On Linguistic Landscape

In a previous post we dealt with the issue of multilingualism and the consequences it has in people’s lives. That article made reference to the oral aspect of the coexistence of several languages in a single place, but it did not delve into what happens with signs in public spaces. This phenomenon is known as linguistic landscape and it is not only present in countries with more than one official language, but is also found in cities with immigrant communities that maintain their language of origin.

Linguistic landscape is understood as the context in which it is pertinent (and at times mandatory) to include a second language in signs within a community. This concept, born out of the linguistic planning of Belgium and Canada (two notoriously bilingual countries), arose from the need to mark the linguistic limits of certain territories by means of regulating the use of language in public spaces such as on road signs, commercial ads, informational boards, etc.

Linguistic landscape can fundamentally be expressed in two ways: as top-down and as bottom-up, two variants that can more fully be expressed in the dichotomy of public versus private. The former consists of decisions by government entities aimed at communicating certain information to members of the community. The latter, on the other hand, includes all initiatives of private entities that seek to convey information related to commercial operations. Beyond its clearly communicational purpose, linguistic landscape has an important symbolic function, as it is able to reveal the relative power and status of linguistic communities residing in a given territory.

One factor able to shed some light on the potential of this phenomenon (fundamentally in its top-down variant) is whether exposure to the linguistic landscape by members of a linguistic community could contribute to the process of integration of people belonging to a polyglot community.