Stephen Greene

Language as a City

Linguisitc Landscapes, Stephen Greene

As anyone who knows me will attest, I have been pretty obsessed recently with mapping the urban linguistic landscape.  As often happens, when we find something we are interested in it colours all aspects of our lives.  When I first started teaching, many moons ago, I couldn’t watch a film, hear a song or read a book without wondering if it could be used in my classes.  Nowadays, I can’t teach a class without thinking about the urban linguistic landscape.

One obvious way this has manifested itself is by encouraging my students to explore their own urban lnguistic landscape.  It has been gratifying to see many of my students developing their own interest, and sometimes their own fixations, with the language they see around them.  But there have also been less conspicuous ways in which urban linguistic landscapes has affected my teaching.

Language as a City

During a class with a very advanced student last week we were talking about how she visualises English today compared to when she started to learn the language.  I was reminded of a useful metaphor I heard in a training class at the start of my career, which unfortunately I can’t find now but I would be grateful if somebody else can remember who originally came up with it.

The idea is that when we start to learn a language it is like we are cruising 10,000 metres above a city.  As we look down it all looks very organised with neat roads and neighbourhoods.  It seems as if there is an intelligent plan to the city and that this plan is being followed by the people who develop and live in it.

Low level students often like to see the language they are learning like this.  They hope it is logical and can be followed easily.  Teachers, and the material we use, tend to present the language in exactly this way as well.

It all looks so organised from up here.

But as we fly lower over the city, or as we move to an intermediate level of language proficiency, we notice that not everything is going according to plan.  There are unepxected kinks in roads, parks where there really shouldn’t be any, or people not going the way you might expect.  The city is still largely nice and organised, but there are hints that there are problems in the city that we hadn’t seen from our previous, higher, vantage point.

By the time we get to our advanced student, they are aware that the city, or the language, has no real over-arching plan.  Instead, it has been developed higgeldy piggeldy, with one person having an idea for this city block, and another person having a totally different idea for the next one.  There are traffic jams and roadworks everywhere.  We need to learn about each individual street and neighbourhood in order to find our way across the whole of the city.  But at the same time, we don’t necessarily need to now everything abot every street in order to know the city.

Just as there are dangerous areas of the city, so there are threatening and intimidating parts of a language.  Every city has parts where you wouldn’t go at night or where you would not like your kids to be on their own, and every language has its equivalent for  learners.  In the case of English, the parts that keep some learners awake at night might be phrasal verbs, the dreaded present perfect or pronunciation of past tense endings.

And yet, despite the chaos and the danger, I am a city boy.  I love the atmosphere, the frission, the excitment of living in a city.  You never quite know what’s going to happen next, and the same can be said for language.  There is creativity, passion and, sometimes, sorrow in both.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Stephen Greene

Stephen is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He has been teaching for over 20 years all around the world, but has been living and working in Curitiba, Brazil for the last 6 years. He writes self-indulging articles about all things associated with languages at

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