English Literacies in Medellín: The City as Literacy

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  Is there such a thing as a monolingual city? That question drove the inquiry and analysis reported here of English as a language and semiotic resource in physical spaces in the city of Medellín, Colombia. Combining ethnographic methods with our
  37© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018 S. Nichols, S. Dobson (eds.),  Learning Cities , Cultural Studies and Transdisciplinarity in Education 8, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-8100-2_4 Chapter 4 English Literacies in Medellín: The City as Literacy Raúl Alberto Mora, Carla Pulgarín, Natalia Ramírez, and María Camila Mejía-Vélez  Defying Conventional Wisdom and Revisiting the City as Literacy Despite its current status as a non-official language, interest in English has grown in Colombia. This can be seen in the emergence of official policies on graduation requirements, more language centres and bilingual outlets in local media, government- led initiatives at the city level seeking full command of English by 2019 and more resources to increase the amount and quality of English instruction (Mora 2015b). The aim of these initiatives is to help students reach specific profi-ciency levels according to the Common European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe 2001): B2 level for college graduates and C1 for students graduating from pre-service English teacher education programs.While it remains true that English is not an official language in Colombia, that does not mean that English only appears in classrooms or official media. Walking around Medellín (our hometown), one finds texts in English on billboards and store ads, in local bookshops and libraries and as graffiti. It is no longer unusual to find inhabitants having a casual conversation in languages other than Spanish, and more immigrants have found a niche in our city. What is missing from the conversation, however, is further evidence of how people appropriate English in the city and its urban spaces (Mora 2012). Despite the few studies on the English language in Colombia (e.g. Velez-Rendon 2003; González 2010) and on the pedagogical power of urban spaces (e.g. Sharkey and Clavijo-Olarte 2012), some of the existing views of language in the local media and even some government policies promote the vision that Colombian cities are monolingual. This view is a stark contrast to the language landscape in Colombia. As Mora (2012, 2015b) has claimed, Colombia is R. A. Mora ( * ) · C. Pulgarín · N. Ramírez · M. C. Mejía-Vélez Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, Medellín, Colombiae-mail: raul.mora@upb.edu.co  38 a country with almost 70 recognised national languages (including indigenous, Afro-Colombian and Colombian Sign Language), which would render its cities and communities anything but monolingual.However, these views from media and policy makers (and oftentimes academia) limit our understanding of how languages operate in urban contexts, perpetuating the idea (based on the lack of official status) that English in Colombia will never transcend its traditional classification as a ‘foreign language’ (Mora 2013, 2015b). This view also ignores how Colombians play with the language and use it as a com-municative resource (Mora 2013, 2015b). Some of the linguistic profiles mentioned above bring to mind the existence of advertisements (Velez-Rendon 2003) and poli-cies (González 2010) that promote the use of language. What we are calling for is a closer look at what happens inside  the city, where English is emerging as a resource that adds richness to the messages that people produce in the city’s physical and cultural spaces (Soja 1989).Since 2013, our research team has explored, based on the realities of out-of- school literacy practices (Knobel 2001; Hull and Schultz 2001; Street 1995; Tannock 2001; Warriner 2009), how English is appropriated as a semiotic, aesthetic and lin- guistic resource in Medellín, becoming part of the local culture. In this chapter we report our findings about the presence of this language in different physical spaces of Medellín. We believe that our research may help debunk the conventional wis-dom that English is limited to the classroom and absent from the local landscape. To address this, we developed the following research questions: 1. What kind of English literacy practices appear across different urban spaces in the city of Medellín? 2. What means and modes of expression are present among these literacy practices? 3. What are the implications for the promotion of second languages in our local context?We intend this study to be part of an extended conversation about what it means to talk about urban literacies in today’s language ecologies (Mora 2014b, 2015b). We also want to raise questions about the validity of the present frameworks to define languages and how they may be responding to or ignoring the new linguistic land-scapes that we face today (Mora 2013, 2015b). Our framework of ‘the city as literacy practice’ revisits Freire and Macedo’s (1987) idea of ‘reading the world and the word’, claiming that the city itself is lit-eracy (Mora 2015a). We see the city as a polychromatic, nuanced and layered place where different texts converge and help generate a world with a certain identity and layers of expression and understanding. To really understand those interactions, one must carefully analyse their diverse textual and semiotic interactions. This frame-work (and the study, as a consequence) acknowledges the city’s multilinear and complex nature as a necessary aspect of describing and analysing the texts that make the city. R. A. Mora et al.  39  Contributions from New Literacy Studies The field of literacy, specifically New Literacy Studies (Heath and Street 2008; Kell 2006; Street 1984, 1995, 2013a, b), has posed important questions over the years about literacy practices outside of school. NLS has looked at places such as com-munity centres (Blackburn 2003), neighbourhoods (Compton-Lilly 2003; Gregory and Williams 2000) and the streets themselves (Conquergood 2005; Iddings et al. 2011) to understand how literacy practices have emerged to help their inhabitants make better sense of their surroundings. However, many of these studies look at literacy in the context of the participants’ mother language. What happens when we bring second languages (Mora 2013; Uribe and Gómez 2015) into the equation? How does our view of literacy practices change under these circumstances? The research team has discussed these two questions since the inception of this project.Heath and Street (2008) described three features of culture: ‘unbounded, kalei-doscopic, and dynamic’ (p. 7). We can use these three categories to describe literacy in the city. Literacy and the city, we argue, have a symbiotic relationship: literacy helps make better sense of events and actions in the city, and, in turn, the city pro-vides new outlets for literacy practices. If we add languages to the equation, then this symbiosis becomes even more dynamic and multilayered. Our idea of ‘the city as literacy’, thus, intends to address the different, and sometimes new, kinds of lit-eracies (Lankshear and Knobel 2011) that emerge in different spaces (Soja 1989) in the city and how those literacies are not mono – in any way. They are, in fact, poly-chromatic, movable and very resourceful. The idea of ‘city as literacy’ recognises that languages and literacies do not necessarily operate under the traditional canons that ascribe them to sanctioned places (Makoni 2012). We argue, instead, that physi-cal and virtual spaces appropriate (Engeström 1999) these languages and literacies to create other messages.   Adding New Elements We recognise that today’s complexity of literacy practices in urban spaces requires an extended framework that addresses the evolution of social practices (Cope and Kalantzis 2009). Therefore, in addition to ideas from New Literacy Studies, we have drawn from four recent concepts that help us understand and analyse how to rethink text and language in contemporary globalised urban contexts. A reading of all four concepts shows that language can be ‘invented, disinvented and re-constituted’ (Otsuji and Pennycook 2010, p. 243) to enable us to understand the new textual manifestations in the city.  Multimodality  encapsulates the view that today’s texts feature a fluid combina-tion of multiple visual, textual or iconic resources, to create meanings whose impact 4 English Literacies in Medellín: The City as Literacy  40 may transcend print-only texts (Albers and Harste 2007; Kress 1997, 2003, 2010; Kress and Van Leeuwen 2001; Mejía-Vélez and Salazar Patiño 2014). Multimodal design involves looking at the messages that go beyond  just words  and combine other modes (images, colour, icons, etc.), as well as the actual location of these mes-sages (e.g. billboards, posts, walls, windows, etc.). An exploration of multimodal design within analysis therefore explains how the resources pooled for the message affect its meaning and intention.  Metrolingualism  is a concept that looks at the fluidity of language use in the city and how the presence of language in different societies plays a dual role, as it shapes and is shaped by interactions in the city (Otsuji and Pennycook 2010). Polylanguaging  is used to explain the emergence of languages in urban spaces as resources at the disposal of multilingual communicators where ‘ownership’ of a language relates to use instead of proficiency (Chiquito and Rojas 2014; Jørgensen et al. 2011). This concept brings in the lens of creativity , which refers to innovations produced by meeting the different purposes and intents for the English language especially those that transcend traditional taxonomies.  Indexicality.  We understand indexicality (Davila 2012; Dickerson 2012) from two vantage points. First, we understand it as exploring the importance of connect-ing language forms, social meanings and the macro (i.e. the effect of language on people) and micro (i.e. the effect of people on language) features’ effect on lan-guage (Blommaert 2007, 2015). Second, indexicality entails the discussion of how language affects identity or how people seek to use language more authentically and the ways and goals individuals set up for language in social contexts, both officially and informally (Grayson and Martinec 2004).These concepts combined have helped us explain the language uses that we are finding in the city. While multimodality, as a complementary concept to literacy (Kress and Street 2006), opens a space to see how people in Medellín are combining English words with different forms of design (Cope and Kalantzis 2007), metrolin-gualism and polylanguaging open a door to look at language interactions as some-thing that follows a different set of cultural norms from those in traditional language instruction. These two concepts help us realise that second language use becomes a matter of appropriation that goes far beyond the traditional geographical boundaries of concepts such as ‘foreign’ language (Mora 2013, 2015b). We recognise that peo- ple are playing with, in this case, English, in forms that are different, creative and even defiant. Our idea of city as literacy establishes a dialectical (Dressman 2007) relationship among these concepts to create a deeper, symbiotic understanding of the relationship between city and literacy practices. Languages and literacy prac-tices create new definitions of the city, and, at the same time, the city generates new and creative uses of languages and literacies.The notion of ‘city as literacy’ is a much-needed contribution to the discussions on literacy and world languages from our side of the world. So far, the discussions seem to have stemmed from Europe, the United States and, most recently, Asia. Latin America continues to be, as Friedrich and Berns (2003) argued in their edito- R. A. Mora et al.  41 rial in a special issue of World Englishes , a ‘forgotten continent’. This framework, we argue, is part of our contribution to a new ‘south-south scholarship’ (Mora 2016a) that transcends and expands the literacy research tradition from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Through our attempts to develop this framework, we recognise that research on languages and literacies in Latin America has a lot to offer, from conceptual and practical standpoints (Mora 2014a, 2015a) to all the emergent debates about how urban spaces are transforming languages by using them to convey new meanings.To implement this study, we relied on ethnography as the primary approach for our fieldwork (Blommaert and Dong 2010; Heath and Street 2008; Leeds-Hurwitz 2004; Ramírez and Mora 2014). This approach enabled our research team to look at lan-guage as both nuanced and social matter and invited us to approach the research enter-prise as ‘constant learner[s] – ever curious as to what’s happening’ (Heath and Street 2008, p. 30). The team of ethnographers consisted of teacher education students led by the first author. Drawing from elements of ethnography enabled us to turn student researchers’ backgrounds into a strength (Mora 2015a). It has afforded the team both accountability vis-à-vis how we frame research and literacy and wonderful opportuni-ties for insider research, a feature that ethnography always places at a premium.  The Literacies in Second Languages Project This project was the maiden study from a research initiative that Raúl chartered at his home university known as the Literacies in Second Languages Project (LSLP; Mora 2015a). As a research initiative, LSLP inquires about literacies in English and other second languages that are appearing in urban, virtual and schooling spaces in Medellín, Colombia. At the time of writing, we have two other studies in progress about urban literacies in cultural spaces (Mora et al. 2016b) and the emergence of English as a communicative resource in the context of video games (Mora et al. 2016a). We are also moving towards the exploration of literacies in school settings.In the 2 years (2013–2015) that this particular study lasted, the team underwent quite a few changes, an issue that is not unusual in research teams (Clift et al. 2006). Seven student researchers joined the project for different intervals, but only five conducted most of the fieldwork: the three co-authors of this chapter (Carla, Natalia and María Camila) and two other student researchers (Melissa Castaño and Nathalie Gómez) who left the project to pursue personal research endeavours. These five researchers played an active role in drafting the proposal and conducting fieldwork. Raúl served as a guide for the project, providing formal instruction about literacy and qualitative research methodology, and occasionally supporting fieldwork, but becoming more involved in the data analysis. 4 English Literacies in Medellín: The City as Literacy
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