A Daily Walk: Linguistic Landscaping During a Pandemic

November 08, 2021

By Amanda Maxwell

Dr. Steve Marshall is a Professor at Simon Fraser University, who has been with the Faculty of Education since 2006. His work looks at the interplays between plurilingualism, academic literacy, and pedagogy in higher education, as well as linguistic landscaping. He uses mainly qualitative/ethnographic research methods and is currently focused on academic literacy across the disciplines, focusing primarily on students with English as an additional language.

During the first bewildering months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Marshall did what many of us did—he went for a walk. In fact, he went on many walks through the neighbourhoods of Vancouver’s North Shore during lockdown. On these daily walks, Steve started to take notice of the many signs that started springing up as hiking trails and local parks came under increasing use. Local authorities deployed signage to keep people safe on the trails, helping them navigate the new social distancing directives, while local people left messages of solidarity and support to the community.

Taking notice was not something new to Steve.

“Even pre-pandemic I always had my phone camera at the ready, collecting images that I saw as representations of contested social discourses,” he explains.

But as he collected photographs, he found that these new messages, their intent and even the source of the new signs gave insight into how the local authorities and local people were working together to promote messages of public health, community care, and hope.

The Daily Walk as a Tool for Research

I started asking myself questions about how I could understand the connections between the official signs and the grassroots literacy artifacts in terms of theories around language, literacies, and society.

–  Dr. Steve Marshall

During the widespread lockdowns that left us isolated from workplace and family, many were shuttered inside our homes and away from the normal routines of daily life. As we dealt with a new normal and grappled with the stress of not really knowing what to expect, we re-discovered the simple pleasure of going for a walk in the neighbourhood to manage the sudden enforced social isolation. Municipalities also reacted to the social distancing. Local government quickly responded to public health advice and developed official signs to promote social distancing and mask wearing.

Alongside the official ‘top-down’ signs, Steve noticed a flourishing of ‘bottom-up’ signs such as painted rocks along trails that offered words of encouragement to passers by. Intrigued, he began taking note.

“Following recent qualitative research strategies in applied linguistics and literacy studies, many researchers have started to look at ‘walking ethnography’ as conceptualized by Sarah Pink, among others” he describes, before explaining this as immersing yourself in local communities as part of your daily life. “Put simply, [walking ethnography happens] by walking around, observing, engaging your senses, and thinking.”

Defining and Analyzing the North Shore Linguistic Landscape

Through this visual walking ethnography approach, Steve catalogued the linguistic landscape, finding that both top-down and bottom-up grassroots artefacts revolved around social distancing, public pedagogy, and community care even though they used different approaches to accomplish this.

Multilingualism – Steve observed the following: federal signs used both official languages, English and French, with English in a prominent position; provincial and municipal signage sometimes reflected the local language mix; bilingual signage located in the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) Capilano Reserve combined Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim and English; messages related to the pandemic were mostly in English only despite the fact that 29% of local people reported using a ‘mother tongue’ other than English or French in the latest census.

Multimodality – Both types of signs used a variety of methods to catch attention, including the juxtaposition of fonts, colour and images. Trail signage explained social distancing by incorporating images of local wildlife. For example, signs urged trail users to stay two metres or one cougar length or an eagle wingspan apart, using images of animals that walkers are used to staying alert for.

After three months of observation, Steve concluded that the signs represented collaboration, summarizing in the paper that “By providing rules and guidance (official signs), and messages of hope and care (grassroots literacy artefacts), public health policymakers and local people participated together as educators with the goal of keeping COVID-19 at bay.”

Addendum: A Year or More Later

Over a year later, has the simple act of going for a walk has returned to its pre-pandemic experience? According to Steve, no—not really.

However, the linguistic landscape has not remained static. Although Steve describes that the walks are the same, some signs have been removed while the weather has eroded the paint from many of the grassroots literacy artifacts.

“Some have been replaced with new messages while others are smooth rocks that temporarily interacted with local people but are now blended into the natural surroundings, unnoticed,” he notes.


Steve Marshall (2021): Navigating COVID-19 linguistic landscapes in Vancouver’s North Shore: official signs, grassroots literacy artefacts, monolingualism, and discursive convergence, International Journal of Multilingualism, DOI: 10.1080/14790718.2020.1849225 To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2020.1849225