Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Urban multilingualism and linguistic landscape studies

In this article, Dr Durk Gorter discusses the theory surrounding linguistic landscapes.
Bilingual street sign
© University of Groningen

Walking down a shopping street in any city around the world means a confrontation with great quantities of commercial signage. We see brand names and advertisements all around us and written language is a crucial part of these multimodal messages.

Investigations of signage in public space, including non-commercial and official signs, are known as Linguistic landscape studies. It is a blooming field that attracts the curiosity of researchers from several disciplines. Its results offer fresh perspectives on issues such as urban multilingualism, language policy, global English and minority languages. The journal Linguistic Landscape mentions as its aim “to understand the motives, uses, ideologies, language varieties and contestations of multiple forms of ‘languages’ as they are displayed in public spaces.”

Linguistic landscape items are often the object of language policy. Authorities can impose language laws to give preference to certain languages and exclude others. Cenoz & Gorter (2006) compare the position of the minority language versus the dominant language in two European regions. They systematically photographed all signs of the main shopping streets in the cities of Donostia-San Sebastian in the Basque Country (Spain) and Ljouwert-Leeuwarden in Friesland (The Netherlands). They found that 55% of the signs in Donostia-San Sebastian and 44% of the signs in Ljouwert-Leeuwarden are bilingual or multilingual. These patterns reflect differences in language policy towards the minority language. Due to a strong policy, Basque has a substantial presence on the signage, but a weak language policy leads to less visibility for Frisian. In both cities English as an international language also has a strong presence. The linguistic landscape can reflect power differences between language groups and it can be a place where linguistic diversity is on display, but also contested. For example, language activists in many minority regions of Europe often paint over signs with the ‘wrong’ names (Puzey, 2012).

San Senastian

A quantitative approach to languages on signs can seem an easy way to study a linguistic landscape. How many languages does one observe and how often is the basic question? Counting is, however, not always easy. The unit of analysis may not be obvious (“What is a sign?”), or the attribution of a text to a specific language can be dubious (for example, in brand names or loanwords).

Scollon & Scollon (2003) develop a qualitative approach for studies of linguistic landscapes, called geosemiotics. They analyse the meaning of signs by looking at their emplacement in their social and cultural context. General principles of layout, how and where signs are placed give signs their meaning. An English sign may index an English-speaking community, but the same sign can also symbolise foreign taste and manners. Blommaert (2013) takes geosemiotics as a point of departure and he provides a fascinating account of how multilingual signs can inform us about social change, complexity and superdiversity in his own neighbourhood in Antwerp, Belgium. He makes a strong case for linguistic landscape studies as ethnography, through microscopic investigations. Gorter & Cenoz (2015) apply the concept of translanguaging to one linguistic landscape, taken as the expanse that can be seen from a single viewpoint.

Linguistic landscape studies often result in new insights and explanations of multilingual processes in local and global contexts. There are numerous interesting questions that can be asked. For example, questions about authorship: who puts up the signs, when and where? Or, how does one deal with the increasing presence of English as the global language? Some linguistic landscape studies go beyond the written language on signs and include images, colours and other visuals, as well as voices, music and other sounds or even bodies and smells (Pennycook & Otsuji 2015) in relation to dynamic changes in urban surroundings. Several technological innovations in the display of language in public spaces can lead to changes in studies of language signs. Augmented reality (AR) is an example, where digital information is superimposed or augmented onto a live view of physical surroundings. The overlay of the real world with digital data in different languages can change the experience of the linguistic landscape. These technologies raise a multitude of new questions about urban multilingualism that deserve further study.

The study of the linguistic landscapes adds an innovative and captivating approach to the mapping of language diversity and multilingualism in urban settings (Gorter, 2013). A lot of thought has go into what signs mean, what they do, and how they influence the use of written and spoken languages in people’s lives.

Author: Prof Dr Durk Gorter, University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU; IKERBASQUE, Basque Foundation for Science

Blommaert, J. (2013). Ethnography, superdiversity, and linguistic landscapes: Chronicles of complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2006). Linguistic landscape and minority languages. In D. Gorter (Ed.), Linguistic landscape: A new approach to multilingualism (pp. 67-80). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Gorter, D. (2013). Linguistic Landscapes in a Multilingual World, ARAL – Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33, 190-212, DOI: Gorter, D. & Cenoz, J. (2015). Translanguaging and linguistic landscapes, Linguistic Landscape, 1, 1, 54-74. DOI: 10.1075/ll.1.1/2.04gor
Pennycook, A. & Otsuji, E. (2015) Making scents of the landscape. Linguistic Landscape, 1, 3, 191-212. DOI: 10.1075/ll.1.3.01pen
Puzey, G. (2012) Two-way traffic: How linguistic landscapes reflect and influence the politics of language. In Gorter, D., Marten, H.F., Van Mensel, L. (Eds.) Minority Languages in the Linguistic Landscape. (pp. 127-147). Basingstoke: Palgrave-McMillan.
Scollon, R. & Scollon, S.W. (2003). Discourse in Place: Language in the Material World, New York: Routledge.

© Durk Gorter
This article is from the free online

Multilingual Practices: Tackling Challenges and Creating Opportunities

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now