Why linguistic landscapes are awesome

One day in 2011 a friend of mine and I were returning to Russia from a trip to Finland. Just as Vancouverites would drive over to Bellingham to do some casual shopping, we used to go to bordering towns of Finland on regular basis. That day, the trip followed all the same stages: shop, eat, take photos, pass the custom and passport control, drive back. My camera was on my lap, and luckily since I was not driving, I could leisurely look from the window on the changing landscape, when I saw a billboard. It said Welcome to Us. In large red letters against an image of a peaceful lake with a big rainbow over it. This billboard was so fascinating that I immediately took a photo. So, started my extensive collection of use of written text on public signage, something that as I later learned is termed as linguistic landscape.


What made me stop and snap a photo? Was it the size of the billboard? Its placement? The choice of colours and font? Or was it the choice of language? In fact, its was all of it together. Linguistic landscapes are made from multimodal texts that convey their messages through multiple semiotic systems at the same time. Linguistic landscapes—beautiful fonts, vibrant colours, images, languages, layouts—are captivatingly beautiful. However, their careful analysis can reveal messages that are not immediately recognized. These messages present evidence of larger sociocultural processes in the society—such as fascination with the English language in Russia—or of emergence of new linguistic context of the locality—such as increased immigration to a certain city.

As a scholar of sociolinguistics, I study how people use languages in multilingual societies. Think about it, somehow, we know that if you are trying to say something to an international audience, your best bet would be to use English. You can expect a restaurant Mamma Mia to serve Italian cuisine in some form, just as La Cigale is understandably a French Bistro in Kitsilano, though maybe you would expect to have cicadas there for dinner. You know to expect signs in Cantonese in Vancouver’s Chinatown and in Mandarin in Richmond. You can actually map the city of Vancouver through analyzing what languages are used in what areas. You can also try and understand the thinking behind the creation of certain signs in certain languages.

However, in multilingual societies, people are constantly juggling languages, cultural practices, and modes of communication. In multilingual societies, speakers don’t simply rely on one system of sounds, words and grammar rules at a time, but constantly create a fluid multilingual system. Take metro Vancouver. It is incredible in its ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. In fact, a recent article in Vancouver Sun called our city “one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet”. Why do we know that?  We have signs that are written in many languages at the same time. A multilingual individual can easily read a menu or a sale advertisement, drawing on whichever languages they speak. Having access to multilingual linguistic landscape legitimizes that speaker’s multilingual practices.

Since time immemorial people wanted to communicate their presence. The first forms of symbolic communication were petroglyphs, rock carvings, color, etchings on stone walls. Some of petroglyphs are as old as 40,000 years. Today they open a window into deep complex cultural practices of the societies that created them. In 2017, humans have access to a multitude of modes of communication: words, images, colours, textures. This is why, when talking about multilingual linguistic landscapes we are really talking about a deeply human desire to carve out a space of belonging, to communicate their presence. I hope that my talk will help people see the beauty of multilingualism and inspire them to embrace the linguistic diversity of our society. I hope that we will find the languages around us fascinating and not threatening. Multilingual linguistic landscapes help us embrace human creativity that is continually reshaping our society and makes it vibrant. All we need to do is take a closer look around.

PhoneMe poems

Here is one more poem I wrote during PhoneMe workshop last week. If you want to explore our interactive map, go to www.phonemeproject.com 

Prompt: Write about something insignificant. 


 to Dust 




I want to lift you up,

your name, oh Dust!

and glorify your presence.


You are the pollen

of morning roses.

The layered beauty

of leaves and petals.

You are the fibers

of teary love notes.

The softened scratches

of midnight passions.

You are the soil

of marshes, meadows.

The deafening roars

of mighty oceans.

You are the essence

of human nature.

Our skin, our hair,

our breath, our heartbeat.


Majestic Dust!

As ancient as

the burnt meteorites

At the birth of  planets.

As regal as

the rarest jewels

At the feet of victors.


I want to lift you up,

towards the sun

oh, Dust!

and bask in your golden glory.

Phone Me: Build Something Within a 100 steps

PhoneMe Project creates a public platform and amplifies the voices of community members through poetry. The poems created as a part of this project are recorded live on mobile phones and are uploaded to a secure server. Using an automated process of posting phone calls, we hope to make it possible for people perform and record their poems anywhere they find an inspiration.  The end goal of our project is to have a large collection of spoken word poems accessible online and to inspire and empower others to join in the dialogue.

This week we gathered together at the UBC Learning Exchange on the corner of Main and East Georgia streets, right in the heart of Vancouver Chinatown.  This part of Vancouver is undergoing rapid changes that involves a rezoning plan, opening the neighborhood to new residential and commercial development. While these changes are celebrated by some, they are opposed by others and even dubbed as symbolic cannibalism, a textbook example of gentrification.

In this context our prompt this week was “Something you would build within a 100 steps”. Coming from different walks of life, we had a thought-provoking discussion around what should be (or should it be at all?) built in Chinatown. We will be uploading the poems written during the workshop onto our interactive map.

As I looked put of the window, I remembered my fist day at the Learning Exchange. I came to this place in 2013 to volunteer as an English language facilitator. Then, in 2013, there was a community garden across the street. Now, in 2017, I was looking at a high rise condo development, a bank and a poke eatery. It was a beautiful building, but having grown up in an apartment complex far from parks and gardens, I felt prickle of loss, a longing for more green space.

 This is my poem

I want to build a wall

of flowers.

Luscious green waterfalls

falling down, pouring

into the streets.

The reds and yellows

sparkling alongside

grim greys of

rusting buildings.

The hanging gardens of Chinatown.

The eight world wonder.

An urban oasis.

A refuge for those who are losing a home.






Phone Me: Blackout Poetry

PhoneMe is a project implemented by Digital Literacy Centre at UBC Learning Exchange in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Our team is working with the poets living in the DTES to confront the negative stereotypes about this neighbourhood as a place of despair. As they walk the streets of the DTES, project participants record poems by dialing a PhoneMe Project phone number. Back at Digital Literacy Centre we upload these poems (audio and written text) onto an interactive map of the DTES and tag the location where the poem was created or a place what the poem is about. Through sharing their poems with PhoneMe project DTES residents paint a picture of their community on their own terms and using their own words. Our project is now in week eight.

The theme of week eight was blackout poetry. Blackout poets use already existing text and remove words from the page to create a new text – their poem. Blackout poetry is a captivating exercise, you really don’t know where it will take you and what poems you will have as a result. Blackout poetry uses any text available to the poet. It is a creative exercise that also leaves strikingly beautiful pages behind. See here for useful tips on how to create blackout poetry.

There were five of us in the workshop this week and we were all given the same text, a spam email selling prescription drugs.2017-02-13-15-32-39

This email, however, had one peculiarity. In order to pass spam filters, it included gibberish text, compiled from several websites. At first sight, the text made sense, but as we read closer it became clear that the text is complete nonsense. This made working with the text challenging but liberating at the same time.

There were five of us and everyone was given the same text, yet we all created completely different poems. Some of the words repeated, but the way we combined them was our unique creative process. Our project leader Kedrick James says that in the years he’s been using the text he has never seen two identical poems created.

This is my poem created in the workshop. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but it turned out quite political and surprisingly rhymed. 2017-02-13-16-32-11

Madonna down

Accession, power, influence

the limit of a nation.

A government exalting obedience

habitual objection.

Free institutions of equality

an unripe bitter sea.

For power, laws and businesses

convince the world to be.

PhoneMe: creating poems together

Today is week seven of the PhoneMe project, that Digital Literacy Centre is developing together with the UBC Learning Exchange. The project brought together a wonderfully talented group of people who meet every Friday at 1.30pm and write, read and celebrate the beauty of the spoken word and the power it has to transform the lives in the community.

Today in our workshop we gave ourselves freedom to create new words. The exercise is simple. First, you make four lists of words: nouns, adjectives,  verbs, and affixes. Here are my lists:

  1. Nouns: book, snow, bus
  2. Adjectives: heavy, packed, blinding
  3. Verbs: to read, to fall, to run
  4. Affixes: un-, -en,-ful

Next, you are asked to create new words by combining the words from your lists. Here are some of my words:

  1. heavybooked
  2. snowfallen
  3. runful, busful
  4. runpack
  5. unread
  6. heavyful

Next, you are asked to create a poem using these new words.

Wishful thinking



I’m heavybooked

making my way

through a snowfallen day.

Oh! To unread all those emails,

to unpack all those bags, totes, and backpacks

and to make a bussful run in the opposite direction!

Cherry Tree Stag


I am travelling with mom to Smolensk, an old medieval town south of Moscow, where she grew up.  As a child I used to spend every summer there visiting my grandparents. The last time I was in Smolensk was in mid 90s.

As we were walking about the town, I noticed a familiar statue, The Stag.  I remember it being enormous and magical. When I was little, my dad would lift me up to let me sit on this statue. I would sit and imagine it being a cherry tree stag from ‘The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen’.

What a lovely reminder of an 18th century collection of short stories , which I used to read all the time as a child. Here is an excerpt about the cherry tree stag from the book available online:

You have heard, I dare say, of the hunter and sportsman’s saint and protector, St. Hubert, and of the noble stag, which appeared to him in the forest, with the holy cross between his antlers. I have paid my homage to that saint every year in good fellowship, and seen this stag a thousand times, either painted in churches, or embroidered in the stars of his knights; so that, upon the honour and conscience of a good sportsman, I hardly know whether there may not have been formerly, or whether there are not such crossed stags even at this present day. But let me rather tell what I have seen myself. Having one day spent all my shot, I found myself unexpectedly in presence of a stately stag, looking at me as unconcernedly as if he had known of my empty pouches. I charged immediately with powder, and upon it a good handful of cherry-stones, for I had sucked the fruit as far as the hurry would permit. Thus I let fly at him, and hit him just on the middle of the forehead, between his antlers; it stunned him–he staggered–yet he made off. A year or two after, being with a party in the same forest, I beheld a noble stag with a fine full grown cherry- tree above ten feet high between his antlers. I immediately recollected my former adventure, looked upon him as my property, and brought him to the ground by one shot, which at once gave me the haunch and cherry-sauce; for the tree was covered with the richest fruit, the like I had never tasted before. Who knows but some passionate holy sportsman, or sporting abbot or bishop, may have shot, planted, and fixed the cross between the antlers of St. Hubert’s stag, in a manner similar to this? They always have been, and still are, famous for plantations of crosses and antlers; and in a case of distress or dilemma, which too often happens to keen sportsmen, one is apt to grasp at anything for safety, and to try any expedient rather than miss the favourable opportunity. I have many times found myself in that trying situation.