Nora Goldman: Commentary on Elana Shohamy’s “Linguistic Landscape as a Lens for Interpreting Societies Critically and its Contribution to Education and Learning.”

As Elana Shohamy, Professor of Language Education at Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, prepared to introduce the concept of linguistic landscapes to the ARC cohort, she was confident it would be accessible even to those who had never heard the phrase before.  Everyone present, she observed, was motivated by an interest in inequality and a desire for social justice.  It soon became clear that Shohamy’s work indeed transcends the disciplinary boundaries of linguistics or education, and is at its core concerned with equality.

A linguistic landscape, as Shohamy explained, includes all language in public spaces—signage, graffiti, advertisements, and anything else you can read when you go out in the world.  However, she was quick to stress that language alone does not make up the linguistic landscape.  All symbols can be “read”, and Shohamy’s work takes a broad view, arguing that the full semiotic landscape includes not just written linguistic symbols, but also buildings, art, sounds, smells, and human beings themselves.  Once one learns how to read the linguistic landscape, it serves as a window into much deeper societal issues: the social, political, economic, and educational realities of a community.  She argues that a linguistic landscape is a lens through which countless social issues can be discovered and analyzed, making this research relevant to all social scientists.

Shohamy’s work focuses on use of Hebrew, Arabic, and English in Israel.  Despite the passing of a law in 1999 requiring major freeway signs and street signs in integrated cities to be in both Hebrew and Arabic, the linguistic landscape remains a very uneven representation of Israel’s multilingualism.  To demonstrate this empirically, Shohamy and Eliezer Ben-Rafael (2006) conducted a quantitative study to determine the numerical breakdown of public language representation in multilingual cities.  They found that linguistic landscapes reflected the ideology and social realities of their communities, but not necessarily their demographics. In heavily Jewish areas, for example, Hebrew and English were the primary languages of public signage, whereas signs in Arab communities were almost exclusively in Arabic and Hebrew, with very little English peppered in.  In the contested region of East Jerusalem, the linguistic landscape was overwhelmingly Arabic and English, with hardly any Hebrew.

Ideology is also often transparent in the linguistic landscape as a result of top-down propaganda campaigns. Whether a city is attempting to turn inward and emphasize its essential Israeli-ness (as Tel-Aviv did with its Hebrew-only decorations for its centennial celebration) or present itself as a bastion of tolerance and multiculturalism to attract tourists, the government’s desired image is reflected in the language of its public spaces.  Unequal language representation can have obvious alienating effects on those excluded by the linguistic landscape, but can also have an observable practical impact.  If emergency exits and safety instructions are only labeled in Hebrew, for example, Arabic speakers do not have the same access to these public service announcements. Furthermore, the educational implications of exclusion from the linguistic landscape are striking.  In Hebrew-dominated areas, children who learn Hebrew in school can leave the classroom and remain surrounded by the medium of instruction.  But the Arabic-speaking children do not share the experience of continuous exposure to their mother tongue both inside and outside the classroom.

So what are we to do about the inequality of public spaces?  The goal of Shohamy’s work is to raise awareness of the importance of the linguistic landscape and to harness it for pedagogical purposes.  The linguistic landscape contains multitudes of insights that remain untapped by educators.  To illustrate the potential of incorporating the linguistic landscape into a curriculum, Shohamy shared a few illustrative anecdotes.  In one, high school students in the heterogeneous town of Jaffa documented the linguistic landscape in their community.  Before doing so, they all expected Arabic to be the best represented language in their data, reflecting the demographics of the area, but were surprised to find that Arabic was hardly attested at all.  The linguistic landscape they had inhabited for years had been mostly invisible to them until they were forced to examine it critically.  Shohamy also shared a personal anecdote starring her own granddaughter, whom she took linguistic-landscape-exploring.  When they came across an anti-war graffito, an intergenerational critical discussion ensued about the current state of political unrest in the region.  If educators incorporate the linguistic landscape into their pedagogical approach, the opportunities for critical thinking and debate are endless.  We are living in a giant text, Shohamy’s work tells us, so why aren’t we reading it?


Ben-Rafael, Eliezer, et al. “Linguistic landscape as symbolic construction of the public space: The case of Israel.” International Journal of Multilingualism3.1 (2006): 7-30.

~Nora Goldman