Perception and educational investigation of linguistic landscapes


In 2014, ten young people (five girls and boys aged 18 to 21 years) were interviewed in Rēzekne to assess whether young people are paying attention to language signs and the languages used in them, as well as to find out the influence of the lack of knowledge of the lexical meaning of individual words on the perception of the language sign or its type (e.g., announcement, poster, prohibition sign), function and purpose.

All ten young people admitted that they generally pay attention to language signs, especially when languages uncommon to the local environment (e.g., Chinese or French in Rēzekne) or interesting linguistic elements—such as original metaphors or wordplay with letters, words, phrases—are used. No respondent indicated that not knowing the lexical meaning of a particular word or combination of words would hinder understanding the text (language sign) as a whole. In their opinion, this lack of knowledge neither hinders the perception of the function of the language or language sign, the type of text, nor its use or purpose according to specific needs, interests and goals. Only one girl mentioned a phrase she had learned from a shop name in the LL, Dolce vita (‘Sweet Life’ in Italian). Out of curiosity—and because she found the words attractive—she looked up the lexical meaning of the phrase in an online dictionary.

An associative experiment was carried out at the Rēzekne Technology Academy in the 2012–13 and 2014–15 academic years with 38 local students and foreign exchange students. Participants were shown 30 different name signs or ergonyms (business names), 10 signs from each of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia). Ergonyms were randomly selected and presented to students in a PowerPoint presentation. Questionnaires asked participants to describe the content of each ergonym (if it was possible to read and understand what was written in and in which language, the first associations coming to mind from the name or the entire sign), the possible location (i.e. country) and type of business (e.g., shop, cafe, sewing workshop, etc.)

The results of this experiment demonstrated that the type of business and its location could be discerned on average by about one third of the participants. According to the students, the location was most often determined by the use of the state language (language as a sign of recognition), unless they were words without clear phonetic differentiation (e.g. “Galerija” ‘Gallery’ un “MŪZA” ‘Muse’ in Latvian and Lithuanian). The use of foreign language made recognition more difficult unless participants identified a local specificity. Analysis of the student surveys supports the following conclusions:

1. Ergonyms with personal names mainly refer to hair salons, clothing stores or beauty parlours, but ergonyms with flower names refer to flower shops and in two cases—hair salons. For example, the English-language ergonym of the women’s clothing store “Design by Inna” was believed to be a clothing store (in 8 cases), beauty salon (7), hairdresser (4), tailor (3), or a design studio (2).

2. The whole ergonym or individual parts of it are likened to the Latvian language lexicon by phonetic and semantic resemblance, thus the name interpretation is based on onomatopoetic association, that is, search and discovery of phonetic resemblance; less frequently students had tried to base their judgements on interpretation of etymologizing semantics, attempting to explain etymology of the respective words. For example, the café name “SKYDRIS” ‘Flying’ in Alytus was associated with the Latvian word skroderis ‘tailor’ and the associated business.

3. The ergonym is most often perceived in its direct meaning. For example, the name of a bar in Valmiera, “tinte” ‘ink’, is most commonly guessed to be a stationery shop or bookstore, also a dry-cleaner (as in ink stain). In these cases language association is dominant, using literal translations for lexemes featured in

company names and attributing them to the company type.

4. Personal experience is taken into account in interpretation of the name, illustrating the demonstration of ontological association; previously acquired knowledge and life experience are primary in the explanation of names. An example is the Daugavpils pizzeria “DIĀNA”, the signboard for which was associated with a confectionery because of its use of purple and yellow.

5. The language used in the name sign is mostly recognized, though the lexical meaning of the word of word combination is not always understood. There were only a few errors in language identification observed, for example the misattribution of the wine bar name “SENFORTIS” (a contraction of the Lithuanian words senasis ‘the ancient’ and fortas ‘fort’) to English. The results of the associative experiment illustrate that symbolic names do not provide sufficient information by themselves to accurately characterize their sociopragmatic functionality; the information essential to do so is instead

obtainable from additional information and non-verbal tools: various artefacts (e.g., the shape of the signboard, the shape of the building), colours, symbols and images (e.g., pictures of flowers—flower shop, a man or woman in profile with a highlighted, voluminous hairdo—hairdresser).

Of course, the sample size limits the generalizability of conclusions drawn from the opinions of the respondents to LL or the language learning process as a whole. However, a trend is still clearly observed in the perception of language and language signs. A similar associative experiment could also be offered to primary school students, especially those for whom Latvian is a second language. This is one way to discuss the use of cliché words, which many understand, but which do not in themselves say anything about local linguistic uniqueness (e.g. the common words hotel, restaurant, club). It is also a way by which students can master the direct lexical meanings of individual words and word combinations, the metaphorical meanings of phraseological expressions (e.g. tinte ‘ink’, meaning ‘thick, dark liquid’ vs. būt tintē ‘to be in ink’ 1. to be in a complicated situation 2. be under the influence of alcohol), and the conditions of their use in various sociolinguistic situations.


One example of unsuccessful linguistic interpretation frequently cited online occurred in 2011. In late December of that year, international tourists flocked to Riga to celebrate the New Year. Walking around the city at the end of December, they encountered the text “Skonto būve!” on the barriers surrounding the city’s Christmas trees on Elizabetes and Brivibas streets. Tourists mistakenly assumed this phrase to mean “Happy New Year!”, committing it to memory it for later use. Hotel employees and locals were bewildered to find tourists and hotel guests “greeting” them with the phrase, which translates to “Skonto Construction!” The company Skonto provides decorated Christmas trees the city of Riga every year which are displayed in prominent locations, and of course includes an advertising text—the name of the company—in the displays. Therefore, this misunderstanding arises from tourists’ attempts to substitute pragmatic competence for a lack of language competence, relying on a logical link between a text, a symbol (the Christmas tree) and a communication situation (holiday) in order to show courtesy and a positive linguistic attitude, and make a good impression.

The fact that text is sometimes perceived “literally” without contextual knowledge is evidenced by a conversation between two women at a bus stop in Rēzekne overheard in the spring of 2014. One woman asked the other where she was going to lunch. The answer, “Iešu laikam ‘Pie Marijas’” ‘I’m probably going “to Maria’s”’ was followed by another question “Pie Marijas?” ‘To Maria’s?’. The course of the subsequent conversation indicated that the first woman was referring to the Rēzekne cafe “Marijas kafija” ‘Maria’s Coffee”, while the second woman interpreted her answer to mean that she would eat lunch at the home of a woman named Maria. The evolution of the conversation indicated the second woman was not familiar with this cafe, therefore hearing the phrase “at Maria’s” did not elicit any association with a cafe.

Before or after examining such misconceptions during a language lesson, students may be asked whether they have heard of or experienced similar cases—instances in which they or people they know had mistaken the meaning of a language sign. Teachers can discuss why this happens and how it can be avoided. Practically, photos can be displayed to students with language signs in a language unknown to them. They may be invited to make assumptions about the content and purpose of the text. What helps or hinders interpretation of language signs and the goals used in them? Does the language sign’s placement, visual objects or other visual images provide a more precise indication as to the content and functionality of the text? What can “read” but still remains unclear? For example, in Figure 1, the language signs from Viljandi, Estonia are mainly in Estonian, but some fragments are also in Russian. Students with minimal or no knowledge of Estonian and Russian may be asked to describe the location of the language signs (in which country they are located, to which company they belong), the informational content (that which can be gathered from objects and images appearing in the picture) and functionality (why these texts are placed the way they are, what they are informing readers about, what they allow/prohibit, etc.) At the end of the lesson, an action plan should be agreed on by which one could use the information in the language signs in practice (in this case, to inflate the tires and wash the windows of a car).

Figure 1. Language signs at a petrol station in Viljandi (Pošeiko 2014)


Mark Haddon’s literary work “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (2005) is not only an enjoyable text with an original storyline and textual features that can be described and analysed in literary lessons, but also an interesting material for language lessons. The work demonstrates the ability to use perception of language and language signs to gather information about places both familiar and unknown to the main character, encouraging thinking about the language at the meta level (metalinguistic) and the assessment of the LL in the students’ own environments.

The book features a 15-year-old teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, global perception, feelings and emotions, relationships with peers, natural mathematical talent, and the role of language signs in social life (behavior and activities). Familiar language signs in the city give the boy a sense of security and help him to navigate, organize the public space, and promote positive feelings and self-confidence. Unlike most of his peers, he notices and thoroughly examines any new language sign he encounters. For example, he notices the graffiti “Crow” on the first day of its emergence, which initially causes him temporary discomfort (Haddon 2003: 166). On the other hand, signs in unfamiliar places (for example, at a train station in a city he had not previously been, in the London Underground) are used by the boy as a means of orientation to create a structured spatial plan. However, after some time the number and diversity of language signs begins to cause linguistic confusion, combining different language codes and symbols (e.g., MANdzu! BUM) and leading to the coining of new words or phrases (e.g. Nite, Hot station). Confusion is further compounded by an inability to detect and filter multimodal information.

This literary text could be used in a language lesson as a source of encouragement for talking about students’ experiences in foreign cities and countries, as well as the role of the LL in getting to know the city. How much attention do students focus on public texts? It can also be discussed which strategies can be used in instances in which the text is not understandable due to insufficient linguistic competence. As part of interdisciplinary study of literature and language, students can be asked to find city texts seen by the main character of the book and formulate the functions that would be important to him. Examples include:

- “Railway station”, “METRO”, “BAKERLOO LINE”, “CIRCLE LINE”, “EXIT, “TOILETS”, “Platform 4…9” “MOVE FORWARD”—help locate an object or destination;

- “PLEASE ENTER THE AMOUNT”, “PRESS: TICKET TYPE”, “TAKE THE TICKET AND THE CHANGE”—help to take the necessary steps to achieve a goal, in this case to buy a ticket;

De Luxe Hot Chocolate”, “GREAT TEA”—advertise opportunities goods and services;

- “WARNING: SLIPPERY!”—warn about a potential hazard;

- “NO WALKING ON THE GRASS”, “NO SMOKING”—show what is or is not permitted;

“GREY MONK SHOPPING CENTER”—provide culture-historical information.

It should be noted that texts— “NO WALKING ON THE GRASS” and “NO SMOKING”—are not linguistically precise in the main character’s opinion, since they do not provide context (where and when this is not allowed). Thus, linguistic knowledge alone is not sufficient to understand the meaning of a sign in a particular situation. For example, in the directive sign “NO WALKING ON THE GRASS”, the directive refers to the place where the language sign is located, i.e., in that particular park. It is not intended to refer to all grass. In the last example (“GREY MONK SHOPPING CENTER”), the motivation behind the name of the mall is not clear without prior culturohistorical knowledge or a wider understanding of the context. The boy knows that before the mall there had been a monastery here, therefore he does not wonder whether only grey monks are allowed to shop here or if the store sells only grey monks. However, without this information a reader could misinterpret the motivation and meaning of the sign. 

As the next task, students can be directed to find examples of each sign function from their own environment. It is possible to add other functions to this list (e.g., to express feelings in the case of romantic graffiti, or to organize cultural life in the city through theatrical, concert and movie posters, etc.) A slightly provocative question would be whether language sign functions are also related to some language functions. Are the language functions mentioned (informative, in the directive) the only ones? By discussing various examples, students become more aware of the functionality of language signs. 

Students also come to understand that the ability to determine the function of a language sign can help one use it in furtherance of their own needs or goals in a given situation. It is important that students deduce themselves that language signs are useful for pragmatic purposes, helping to create a map that assists with navigation in the city, finding desired destinations, carrying out intended activities (shopping, attending an event, studying cultural history, etc.), and generally feeling more comfortable. 

Students should also pay attention to the multimodal character of language signs. Some inscriptions, emblems, symbols, images and especially new technology services appearing in the LL are designed in a way such that a person can achieve desired goals as quickly and easily as possible, without direct communication or speaking—the productive skill of language (see comments on Figure 1). For example, ATMs, ticket machines and vending machines allow one to withdraw money, buy a ticket or purchase snacks or drinks without communicating with another person at all. It is possible to get from one place to another at the right time relying entirely on pre-existing knowledge of certain situations and sign functionalities. For example, train stations generally make use of internationally recognized texts, symbols (directional arrows), numbers (for example, Platform 1) and information stands (station layouts and train schedules). In this case, deficits in language competence can be offset by functional competence (an understanding of the functions of language and language signs), a component of the previously mentioned pragmatic competence.

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