M is for Mobility

10 03 2013

I thought I’d not only invented this idea but that I had even come up with the name: Locabulary. Get it? Local plus vocabulary.  I was about to blog about it, when, just to be on the safe side, I googled it. It seems someone got there first:

Locabulary is an iPhone app developed for augmentative and alternative communication. Words and phrases are made available based on your GPS location. Custom lists of phrases can be stored on the iPhone, and also in the Locabulary Cloud, so you never have to worry about losing your hard work. You can also share lists with others, and download lists they’ve shared. With Locabulary, you can easily speak the right words in the right place.

Here’s how you set it up so that – for example – it accesses a list of food items in a  specific restaurant:


In fact, the app is designed for people with disabilities, but could easily be adapted for second language users. I had envisaged something more sophisticated than a mobile phrase book, though. My app not only uses GPS to predict your situation-specific language needs, but taps into a corpus of language that has been gathered, and is continuously replenished, by crunching data from locally relevant social networking sites. The corpus throws out keywords and keyphrases (i.e. those words and phrases that are significantly frequent) so that you could go into a pub, for example, and know not only how to order a pint, but what people have been talking about over the last 24 hours. Eventually, the corpus could be fed by audio and video surveillance devices, a bit like Deb Roy’s Human Speechome Project, where ceiling bugs in his apartment captured every waking moment of his son’s language development over a three-year period.

Capturing and reconstituting the traces of language use would seem to be one of the more useful spin-offs of mobile technology. The billions of words that are digitally generated, transmitted and stored on a daily basis offer an unlimited and continuously updated resource for language users.  If, as Bakhtin suggested, all texts contain the echoes of the texts that preceded them, then the act of retrieving these echoes may be both a tool for language use and a trigger for language acquisition. As Hopper (1998: 171) argues, in proposing that grammar is an emergent phenomenon, ‘The task of “learning a language” must be reconceived. Learning a language is not a question or acquiring grammatical structure but of expanding a repertoire of communicative contexts’.

Pennycook 2012However, communicative contexts are not static. They are in a state of constant flux.  This is why phrasebooks are so limited in terms of their usefulness, since they are frozen in time and, to a large extent, place. More than at any time in history, perhaps, language is on the move.  As Alistair Pennycook (2012: 127) puts it, in his most recent, startlingly original book, Language and Mobility: ‘Languages are not stuck in one place but are mobile … Synchronic structuralist snapshots of language stuck in time and place have never been able to account well for languages as used by mobile humans, let alone humans with mobiles’.

The essential mobility of language means that it turns up in unexpected places (hence the strapline of Pennycook’s book), and (pace Bakhtin) that it is used unexpectedly. Witness the quasi-mystical text on a lunchbox on a plane en route to Ljubljana (‘A Zen snack above the clouds’). Or (Pennycook’s example), a verse in Hebrew from the Song of Solomon, tattooed on David Beckham’s forearm.

The tension – and challenge – of successful communication is in negotiating the given and the new, of exploiting the predictable while coping with unpredictability.  To this end, a phrasebook, a grammar or a dictionary can be of only limited use.  They are a bit like the stopped clock, which is correct only two times a day. To function with language as we move through space and time, we need to be both retrieving the sedimented traces of previous contextualized language use, and simultaneously reconfiguring these traces for our evolving needs. ‘At its most basic,’ argues Canagarajah (2013: 7) ‘communication involves treating languages as “mobile resources” (Blommaert, 2010, p. 49) that are appropriated by people for their purposes; these resources index meaning and gain form in situated contexts for specific interlocutors in their social practice’.

inflightmeal1Or, as Pennycook (2012: 100) puts it, ‘we have repertoires of linguistic resources which we use locally’. And he adds, ‘our goal as language educators might be better understood as developing resourceful speakers rather than some vague notion of native competence’ (p.170).  The language resources he alludes to could, conceivably, include the kind of mobile app I dreamed of – an app that is mobile in at least two senses of the word.  But the app alone would not be enough: we would need to know how to use it adaptively. Language is a moving target.


Blommaert, J. (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Canagarajah, S. (2013) Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations, London: Routledge.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’, in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure, Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pennycook, A. (2012) Language and Mobility: Unexpected Places, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.