Linguistic Landscapes

Stop reading this 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.

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 train.  It could be the menu you are going to choose your lunch from or letter from your local government about that unpaid parking fine.  The language(s) used in these communications, and much more, make up your linguistic landscape.

Just as the view out of your window can affect your mood, your linguistic landscape can affect you and inform your linguistic mood.  If you are surrounded with words from one particular  language you might feel more motivated or more inclined to learn that language. If you have many languages around you, but one or two of them seem to have more prominence then you might feel they are of a higher status and more important.  If you never see another language you might not see the point in even trying to learn another one.

My Linguistic Landscape

In Curitiba in the south of Brazil, the Linguistic Landscape is made up mostly of Portuguese.  The most popular ‘foreign’ language is English, which can be seen in many places, but especially advertising, new buildings, beauty and, for some reason, pet shops.

Italian is common in the food industry, as are words derived from Arabic and French. Recently Japanese food has become popular so we have an influx of Japanese writing that might or might not be correct.

Activities with Linguistic Landscapes

1. Critical Thinking

There are lots of different ways to encourage your kids to notice their linguistic landscape.  Whatever activity you choose to use, make sure you also ask questions based on the ones below.  Using these questions will develop critical thinking skills and encourage more noticing in the future.

  1. Where was the language found?
  2. What language was used?
  3. What is the status of the language, and how do you know?
  4. Who wrote the text?  Who was it written for?
  5. Is there a translation?  Why/why not?
  6. Is the language correct in terms of spelling, meaning, grammar..?
  7. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  8. Is there anything you would like to remember?
  9. Do you think the message ‘worked’ in the other language?

Questions adapted from ‘L is for Linguistic Landscapes‘ from Scott Thornbury’s excellent ‘A-Z of ELT

2. Shopping Activity

When you go to a shopping centre set your kids a task.  Ask them to find as many examples as possible of either different languages or just words and phrases not in the main community’s language.  Your kids could either take photos or make a note of the ones they see.

When you get home, ask to see the examples and use the questions from activity 1.

3. Fashion Show

Ask your kids to go to their wardrobes and find examples of clothes with a different language on them.  Encourage them to categorise the language, for example t-shirts with words for colours, sport, phrases…  The categories will depend on their age but try to encourage them to think up the categories.  Then get your kids to put on a fashion show where they show off the clothes and make comments on them.

4. Street View

Get your kids to look at a street in a different country to look for any language they might recognise using Google Street View.  The street could be a random one or one that they will be going to visit, for example in a city where their grandparents live.

5. Out and About

When you are out with your kids, comment on language that you see and encourage them to notice language themselves.

Why Bother with Linguistic Landscapes?

The first reason to bother with them is because they are there.  If we are not aware of our linguistic landscape we can make assumptions based on ignorance.  Do people realise that certain languages have a higher status in certain contexts?  Does it matter?  Why has the business chosen to use English instead of the home language?

Another reason to bother is that because it is all around us makes it free and easy to access.  Sometimes the signs have been produced by the government, sometimes by local businesses, occasionally by graffiti artists.  Whoever produced the signs we now have ownership because we are the ones who have to see them.

From my own personal experience with my son, it also seems that he is a lot more aware of the signs he comes across than I am.  If he is paying attention to stuff like this I should try to exploit it as a learning opportunity.

About the author

Head of the Heard

Stephen Greene is an English language teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer from the UK living in Brazil. He blogs about language teaching at  When he is not teaching people the difference between ‘pretend’ and ‘intend’ he also blogs about raising a biliingual family and being an expat dad in Curitiba at Head of the Heard.  You can follow Stephen on twitter @hoftheh or like his Facebook page.

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Stephen Greene is an English language teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer from the UK living in Brazil. He blogs about language teaching at When he is not teaching people the difference between 'pretend' and 'intend' he also blogs about raising a bilingual family and being an expat dad in Curitiba at Head of the Heard. You can follow Stephen on twitter @hoftheh or like his Facebook page.

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13 thoughts on “Linguistic Landscapes”

  1. Wow, Stephen, this is awesome! I love the idea of linguistic landscape- I think it was Manuel Castells who introduced the concept of city-skapes, sound-scapes, so why not ling-skapes? Love. You are so right. Such scapes can affect moods, teach you about a culture, and provide opportunites for some critical thinking! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this brilliant post, Stephen. I did do this with my kids without realizing it during our recent trip through Germany to Switzerland and Italy. It was amazing to see how much they did actually “see” and understand also about publicity.

    1. Thanks Ute. A lot of people will be doing something similar to this without even realising it, but if we can plan a little bit we can make it so much more focussed. There is some research (I’ll have to find it again) that suggests children are a lot more in touch with their linguistic landscapes, for both good and ill.

  3. This is fascinating- I have not heard of it before reading this article!!! I loved this- thank you SO much!! I am visualizing driving through different neighborhoods (Chinatown or Little Village) and reading the signs with my kids:).

  4. What a great article, and great concept! I had never thought of this before, but of course it is a perfect opportunity for critical thinking. I will be keeping my eyes open now to see how much or little the linguistic landscape is varied in our overall English speaking province. Google street view is also a great idea – Thanks for the great post!

    1. Hi Marie and thanks for taking the time to comment. What province do you live in in Canada? A lot of the literature on Linguistic Landscapes come from Canada as one of the aims is to try to understand the power relationships between languages. i’d be very interested to hear what you find.

  5. At first I was thinking “boring” but of the dozen or so blogs I’ve read today this is in my top 3 favourites. The main reason for that is I am a sign reader myself. Being in a city away from home this week, and having the luxury of being driven around by my colleague, I have been able to read everything. We are in a regional city about 90 minutes Drive from the outskirts of Melbourne which is in a state that is not my home state so there are many differences in the signage I see here. The first thing I’ve noticed is everything is English only. Sydney, my home city is riddled with Mandarin, Arabic, and a little bit of Philippino.

    1. Thanks for perservering and getting through the boring part Darrell. My wife is also a ‘reader’ and will blurt out random signs as we I drive down the road. Interesting to hear the differences between the your home and the city you are in at the moment. As a rule, bigger cities do seem to have a more varied linguistic landscape, for obvious reasons. This is probably one of the reasons why I consider myself a big(gish) city boy.

  6. Pingback: 30 Tips for a Text-Rich Home | Multicultural Kid Blogs

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