Reading the linguistic landscape: Women, literacy and citizenship in one South African township
Williams, Meggan Serena
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The purpose of this study was two-fold: firstly, to do a multimodal analysis of the multilingual signage, advertisements and graffiti present on different surfaces in the main business hub of a multicultural community called Wesbank, situated in the Eastern Metropole of the city of Cape Town. Signage of this nature, taken together, constitute the „linguistic landscape‟ (Gorter, 2006) of a particular space. My analysis of the signage included interviews with a number of the producers of these signs which reveal why their signs are constructed in particular ways with particular languages. Secondly, I interviewed 20 mature women from the community in order to determine their level of understanding of these signs as well as whether the linguistic landscape of the township had an impact on their levels of literacy. The existing literacy levels of the women being surveyed as well as those of the producers of the signs were also taken into account. My main analytical tools were Multimodal Discourse Analysis (Kress, 2003), applied to the signage, and a Critical Discourse style of Analysis (Willig, 1999; Pienaar and Becker, 2007), applied to the focus group and individual analysis. Basic quantitative analysis was also applied to the quantifiable questionnaire data. The overriding motivation for the study was to determine the strategies used by the women to make sense of their linguistic landscape and to examine whether there was any transportation of literacy from the signage to these women so that they could function more effectively and agentively in their own environment. This study formed part of a larger NRF-funded research project entitled Township women’s discourses and literacy resources, led by my supervisor, Prof. C. Dyers. The study revealed the interesting finding that the majority of the vendors in Wesbank, especially in terms of house shops, hairdressers and fruit and vegetable stalls, are foreigners from other parts of Africa, who rely on English as a lingua franca to advertise their wares. The signage makers had clearly put some thought into the language skills of their multilingual target market in this township, and did their best to communicate with their potential customers through the complete visual image of their signs. The overall quality of the codes displayed on the signage also revealed much about the literacy levels in the township as well as language as a local practice (Pennycook 2010). While English predominated on the signs, at times one also found the addition of Afrikaans (especially in the case of religious signage) and isiXhosa (as in one very prominent advertisement by a dentist). The study further established that the female respondents in my study, as a result of their different literacy levels, made use of both images and codes on an item of signage to interpret the message conveyed successfully. Signage without accompanying images were often ignored, or interpreted with the help of others or by using one comprehensible word to work out the rest of the sign. As has been shown by another study in the larger research project, these women displayed creativity in making sense of their linguistic landscape. The study further revealed that, as a result of frequent exposure to some words and expressions in the linguistic landscape, some of the women had become familiar with these terms and had thereby expanded their degree of text literacy. In this way, the study has contributed to our understanding of the notion of portable literacy as explored by Dyers and Slemming (2011, forthcoming).