Chinese students’ engagement with linguistic landscapes during a summer school in Scotland


This study focuses on how visiting Chinese summer school students engage with Linguistic Landscapes (hereafter referred to as LL) in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. China is the largest source of international students in the United Kingdom and makes up almost a quarter of all students at Scottish universities (Scottish Government 2018). As short-term study abroad and summer school programmes take on increased popularity and importance in universities, it is essential that these experiences of mobility move beyond a simplistic study of the ‘host’ language and cultural immersion, which can result in stereotypical cross-cultural perspectives, to pedagogical interventions that support guided reflection about diversity and global citizenship in an interconnected world (Schartner 2016; Schwieter, Jackson, and Ferreira 2021).

This article, therefore, examines how the study of LL can be employed as a pedagogical intervention for students engaged in short-term sojourns abroad. A frequently quoted definition of LL refers to ‘the language of public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on government buildings combine to form the linguistic landscape of a given territory, region, or urban agglomeration’ (Landry and Bourhis 1997, 25). More recently, Gorter (2019, 41) draws on a broader understanding which views LL not just as a list of sign types but also appreciating the ‘motives, uses, ideologies, language varieties and contestations of multiple forms of “languages” as they are displayed in public spaces.’

Although early studies of LL paid attention to quantitative analysis and statistical counts to identify the presence of linguistic diversity and ethnolinguistic (in)activity and (in)visibility in various multilingual cities and neighbourhoods across the globe (Cenoz and Gorter 2006; Barni and Bagna 2008), it soon became apparent to some scholars that LL could be harnessed as an educational tool (Rowland 2013; Malinowski 2019; Shohamy 2019). However, many of the studies in this area have concentrated on English language learners (ELL), whereas this article aims to shed light on students’ face-to-face encounters with LL as a ‘source of input into a broader language repertoire, identities, knowledge and awareness’ (Shohamy 2019, 33), as they temporarily reside in a different public space. In this way, the article contributes to the ‘qualitative turn’ in LL studies as the participants embark on ‘learning journeys,’ where they take ownership of their learning outdoors, engage in active questioning, and share real-life experiences in situ (Beames 2010).

The article begins with a description of the research site, and the factors that have influenced the LL imprint of Edinburgh’s cityscape. The next section looks at studies which have recognised the key educational role of LL. This is followed by a description of the students’ pedagogical intervention activities and a thematic analysis of the students’ interpretations of LL. The final section discusses ways of employing LL as a learning resource to enable students to gain deeper understandings of contemporary societies in an interconnected and globalised world.

Linguistic landscape as a pedagogical tool

LL has become an ever-expanding field of research covering a multitude of research sites and research methods (Hélot et al. 2012; Blackwood et al. 2016; Pütz and Munt 2019). In particular, there has been a growing interest placed on the responsibilities, actions and perceptions of readers as they interpret the LL and how this engagement impacts on individuals’ worldview (Hancock 2012) and their linguistic behaviour (Cenoz and Gorter 2008, 68). It may be argued, therefore, that the construct of LL has in its favour an important educational role. As Malinowski (2019:64) states:

The LL presents a wealth of often hidden and sometimes irreconcilable differences in intent and meaning that must be actively enquired and negotiated if they are to be understood in relation to one another … [interpretation] … requires not just a nuanced reading on the part of a supposedly neutral observer but may be said to demand participation by virtue of the viewer’s embodied and emplaced subjectivity.

Several scholars have effectively shown how the study of LL can be utilised for pedagogical purposes in school-based projects. The pioneering work of Landry and Bourhis (1997) on LL considered the perceptions of high school students of public signs in Québec. Also in Canada, where French is a co-official language, Dagenais et al. (2009) document how ten-and eleven-year-old elementary school children studied the LL in Vancouver and Montreal, and used this photographic evidence as a basis for exploring language awareness activities and teaching critical literacy. In fact, Clemente, Andrade, and Martins (2012) provide evidence that even very young children (6 years old) can develop an ability to recognise and read LL and foster positive attitudes to linguistic diversity in their locale in Portugal. Continuing the same theme of the school curriculum, Hewitt-Bradshaw (2014) discusses a range of examples of LL in Caribbean Creole language environments that can inform teacher classroom pedagogy to develop students’ critical language awareness and identities of Creole speakers.

Some researchers have turned their attention to higher education as a fertile ground for studying LL and societal multilingualism in various locations across the globe such as Malaysia (Albery 2021) and Malta (Grima 2020). Li and Marshall (2018), take a different twist on research methodology and present an account of a student-researcher carrying out a LL project to document, analyze, and engage with multilingualism in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Meanwhile, Malinowski (2019) draws on translational studies with language students as they construct and reconstruct existing English signage through the process of translating the signs into new languages such Spanish, Italian and Arabic. There is an element of activism in Malinowski’s work as the students submit the new signs to the city offices for their consideration.

Cenoz and Gorter (2008) were among the first to explore the topic of the relationship between LL and second/foreign language acquisition, particularly during study abroad experience. This seminal work recognised the social context as a source of input and viewed students as budding sociolinguistic researchers who could derive five conceivable benefits by engaging with the LL in their vicinity: (1) opening up the prospect of incidental language learning when faced with texts in public spaces (2) the development of pragmatic competence through authentic texts with different communicative functions and modes of speech (3) acquisition of multimodal literacy skills gained from analysing how meaning is constructed through visual and printed modes (4) encouraging students’ multicompetence (i.e. enhanced cognition as first and additional languages interact) through multilingual input, and (5) an appreciation of the symbolic and emotional functions of signs such as the value and status of different languages.

Subsequent scholars have shown how LL can be utilised as a pedagogical resource specifically for English language learning (ELL), for examples Rowland (2013), Chen and Dooley (2014), Dumanig and David (2019) and Shang and Xie (2020). According to Sayer (2010, 114) integrating LL with language learning means the content of ELL classrooms connects to learners’ real-life experiences ‘where opportunities for exposure and practice outside of the classroom are limited.’ Studies of this type have given rise to the publication of several guidebooks containing LL-centred practical activities for English language classrooms, such as Solmaz and Przymus (2021).

The pedagogical intervention at the centre of this article draws on Cenoz and Gorter’s (2008) analytical framework but deviates from most of the studies in the following ways. First, the students take ownership for capturing and analysing the LL through their ‘camera safari’ rather than the researcher and/or teacher supplying the LL texts for scrutiny. Second, the focus is on all languages and literacies in the cityscape rather than English signs alone. Third, it aims to capture the perspectives of short-term visitors who are unfamiliar with their new environment.

Research site: multilingual Edinburgh

The urban site under enquiry is Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, with a population of just over half a million. The significance of Edinburgh as a location for exploring LL is shaped by a number of factors including state language policy, increasing diversity through migration movements and an internationally renowned tourist destination.

English does dominate official or ‘top-down’ signage in Edinburgh but the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 confirmed Gaelic as an official language of Scotland and gives public bodies the responsibility to promote the language and consequently bilingual signs have been increasingly more visible in all parts of the country including non-traditional Gaelic speaking areas such as Edinburgh. These bilingual inscriptions can be found on public buildings, government offices and traffic signs. Despite bilingual signage being common in many parts of Europe, bilingual signs in Scotland have been subjected to emotionally charged public arguments. Controversies include the toponymy and spelling conventions of place names and the visual impact of differentiated colours, sizes and order of two linguistic codes, all of which can signify to the reader the dominance of one language over the other.

The scale and scope of globalisation and inward migration has transformed the linguistic landscape of Edinburgh, marked by heterogeneous private commercial signs in scripts other than English on the fronts and interiors of shops, supermarkets, restaurants, and fast-food premises. Almost 10% of the inhabitants of Edinburgh are non-white, which is up from 4% in 2001. The largest non-white group are Asian as a result of nearly half a century of settled communities of citizens originally from Commonwealth countries such as Hong Kong, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. More recently, the expansion of the European Union has brought a substantial number of migrant workers seeking employment opportunities, from countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. In addition, political and economic volatility across the globe has brought significant numbers of refugee and asylum-seeking families to Britain (Hancock 2020). Most ‘New Scots’ originate from countries experiencing conflict (such as Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia) or persecution (such as the Kurds in Iraq). The linguistic vitality of the city is reflected in the establishment of large number of community language schools for children and young people operating in the evenings and at the weekends (Hancock and Hancock 2021).

Edinburgh is a leading tourist destination and attracts a wide range of overseas visitors mainly from U.S.A, Germany and France. However, new markets which have seen recent growth include China and India, prompting translated materials and signage using the anticipated languages of sightseers in order to attract their attention and provide information. The city attracts almost four million overseas visitors every year (an increase by over 1 million from 2012 to 2018) to see iconic landmarks like Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat. The Edinburgh International Festival and Hogmanay (Scots for ‘the last day of the year’) world famous street party celebration sees millions of revellers from across the globe flock to the city.

All the influential factors above give Edinburgh a cosmopolitan vibrancy and make it an ideal location for investigating how visiting Chinese students make sense of and respond to the visibility of the multiliterate ecology of the cityscape. The next section describes the pedagogical approach used to support the students’ exploration of LL during their short stay.

Methods: the LL pedagogical Intervention and activities

The LL activities took place over two full days during a three-week University summer school programme. The central aim of the programme was to develop students’ skills and confidence as educators through collaborative and reflective learning. This objective involved gaining knowledge about educational policies, practices and values in a different educational context. The LL activities contributed to the learning goals of the programme as the students participated in active outdoor learning journeys and developed new understandings as language learners in an increasingly globalised world.

Fifty undergraduate students (n = 45 females and n = 5 males) from Universities across China participated in the study. The subject of LL was introduced to the class by the author, a university tutor. The students had already been assigned into ten groups and for the remainder of the day the students were instructed to take digital photographs of the use of a range of languages in its written form that they came across on display in public spaces.

The employment of LL as a pedagogical tool overhauls the traditional instructional teacher-dominated model where theoretical understandings and content knowledge are communicated in an abstract form to passive students. In its place, the ‘camera safari’ (Hancock 2012) arouses students’ curiosity and presents a challenging task by getting students to grapple with and take ownership of their own learning in an authentic context. The chaotic nature of LL means ‘understandings’ and appreciations of LL are not necessarily unanimous and very different meanings may be attributed to signs (Ben-Rafael, Shohamy, and Barni 2010). In this way, opportunities are provided for students to be involved in deep ‘learning to think’ skills such as analysing, comparing, interpreting and evaluating. This pedagogical approach draws on the philosophy of outdoor learning journeys (Beames 2010) which involve participants learning about people and the space in which they inhabit through three phases of questioning, researching and sharing with fellow participants.

As the choice and reading of LL can be ‘messy’ the students were given a list of reflective questions to focus the mind and support dialogue. In a similar vein to Rowland (2013), the heuristic prompts were an attempt to get the students to categorise their photographs, explore similarities and differences and elicit any emotional responses. The questions were:

  • What type of LL is it? (public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, public signs)

  • How is the LL communicated? (language and writing system)

  • Does the LL make you want to learn more?

  • Do you feel rewarded for having invested the time to read the LL?

  • Is the LL distinctive so it made you stop to read it and take a photograph?

  • How meaningful is the LL to the reader?

  • Does the LL make you think and make you feel something?

  • Are there visuals or drama in the LL that bring it to life?

On the second day, the students prepared a group power point presentation in the morning and an accompanying written account in English (500–1000 words in length). Each group shared their analysis of LL with the full group in the afternoon. The students were informed of the research under conditions of confidentiality and gave their written consent before the production of the written texts and presentations.

Findings: students’ response to LL

This section presents the outcomes of the LL task described above. For the sake of clarity and conciseness, it draws on the work of Cenoz and Gorter (2008) and analyses the students’ reflections and written accounts into five categories of response. Each of these categories is elaborated on below.

Appreciation of the power of language

An appreciation of the power of language forces the students to consider other stances, and demands that the reader moves from a passive receiver of the text to someone who can understand how written signs can carry meaning and cultural values worthy of questioning and critical investigation (Shohamy 2019).

LL is influential in indexing and reinforcing a sense of shared cultural identity and therefore, it was not surprising that the students were drawn to LL reflecting their own Chinese heritage. The encounters with LL sometimes drew an emotional response such as:

This is a traditional Chinese thing on the glass [of a tailor’s shop] which is a combination of 招财进宝 meaning the hope of gaining wealth. Seeing this, we felt absolutely warm.

My culture ascription stopped me. It has an image of a typical Chinese noodle bowl. If we translate the Chinese part directly, it is ‘my home has noodles’. It represents the image of hometown and family and arose a sense of belongingness.

A common photograph taken by the students was the ‘Alipay’ [支付宝] advertising sign on shop doors and windows attracting intended customers from China. As one group explained:

Many shops in Scotland are equipped with Chinese signs. Alipay is an app very popular and widespread in China. It is one kind of electronic money, convenient that people don’t carry cash and no change. It attracts me to see the Chinese label because it makes me feel at home.

When looking at bi/multilingual LL there were instances of the students beginning to analyse the choice and preference of the different languages and the intended audience such as:

We can see that on the Chinese menu, Chinese is written before English, and Chinese character is somewhat bigger than English. It is the same for the Japanese menu and the Spanish menu, so I think the order of the two languages is related to the consumer community and the environment in which the shop is located.

I found that on the menu the English was before the Chinese. Chinese is chosen as the second language is because milk tea is very popular among Chinese people, like me.

Although the students did not mention power explicitly or openly question the privileging or exclusion of languages, there was some indication of an ideological stance for social justice. For example, a braille sign providing information at a tourist sight triggered the following response:

The world becomes more tolerant than before. Disabled people have the same right as normal ones.

Stimulating students’ multicompetence

Multicompetence is the interaction between a language learner’s linguistic competence in their first language (L1) and in their subsequent languages which give multilinguals a higher linguistic level than monolinguals (Cook 1992). This assertion is backed up by research evidence where enriched vocabularies and wider phonological systems have been found to give bilingual citizens enhanced metalinguistic skills; that is, the ability to talk about the nature of language itself and how it works and an aptitude for learning further languages more easily (Woll and Wei 2019).

During the LL exercise, there were instances where the students were attuned not only to the unique understandings of their L1 but also a curiosity to engage with different languages and literacies.

One student recognised the subtle difference between Mandarin and Cantonese:

The words ‘DAI PAI’ which are easy to be seen on the streets seemed like Pinyin, and when we got closer, we found out they were really Chinese words taken from the phrase ‘Dai Pai Dong’ 大排档. To be accurate, it’s Cantonese.1

Several students used their translation skills and noticed what they believed to be errors in translation. One student wrote about a sign at Chatime, a Taiwanese teahouse:

Milk tea to Chinese is what coffee is to westerners in drinking culture. A translation mistake, ‘oolong tea’ is translated into ‘Oriental beauty’.

There were numerous cases of students using translation skills in their presentations covering a variety of languages such as French (Les plats du jour means today’s menu), Hindi (आशीर्वाद means blessing), the transliteration of Thai (it is the translation of Thai to English according to its sound, ‘Kuay Tiew Nuer Nam Tok’ is beef noodle soup) and the Latin motto (Hinc Sanitas means Health is Here).

Two students drew on their language learning skills and took an in-depth look into signs on a Japanese Sushi bar and the branding on a lemonade bottle from Japan:

The shop sign is written in English and Japanese. I wondered what the word ‘maki’ means. I learned Japanese for a semester and I’ve only known that ‘sushi’ is the exact transliteration form of the Japanese words 寿司. Later I looked up ‘maki’ in a dictionary. It should be written as まき, a written form of Japanese.2

The picture of the drink [Kimura] shows this bottle of drink is from Japan. The characters mean that there is a small ball in the bottle and you can drink the water after pushing it.3

Facilitating the acquisition of multimodal literacy skills

Multimodal literacy refers to the study of semiotic communication and expression that combines a wide range of modes of meaning making which are socially and culturally shaped and include textual, audio, aural, spatial, and visual resources (Kress 2010). Within the sphere of LL, the students were able to comment on the relationship between text and image and different ways of composing messages including colour, design, font, and calligraphy.

One student commented on a digital Chinese sign above a door at a tailor’s shop:

Its meaning is ‘Welcome everyone’. The word is electronic and shiny, and that’s why it impresses me … makes it livelier, more attractive and arouses my interest to get in.

A number of students mentioned coloured lettering such as:

The colours of the sign of the ISTITUTO Italiano di CULTURA is the colours of the national flag of Italy, green, white and red. What interests me most is the excellent combination of the language and colours which can represent the culture itself.

The introduction to the Scottish national War memorial is in English and French. It is as simple as black words on white paper to show respect to heroes sacrificed in war.

One student took a photograph of a colourful statue of Oor Willie, a famous Scottish newspaper cartoon character, and commented on what drew her to the public object:

I saw various child statues which made me very happy every time I see them. For this picture, it is obvious that the purple statue stands out on the road, with white, red and yellow writing on it. Naturally it attracts us easily. What is interesting is that we can find a Gaelic translation.

A number of students remarked on the design and execution of scripts:

The name of the shop that sells something about Harry Potter. The boy wizard refers to Harry. It is written in the Gothic style.

English characters with special handwriting style. It’s different from what we learned at home. Because the knowledge in textbooks may not be so practical.

One student was attracted to a range of poster designs advertising a production of Mulan at the fringe festival:

Different typefaces can have a different influence. They are all posters about Mulan, the arrangement and typefaces do create a different cultural atmosphere and express different themes. We can have a direct impression about the drama while we do not understand the characters.

Two groups commented on how the alphabetic script on restaurant fronts was used to represent in one case a religious symbol and in another case a different script:

This logo is written in English but looks like another language in the Middle east. It looks like a temple typically built in countries where people believe in Islam. It gives me a feeling of the Middle east.4

On the glass wall of the Indian restaurant, the words ‘we curry’ look as if they are written in Hindi. This way of advertising can attract both English speakers and the people from the regions where these characters are used.

Pragmatic competence

LL has many purposes, such as exposing the readers to authentic input in context, which is appropriate for improving learners’ pragmatic competence (Rowland 2013). The students’ written accounts revealed that they could make connections between the communicative intentions behind the signs and knowledge of the contextual use of the LL resource. These informational functions were captured mainly around tourist locations as the following written notes indicate:

From the picture we can clearly know that there are six languages, including English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese and in my opinion it belongs to ‘public signs’.

Through this sign, people from different countries can have a clearer understanding of the meaning of this public facility.

The above are illustrations of what Reh (2004) refers to as ‘duplicating,’ where the languages contain complete mutual translations of each other. Although the students made a note of the different languages as evidence of mass tourism, they did not engage further and speculate about the choice of languages used to inform visitors. Furthermore, the students captured only a limited number of illustrations of ‘top-down’ influences at work, compared to commercial signs. This condition is no doubt evidence of the lack of official signs in languages other than English in the cityscape.

The following is an example of one student gaining understandings of the sign creator’s intentions by making the connections between the communicative purpose behind the sign and a marketing approach:

The sentence is written in Chinese characters 欢迎来到我们的通关店 and the general meaning is ‘welcome to our store’. At first sight of the sign, I was confused by ‘通关’ which refers to a store whose goods could easily and freely pass the customs. From my perspective, the sign could be considered as a successful marketing strategy which is attractive to customers especially Chinese visitors.

Another student not only translated a Spanish sign on a Mexican restaurant but also understood the author’s play on words and humorous intentions:

Its decoration combines English and Spanish. The eye-catching red colour and logo of a bull. ‘Toro Loco’ means ‘crazy bull’ in English. It says ‘Street foods. No bull’. A bit humorous.

Incidental learning from LL texts

Incidental learning refers to the unconscious acquisition of language without the deliberate intention to commit the part to memory, such as ‘picking up’ an unknown word or expression from listening to someone or from reading a text. Incidental learning stands in contrast to intentional learning, which refers to a premeditated attempt to commit a new language to memory, such as repeating expressions using listening tapes (Hulstijn 2013).

In terms of the LL exercise, it is difficult to ascertain how much new incidental language the students ‘picked up’ through engagement with public signs compared to other types of exposure. However, it was evident that the LL activity acted as a stimulus for the students to enter into authentic conversations in English, as a shared language, with other social actors. In this way, the active language employed is dynamic, shaped by the social context, the roles of users and the ideational content of the text used (Kohler 2015, 19). The students described these intercultural encounters in their written accounts as follows:

I took the red drink ‘Shani’ and asked the owner of the store what language was on the bottle. He told us that it’s Urdu which is the language spoken in his hometown. It was nice to come across that store and have a chat with the owner.

At first we were all attracted by the buddha and the billboard at a Thai Spa resort … which is covered by English and Thai. Then we walked into the resort, introducing ourselves. The therapists told us they all came from Thailand and lived in Edinburgh for many years.

One group of students sought help with understanding a poster showing a variety of retro objects such as a Walkman, Gameboy and Tamagotchi:

We saw a pink poster on the wall which was colourful and dazzling, the poster has two languages: English and Japanese. First, we didn’t know what the poster means so we asked a passer-by and he told us that the poster was an advertisement for a discotheque.5

According to Ben-Rafael and Ben-Rafael (2016, 202) the use of proprietors’ names on business fronts is viewed as ‘unambiguous ethnocultural markers’ and this sign informed an exchange between some students and a worker at Ting Thai Caravan restaurant:

We asked the waitress to know more about the restaurant. The first part of its name ‘Ting’ is the name of the chef and the other part ‘Thai’ refers to the Thai food served in the restaurant.

Reflections on LL task

One way of gaining insights into the learning taking place as students encounter LL is to ask the participants themselves about their own perceptions of the LL task. A number of students focused on their identities as language learners as the following indicate:

It is really interesting to study Linguistic Landscapes. As a language learner I will pay attention to those linguistic landscapes in my daily life.

My picture is from a packing box of cosmetics. There is a total of 25 languages. What urged me to take a photo of it is to learn more about languages. The way Linguistic Landscapes works is to arouse your interest, which develops your ability of self-learning.

Several other students wrote about a greater appreciation of cultural diversity and living in a globalised world:

We really have learnt a lot from this activity. Actually, it is a very natural process to study Linguistic Landscapes. We became more aware of language and the culture and we even know more about Edinburgh.

Linguistic Landscapes can be seen as the linguistic mirror of the dynamics of our globalised society.

One group summarised their presentation with the following:

We can find English or other languages in our daily life. Master a foreign language. Create a tolerant world for all citizens. Don’t focus on textbooks.

Although the five categories above are dealt with in turn it is important to stress the overlapping nature and interconnections across the categories in order to fully understand the complex processes inherent in reading LL. There are of course inherent dangers in the quest to put labels on social reality and language acquisition as we run the risk that it will be perceived as static and prescriptive, rather than as messy and ambiguous, which we know it to be. Nevertheless, such categorisations can be useful because it helps make concrete situations more comprehensible.


Research has shown that the ‘study abroad’ experience with the host community has a positive influence on the development of additional language acquisition and intercultural competence (Schartner 2016; Schwieter, Jackson, and Ferreira 2021). Yet, Cenoz and Gorter (2008) acknowledge that exposure to language input and exposure from LL is rarely taken into consideration in international study sojourns because of the challenges of measuring the quantity and quality of any communication that takes place in the new environment.

In the appreciation of the power of language category, the participants, not surprisingly, were drawn to Chinese signs which often elicited an emotional response. This is reminiscent of Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’ which denotes the taken-for-granted ways of thinking that is reflective of their own ‘cultural’ group preferences. However, these cultural dispositions could be regarded as problematic as it assumes the learner has a fixed cultural identity and lacks agency outside of their own emerging intercultural identity (Kohler 2015, 21). Notably, during the exercise the students documented LL, translated a wide variety of languages and literacies, and took the initiative to engage further with the task such as photographing environmental print inside shops and transient posters on buses, even though none of these modes of LL were used as examples in the students’ original brief. Nevertheless, this brings into the open a potential methodological limitation of the study. Changing perspectives maybe difficult to gauge as a result of the LL task, as the incentive to take part in study abroad programmes means students may already have the dispositions to be open-minded, tuned in and sensitive to linguistic and cultural issues.

Although the students were well versed at documenting linguistic diversity, they did not openly question the privileging or exclusion of languages. On reflection, the questions used to guide the LL activity may have constrained the students’ thinking into looking at the surface messages behind signs rather than probing deeper at a symbolic and ideological level. One solution is to introduce mechanisms for students to interrogate photographs in advance of the task or supplying them with a route map to follow which signposts examples of LL to be photographed alongside a different set of questions to interrogate of the subtleties of LL signs to gain further understandings of the power relationships between languages and literacies within society. According to Dagenais et al. (2009, 265) this type of discussion shifts participants’ attention ‘from a horizontal axis for interpreting language (taking pictures of the material world of signage) to a vertical one (considering the symbolic meaning communicated in these signs).’

This study has shown the benefits of LL as an educational resource for students to gain new understandings and reflect on their own learning in an increasingly diverse world. Furthermore, the design of the ‘camera safari’ gives students ownership of their own learning and opens up a pedagogical technique where the unpredictable and idiosyncratic nature of LL invites personal, nuanced and multiple responses. That is, texts may have different meanings depending on the context – the location of the text, when it is being read, the author’s explicit or implicit intentions and the text’s relationship to the lived experience of the reader. In this way, the activity played into the students’ multicompetence by stimulating their metalinguistic skills, and they were able to make connections between the communication form and pragmatic purposes of LL.

The participants’ written accounts also revealed that they were able to observe the relationship between text and image and the different ways of composing messages, including commenting on the text, colour and design of the three-dimensional statue of Oor Willlie and the tactile nature of Braille signs. As the world of communication and representation evolves, language learners need to be provided with resources to support their understanding of expanding multimodal literacy skills and the pragmatic use of semiotic textscapes. This should include perceptions of the full range of socially shaped and cultural modalities in public spaces including textual, moving image, audible and spatial and the interwoven nature of these features (Kress 2010, 79).

Many of the students reported that the LL activity encouraged them to take part in spontaneous social encounters with local people, such as asking questions to a passer-by and a museum receptionist. However, little is known about the specifics of these conversations in terms of incidental language learning. One way forward for future practice is to gather detailed data from field notes comparable to the walking tour by Michalovich et al. (2021). These authors moved in and out of shops to speak with owners about potential injustices and the loss of Arabic texts in the neighbourhood. Importantly, the participants worked collaboratively, interacting with each other as much as the inhabitants of the space. This mobility activity can be enhanced by audio-recording to document and analyse conversations.

An appreciation of the diversity of languages and literacies in authentic settings is central to the pedagogical intervention but LL activities also have the potential for interdisciplinary learning and the transfer and application of collective knowledge to new areas of learning. These attributes include problem-solving, critical enquiry, an informed global perspective and adapting to new situations with sensitivity. Beyond the language-specific discipline, some of the students used maps in their PowerPoint presentations to explain the routes they took and the location of LL. This points to the potential for using Global Positioning System (GPS) and Google Earth to determine accurate locations and measuring distances on foot. Public space is becoming more and more connected to virtual spaces and there were examples of students using QR-codes on signs to research and access additional information through linked websites.

LL also has the scope to lead to more creative activities. Technological advancements mean smartphone apps are available to manipulate the linguistic elements in photographs to highlight persuasion techniques or insert different languages. This can lead to activism and transformational actions as outlined by Malinowski (2019). Another example of the potential for creativity is using the script calligraphy as a stimulus for movement and dance.


This current study has investigated visiting Chinese undergraduate students’ engagement with the LL, in the city of their residence, as they participated in a university summer school. It argues that LL can be employed as an effective pedagogical tool for students to reflect on their own learning and gain new knowledge and understandings of diverse languages and literacies in a globalised world. The article makes a case for viewing LL not just as a form of language input but as a broader educational resource with potential for interdisciplinary learning and transferrable skills. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, learning spaces and practices in higher education are being re-evaluated and reconceptualised, and this has the potential for outdoor learning spaces and the exploration of LL and social justice.

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