What are linguistic landscapes and how can you use them to learn English? By English with Stephen.

Learning Strategies: Linguistic landscapes

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that looks at the concept of linguistic landscape and how you can use it to learn English.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast.

Many years ago, I lived and taught English in Taiwan. I loved the country and the people, but I did not love the language. I found it incredibly difficult to learn much Chinese. I know that I am to blame for most of that. I didn’t invest the time needed to learn the language at all. I found this frustrating and it was one of the reasons I only stayed there for a year.

It wasn’t until I got my next job in Brazil that I realised what one of the many reasons I found it hard to learn Chinese was. When around the city of Curitiba, in the south of Brazil, I was able to learn Portuguese just by looking at the shop names, signs, advertising, and everything else written in Portuguese because I understood the alphabet. I never learned how to read in Chinese, so I couldn’t use the city as my teacher.

And as I started reading the city I realised that there is also a hell of a lot of English around me. And if I could learn Portuguese from reading the signs, maybe my students could also learn English.

And that is what got me interested in the notion of linguistic landscapes and today’s episode is all about how you can turn your town or city into your own English teacher.

All of that, after this.

Before we look at linguistic landscapes, I’d just like to quickly tell you about an interview I did on another podcast recently. The podcast is called English Outloud and it is a great resource for anyone interested in improving their accent. In our interview, we talked about some of the advantages to travelling around the world as well as investigating some great tips for learning English through stories. You can find the podcast by looking for English Out Loud on your favourite podcast app. Alternatively, I will post a link to the episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

And now, back to linguistic landscapes.

Linguistic Landscapes and ELT

Stop listening to this podcast and take a look out of your nearest window.  What can you see?  What does your view look like?  Is it a landscape of snow-peaked mountains with an alpine forest?  Or do you have a view of the waves as they crash against the shore?  Maybe you can see gently rolling hills with red flowers and trees and a country house in the background.  More probably you can see houses and gardens, or if you are like me, other apartment buildings and, in the distance, the promise of the odd tree in a park.

Whatever you can see, this is your geographic landscape.  It can have an effect on you and your mood, especially if you have a view as bad as mine.

(Picture of my view)

But what is your linguistic landscape like?  This is made of the language that you see around you every day of the week.  It might be the signs of the shops you drive past on your way to work or school or the advertising you try to avoid on the bus. It could be the warnings about not dropping litter or the signs telling you the name of the station you have just arrived at on the metro.  It could be the menu you are going to choose your lunch from or the letter from your local government about that unpaid parking fine.

The language, or languages, used in these communications make up your linguistic landscape.

As I have mentioned before, I live in Curitiba in the south of Brazil. My linguistic landscape is predominantly made up of Portuguese. However, there are also other languages. After Portuguese, there is a lot of English. English is very common in lots of contexts.

Sometimes, there is only English. Other times, there is Portuguese and then a translation into English. At other times, I see Portuguese text with English words in the middle.

After English, you can occasionally see other languages. There is a bit of Spanish around, which shouldn’t be that surprising. Sometimes, you see some French, maybe some Italian especially in restaurants. You can also find Japanese and Chinese if you look really hard.

While the exact languages, and how they are distributed, will change from place to place, I am fairly sure that in almost any non-English speaking city you go to in the world, you will find English signs.

And if this is true where you live, then it is a great resource to help you learn English. But how can you do this? Well, I have some great tips for you.

The first is just to pay attention. It is amazing how many things we don’t look at as we go through our lives. So the first step is to consciously look at the language around you. It can be difficult to do this, especially at the beginning, so one thing you can do to help yourself is to take photos.

If you see something interesting, take a photo. Open a file on your phone or computer where you can keep examples of English. When you do this, you will have a reason to pay attention to language and so you are more likely to stop and look at it.

If you want to see other people’s examples of their linguistic landscape, then join a group. I run a group on Facebook called Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape that is full of very friendly people who regularly post photos of the language around them. I will post a link to the group on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, or just search for Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape on Facebook.

Now that you have started to pay attention to the language around you, it is important to check the pronunciation of any English you find. The problem is that you might read the word as if it was written in your language instead of English. A similar issue might be that although you think you know the pronunciation of a word, perhaps in reality it is actually different.

It is easy to check the pronunciation of a word nowadays. You can go to youtube and just type the word + pronunciation to get a video. Alternatively, most online dictionaries off a free tool where you can hear the word you are searching for.

The next step is to interact with the language in some way. When I work with my students on this, I encourage them to think critically about the language they have found. Some of the questions you could ask yourself include…

  1. What languages can you see?
  2. What is the relative status of the languages? How can you tell?

This is interesting because the size and placement of different languages might suggest one language is more important than another one.

  1. Who wrote the text? Why?
  2. Why is it not in the first language of your area?
  3. Is the language ‘correct’?
  4. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  5. Is there anything you would like to remember?
  6. Are there any words or phrases that exist in the two languages?

Just in case you need any further convincing about using your linguistic landscape to help you learn English, I have a few other advantages lined up for you.

It’s everywhere: while each community’s linguistic landscape will change the fact is that for nearly every society in today’s world there is one.  It may be that your linguistic landscape is predominantly monolingual, dominated by two languages or has a plethora of languages, but the fact is that there is a linguistic landscape.  For most people, the one foreign language that they see most is English, providing a potentially great learning resource.

It’s free and democratic: there is nothing to stop people from interacting with signs.  Indeed, by encouraging people to pay attention to the use of English it encourages engagement in local communities and societies.

Critical thinking: By looking at, and interacting with, your surroundings it becomes possible to ask questions about why certain languages have been chosen over others and what effect it has on them and their communities.

Because it’s interesting: At least, I think it is interesting. In a previous episode, I talked about how you should only do what you like doing. If you like thinking about your linguistic landscape then this is a great project for you. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. But you will have to experiment with it first to see if you like it or not.

I hope you experiment with learning from your linguistic landscape. If you do take some pictures, please send them to me. I’d love to see what your linguistic landscape looks like. Even better would be if you joined the Facebook group I run. Remember you can find a link to the Facebook group on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. And also, don’t forget to check out the English Out Loud podcast series.

Thanks a lot and I hope to speak to you next week.

Bibliography and links

‘L is for Linguistic Landscapes’ from the blog ‘A-Z of ELT’ by Scott Thornbury. https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/l-is-for-linguistic-landscape-2/

Facebook group – Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape

English Out Loud


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