Competition entry: Visual Representations of Multilingualism

At the end of 2018 and start of 2019, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, Multilingual Matters, CuratorSpace and the AILA Research Network on Creative Inquiry in Applied Linguistics collaborated to run a competition on the theme of “visual representations of multilingualism”.

The organisers explain the reasons behind their creation of this competition as follows:

This competition aims to provide a creative opportunity to explore new ways of representing multilingualism through visual means and to stimulate debate and raise awareness about innovative ways of thinking about multilingualism.

Multilingualism has often failed to be represented, or – when it has been represented – this has been done through the co-presence of a select number of languages. However, this raises the question of which languages are represented and why, while recent research about multilingual practices, for example translanguaging, has questioned traditional views of languages as discrete systems.

This research has also highlighted the multilingual language user’s capacity to create an apparently seamless flow between named languages and language varieties to achieve effective and meaningful communication in everyday social interaction.

Our interests are in how applied linguists and artists represent these new ways of thinking about multilingualism creatively and visually and how these images communicate the message about dynamic multilingualism to the public.

The competition was open to “artists, designers and/or applied linguists working in a range of 2D practices, including, but not limited to: drawing, painting, illustration, graphic design, collage, digital, photography, etc. [with] sculptural/relief works presented in a 2D format [also accepted]” (as outlined in the original call for submissions).

For my entry, I created a piece of textile and embroidery art, entitled Interwoven.

Below, you can read the full description that I wrote to accompany the artwork.

Title: Interwoven

Artist: Laura Patsko

Medium: Textile and embroidery

Size: 25cm x 30cm

Year: 2019

This piece takes an integrative perspective of multilingualism, drawing particularly on the concept of multi-competence developed by Vivian Cook (e.g. 1992, 2002). This is enacted abstractly through the medium of patchwork, an artistic practice at once social and functional that extends far back through history and across diverse cultures, in which multiple distinct textile pieces are combined to form a new, coherent, whole that is richer than the sum of its parts. The floral-patterned fabrics reflect the fundamentally organic nature of language, subject to life, death, growth, development, etc., a metaphor which has been considered by applied linguists since at least the 1970s (Aronin & Hufeisen, 2009).

The surface of the fabric is extensively embroidered. The wide range of stitches used both exploit and exhibit the diversity and flexibility of needlework, just as the linguistic behaviour of multicompetent individuals illustrates the inherent diversity and flexibility of language and language users. The tension of the fabric in the circular frame not only practically facilitates needlework, but also evokes the potential for social tension between languages, their users or varieties (e.g. prestige and minority dialects). The push-pull of the needle recalls the dynamic movement of multicompetent language users through and across an underlying patchwork of apparently discrete elements which are, in fact, tightly integrated within a multilingual landscape. These active participants weave in and out, back and forth, forging intricate paths, connecting, combining, embellishing, mixing and in some cases even strengthening different elements, unimpeded by any ostensible seams or differences of pattern, colour or texture.

In contrast to typical practice in embroidery, the exposed edges of the fabric are left unfinished and uninhibited by the frame, reflecting the ultimate futility of efforts by institutions, politicians, academics and laymen throughout history and the world to ‘tidy up’ complex linguistic contexts, uses or users within neatly defined bounds.


Aronin, L. & B. Hufeisen (2009). The Exploration of Multilingualism: Development of Research on L3, Multilingualism and Multiple Language Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Cook, V. (1992). Evidence for multicompetence. Language Learning42, 557–591.

Cook, V.J. (Ed.) (2002). Portraits of the L2 user. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

The criteria for judging the top three winners were as follows (based on submission of a high-res image):

1. Close engagement with the theme, i.e. creative ways of representing multilingualism

2. Effective communication: clear and compelling in communicating dynamic multilingualism to the public

3. Relationship between medium and content: providing clear reasons for using a particular medium in the production of the work

The judges came from a range of backgrounds in the fields of both applied linguistics and creative arts:

  • Professor Zhu Hua (BAAL Executive Committee  / Birkbeck College, University of London)
  • Professor Bernadette M A O’Rourke (BAAL Executive Committee  / Heriot-Watt University)
  • Professor Abigail Harrison Moore (School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds)
  • Jessica Bradley (AILA ReN Creative Inquiry and Applied Linguistics  / Leeds Trinity University)
  • Dr Louise Atkinson (Visual artist and researcher / CuratorSpace / Yorkshire Visual Arts Network)

The competition winners have now been announced and my artwork was not among them; but it was selected to feature in the exhibition of runners-up at this year’s annual BAAL conference in Manchester (29-31 August 2019). The exhibition was also shown at the Languaging in Times of Change conference (26-27 September 2019) at the University of Stirling, as the initial ideas for the competition built on the AHRC-funded Translation and Translanguaging project.

Exhibition at University of Stirling. (Reproduced with permission of the competition organisers and the person in the photograph.)

The exhibition will also be part of a public engagement event in Sheffield as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences on 2 November 2019 and in a seminar on creative inquiry and applied linguistics at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland in November 2019, organised by Research Collegium for Language in Changing Society (RECLAS); and there may be another seminar in Glasgow later this year.

In an email from the organisers after the summer’s events, I learned that:

The works are provoking discussion about how artists can collaborate with applied linguists and the potential for developing further work in this area, in line with the initial aims of the project. We are currently thinking about how we can build on this initial small-scale project to create a larger-scale programme in the future. This includes how to continue to tour the images. The organisers have also been asked to write a book chapter for an edited book published by Multilingual Matters about the process.

I’m very pleased to have my work exhibited in such good company–congratulations to all three winners and to the other participants!

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