Workshop on Multilingual Spaces: City, Classroom, and Cyberspace

On March 28, 2018, the GLJ group conducted a public workshop for the learning community at Columbia University on the issue of multilingual spaces.  How exactly does language structure space, both in the city that we inhabit and in the classrooms in which we teach?  What about the digital spaces of the internet and social media — how do the languages we speak condition the sites we visit, the information we can access, and the connections we can build between digital and literal reality?

Given that a recent report states that Columbia ranks 4th in international student population nation-wide, the topic was pressing, if not downright urgent.  As an instructor in the English department, I once had a Korean student come to my office hours at the beginning of the semester asking for a dispensation from my participation policy; English isn’t my first language, he said, and so I can’t possibly have as interesting things to say about poetry as my classmates.  I refused, instead encouraging him to use his ESL status as an asset. Close-reading in poetry, I affirmed, depended on one’s ability to recognize the unfamiliar within the familiar.  What could his Korean language background help us to notice about English phonics and meaning that perhaps a native speaker might miss?  I’ll never forget the way his face changed when he realized that I, his instructor, was 1) actually on his side to help him improve; and 2) believed that he had valuable things to say.

photo of four girls wearing school uniform doing hand signs
Photo by 周 康 on

So what does it mean to navigate well through multilingual spaces?  While I am far from suggesting that what worked with my one student would work for everybody, what I am suggesting is that we need to be much more intentional and creative about the linguistic resources that permeate our urban, pedagogical, and digital landscapes.  Our conversation that night ranged from the ethics of grading multilingual student bodies to the quirks of tweets and emojis, from our private and public languages to our variable openness to homeless people in the city depending on the language in which they made their plea for help.  What emerged was a dense space of experiences and challenges, insights and desires.

One significant insight came from a reading by David Malinowski on linguistic landscapes.  In 2015, Malinowski wrote,

“When seen as a heterotopia or as fully lived space, to use the evocative concepts provided by Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre, the classroom becomes an encapsulation of everything and everywhere, a kind of hieroglyphic site that opens up a potentially endless realm of insightful reading and learning. At the same time as the heterotopological classroom in itself becomes an expanded world of learning and literary practice, the roles also become reversed, as every space and place in the world becomes readable or interpretable as a classroom.”[i]

How does one begin to look at the city and its semiotic extremes as essentially productive?  How, in other words, could we continue to learn about and learn from our environment, such that our classroom follows us wherever we go?  This ends up seeming like one of the real advantages of thinking through and about processes of multilingualism: that it is less a state of affairs (catastrophic or exciting, depending on who you talk to), but rather a set of practices and skills that always already accompany urban living.

person holding magnifying glass
Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on

Internet use, growing cities, and increasing globalization in the college classroom increase our awareness of these linguistic landscapes, but the processes are something that we need to catch up on.  And like the messiness of so much of urban life, there seems to be no way forward except through the give-and-take of trial, error, and repeat.  But that seemingly simple process requires something that is much more robust and difficult than rote effort.  Rather, it demands a radical vulnerability and the potential for risk.  For these are the emotional undertones of a multilingual landscape, in which there is many more than one right answer and no one is sure what it is until we try: an opening to let private and public intersect and weave, deepen and endure.  Language justice, in this context, might mean much more than our stock understandings of “representation” and “diversity,” things that might be solved by simply putting more languages on more street signs.  Rather, language justice might require a real openness to the other that goes beyond policy, and instead admits your own status as a student in the vibrant spaces on and off line.  For while the street signs are helpful and necessary in their own way, it is the ability to listen and learn from each other that defines a space’s potential to be truly multilingual.


By L. Maria Bo, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice, Ph.D. Candidate in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University.  The “Multilingual Spaces” event was hosted on March 28th, 2018, with generous funding and support by NY Humanities. 

Feature image credit: Lee Balan

[i] Malinowski, David. “Opening Spaces of Learning in the Linguistic Landscape,” Linguistic Landscape: An international journal, Volume 1, Numbers 1-2, 2015, pp. 95-113 (19).

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