Superdiverse inner-city Leeds

By Leeds-based research team, Mike Baynham, John Callaghan and James Simpson


The Leeds TLang team are carrying out most of their research fieldwork in Harehills, an inner-city area a mile to the north-east of the centre of Leeds.

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Leeds. Map data ©2015 Google

We characterise the area as superdiverse, in line with the full title of the TLang project: Translation and translanguaging: Investigating linguistic and cultural transformations in superdiverse wards in four UK cities. But what does a superdiverse area look like? A census-informed response can be found in this map of Leeds (with data from the 2011 census). The darker the shading, the higher the percentage of respondents claiming a language other than English as their main languageː

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Census 2011. (

Parts of ‘our’ ward, Gipton and Harehills, are shaded dark red, indicating over 40% of respondents use a language other than English as their main language. Census 2011 data also reveals that between them these respondents claim over 65 minority languages as main languages. Of course what constitutes a main language is contentious and contested. Likewise treating languages as countable entities (as is done in the census) misunderstands the nature, fluidity and dynamism of multiple languages and varieties as they are actually used; thus census accounts of language should always be treated with caution. Nonetheless survey data displayed on a map enable some visual insight into the linguistic make-up of an area. We have found, however, that the specific neighbourhoods which make up Harehills have their own particular, distinct and visible identities, associated with a range of spatial and social factors.

So in the TLang project we draw upon a different type of visual approach, linguistic landscape research, growing in popularity in the fields of sociolinguistics and linguistic ethnography (e.g. Blommaert 2013). Exploring the neighbourhoods in which many migrants live, work, or spend time we:

  • document the visual evidence of multilingualism and its emergence and evolution over time using photographs of shop fronts and signage
  • note the uneven distribution of multilingual texts across a neighbourhood’s streetscapes
  • exploit the potential of ethnographic observation of small businesses and their users to discover the details of everyday life ‘behind’ the linguistic landscape

An early stage of the TLang research in Leeds involved documenting the linguistic landscape of three neighbourhoods in Harehills:

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Neighbourhood 1:   Roundhay Road

If the Harehills Triangle is the heart of Harehills, then Roundhay Road is the face it presents to the world. For many migrants and the descendants of migrants who live outside the area, Roundhay Road and the stretches of Harehills Lane and Harehills Road adjacent to it are Harehills, and though ethnic minority faces are much more visible now in ‘downtown’ Leeds these days, for many migrants Roundhay Road is the city centre. As one migrant puts it: ‘There are people like me. I feel like I am in Addis [Ababa].’

(Callaghan, 2015)

Roundhay Road is a globalised corridor; a major arterial road whose shopping opportunities attract visitors from across the city and beyond, and where English seems to act as a lingua franca. Here there is evidence of the affluence and aspiration of longer-standing residents, displayed in the availability of luxury goods and services.

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Historically the linguistic landscape of Roundhay Road seems to represent quite an advanced stage in the evolution of a migrant ecology, with members of two communities in particular (Pakistani, Bangladeshi) having tended to settle in the neighbourhood and become home and property owners, whilst members of other communities who arrived at the same time have tended to migrate to other, often more affluent, areas of the city. These latter groups, however, are still represented in the neighbourhood by businessmen and women, members of the professions (health, law, education, charities, advocacy and advice), and—along with individuals from a very large diversity of groups—as consumers.

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Neighbourhood 2: Harehills Lane

Harehills Lane is a main road which takes us towards the periphery of Harehills. This is a migrant area at a much earlier stage of development. It is a high street along which shops spring up to cater to the specific categories of more recent arrivals, among them A8 migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees: people arriving with little or nothing and struggling to equip themselves with the basics for survival.

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These newer groups are much smaller, more numerous, and therefore less cohesive than those which arrived in the last century, though like the first Asian migrants, newcomers are in many cases single and male.

Neighbourhood 3: Cherry Row

This is a smaller backstreet niche environment inhabited almost exclusively by Kurds, Somalis, and Eritreans.

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Cherry Row, Leeds. ©2015 Google

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Here the linguistic landscapes are more visibly multilingual, perhaps reproducing conditions which existed in Neighbourhood 1 in the 1960s.

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Multilingualism here is more visible, because a smaller number of expert languages used means that writers of the signs can use languages other than English: the need for English as a lingua franca is not so pressing. Cherry Row is also home to recent arrivals, without the competence in English literacy of more established migrants.

Superdiversity and unpredictability

What does the concept of ‘superdiversity’ add to our understanding and our theorising? Why can’t these neighbourhoods in Harehills simply be described as ‘very diverse’? Perhaps, as Blommaert and Rampton suggest, a defining characteristic of a superdiverse urban area is its unpredictability:

Super-diversity is characterized by a tremendous increase in the categories of migrants, not only in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, and religion, but also in terms of motives, patterns and itineraries of migration, processes of insertion into the labour and housing markets of the host societies, and so on … The predictability of the category of “migrant” and of his/her sociocultural features has disappeared.

(Blommaert and Rampton 2011: 2)

Although the linguistic landscapes of Harehills suggest great complexity, this complexity does appear to be patterned in some ways, and is not as unpredictable as it might seem at first sight. We know precisely where in Harehills we are most likely to find shops, businesses and services catering for the more affluent and more established migrants, for example, and likewise where to find ones responding to the demands of those who arrived more recently or whose lives are more precarious. We observe the trend towards monolingual English signage in shops as the range of expert languages used in a neighbourhood grows and the need for English as a lingua franca correspondingly increases.

The unpredictability perhaps lies in how the individuals in Harehills align, or potentially align. Who teams up with whom? And for what purpose? The stories behind the signs start to tell us how new ethnic alignments are made:

  • an Afro-Caribbean barber employs young Ghanaian and Tanzanian assistants
  • a Kurdish man and his Polish wife run an ‘East European’ food store
  • an Afghani refugee and his Czech wife form partnerships with Pakistani entrepreneurs to run a pet shop, clothes outlet, and internet café.

Yet beneath the complexity there is again patterning. It seems clear that the business relationships are based on shared language (e.g. the Afro-Caribbeans and Africans speak English; the Afghan and Pakistani speak Urdu.) The reasons for the marital relationships (Afghan/Czech-Roma, Kurdish-Polish) are less clear. We are only scratching the surface.


Blommaert, J. (2013). Ethnography, superdiversity and linguistic landscapes: Chronicles of complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Blommaert, J. and B. Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity: A position paper. Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, 70.

Callaghan, J. (2015) Changing Landscapes: Gipton & Harehills: A superdiverse inner city ward. Ward Profile for the TLang Project.

One thought on “Superdiverse inner-city Leeds

  1. […] We then split into two groups. The visual artists, Tony, Helen and Stephanie stay downstairs to prepare the resources for the workshops and finalise the planning. Bev, Maria and I go upstairs to the main office to discuss the composition elements to the work. The idea is that Maria will work with the workshop participants and then from this, will be able to produce a vocal score for the resulting performance. We talk about how we can build in ideas and images of the city – the busyness, the movement, the sounds and work these together to create a piece of music. Thinking translanguaging as multimodal, as between modes (see also here), we can consider though these workshops and activities how we make meaning through words, through images, through sounds…and how we can think about the city – the fluidity, the mobility, the noise and the landscape (or lang-scape, perhaps, when considering in terms of the TLANG project – see here and here). […]

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