American Association for Applied Linguistics 2021 Virtual Conference

For the first time since its inaugural conference in 1978, the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) held its annual meeting virtually from March 20th to the 23rd. Scholars from around the globe attended the four-day conference, but this time from their own homes. While some events took place synchronously, the majority were asynchronous.

Approximately a thousand presentations, including my own, were prerecorded and made available on demand during the conference. All were close-captioned and will be accessible to registered attendees for six months after the conference ended. Discussion took place both synchronously during live Q&A sessions and asynchronously via discussion posts and the conference platform’s chat function. Poster sessions were also prerecorded as three-minute clips, which complemented PDFs of the posters themselves. In terms of socializing, the conference set up several themed and open networking rooms at various times to accommodate different time zones. In this travel report, I will summarize the content of my presentation and also describe the linguistic landscape’s pedagogical applications.

In my presentation, I shared quantitative work stemming from a larger mixed-methods project related to the linguistic landscape (LL), or the displayed, written language of public space (Landry & Bourhis, 1997). From the inception of the field, researchers have considered the ability of the LL to reflect locally spoken languages. While some have proposed a correlation between spoken and written languages of particular areas (Franco Rodríguez, 2009; Landry & Bourhis, 1997; Maurais & Monnier, 1996), others have refuted this relationship, citing factors including tourism, language policies, and power relations (Ben-Rafael et. al., 2006, 2010; Gorter, 2012; Shohamy, 2012).

Although the aforementioned factors of course shape the presence and appearance of languages present in local signage, in my presentation I argued for a reframing of the topic. Rather than ask the binary question of whether the written and oral languages can demonstrate a correlation, I proposed a more open-ended question to examine how written and oral languages can demonstrate a correlation. After all, if we take an empirical perspective and consider the null hypothesis that the LL cannot reflect linguistic communities, we see that we are able to refute this since there are methods by which we can understand linguistic characteristics of a neighborhood via its LL. The core of my presentation entailed a model I put forth with four methodological measures to analyze this correlation: a comparison of multiple cities, an exhaustive approach to data collection, an analysis of the dominant language of both the main and informative sections (Franco Rodríguez, 2008, 2009), and the use of descriptive and inferential statistics. As a case study, I considered 4,664 signs coming from three communities in Southeast Los Angeles. Results showed that each sign section could provide information about the proportion of Spanish speakers, but according to both descriptive and inferential statistics, the informative section best reflected oral languages.

While acknowledging that the LL will never act as a mirror to perfectly reflect spoken languages, the proposed model demonstrated techniques through which particular sign sections and configurations can reflect local, linguistic populations to varying extents and in a variety of ways. This project contributes to the burgeoning field of Linguistic Landscape Studies, as well as to applied linguistics by challenging established theoretical notions and providing new ways to understand the implications of public signage and the sociolinguistic situation of Spanish in Los Angeles. If you are interested in more information about this study, please see my contribution to the edited volume Linguistic Landscape in the Spanish-speaking World, set to appear in August of 2021:

Educators, and especially language instructors, recognize the value of realia and authentic materials in their classrooms. Many textbooks have replaced listening and reading activities generated specifically for language students with authentic material such as newspaper articles and links to television commercials, songs, blog posts, and podcasts. Photos of actual signage from real places have also begun to complement these materials. The linguistic landscape, in particular, has been shown to be a useful tool in developing students’ critical language awareness (Leeman, 2018).

In the linguistics classroom, the LL can serve as data for students to analyze variation and change at the phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic, and pragmatic levels. Contact phenomena including borrowings, loanwords, calques, code switching, and even orthographical influences can be examined in the LL.

Instances of language in public space not only provide vast opportunities to bring images of genuine language-in-use to students but can also bring students to local areas to examine and interact with the LL. I was able to do just this by using a project-based learning approach focusing on the LL when I taught Spanish in the US and in Contact with Other Languages. Students analyzed the presence and characteristics of Spanish in the urban signage of the nearby Spanish-speaking community of Fruitvale, Oakland. Eleven students participated in the course and together assembled a corpus of nearly 400 images. This project culminated in the collaborative construction of a website to share results and give students’ work life beyond the classroom:

Similar LL projects can also help students to understand concepts and applications of topics such as language policy, social multilingualism, and language ideologies [see Leeman & Serafini (2016) and Leeman (2018)].

The LL is a free pedagogical instrument that has an array of applications in the classroom. If the language you teach is not as accessible as stepping out your front door, keep in mind that the virtual LL is only a click away.

I would like to thank the Berkeley Language Center for supporting my attendance and presentation at the American Association for Applied Linguistics 2021 Virtual Conference.