Students map Birmingham's linguistic landscape

A group of students recently explored Birmingham’s “linguistic landscape,” surveying the city to see how different languages are used in its signs, maps and advertising. Discover what their findings say about Alabama’s growing diversity, and learn how the challenges they encountered could pave the way for better communication.
Written by UAB Magazine
Media contact: Tiffany Westry Womack, tiffanywestry@uab.edu


lay of language wBirmingham’s natural landscape is a rolling mix of mountains and valleys. But its linguistic landscape, students discovered, is rather flat. In other words, if you don’t speak English, then you might have a tough time finding your way around the city.

“Linguistic landscape is the visual representation of languages—all languages—in public places,” explains Charli Hannah Tyree. The Birmingham native is one of the students who recently surveyed the city through its signs, advertising, and pamphlets, trying to understand how the area physically reflects its diversity, and how it looks to people speaking other languages.

Photo of Samantha McDonald, Nayivis Cunill, Lourdes Sánchez-López, Charli Hannah Tyree, and Nicole LassiterResearch by (left to right) Samantha McDonald, Nayivis Cunill, Lourdes Sánchez-López, Charli Hannah Tyree, and Nicole Lassiter could help local health-care providers assist non-English speakers.For example, “if I speak only Spanish, and I walk into one of the hospitals in the Birmingham area, am I going to be able to get to the emergency room? Or to find my way if nobody there knows my language?” asks Tyree, a 2016 graduate in Spanish now pursuing a master’s degree at UAB.

Those are the types of questions that Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D., hoped to hear when she introduced linguistic landscape to students taking her Globalization in the Hispanic World course. The associate professor of Spanish describes it as a growing field within the study of foreign languages and linguistics—particularly in countries that are home to multiple languages.

The course “prepares our advanced students to analyze and acquire a deeper understanding of some globalization issues that impact the Hispanic world, such as immigration trends and trade agreements,” says Sánchez-López, herself a native of Spain. Linguistic landscape offers on-the-ground evidence, highlighting demographic changes as well as the response to them by public and private entities.

Help in the hospital

For her students’ capstone project, Sánchez-López challenged them to explore Birmingham’s linguistic landscape for all languages, not just Spanish. Some student groups focused on languages used with public transportation at the airport, the train station, and bus station; others went to entertainment spaces such as theaters and parks or to suburbs such as Hoover. Tyree, along with Nayivis Cunill, Nicole Lassiter, and Samantha McDonald, visited hospitals and clinics.

Over the course of a semester, the four students split up and walked through UAB Hospital, UAB Hospital-Highlands, Brookwood Baptist Medical Center, and Grandview Medical Center, searching for different languages in elevators, on signs, in maps, in pamphlets, and even in chapel prayer books. They also looked for notices listing numbers that visitors could call to reach a translator.

“Most hospitals had Spanish alongside English. UAB had a welcome sign in Arabic, Chinese, and a couple of other languages,” says Lassiter, who graduates in spring 2017 with a degree in English and Spanish.

But Lassiter, a Tuscaloosa native who wants to become a bilingual physician, was disappointed that her classmates found a more diverse linguistic landscape in local entertainment venues. “The students saw firsthand that Alabama is becoming more diverse, but that there is a need for health-care providers to respond,” Sánchez-López says. “Studies show that health care is improved when patients can access documents in their own language.”

Photo of UAB Kirklin Clinic welcome sign in four languagesThe students surveyed the ways in which local hospitals use different languages.The four women compiled their findings into a presentation that won an award at the UAB Expo, an event held three times each year to showcase discoveries in undergraduate student research and service learning. The final report included their conclusion that hospitals should offer a multilingual information pamphlet, at least, to guide non-English speakers.

Communication difficulties

“Compared to other cities where I have lived, Birmingham is not as diverse,” says Cunill, a senior Spanish major who grew up in Miami and later lived in Atlanta and Chicago — all cities with rich and varied linguistic landscapes. “There are little pockets here and there.”

McDonald, a native of Jamaica, agrees. She says she sees diversity on campus and in the growing number of signs in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish popping up in stores around the university. But the group's research — and their Expo experience—reveals the deep need for more multilingual signage and other materials in Birmingham. She and Cunill note that many Expo visitors wanted to know more about linguistic landscape and the breakdown of languages in different hospitals. Some even shared personal stories about navigating life in Alabama without signs or maps to help.

“We thought it would be an interesting study, but it turned into a serious issue,” says McDonald, who graduated in December 2016 and hopes to use her ROTC training to enter the Army’s physician assistant program. “We have people who cannot communicate who are depending on others” to help them find the care they need.

Sánchez-López hopes that such research will highlight opportunities to grow Birmingham’s linguistic landscape. After the Expo, she was surprised by the number of faculty and students who applauded her efforts to raise awareness about linguistic diversity. But her favorite call came from an inspired freshman.

“He said, ‘I have four years, and I want to start a movement about this,’” Sánchez-López recalls.

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