When chopsticks meet forks: A linguistic landscape study on Chinese communities in multilingual Antwerp and Brussels

Funded by the China Scholarship Council (CSC)
Joint PhD Vrije Universiteit Brussel & Universiteit Antwerpen
PhD candidate: Rui Guo
2017 – 2021
Supervisors: Rik Vosters (VUB) & Mieke Vandenbroucke (UAntwerpen)

Antwerp and Brussels, the two largest cities in Belgium, are both characterised by a highly multicultural and multilingual population, and both attract tourists and different immigrants groups from various places across the globe, who bring their languages of origin to the city. This study is devoted to adding to the growing body of academic insights on linguistic landscapes and does this with a focus on the language use of one of these immigrant groups by focusing on the Chinese heritage languages and by carrying out research on three different local Chinese communities in multilingual Antwerp and Brussels. By doing this, I want to examine how a linguistic landscape study can be used as a way of gaining insight into the linguistic practices of relatively small Chinese minority groups, who often remain invisible in larger-scale sociolinguistic surveys, and into how different settings influence the public language displays of Chinese diasporic members.

By seeing a linguistic landscape not only as static entity but rather as dynamic one, which embraces both the geographically fixed notion of space and the changing, socially constructed and agentive aspects of space, this dissertation discusses the language use of Chinese diasporic members on the basis of a large amount of data collected in the three Chinese communities, which includes signs, participants observations, interview data, field notes, city’s archival data, online advertisements, and Google Street View data. In analysing these data, I adopt a quantitative-distributive and a qualitative ethnographic approach, which are combined in a mixed methodological design and are therefore comparative and multi-sited in nature. My methodological approach has also shaped the structure of this doctoral dissertation which is divided into four case studies. In the first case study, presented in Chapter 3, I use a quantitative-distributive approach, which provides a macroscopic profile of the three neighbourhoods by cataloguing the geographical spread of signs, language dominance, mutual translation in multilingual signs, the use of different scripts and transliteration systems, sign function and medium. In the other more microscopic analysis of case studies, I delve deeper into the materials through a qualitative ethnographic research method (Chapters 4, 5 and 6). Moving beyond the synchronic and syntagmatic description of Chapter 3, Chapter 4 explores the changes and transformations of the three neighbourhoods by drawing on Leeman and Modan’s (2009) historically contextualised approach, and highlights how the wider social, historical, economic, political and migrational circumstances are both reflected in and shape the public linguistic and semiotic properties of signs displayed on Chinese shops over time. Aiming to dig deeper into the multilingual character of the three neighbourhoods, Chapter 5 then looks at the dynamic and fluid aspects of multilingualism by investigating how the super- diverse repertoires of Chinese immigrants as reflected in the linguistic landscape can be linked with the spatial repertoires of their migratory trajectories and how these can involve a collaborative accomplishment of language tasks. Drawing on Bourdieu’s (1991) notion of the linguistic market and seeing identity from a social constructivist perspective, Chapter 6 finally explores the influences of the Chinese immigrants’ identity construction and commodification strategies on the synchronic linguistic landscape make-up of the three neighbourhoods and investigates the symbolic value of languages in the three different linguistic marketplaces.

In combining these different angles, what emerges from the data and analysis is a complex, but not arbitrary system of linguistic landscape in the three Chinese neighbourhoods, which in turn is not a static indicator, but rather a mobilising integral whole, moulded by different structural factors, including social, historical, demographic, geographic, economic dynamics. Within this complexity, we see how super-diverse repertoires, ideological and power relational concerns of different languages, identity construction, commodification aspirations and strategies by Chinese immigrants (who are agentive and meta-reflective about the indexicalities of public language choices in different settings), participate simultaneously in creating a recognisable, yet an unstable picture of each neighbourhood under study in Antwerp and Brussels, and how this is embedded within an evolving and unpredictable Chinese diasporic context.

Read more about Dr. Guo’s research here: