Developing Ethnographic Perspectives Through Linguistic Landscape: A Pedagogical Case Study With Japanese University Students

Author: Fred E. Anderson (Kansai University, Osaka, Japan)
Speaker: Fred E. Anderson
Topic: Applied sociolinguistics
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


Linguistic landscape study—the analysis of how written language is used in public domains—has developed as an independent area of inquiry in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology over the past two decades (Landry & Bourhis 1997, Gorter 2006, Blommaert 2013), with some studies, notably Backhaus (2007), specifically addressing Japan. In this session, the presenter will describe his use of linguistic landscape as a tool for introducing ethnographically oriented research methodology to Japanese undergraduate students in three university courses, as a part of their preparation for conducting senior-thesis research. The presentation is part of a growing body of academic work addressing pedagogical uses of linguistic landscape (e.g., Sayer 2010, Wang 2015, Li and Marshall 2017).

Students in the presenter’s class work in groups throughout four stages of the linguistic landscape project to collect data from diverse neighborhoods within the greater Osaka area. In the first stage, they produce a general, non-linguistic description of their target neighborhood, including demographic information and architectural characteristics. In the second, they photograph and describe, qualitatively, the uses of different scripts according to context, and propose explanations for why certain scripts are used rather than others. Third, optionally, groups describe quantitatively the different types of scripts found in the neighborhood. Finally, in the fourth stage, they attempt to connect the linguistic data gathered in the second and third stages of the project with the general characteristics of the neighborhood described in the first; this last stage is designed to move participants away from simple observation and into deeper explanation as is central to sociolinguistic and ethnographic work. Group presentations of data following the four stages of the project provide opportunities for all class members to make cross-neighborhood comparisons and generalizations.

While much of linguistic landscape research has focused on uncovering patterns of multilingualism in multiethnic, urban neighborhoods, the Japan context presents additional challenges. Aside from the obvious contrast that one finds between Japanese and foreign language signage according to the perceived audience, choices are made within the Japanese language to use one of the available Japanese scripts on signs rather than another—logographic kanji writing, syllbabic kana characters, or Romanized Japanese—which reflect subtle differences in the message. In this way, students who participate in the activity not only increase their awareness of multilingualism in their society, but are also forced to reflect on aspects of their native language that might otherwise go unnoticed.


Blommaert, Jan (2013). Ethnography, superdiversity and linguistic landscapes: Chronicles of complexity. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Backhaus, Peter (2007). Linguistic landscapes: A comparative study of urban multiligualism in Tokyo. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Gorter, Durk (ed.) (2006). Linguistic landscape: A new approach to multilingualism. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Landry, Rodrigue & Bourhis, Richard Y. (1997). Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: An empirical study. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16(1), 23-49.
Li, Jing & Marshall, Steve (2017). Vancouver’s Chinatown: A pedagogical tool for teaching and learning about multilingualism. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
Sayer, Peter (2010). Using the linguistic landscape as a pedagogical resource. ELT Journal 64 (2), 143-154.
Wang, Jing-Jing (2015) Linguistic landscape on campus in Japan—A case study of signs in Kyushu University. Intercultural Communication Studies XXIV (1).
Keywords: linguistic landscape, sociolinguistic-ethnographic methodology, teaching research methods