Visual prompts and visual methods

In June, MultiLing hosted a three-day workshop which aimed to reflect on visual prompts and methods in both psycho- and sociolinguistics, organized by Judith Purkarthofer and Pernille Hansen. The workshop was part of Colloquium B in MultiLing’s five-year-plan, “Engaging innovative methodologies in studying multilingualism across the lifespan”.

Visual Prompts and Visual methods

Impressions from the plenaries and the material session: Photos by Matthias Fossum/UiO


Pictures are used in elicitation tasks to test for vocabulary, they are prompts to initiate free speech and to assess children's story telling abilities and they are used in experiments to understand eye movement as it is relevant in speech processing. Researchers present pictures to elicit language. But drawings are also used to understand languages in the lives of speakers, e.g. when children are asked to draw language portraits or take pictures of relevant places linked to minoritized languages. Children then produce pictures that help them to talk about languages and language experience.

Just as utterances cannot be seen as neutral representations of the world, neither can pictures. The aim of this workshop is thus to discuss how and why we make use of visual prompts and visual methods and how this influences what we learn about speech and language experience.

The workshop gathered around 60 participants, from fields like multilingualism, linguistics, first, second and foreign language acquisition, sociology, psychology, social anthropology, education and speech and language therapy. Bringing together researchers across a variety of fields was important for the aim of exchanging experiences, issues and solutions regarding the use of visual and multimodal methods for various purposes. Most of the participants also gave presentations or presented in the material session on the first day. The full programme along with the book of abstracts is still available on the workshop event pages.
Two plenaries on Monday afternoon set the scene and illustrated the range of topics that can be addressed with visual methods:
  • Annelies Kusters (Herriot-Watt University) and Maartje De Meulder (University of Namur): The use of language portraits in the study of multilingual and multimodal repertoires
  • Eva Soroli (University of Lille): The relationship between language and our visual perception

The first plenary focused on language experiences of hearing and deaf speakers of sign languages and how multimodal repertoires become accessible through the use of creative methods, such as language portraits. The second plenary gave an overview of how the structures of a language, like French or English, can influence our perception of motion events, by using stimuli such as carefully controlled videos of people moving across space.

The programme comprised joint and parallel sessions, opening a broader perspectives beyond one's immediate field, yet allowing for in-depth discussion within an more homogenous group of experts. Parallel A dealt with picture-based language assessment and experiments as well as the perception of and reaction to visual input. One very concrete goal was to critically discuss the development of ideal, or at least most adequate, pictures for picture-based language assessment tools suitable for multilingual populations. Many of the participants have been involved in European networks (COST actions), taking on this task over the last years. Parallel B focused on visual methods as tools to elicit language experiences, to help children and adults to verbalize abstract thoughts and express themselves more easily as research participants. Research in families, in multilingual classrooms and other settings has gained from offering visual and multimodal means (video and films, drawings, collages, diagrams) and the implications of these approaches were discussed.

Very well arranged with a good combination of plenaries and group sessions, providing opportunities both to look at visual prompts with new eyes and detect new possibilities, and dig deeper into the uses, possibilities and challenges within our own set up.*

Meeting across research fields called for some questioning of terms, theories and assumptions and lively discussions came out especially in the material session. In this session, participants were able to get hands-on experience with each others' material and try some experimental methods. Young researchers presented their work alongside their established colleagues.
I liked the diversity in which everybody could find his / her place, yet hear about some new and interesting things. This is certainly not an easy job for an organizer to accomplish.*

Participants came not only from different fields but also from five different Norwegian universities and many corners of the world (such as Poland, Croatia, Italy, Austria, USA, South Africa, UK, Belgium, Finland, France, Luxembourg and Canada) and thus with different experiences with multilingualism in spoken and signed languages. This was particularly visible in the final discussion where the topic widened from specific visual methods to a more general discussions on the aims of multilingualism research and its potential implications and activist turns more broadly. Ana Deumert and Mira Goral inspired the discussion with their theoretical perspectives, carefully woven into their contributions as rapporteurs and discussants of the two parallels.

Am very happy I had an opportunity to attend the workshop, and particularly the "confrontation" between different approaches seemed very fruitful to me, as it makes it easier to look outside the bubble.*

Future plans

Immediately after the workshop, a smaller group of researchers stayed for two extra days to work on publications, including a manual for one of the presented assessment tools and multiple chapters directly building on the workshop topics. 

The follow up with writing possibilities was excellent and worked very well.*

Many participants expressed their interest to follow discussions around the topic and with this fruitful exchange, working across the fields will for sure stay on the agenda for MultiLing.


* All quotes were taken from the feedback survey sent out after the workshop.

By Judith Purkarthofer, Pernille Hansen
Published Aug. 27, 2019 5:18 PM - Last modified Aug. 27, 2019 5:18 PM