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.
- Where was the language found?
- What language was used?
- What is the status of the language, and how do you know?
- Who wrote the text? Who was it written for?
- Is there a translation? Why/why not?
- Is the language correct in terms of spelling, meaning, grammar..?
- Is there anything you don’t understand?
- Is there anything you would like to remember?
- Do you think the message ‘worked’ in the other language?
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
Stephen Greene is an English language teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer from the UK living in Brazil. He blogs about language teaching at tmenglish.org. 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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