L is for Linguistic landscape

11 03 2012

I took the photos (below) in one 20-minute walk from home to the gym last week. (You may need to click on them to see the details of their texts).

They all feature language, or better, languages, and are typical of the multilingual ‘linguistic landscape’ that is Barcelona – or, for that matter, any large cosmopolitan centre in the 21st century.  Barcelona may be an extreme case of public multilingualism, given the fact that it is the capital of a region that already has two official languages, as well as being a major tourist centre. Nevertheless, as English extends its (some might say insidious) global reach, there must be few places in the world where public signage and advertising hoardings don’t intermix languages. (An exception is/was Libya, where the law proscribes anything but Arabic).

The term linguistic landscape (LL) is a relatively recent one, and

refers to the visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region. It is proposed that the linguistic landscape may serve important informational and symbolic functions as a marker of the relative power and status of the linguistic communities inhabiting the territory (Landry and Bourhis, 1997: 23).

In a recent collection of papers, Shohamy and Barni (2010: xiv) add that, ‘the notion “linguistic landscape” … includes any written sign found outside private homes, from road signs to names of streets shops and schools.  The study of LLs focuses on analysing these items according to the languages utilised, their relative saliency, syntactic or semantic aspects’. (Elana Shohamy gave a memorable plenary on this very subject at the IATEFL Conference in Cardiff in 2009).

This kind of analysis – or a simplified version of it – is not beyond the reach of English language learners. As I have blogged elsewhere this week, learners have the means (e.g. their mobile phones) and the opportunities (unless they live in Libya) to collect examples of signage in English, or English mixed with a local language, in their own context.

In a recent article, Peter Sayer (2010: 152) describes how he documented and classified the uses of English in the linguistic landscape of Oaxaca, Mexico, and adds that such a study ‘can easily be reproduced as a classroom project, with the students taking on the role of “language detectives”‘, thereby becoming more aware of their own sociolinguistic context.

The photos they bring to class could become the focus of the following questions:

  1. Where was this photo taken?
  2. How many languages can you see?
  3. What is the relative status of the languages? How can you tell?
  4. Who wrote the text? For whom?
  5. Why is (some of it) in English?
  6. Is there a translation? Why/why not?
  7. Is it correct?
  8. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  9. Is there anything you would like to remember?

Particularly interesting is the way that the use of English indexes specific discourses, such as the aspirational culture of brand-name consumer goods. But it can also frame the language of dissent and resistance. Here, for example, is a piece of graffiti spray-painted on the rocks at a beach (Canet de Mar) north of Barcelona. It says ‘NO MORE GUIRIS IN CANET’.  (Guiri is a fairly pejorative Spanish word for tourist).

It intrigues me that, while the language chosen to frame the message is English (easily intelligible to foreign visitors), the author uses a Spanish word (guiri) that most tourists would not understand.  Which raises the question: for whom was the message written – and why? Clearly, there is an intertextual element – the use of English in graffiti is widespread, and the NO MORE-frame is a recognisable feature of the discourse of protest. At the same time, the use of the word guiris serves to exclude a wider readership – reflecting (intentionally or not) the way that the writer seems to wish to exclude tourists from Canet. The interplay between the global and the local – through the use of an in-group expression embedded in an international catchphrase  – captures the essence of the message, making it less an expression of out-group-directed protest and more an expression of in-group-directed solidarity.

Such are the language affordances provided by the linguistic landscape!


Landry, R. and Bourhis, R. (1997) ‘Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: an empirical study’, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16,  1.

Sayer, P. (2010) ‘Using the linguistic landscape as a pedagogical resource’, ELT Journal, 64, 2.

Shohamy, E. and Barni, M. (2010) Linguistic Landscape in the City, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.



35 responses

11 03 2012

Interesting post and a good topic for discussion. I’ll have to pay more attention to the linguistic landscape around here. In a predominantly English speaking country, it’ll be interesting to note what space other languages are given, and for what purposes.

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thank Carol… I shall have my camera with me next week in search of language affordances in Glasgow!

12 03 2012

Me too! See you there🙂

11 03 2012
Mark Kulek

Hi Scott. Here in Japan, English in the landscape is legendary. Unlike the protest of tourists in Canet, English is mostly used as fashion.
Mark in Gifu

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, the use of English text (sometimes nonsensical) as a design feature would repay study. Interestingly there is a kind of ‘reverse transcultural flow’ occurring, in the way that ‘exotic’ scripts (typically Chinese, but also Arabic and perhaps Japanese) are used in the West as decorative features, particualy in tattoos.

11 03 2012

Hi Scott. Great Article as always. I must do this myself then with my learners. Your last line got me thinking so I have a question, isn’t affordance a perception that requires a further action. If so, shouldn’t one of the questions be ‘What is the writers intention? or What does the writer want you to do? Student may get different messages from what was written. With the titles in 2 or 3 languages this also allows them to see what the writer’s intention was in not sticking to one language, no? I’m saying this because “Fuck the police” may not require an action as it is just a statement. ‘Have you seen Pepe (my favourite goalkeeper btw)? requires the reader to ,at least, find out who Pepe is. Isn’t most of the learning in these pictures implicit for the learner and you are making them explicit by giving the learners the tools for action? I hope this makes sense :o).

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

‘What is the writers intention? or What does the writer want you to do?”

Yes, you’re absolutely right, Shaun, with the corollary, How does the choice of language facilitate this intention? (Or not, as the case may be – e.g. in the Canet beach example).

11 03 2012

I cannot count how many conversations I’ve had with students about slogans or phrases on their clothes. I’ve given up as even when it’s very clear that it’s bad they don’t care. Why? Because it’s a trendy brand or someone else wears it or just because “English is cool”. I once saw an elderly woman walking down the street and her top said ‘I’m not picky, you’ll do’ while a girl next to her had a T-shirt saying ‘minger’. I’m convinced that someone who makes these is having a laugh. The same as a man I knew who bought a tattoo in China that would show how tough he was, while it actually say beautiful woman.

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, I’ve sometimes suspected that the manufacturers (or their designers) are having a laugh – or snicker at least – as they imagine the contexts in which their products will be worn. Apropos, I once saw a range of kids T-shirts in a wholesale shop here in Barcelona, embellished with the slogan: I want to be your f*** buddy.
(The asterisks are mine).

11 03 2012
Kathy F.

After reading this, my first reaction was that students will see mostly English right outside our study space in the historic district of Philadelphia. But after a few seconds, I realized that there are surely many other languages woven into the linguistic landscape. Will be watching for them with camera at the ready. And, as my students or I travel into other parts of the city, it gets much more obviously international. This ties in with your A is for Affordance post too. Maybe an affordance for me as much as (or more than) for my students!

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Kathy. Of course, some parts of the US are hugely diverse in terms of the linguistic landscape, New York being one. Stuidying the relative weight given to different languages – e.g,. Spanish and English – in public signage, makes an interesting way of passing the time on the NY subway!

I’ll be in Philly later this month, so I’ll keep my eye out (and camera at the ready!)

18 03 2012

You’ll have plenty of opportunity — the convention center is steps away from Chinatown, for example. After I commented above, I realized that the library where I teach has many signs in Chinese and many of the leaflets and flyers at the entrance are in several languages. We can easily use the questions you pose in your post to explore this further — it would make a great lesson!

I’m looking forward to TESOL and have your presentation at the top of my list. I’d like to say ‘hi’ afterward if you’re not whisked off right away to other pressing engagements!

11 03 2012
k. liz

This is a really interesting article, thank you!!

I don’t think my kindergartners (who don’t read yet) are ready for it, but I will be using it in the future, because there is a huge amount of English incorporated into signs here in Turkey.

There are lots of interesting discussions to come from this topic . . .

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

It would be fascinating doing a project with young learners on public English. Just getting them to notice it could be a really useful skill.

12 03 2012
Stephanie Ashford

I’ve noticed that young Germans often don’t recognise that a particular word is English – they assume it’s a German word. Or just a word.

Older Germans are sometimes surprised to discover much English they already know. The other day I had a lesson with a woman who works in a sportswear shop. I gave her a pile of cards on which I had written words gleaned from a German mail order catalogue (kids, blazer, bootcut jeans, chinos, denim, halterneck tankini top, T-shirt, cardigan, trenchcoat, cord, windbreaker, polka dots, sale, polo, pullunder, pyjama, etc.) I asked her to explain what she understood by them and she recognised all of them except ‘polka dots’. She was disappointed to learn that the word ‘pullunder’ is not used by English speakers, and puzzled by the concept of ‘a pair of pyjamas’. Without going too much into etymology, we also considered the origin of the words. Is ‘pyjama’ an English word? What about ‘polka’, ‘denim’ and ‘cord’? What is a ‘trench’? When did Germans start saying ‘pullunder’, and why replace the German ‘Schlussverkauf’ with ‘sale’? And why might the sign in front of her sportswear store announcing a ‘Preishit’ create a titter among English-speaking tourists?

The point here is that English is a mish-mash of other languages.So, yes, while the use of English in graffiti is widespread, by the same token the use of the word graffiti (from Greek via Italian) in Engish is also widespread!

12 03 2012
k. liz

Mine actually aren’t reading yet, so they can’t notice the difference. If I had them at the next level, that would be super interesting.

11 03 2012
Jessica Mackay

I love the idea of language detectives. I like to pique a group’s curiosity by asking them to collect examples of what they think is incorrect English in and around the city. Translations in museums are a particularly rich source. One particular favourite is ‘The best club of the world’ (which appeared on your post on Visualisation, I think).

I usually introduce this with the now legendary translation of ‘rape a la marinera’ with ‘rape, seaman style’. I thought it was apocryphal but I googled it and it is actually out there (as is ‘Dolores Fuertes de Barriga’).🙂

Enjoy your neaps and tatties in Glasgow!

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jessica! Reminds me that a student of mine, for homework, once wrote a recipe called ‘Close shave with pine nuts’ . Either ‘rap’ (Catalan) or ‘rape’ (Castillian) also translates as close shave, apparently.

11 03 2012

Brussels has a very interesting linguistic landscape. Take the cinema as an example. If it’s a British or American film, it will probably be in original English with subtitles in both French and Flemish. If the film has been dubbed into French or Flemish, it is probably a blockbusting animation for kids. The adverts before the film may be in one language only (English, French or Flemish, with or without subtitles), a mix of French and English (the English bit tends to be the slogan), with Flemish subtitles,and occasionally Flemish only. This evening (at the cinema), there was an advert for grants provided by the French-speaking part of the state to learn another language … pointing out that if you don’t speak another language (i.e. Dutch / Flemish) your chances of finding work are not terribly good. The advert was in French. No subtitles. The Flemish-speakers are much more likely to be bi / trilingual than their French-speaking counterparts. This is in a country where the prime minister (the first French-speaker in many decades) is considered problematic because he speaks only poor Flemish (this appears to be much more problematic than the fact that he is gay and socialist), and which is facing a succession crisis because the crown prince is no bilingual. Only just monolingual, in fact. It’s a fascinating place to be linguistically, and one that raises interesting questions about the role of language in one’s definition of oneself. Worth discussing with students of any age, I think.

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Crikey, Brussels sounds like its even more linguistically volatile than Barcelona!

Only last week the Catalan Supreme Court gave its backing to the Catalan immersion model of education, while admitting that parents who want their children educated in Castillian Spanish also have that right, (although the excuse that such a policy would be difficult to implement will dictate that it will never happen).

12 03 2012
Stephen Greene

I have recently being encouraging my students to pay attention to the English they have around them in Curitiba, Brazil. There is so much that students can learn when just sitting on the bus or going shopping. I found that most people knew English was everywhere, but failed to pay attention to it.

After a couple of classes there were two main reactions. The first was to get pretty fed up with the amount of English being used, especially when there are adequate Portuguese words. The second was to really take the opportunity to learn vocabulary.

I like the ideas here, though, about explicitly getting students to question purpose of the use of English and is something I am going to incorporate in my future classes.

12 03 2012
Isabel Gonzalez Bueno

Very interesting and enlightening post. There´s lots of English in our linguistic landscape here in Buenos Aires. I will use your 9 questions to discuss the samples students bring to class.
Enjoy your time in Glasgow!

12 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Isabel. Looking forward to hearing what your students discover!

12 03 2012
Alan Tait (@alanmtait)

Thanks, Scott.

This thought chimes curiously with David Crystal’s plenary at TESOL-Spain in Bilbao last weekend, where he took the idea of multilingualism much further than it is usually taken to mean.

I’ll be asking my students to keep their smartphones peeled.

Enjoy the chicken tikka masala in Glasgow.

12 03 2012

Hi Scott,

Thanks for another interesting post. I thought you and others might like to read this NYT article about a linguistic landscape shaped by history, public policy, and culture: http://tinyurl.com/7ntnff2

Safe travels!

12 03 2012
Catherine Kennedy

Another interesting post – thank you.

Your point about the f*** buddy t-shirt raises a wider issue. The ‘LL’ seems to convince people here in France that they understand english far better than they really do. The ridiculous prevalence of many 4-letter words in the international ‘LL’ has lead many people to believe that they are part of everday conversation at the dinner table, and don’t get me started on the abuse of the apostrophe….!

13 03 2012

Hi, everyone around the globe,

I was wondering if English suffixes or prefixes -or any other word-building processes- are also teasing their way into your L1s and becoming part of the linguistic landscape in any of its manifestations. The English -ing form can be found in Spanish (most of the times in humorous conversation and definitely with no lexical currency for my parents’ generation) attached to nouns to denote a sport-like activity. For example, ‘hacer un poco de siesting’ (from Spanish ‘siesta’) would mean ‘enjoying a little and refreshing nap’.

Sayer (2010) describes qualitatively the social meanings and value of English use in Oaxaca, Mexico. Initially, he distinguishes between iconic uses (corporate logos and slogans) and innovative ones (intracultural). He focused on the latter and came up with 6 themes: ‘English is advanced and sophisticated’, ‘English is fashion’, ‘English es ser cool’, ‘English is sexy’, ‘English for love graffiti’, and ‘English for expressing subversive identities’ (pp. 147-151).

How would you categorize the siesta example?

13 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

The Spanish low-cost airline Vueling (from volar – to fly + -ing) makes it a feature of its avertising to mix codes, which I would say is probably the ‘cool’ factor, mixed in with a strong element of play. Thus

Don’t te ralles. Plus frequencia. 9 flights diarios MAD-BCN!

There’s a linguistic analysis of Vueling ads here: http://tinyurl.com/78735c8

15 03 2012
karen einstein

hi Scott, thanks for an amusing and thought provoking article (as always, actually). Think I might try it out with the kids over the easter break here – lots of those preparing for the cambr exams have been asking brilliant questions as to why English has become the international language (of power today – lots of mileage from collocations and such). We’ve been getting into various aspects of history . . . getting everyone to go out and record images of written language is a cool idea. Thanks!

17 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Karen! Would love to hear how this project goes – good luck!

17 03 2012
karen einstein (@kareneinstein)

will let you know after easter break😉

20 03 2012

What about Listening? For ever the neglected subject of real study,forever left to textbook writers and the few enthusiastic teachers to explore. What if we were to look at it seriously and to decide how best to help, not from the over-arching view of Dogme or CLT or Headway, but from some understanding of what happens when EFL students listen to stuff?

One of the major problems with investigating a complex, on-line process such as listening is the limitations imposed by instruments, such as think-aloud protocols, employed to uncover the complicated internal mental workings involved in making sense of what is heard. The literature over the years has revealed conflicting findings as to the extent and success with which second language listeners resort to bottom-up decoding processes or top-down meaning building processes in their ‘effort after meaning’. There now appears to be some consensus that while both processes are important, at least in the beginning stages of second language learning and probably up until quite advanced levels, listeners need help in decoding. Unless listeners can recognise some key linguistic components of the signal, it seems unlikely that they will derive sufficient assistance from contextual cues alone to make sense of the message.

The methodology concerned with listening strategy instruction has also taken on a new momentum. Recent research has moved away from examining the effectiveness of the explicit teaching of discrete strategies (Mendelsohn, 1995 ) in favour of a process based approach, where embedded strategies are acquired implicitly through heightened metacognitive awareness of the listening process. Positive findings in a number of recent studies(e.g. Goh and Taib 2006, Vandergrift and Tafaghodtari, 2010, Cross, 2011), have pointed to the benefits inherent in such an approach.

Unfortunately, much of the pioneering work associated with investigating L2 listening has been confined to research. There is a huge divide between research and practice , and just about no trickle-down effect, which has denied classroom teachers the opportunity to experiment with some of the insights gained from research into the listening process.

Given the complexity and inaccessibility of the listening process, listening practice in most EFL classrooms is hopelessly adrift. Research evidence is building in favour of an approach that prioritises the development of surface level linguistic processing skills at the same time as cultivating an awareness of the listening process and of appropriate compensatory strategies that can be used as a back-up when decoding fails. These, it is argued, are most effectively deployed if there is an overall understanding on the part of the listener of what the listening process entails and how it can best be managed.

All this schemata – building stuff is probably hogwash. The FLEXIBLE APPLICATION of prior knowledge appears to be a key factor in distinguishing the more skilled listener from his/her less skilled counterpart. Findings from studies appear to suggest that less skilled L2 listeners may be well advised to concentrate more on rapid and accurate decoding and rely less on contextual and topical guesswork. The ability to monitor one’s hypothesis against incoming information may also prove a useful counterbalance to schematic dominance.

And so on. I have never met an English teacher who could put his/her hand on his/her heart and say that they knew what the effect was on their students’ development of doing the sort of stuff included in coursebooks like Headway, or even of doing their own stuff, based on listening materials they’d put together and worksheets to go with them. Listening for gist, listening for specific info., all that guff, is evidence of a general ignorance of how people listen and how best to help develop the appropriate skills.

Nor is Dogme lilely to help much here. The kind of interchange that goes on in a classroom calls on a narrow band of listening skills that are not a good preparation for the real world. Pace (that should be in italics) Scott, I think listening materials should be systematically used by teachers in the classroom, and my guess is (from the stuff I’ve read) that the material should be authentic right from the start, with learners taught the compicated, counter-intuitive skils of metacognitaive awareness of the process of listening. Teachers don’t know this stuff (neither do I) but it’s not so difficult to get this kind of training going, and, in the few places where attempts have been made, the results are very promising. I’ve got all the references, for anybody who’s interested, but I’m trying to make a general point: shooting the breeze with students in the “meaningful communicative interchange of information” is a long way round. We need to know more about the listening process and about how to help our students develop what seem to be, mainly, metacognitive abilities. Knowledge, based on good research, followed by good training, could help us speed up what is still a ridiculously slow class-based learning process.

2 06 2012
avraham roos

Hi Scott,

In Israel I found many brand names that use as an advertising gimmick one English character at the beginning or middle of the brand name. This is particularly eye catching as Hebrew is written from right to left so this English letter really stands out due to its diufferent font, different character and its facing the wrong way. A comparison to English would be an advertisent for American Apple Pie with the word pie written as a Greek character. I am collecting pictures but would like to know if you know of any article about or official name for this advertising “code switching”

2 06 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Avraham – in fact some of the pioneering work in the study of ‘linguistic landscapes’ has been situated in the Israeli context, specifically the work of Elena Shohamy (see the reference in my original post).

12 01 2014

Hi Scott,
I just wanted to say I really like this article and found it very useful in looking at linguistic landscapes and teaching. Even better it’s great to read all the comments and see so many teachers talking about linguistic landscapes and using them in different classrooms all over the world.

I’m based in Korea and know a few Korean teachers who have taken linguistic landscape related activities into their middle school classes and even elementary classes. I really hope more teachers try these different activities and I would love to hear more about how the classes or activities worked out.

Also, and this is the reason I’m posting and not just reading like I normally do, I wrote something about three undergrad students I mentored doing a linguistic landscape project, and I cited ‘L is for Linguistic Landscape’ in the lit review, so I thought I’d come back here and post a link to what I wrote.


Thanks again for writing this and hope your newer projects are going well,


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