A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (by Béatrice Cale)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Not far from where I walk almost every day is a well-travelled Montreal street, Victoria Avenue. It is situated on a north-south axis in the central west part of the city and possesses multiple personalities. If Victoria Avenue were a person, it could be characterized as exhibiting a dissociative identity disorder.

But I jest.

This street is actually very lively, densely populated and worth getting to know.

Victoria Avenue north is a mixed bag of languages and ethnicities. The diversity of languages heard and seen in the shops, schools, eateries, services, hospitals and every possible sort of work-life here have a greater variety than anywhere else in the megapolis of Montreal (Statistics Canada 2016). Although French is posted in the linguistic landscape, rather haphazardly I might add, upon entering the shops one is more likely to hear the dominant language of the shopkeeper, or indeed, on some occasions, English.

Herein are some of the oldest private residences on the island of Montreal and its history is evident in almost every block it traverses. Let us explore a corner of this part of the city together, and by observing the linguistic landscape, we may get to know our neighbours.

The concept of a linguistic landscape brings into view the “visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region” (Landry and Bourhis, 1997). In most societies, language usage reflects prestige and power. Inhabitants feel invested in their milieu if it reflects their interests and needs. The city of Montreal, a microcosm in the larger context of Quebec and Canada, is described in the official top-down discourse as an open society where socio-ethnic barriers can be surmounted, therefore inviting freedom of social interaction. Is this evident in the linguistic landscape?

Sociolinguistic perspectives have been enriched by two different strands of research in recent years — the linguistic landscape literature and the translanguaging literature. Work on the linguistic landscape by Elana Shohamy (2010), and on translanguaging by Ofélia Garcia (2016), have been instrumental and pushed these fields forward.  The descriptive sociology of language seeks to reveal who speaks or writes what language in which circumstance and to what end. In most societies, language usage indexes influence and status. Possessing a variety of language resources keeps many minorities distinct and unique while at the same time integrating them into the larger majority.

Victoria Avenue’s character can be best illustrated by its two extremities, a cemetery on the north end and an abandoned heritage train station to the south. Thus the poetry of the street; we know where we are going on this journey, so enjoy the ride.

At its northern reach it crosses Jean Talon Road and touches the large and tranquil Baron de Hirsch Jewish Cemetery. It proceeds south from there, containing some of the most multi-ethnic, colourful and ramshackle shops. Some are empty or quite run-down. It is an accurate representation of an economy which is essentially stagnating. The national banks may be increasing their earnings, but financial-market indicators of a recession are clear. During a short walk on Sherbrooke Street earlier this week, I counted 15 empty storefronts in a 2-block stretch. According to the shopkeepers I speak with, profits are being eaten up by astronomical rents. The properties are owned by one or two large companies and small mom-and-pop shops are disappearing, this is the unfortunate truth almost everywhere. What is happening with our village?

Back to the Côte des Neiges district on Victoria Avenue, there is not a hipster in sight. Not even a Starbucks. However, a Second Cup on Van Horne Avenue is doing brisk business. It possesses less of the trendy cachet than a fashionable coffee shop, or even a Starbucks. I say this with some authority, thanks to intel from my teenaged daughter who confirmed this illuminating fact. The Second Cup is busy and brimming with a United Nations of people. The clientele sitting near the cash are Filipino, flipping back and forth in Tagalog and English. Translanguaging events are easy to witness. This place is a goldmine.

I found the language scene of Victoria Avenue (between Queen Mary to Jean Talon Roads) to be more varied than Côte des Neiges Road. The overall impression of Côte des Neiges Road is multilingual, yes, but French is the language of the workplace there. The French language takes predominance. It is ordained by law. However, a very strong point, and one that is evident throughout in the linguistic landscape of Montreal, is that as long as the written French language is posted, any number of other languages can share the stage, even in larger script than the French! But not the English language, that is illegal. English must be written in a smaller script. It is interesting to observe, however, that this does not apply to the myriad of other languages existent in the landscape. Plaster a huge sign in Bengali, as long as there is no English around, it’s acceptable!

Are we defined by our “quartier”/neighbourhood? Does it reveal who we are and where we belong?

Listen to U2, Where The Streets Have No Name:

I spy a store selling fish at the corner of Victoria and Carlton. Small and unprepossessing, there are intriguing signs posted in the window. I stand at the storefront transfixed.

I am unable to read the script, but it resembles Sinhala or Tamil both of which are national languages in Sri Lanka.  Sinhala being an Indo-Aryan language and whilst Tamil belongs to the Indo-Dravidian family. This is an opportunity to learn more about the neighbourhood!

A lady exits the store holding her purchase; a bag of fish. I am in luck! She is wearing a long coat opened over a shalvar-camise, a traditional garb common in South Asia. Loose pants overlayered with a tunic. I envy her black hair, pulled back in a long ponytail. A puja mark on her forehead indicates devotion and respect to the gods. Hindu worshippers make a paste out of crimson powder or use a red paint. The puja sign indicates allegiance to the Hindu faith and is largely identified with the Tamil population as opposed to the Sinhalese speakers who are Buddhist. She is perfect. I ask politely, in English,  if she knows what language is written on the poster affixed to the storefront window.

Of course she does, she responds a little warily. It crosses my mind later, that had I myself looked differently, she may have mistakenly taken me for the language police.

However, fortunately, what followed, was an enlightening exchange. “It is abugida”, she tells me.

Abugida is a linguistic term used to signify an alphasyllabary. The word itself is from the Ge’ez language of Ethiopia, also an abugida writing system and derives originally from the Hebrew language A,B,G,D; (Alef, Bet, Gimel, Daled). It describes a segmental writing system in which consonant–vowel sequences are written as a unit. Each unit is based on a consonant letter and vowel notation is secondary. This lovely lady, who looked straight out of a Tamil movie, was completely well-versed in linguistic terminology and called my bluff. I was impressed and humbled at the same time.

The quality and quantity of important ideas revealed by studying the linguistic landscape are significant. They involve direct links to immigrant integration, politics, religion, education, financial independence, women’s work, urban geography and development, economic downturn, class prediction and class alienation, and this is just to name a few. These walks, and talks reveal a complex and involved world. Several important theories of ethnographic linguistic inquiry reflect in these observations. Hopefully, these efforts may result in an approach to the linguistic landscape that takes the study of plurilingualism forward, increasing inclusion for all communities.

Finally, speaking of inclusion, we see in the  photo below an example of an exclusionary linguistic landscape.

Double entendre: “Here, we hang onto our traditions”.

But, who are the “we” and to whom do these traditions belong?


Garcia, O., & Kleyn, T. (2016)  Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments. New York: Routledge.

Landry, R., & Bourhis, R. Y. (1997) Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: An empirical study. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16, 23–49.

Shohamy E., Ben-Rafael E., & Barni M. (Eds.), (2010) Linguistic landscape in the city. Multilingual Matters: Toronto.

Statistics Canada, (2016) Census Data Catalogue no. 99-901. Ottawa, Ontario www12.statcan.gc.ca

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *