Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Learning English from Your Linguistic Landscape

Beadazzled is the name of a shop in a small town in the UK that sells, predictably enough, beads and other jewellery items.

A notice outside church in a city in Australia encourages passersby to "Prevent Truth Decay – Brush up on you Bible."

M4IS OFF RO4D is displayed in large letters on the back of a 4x4 truck in Brazil. (Mais means, in this context, "another.")

A sign next to a plunging cliff face in southern Portugal warns, in Portuguese, that visitors must keep away from the edge due to "a danger of death." Meanwhile, the English version gently advises that the descent is steep.

All these signs have one thing in common — they appear in public. In addition, they have all been used in the teaching of English to non-native speakers in one way or another. Beadazzled requires the learner to understand the homophone and Truth Decay requires the learner to decipher word play. In M4IS OFF ROAD, the elision of two words from different languages provides a useful springboard to explore similar language-sharing features (in this case for Portuguese speakers learning English) while "danger of death/descent is steep" would provide a useful exercise in determining the appropriate degree or intensity of a warning or instruction — and what the consequences might be if you get it wrong!

Language occurring on public signs and notices in this way was first referred to as "linguistic landscapes" in 1997 by Rodrigue Landry and Richard Y. Bourhis. These landscapes can be used in many different ways in the language classroom, both passively (exploring signage that has been photographed) or actively (projects which include students collecting examples themselves). 

For the purposes of the teacher or learner of English as a foreign or second language I would divide these written signs into two types: those that were created by native speakers (and which thus frequently indulge in word play or cultural sleights of hand) and those produced by non-native speakers and which may simply be a translation of an existing notice or piece of information, or else combine a well-known English word or words into the mother tongue for commercial effect. 

There are, of course, other ways of considering linguistic language. In 2006, Eliezer Ben-Rafaela, Elana Shohamya, Muhammad Hasan Amarab, and Nira Trumper-Hecht divided signage into "top down" and "bottom up" language with items such as public notices (government, religious institutions, medical facilities etc.) in the first category and shop signs, business signs, and private announcements in the latter. Damian Williams, one of the founders of MULL (Map of Urban Linguistic Landscape) prefers a graduated approach from "official" to "unofficial," with one category morphing into another. This, he claims, allows for such items as slogans on T-shirts and graffiti to be included.

Whichever method we use to divide up and label these all-too prevalent features of our urban (or rural) existence it is undeniable that it provides a rich resource for exploring real language use, usually in short or very short forms and often in imaginative or clever juxtapositions. This means that anyone wandering around town with a camera has access to a large store of potential material, and the person with the camera can be either a teacher or a student. 

I recently took my camera around the city of Porto in northern Portugal (where I live) to build up a library of the local linguistic landscape. There was the obvious one of Bom Successo Shopping Center (though I still chafe at the American spelling in a European context!). There was the combination of the name of the city in an essentially English word to highlight a promotional ticket offer for the city’s metro — oportonity. And, as you would expect in a popular tourist area, the downtown area had many shop, cafe and restaurant signs that were either in English or combined English into their names or advertising patter (Good Food Aqui, Happy Hour entre 19H00 e 21H00, Temos os Top Fashions). 

The tourist office is always a good place to find dodgy translations (they appear to have a miniscule budget for translation costs) and it is here that we are encouraged to enjoy typical food rather than traditional food, and where a visit to the aquarium is deemed to be too exciting rather than so exciting, and so on. 

A few weeks later I did the same thing around the small market town of Oswestry in England. This is where I found the Beadazzled shop sign, along with Chameleon Preloved Clothes (second hand clothes shop), Boozed Up (selling alcohol), Get A Head (a hairdressing salon) and a butcher with a giant sign painted on the outside wall saying "Pleased to Meet You ... Meat to Please You," among many others. (Oswestry is also a border town between England and Wales so there is the added delight of finding the Welsh language being occasionally intermingled with English).

These two jaunts have given me the opportunity to share with my students many lessons in the subtle translation issues that arise for English language learners.

To prepare this lesson faster, you could turn to the large collection of photographs of the linguistic landscape from around the world currently being assembled by teachers from the five continents and can be viewed on Flickr

In part 2 of this column, I shall outline some of the ways in which the linguistic landscape has been explored and used by teachers and students.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.