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.

D is for Discourse

9 01 2011

On the bus: Illustration by Quentin Blake for 'Success with English' (Penguin 1968)

In a recent article I describe the term discourse as being “both slippery and baggy: slippery because it eludes neat definition, and baggy because it embraces a wide range of  linguistic and social phenomena” (Thornbury 2010, p. 270). Is there any way of nailing it down?

In An A-Z of ELT I define discourse as “any connected piece of speaking or writing”. Let’s test this definition with an authentic example:

Just arrivd. I’m on the bus.

The text is certainly connected: the travel lexis (arrivd and bus) connects the two clauses topically. The ellipted subject (I) in the first clause is recoverable from the second clause, so that both clauses share a common theme.   Moreover, the clauses are sequenced in such a way that they map on to the script that represents, in schematic form, what happens when people arrive at, say, an airport. The definite article the, in the bus, presupposes shared knowledge as to which bus (possibly the airport bus) is being referred to.

By invoking shared knowledge and a context of use, however, we are going beyond the (linguistic) text itself and hypothesizing, not only a recipient, but a particular relationship between the sender and the recipient, and a particular interpretation of the text that is consistent with the sender’s purpose. In short, we are assuming that the text is coherent, that it has some communicative purpose, and that it is the (partial) trace of a more extended exchange.

Which indeed it was: the message was sent (by me) in response to the following:

Are U there yet? Cheers, Grzegorz.

Grzegorz was hosting me at a conference in Warsaw, and had previously told me how to get from the airport into the center of town.  A different constellation of contextual variables would have produced a different discourse, leaving as its trace a different text. This in fact was the case when I sent the same text message, but with a change of article, to a friend:

Just arrvd. I’m on a bus.

In this case, the absence of any assumption of shared knowledge (a vs the) positions writer and reader in a different relationship. The communicative purpose has also shifted somewhat: whereas the first message is designed to reassure Grzegorz that everything is going to plan, the second implies a sense of novelty, strangeness, possibly adventure.  Here, then, we are concerned with the text less as connected sentences (discourse1, if you like), and more as an instance of language in use (discourse2).

But there is a third sense of ‘discourse’ that can be extracted from these tiny texts. The formula [I’m] on the bus connects to a larger discourse, which is that of text messages in general. The phrase would probably occur with significant frequency in any corpus of  text messages or mobile phone conversations. In this sense, the text makes (implicit) connections with other texts of the same type: it exhibits intertextuality. So much so that it (and its possibly even more frequent variant: I’m on the train) index a social practice that has generated its own ‘meta-discourse’. Here, for example, is how one website humorously glosses the phrase:

I’m on the bus

Said in two different environments:

1. When commuting on the bus and one is engaged in a mobile phone conversation, it is used to avoid talking loudly about embarrassing topics in a crowd of eavesdropping fellow commuters.

2. When person A is tired, or doesn’t see the logic of why person B has called, this can be said to avoid conversation with person B.

A: “Hey what did the doctor say about that lump on your balls?”
B: “I’m on the bus.”
A: “Oh alright.”

(from The Urban Dictionary)

The social and cultural meanings that text messages have accreted, then, constitute a third sense of discourse: discourse as social practice, or discourse3. (Some writers – e.g. Blommaert 2005, and Gee 2005 – would argue that social practice extends beyond mere language use, and that discourse as social practice should include “all forms of meaningful semiotic human activity” [Blommaert, op.cit. p. 3]. But for the purposes of this discussion I’ll take discourse as social practice to mean ‘social practice as encoded in language‘).

As a further example of the way ‘I’m on the bus’ has achieved catchphrase status, and hence indexes a social practice, in 2004 the Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company used it as a slogan for promoting bus travel in the region, emblazoning it across the sides of its buses alongside blown-up portraits of transport workers and local commuters. As the managing director commented, “It really has been a great way of connecting with the community we are pleased to serve and making our buses come alive with the people who travel around on them” (Brighton & Hove Bus & Coach Co website)

In this case, then, ‘I’m on the bus’ instantiates a larger discourse of community values and civic pride, of which the managing director’s upbeat comment contributes yet another strand.

So, discourse can mean connected text, or language in use, or language as a social practice. Which leads me to wonder: which of these meanings has the most relevance to the way learners are taught to interpret and produce texts in class?


Blommaert, J. 2005. Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. 2005. Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method (2nd edn). London: Continuum.

Thornbury, S. 2010. What can a corpus tell us about discourse? In O’Keeffe, A., & McCarthy, M. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics. London: Routledge.