Whenever I start thinking that finally I can easily navigate through the ever expanding ELT terminology, I stumble upon a term I’ve never heard of before. Everybody is talking about it and everybody knows the ropes while I’m lost. The thing is that ELT terminology can be pretty tricky – you can scrutinize and analyze the familiar sounding words backwards and forwards but sometimes you won’t be able to figure out the meaning of the technical term until you look at the definition and some background information. This happened to me recently when I came across the term linguistic landscapes. It was when #KELTchat announced the topic of the 2/11 chat. Obviously, I was familiar with the literal meaning of both words – linguistic and landscape. What I couldn’t figure out was what exactly the term has to do with language teaching. I managed to resist for a while and racked my brain before I finally clicked a few useful links, such as this or this, to find out what I was actually dealing with.
To put it simply, linguistic landscape is the written language which surrounds us in the streets of towns and cities, for example. This language can be in the form of signs, advertisements, graffiti, etc. Studying linguistic landscapes helps us understand the language all around us, especially its power and influence, which expands far beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves.
When I learnt about the upcoming chat I immediately started to rummage through my PC files in an attempt to find lots of pictures showing bilingual and English signs I had found while wandering the streets of my town. To my amazement, apart from this one on the right, I didn’t find any at all. Actually, I found this particular sign on the wall of the underground railway tunnel in the village where my parents live, not where I live.
I’m sure I’d have taken pictures of interesting English signs had I ever seen any. The question is why I hadn’t. I think because I live in a small town where people don’t feel the need to use bilingual signs. Šternberk is not a very busy town – tourists occasionally come to see those few sights we happen to have here but these are mostly German speaking tourists. Oh, I’ve just remembered this trilingual peeling sign I once took a snap of (on the left).
Obviously, if I went to a bigger city such as Brno or Prague, I’d be more successful. But I don’t have to because I get exposed to this type of language elsewhere anyway. Two of the most obvious places are TV and the internet, of course. I don’t know whether these can be considered kinds of linguistic landscapes but I’m sure for some people these are the only landscapes they see.
Anyway, when pondering the term linguistic landscapes my eyes landed on the remote control my son was using while watching a cartoon and I thought of another type of surroundings, full of linguistic food for thought – the home. The remote control we have has buttons with English signs such as play, stop, pause, on, off, etc. My six-year-old boy doesn’t speak any English but he knows that to watch a cartoon he has to press the play button and when he’s done he needs to hit the off button. Apart from English, he also gets exposed to lots of other languages every morning when he eats his cereal – the box is full of colourful, unfamiliar words saying how great and healthy the food is.
Intrigued by the idea of linguistic landscapes I decided to take my camera and went exploring into my son’s bedroom. And I found these:
Now, although my son lives in the Czech Republic and doesn’t speak a word of English, he’s accepted the fact that English is part of his little world. His mum teaches English and many things have English names. He occasionally asks what this or that means and I patiently explain but he mostly uses the words automatically, with a vague idea of the actual meanings.
The big question is how to turn this irrefutable proof of the dominance of the English language in a clearly non-English speaking environment to our advantage in ELT. Well, our students can either go out into the busy streets and look for bilingual signs. Or they may well stay at home, in their bedroom, and just look around. I’m convinced they’ll find hundreds of language items to learn and study. As teachers we can start with what they bring into the lesson, either in the form of photos or verbal notes, and later expand on it. Thus, an expression road to victory can be a springboard for other useful expressions including the word road and we can also play with parts of speech: victory, victor, victorious vs. win, winner, etc. We can look at how spelling is changed to make the product more interesting. The sky’s the limit!
The thing is that the language the students will bring is their own language – not something the teacher or the coursebooks dictate. The language can be found at their place, on items they own and use – toys, bed linen, food, electronics, cosmetics, books, etc. This, I believe, is a sort of personalization; we’re making learning more relevant to their needs and interests. Thus learning will ultimately become more enjoyable, up-to-date and meaningful.