(What) Are we learning from ‘linguistic landscapes’?

How do we learn from and about the visual environment that we find ourselves in?

In academia the fairly recent study of ‘Linguistic landscapes’ describes how languages are used in an environment, focusing on whether and how multiple languages are present in public spaces. Printed text is just one aspect of the meaning-packed (semiotically dense) environments we construct and live in, however.  Images and other aspects of design are equally (if not more) capable of achieving effective communication– just ask anyone in marketing.  From a marketing perspective it’s clear that the messages we see around us are not just representations of the way things are used in our society, but that messages are designed to influence and create ways of viewing and using things. In other words, the linguistic landscape can socialize people into holding certain perceptions and beliefs, and/ or adopting certain practices. We need to pay more attention to the impact that the linguistic landscape, or wider visual environment, can have on people’s perceptions and beliefs — beliefs about language, or other social issues.

For example, will greater use of a Native American language in public signage help teach people about the history and presence of Indigenous languages in the US, as the planners hope?  How might this message conflict with demeaning messages about Native Americans conveyed through mascots, films and other media channels?  Can we better observe and learn about how these messages are recieved by people of different backgrounds and ages?

On a recent trip to my hometown I was struck by the visual landscape of the street I grew up on.  When you see something every day it can become normal, and growing up I certainly wasn’t aware that a particular view of women and weapon use in US society was displayed to me each time I walked down the block. The signs were a normal part of my landscape.

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Above- Gunsmith: “The right to keep and bear arms” guarded by Revolutionary War-era soldier.

Below- Dairy Lodge: The scantily clad woman riding an ice-cream cone was orignally a brunette, but was repainted blonde a decade or so ago. The cone has remained its original vanilla white.

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Did these messages influence my understandings about how women should look, or about the history and importance of private gun use in the US?  What socializing effect did my (monolingual) landscape have on me? Well, considering my current perspective as a (multilingual) feminist pacifist, I don’t think it had much effect– perhaps I only had eyes for the ice cream and ignored the rest, or perhaps I developed my beliefs in opposition to what I saw around me.  And/ or perhaps I had other influences that counter-balanced these messages in important ways.

Since the use of digital media has become widespread a new concern for ‘Media Literacy’ has arisen, aiming to encourage people– especially youth– to think critically about the messages they receive via the internet, television, advertising, and so forth.  It is clear that the need to be cautious and critical of the messages displayed around us is not new and should not be contained to contexts of the internet or television.

‘Linguistic landscape’ studies could help to raise awareness of what our visual environments are teaching us by giving more consideration to the entire semiotic landscape (images as well as text), how and why landscapes are manipulated, and how they might be influencing peoples’ beliefs and perceptions in overt or covert ways.

What messages are in your environment that you take for granted?

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