Fulbright Scholar Award to Support Linguistic Landscapes Research

A Fulbright Global Scholar Award received by Meagan Driver for the 2023-2024 academic year will support research on how to bring students’ own “linguistic landscapes” into their foreign language classrooms.

Driver, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance and Classical Studies at Michigan State University and a core faculty member in the Second Language Studies (SLS) Ph.D. Program, will travel to three different cities – Buenos Aires, Argentina; Thessaloniki, Greece; and Graz, Austria – to work with teachers and students in diverse neighborhoods in those locations while surveying the sociopolitical and cultural ideas present in the linguistic landscapes and to determine relevant issues that students care about.

Photo of person smiling at camera.
Dr. Meagan Driver

“Linguistic landscape” refers to how language is used in a particular space whether it’s an advertisement, billboard, pamphlet, or even graffiti. Audible language in public spaces, such as protest chants, also is part of one’s linguistic landscape.

“The linguistic landscape can tell you a lot about who is present in a place, how they use the space, and also what kind of needs the community has,” Driver said. “But sometimes not. For example, you could go into a community that you know has a lot of Mandarin speakers and yet there are no signs that are in Mandarin. Or there might be a strong Indigenous community and yet none of the street signs are in tribal language. So, you can look at the linguistic landscape in both ways: what is there and what is missing and should be there.”

“The idea is to see how we can connect language use in the community and in the foreign language classroom, and how to design a curriculum that bridges foreign language in the classroom with the real world.”

Linguistic landscape can be used to shape foreign language curriculum. According to Driver, an exciting part of her Fulbright project will be the opportunity to see how students influence their linguistic landscape. For example, beginning language students might translate street signs, which requires minimum vocabulary skills in their foreign language. Intermediate-level students might make flyers and posters on a particular topic that can be displayed in the community. And an advanced-level class may produce a brochure on medical resources.

“The idea is to see how we can connect language use in the community and in the foreign language classroom, and how to design a curriculum that bridges foreign language in the classroom with the real world,” Driver said. “And how do we develop projects based on how language is actually being used to address critical topics like race, immigration, climate change, gender equality, etc., in university foreign language classrooms. And then, how do we make classroom materials and train teachers to use these materials based on linguistic landscape?”

Photo of projector on wall with a person standing beside it.
Dr. Meagan Driver presenting at the fourth Psychology of Language Learning Conference (PLL4) in June 2022 where the idea for her Fulbright project began.

Driver will be limited to spending two months in each of the three countries and will dedicate her time to research, working with teachers in classrooms, and providing talks and workshops at each location.

When she returns to Michigan, she plans to use her research to redesign some of the curriculum in MSU’s language programs and/or implement different activities and projects in foreign language classes. She also is hoping her Fulbright project will result in the creation of a website with a teacher training module and resources available to anyone.

“The idea is that any kind of language teacher training program could go on the website to obtain materials to train their own instructors,” Driver said, “and they would also have the pedagogical materials that we designed to create their own activities and projects in their language programs to make use of or adapt as they like.”

The Road to MSU

Driver, who joined the MSU faculty in Fall 2020, was born in Queens, New York, and grew up as a heritage speaker of Spanish in rural Pennsylvania. Her mother and grandparents are from Argentina. She also speaks French, understands Italian, and is currently studying modern Greek and American Sign Language.

She graduated from New York University in 2012 with a Chemistry degree and minors in Math and Spanish. After teaching chemistry in New York City public schools for two and a half years, she says she felt emotionally exhausted, undervalued, overworked, and underpaid, and saw a place to make a difference with her students who spoke other languages than English.

Thanks to a scholarship she received from New York University, when the opportunity arose to go to Spain and complete a one-year master’s program in Spanish and Latin American Linguistic Studies, she jumped at the chance and loved it so much that she ended up pursuing both master’s and doctoral degrees in Spanish Linguistics at Georgetown University.

Group of ten people huddled with each other smiling at the camera, all wearing green plaid scarfs.
Dr. Meagan Driver (front row far left) with the Board of the International Association for the Psychology of Language Learning at the PLL4 Conference in June 2022. Sarah Mercer (back row far left), who is head of the Department of English Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, will be hosting Driver when she visits Austria during her Fulbright.

Her primary research interests focus on heritage and Second Language Acquisition (SLA), exploring topics in emotion, bilingualism and multilingualism, moral judgment, identity, and more. Of particular interest is the relationship between various emotions, including anxiety and linguistic insecurity, motivation, and ethno-racial identity.

Driver joined the Department of Romance and Classical Studies faculty at Michigan State University in Fall 2020. In Fall 2021, she opened a new Multilingual Lab and now serves as Director of the lab, which conducts and supports scholarly work that explores both the benefits of multilingualism as well as the social challenges that are faced by many multilingual and marginalized communities, including immigrant, Indigenous, and heritage communities, ethnoracial minorities, Deaf and LGBTQ+ communities, and individuals with disabilities, to name a few. 

This lab explores multilingual topics from interdisciplinary perspectives in the social sciences, education, and the humanities, among other fields, and aims to collaborate with and make research findings accessible to the greater community by supporting events and methods of dissemination in various languages and forms.

Bilingual Background Aids with Research

Having grown up in a bilingual home, Driver is familiar with how students’ emotions can impact their language learning.

“Heritage speakers learned their language in a nonformal way so when they get to a foreign language classroom they often worry, ‘I never learned to conjugate a verb.’ But they did, they just did it at home and without memorizing verbs,” she said. “So, when they learn grammar or vocab that’s not relevant to them in a classroom and have to fill in the blanks, it can be frustrating.”

The flip side of that is looking at a positive emotion, such as the pride one might feel in one’s heritage, which may have motivated the student to study a particular foreign language. Driver studies how these positive or negative feelings affect students’ learning goals and the enjoyment or lack of it they might experience in a language classroom.

“People react to situations differently, but in a different language the kinds of words that you use matter. The implications based on cultural backgrounds also matter.”

During graduate school, Driver also began examining whether one’s linguistic context has any effect on the moral decisions one makes. In other words, do bilinguals and multilinguals think about moral decisions in their primary or second language? Or, as is the case for heritage speakers when both languages can sometimes be considered primary, which language do they use when processing information that requires them to rely on their personal values?

“When you’re bilingual, you switch between languages a lot,” Driver said. “So, if I’m talking about a moral question and I’m code-switching and I’m speaking ‘Spanglish,’ does that have any effect on any type of decision that I might have to make? It can, but it depends on so many variables.

“People react to situations differently, but in a different language the kinds of words that you use matter. The implications based on cultural backgrounds also matter. Cognitive processing in different languages, how your brain thinks about things in different languages, how fast or slow it processes the information, whether it processes in first or second language. There’s so much associated with language that it’s never just about the language itself.”

Driver looks forward to pulling on her many interests and making use of her experiences and languages during her Fulbright to connect with new colleagues, teachers, and students in a global context.