thoughts about my Spring fieldwork. I worked in Hungarian schools, and it was amazing for me to experience how my tools extended my perception. I observed classroom interaction (and schoolscape, of course), using three video cameras and four voice recorders placed in different places in the room, and I also used my smart phone for additional photographs and video recordings and, needless to say, I wrote my field notes continuously. Now I have plenty of materials of all the lessons, many of them containing scenes that I have not noticed while being in the classroom. So, who 'observed'? Who 'collected data'? Who 'experienced'? It was me or the gadgets? It's more or less a theoretical question for sure, but it's true that if I want to make my analysis, I need to synchronize (i.e., edit), watch, transcribe, etc. the recordings. In brief, what I have is a bunch of materials for potential reconstructions of the observed spaces and actions. Of course, the relationship between experience and reconstruction is quite well-known and reflected in social studies, but still, since our LL work greatly relies on audiovisual technologies, these aspects are worth considering, I think. As one of the LL7 participants put it in a discussion, "we say we investigate space but we analyze only photos and videos".

I share my experiences at the general discussion of the 'Reflections on Practice' sessions. Image: Elana Shohamy. With permission.

I think LL work can hardly be done without engagement with the communities with which we share space and sight. At least I personally can't really be 'out' of the space I'm investigating – and I don't really want to be 'out' of it either. This is why I involve local community members from the beginning of my schoolscape studies into the interpretation of what we're – and not just 'I'm' – exploring during fieldwork. I find this involvement useful and inspiring, that's why I chose this topic for my contribution to the Reflections on Practice sessions. This format was very useful for me: two-three researchers with similar methodological or theoretical challenges were grouped, and we could discuss our ongoing work in a supportive atmosphere. In this session, I presented my tourist guide techniqueIn practice, this technique means that I record interviews and take photos while walking through the school building, accompanied by a local student, teacher or parent who acts as a guide. It's like a role play: in this setting, as negotiated with the guide, I act as a tourist who wants to learn a lot about the school (of course, my guide knows that in reality I'm a researcher from a university). Normally I take pictures and the guide records audio. Now I have very exciting videos, recorded by a third person, showing these school tours from outside, so I can analyze my contribution to these tours in detail. The next picture is a nice example, showing how my parent guide calls my attention to something in the surrounding of the school building:

A parent calls my attention to something that she finds important during the co-exploration of the school premises. Video capture from my recent fieldwork in Hungary.

For me, it's very important to try to observe spaces as their users see it – or, at least, to try to include their approaches. That's why this picture has a symbolic value for me: I'm the one who needs guidance, and community members orient me in exploring their place. It's about trust and personal interaction, and I'm really grateful for all of these tours. In addition, sometimes my questions or comments can be also useful for the locals: from my outsider point of view, I sometimes highlight things that they have not been aware of.

The general discussion of the Reflections on Practice sessions was really useful, since it was not possible to attend all the parallel sessions. It was great to hear that building connections with locals, improving interview methods, conducting self-reflective research, and the importance of incorporating participants' interpretations into the analysis are topics that are more and more in the foreground of LL discourses.

Quite often, engagement with locals practically means that researchers use their position and resources in order to shape public discussions on certain topics. Furthermore, research projects sometimes are directly intertwined with civil activism. For example, Susan Moffat reported the project called The Atlas of the Albany Bulb in which both observation and intervention are among the main targets. The project mapped the life of the bulb residents, using the residents' own pictures and their narration on the pictures. The manifestos, memorials, graffiti and other signs are very interesting from a LL point of view as they are closely connected to the residents' practices, identities and values. What links this project to activism is that the research group fought against the eviction of the bulb residents.

Listening to locals' voice can help in understanding several ways of remembering. History and local memories are socially co-constructed, and the may change according to political reforms or changes of regime. Further, history and memories can be different for various minorities living in the same country. It's not surprising that memory studies were very popular in the conference, especially because sometimes they presented delicate or contested situations. Cammeron Girvin, for example, analyzed proverb-like slogans in Bulgarian post-WWII Communist propaganda. Anastassia Zabrodskaja presented how the Estonian Consumer Protection Board modified their advertisements for the Russian community, including elements of Russian fairy tales, because Russians did not really understand the references to the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg in the original version. Shoshi Waksman and Elana Shohamy investigated Arabic tourist signs in Tel Aviv-Jaffa that use the Arabic language but don't take the viewpoint nor show the agency of the Arab communities. In sum, these three studies showed interesting examples of accommodating the 'other' groups' literacies for marketing purposes. In a similar manner, the question of memories and counter-memories was also very exciting. Robert Blackwood presented research on memorials: how they contribute to remembering and forgetting, e.g., in the form of the erasure of multilingualism in cases when the speakers are multilingual, but the memorial is monolingual. Rebecca Todd Garvin raised ethical problems such as (i) is the (visible) history in the LL 'correct?; (ii) who is included/visible, who is excluded/invisible in places of remembering?; (iii) how history is written and rewritten through the design and re-design of the LL? Many questions that the researcher can't answer in herself/himself.

Monolingual Swedish memorial plaque on a wall in the officially bilingual city Turku / Åbo (Finland). My image.

Since the main topic of the workshop was 'boundaries in LL', finally I mention the question of human bodies in the landscape that I found interesting in the further expansion of the LL scenery. Earlier I heard about skinscapes (cf. tattooing culture), so it was interesting to learn more about bodies in the semiotic space. Doris Correa, Elana Shohamy and Camilo Dominguez spoke about the billboards and online advertisements of Colombian clinics that offer plastic surgery for women. This study foregrounded the normative power of LL as it showed how campaigns pathologize normal bodies and normalize modified bodies. In sum, not only the bodies depicted in the advertisements, but also the accompanying comments, written testimonials and others contributed to public discussions on human body. I found it exciting that human bodies in themselves (without, for example, tattoos) were conceptualized as constitutive parts of the LL.

So, that's it, these were my personal notes about the LL7 workshop in Berkeley. Thanks for all the organizers and participants for this great experience! The conference is over, but the LL7 social channels are still alive. You can find interesting LL-oriented links and comments on the Facebook page of the conference and you can browse the posts also on Twitter. If you think it would be great to attend the next LL workshop in Liverpool (that's how I feel), visit the LL8 call for papers, and of course, feel free to follow the organizers on Twitter.

If you read Hungarian, you can find my LL7 conference report on the popular portal of linguistics Nyelv és Tudomány ('Language and Science').

(Please stay tuned, I continue this post with my personal LL perceptions on California...)

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