By Daria Pytel, Research Assistant for the London case study
1. The numbers? …
‘Let the devil and statistics take them’ (Immanuel Kant) , and we’ll search for the ‘truer’ truth.
The London TLang team’s data collection site is located on the eastern side of the city of London – the London Borough of Newham. As revealed by the recent official statistics, this area contains the most linguistically, ethnically and culturally diverse environments of the city. Between 118 and 144 languages are used by its residents. Newham has the highest demographic growth of all London Boroughs since 2001 with over 300,000 people; the lowest proportion of those with English as their main language (58.6%); and the highest percentage of people who could not speak English well or not all (8.7%) across the UK local authorities (ONS,2011:1). This district is also defined as one of the most ‘deprived’ boroughs of London.
While these figures may serve as a powerful indicator of socio-economic diversity, the numbers alone do not reflect the actual sociolinguistic complexity of its local communities fully, as ‘any attempt to count distinct languages will be an artefact of classificatory procedures rather than a reflection of communicative practices’ (Romaine,1994:10).
2. Linguistic Landscape
The cross – cuttings of social and physical spaces and noticing the invisible: superdiversity.
Ethnographic linguistic landscape (LL) analysis has both descriptive and analytical potentials and addresses both the synchronic and diachronic aspects of data collection and analysis. It functions not only as ‘sociolinguistic diagnostic of particular areas’ (Blommaert,2013:2), but also as a form of ‘historicizing sociolinguistic analysis’ (ibid:3). It brings all the facets of language as being socially, politically, historically and locally constructed into our inquiry. By applying such a multidimensional approach to observing communicative practices in public spaces, LL enables the researcher to develop clearer understanding of the interconnections between the linguistic or semiotic evidence and the local communities. Capturing the actual sociolinguistic complexity defined by its ‘internal and external forces of perpetual change, operating simultaneously and in unpredictable mutual relationships’ (ibid:10) allows us to identify the fabric of superdiversity in the research sites that we choose for the analysis.
‘Superdiversity’ is more than a ‘sticker’ to label busy places
The concept of superdiversity (Vertovec,2007) is underpinned by three key elements: mobility, complexity and unpredictability (Blommaert,2013). It goes beyond the ordinary notion of diversity perceived through the prism of large numbers of people and macro-social features and reveals the intricate features of modern municipal communities in urban spaces. One of the sites that we have chosen as examples of public spaces illustrating the superdiversity of Newham is Barking Road.
Barking Road is part of A124 road in Newham linking Canning Town to Upminster (Fig 3). The part of the street that we focused at is located between the Canning Town Tube station and New Barn Street (B116). The street used to be part of A13 road linking Canning Town with the neighbouring area of Barking. Currently, it remains to be a busy place with some local business activities run mainly for the local communities. The street’s appearance immediately reveals that there are complex diasporic routes mapped on the history of the local area. There are buildings next to each other adapted for religious purposes by different faith groups: Christians and Muslims (Fig 4 and Fig 5). Heterogeneous ideologically, but homogenous in their function, they are addressed to different audience of Barking Road’s neighbourhood.
Fig 4 Mosque on Barking Road
Fig 5 Catholic church on Barking Road
There are signs of historical changes in the area, such as the evidence of the old site of the Mansfield House, initially part of the Universities settlement movement later turned into a ‘male-orientated’ institution working in welfare, sporting, social, educational and political fields (Fig 6)
Fig 6 The old site for Mansfield House
The diversity of this area is evident not only in the range of products/services offered to different types of customers but also in the way shops brand themselves. There are a number of ‘traditional’ food shops (Fig 7 and Fig 8) targeting clients of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds through ‘bottom-up’, multilingual communication. They use signs, symbols, colours, flags, alphabetic systems and other semiotic resources along with English, the supposedly shared local language.
Some information remains permanent (Fig 11) whilst other types of messages are ephemeral by nature (Fig 12).
A closer look at these spaces provides a more detailed picture of the universe of Barking Road. These different groups, despite their diverse appearance, co-exist in the same realms and their presence becomes interwoven into shared cohabitation. They definitely do not live their lives as separate entities. Rather they intersect, interrelate and interconnect, as the mosaic of adverts on a Polish shop front shows (Fig 13). It is the linguistic evidence of such interaction of different languages and different communities that we wish to explore further.
Fig 13 (by Agnieszka Lyons).
The ‘mosaic’ of adverts on the Polish shop front. Different languages feature in a range of different formats in this shop window: there are hand-written notices in Polish and in English, printed notices in Polish, print leaflets in English and a business card of a hair salon. A few of the adverts are particularly interesting and these are discussed below. The content of the ads is in line with the ‘community centre’ function of the shop that the team observed during data collection: transport to the airport, rooms to let, a Polish Saturday School, and English lessons as well as an English leaflet in which help with financial situations is offered. The target audience is therefore people who are on the move in a number of ways: moving house (looking for rooms to rent and needing to transport their large items) or travelling to other countries with families (transport to the airport – the advert specifically mentions the availability of ‘foteliki dla dzieci’ – child seats).
Blommaert, J. (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
ONS (2011) Office for National Statistics: Language in England and Wales. [Online]. Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_302179.pdf. (Accessed: 07 Nov 15).
Romaine, S. (1994) Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press.
Vertovec, S. (2007) ‘Super-Diversity and Its Implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30 (6), pp.1024-1054 [Online]. Available at: www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01419870701599465. [Accessed: 03 Nov 12].