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Linguistic Landscape Research: Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia Field Note #12  ‣  Author: Phillip Marzluf

Above Photo: Mongolian only notice notifying the public about a political demonstration. (Photo by Phillip Marzluf)

Linguistic landscape research examines all of the written materials that are publicly accessible to people in their daily lives. Rather than looking at books, poems, textbooks, or students’ writing, linguistic landscape researchers are interested in more mundane types of writing: street signs, advertisements, warnings, billboards, announcements, graffiti, company signs, slogans, advocacy posters, and flyers, among other possibilities. In short, anything that has been placed in the public environment using images or symbols is a candidate for analysis.

Why would literacy experts be interested in the linguistic landscape? Most importantly, linguistic landscape research is a new methodology that moves literacy research out of reading and writing classrooms and into the streets and public environments of all people who use reading and writing. Linguistic landscape research

  • Enables literacy to serve as an important historical variable to document social change
  • Allows researchers to keep track of all of the scripts and languages that are possible in the public environment
  • Reveals peoples’ attitudes towards languages and, consequently, to speakers of these languages
  • Shows what official language policies or unofficial, tacit policies are being enforced

In this Field Note, I demonstrate how linguistic landscape research can be applied to Ulaanbaatar; at the same time, I link back to Paweł Szczap and others who are interested in focusing on Ulaanbaatar as an important place to conduct research.

a book store

English and Mongolian bilingual/biscriptal sign. (Photo by Phillip Marzluf)

Why is Mongolia a fascinating place for linguistic landscape research?

Looking at the linguistic landscape of Mongolia enhances our knowledge about Mongolians’ use of language and literacy in their daily lives. First, the linguistic landscape of Mongolia has changed drastically over the past 100 years as different political and economic regimes have associated themselves with different languages, scripts, and public genres and purposes. For example, the linguistic landscape of the socialist Mongolian People’s Republic is far different from that of post-socialist Mongolia. In Ulaanbaatar, from the 1950s through to the late 1980s, the linguistic landscape was composed almost exclusively in Cyrillic Mongolian and Russian, and the purposes of these public signs exhorted Mongolian citizens to feel patriotic, be careful of public property, and identify with socialism and the Soviet Union. The British Library’s Endangered Archive Programme is an excellent source for photographs of Ulaanbaatar in the first six decades of the twentieth century, including this link to a collection of photographs of 1950s Ulaanbaatar:

A second reason to examine the linguistic landscape of Mongolia is to gain more understanding about the level of anxiety expressed by many Mongolians about their culture and language in the post-socialist period. Many Mongolians worry about the lack of standards in Mongolian grammar and vocabulary and about the frequent code-switching into English. As the largest Mongolian urban area in the world, the Ulaanbaatar Mongolian dialect shows the most linguistic change and innovation, yet many public intellectuals blame journalists, young people, and women—especially those who work for international organizations—for distorting Mongolian and lowering the standards of this language. What is really at stake are questions about identity. These anxieties stem from concerns about “Mongolianness” in the post-socialist period, especially as many elite Mongolians study abroad or raise their children in non-Mongolian speaking countries. An abhorrent way of expressing anxiety over language and identity was in 2007, when several Mongolian nationalist groups threated storeowners to take down any signs that included Chinese or other non-Mongolian Asian languages. This moment of linguistic violence hinted that these groups defined Mongolian identity as exclusive of the cultures of China and other Asian countries.

a couple of signs

Mongolian only signs advertising property and professional training. (Photo by Phillip Marzluf)

What does a linguistic landscape researcher do?

The digital camera becomes the most important tool for the linguistic landscape researcher. In the summer of 2014, I walked around central Ulaanbaatar for a couple of weeks, taking photographs of company signs, advertisements, notices, and other public signs. I had to make decisions regarding how I was going to define and quantify the signs I encountered. For example, I included signs only when they were reasonably visible to the public, were relatively stable, and had been designed to communicate something to a public audience. My study of the linguistic landscape of Ulaanbaatar resulted in 666 signs, which I then placed in a database with variables such as language, script, type of sign, and audience.

a restaurant

English only sign in the center of Ulaanbaatar. (Photo by Phillip Marzluf)

What can we say about the linguistic landscape of Ulaanbaatar?

To summarize the Ulaanbaatar linguistic landscape research findings, Mongolian and Mongolian Cyrillic, not surprisingly, were the most frequent language and script: of all the signs that were analyzed, 86% of them included Mongolian and 84% of them included Mongolian Cyrillic. Yet, the linguistic landscape of Ulaanbaatar was also diverse, as it was made up of 11 languages and 7 scripts. English and the Latin alphabet, moreover, were also ubiquitous: 51% of all signs in Ulaanbaatar included English and 58% of them contained the Latin alphabet. These percentages suggest the existence of many bilingual and biscriptal signs:

  • Mongolian only signs—46%
  • Mongolian & English bilingual signs—34%
  • English only signs—13%
  • Mongolian Cyrillic only signs—39%
  • Mongolian Cyrillic & Latin biscriptal signs—41%
  • Latin only signs—15%
a sign

Mongolian only sign prohibiting the use of public property. (Photo by Phillip Marzluf)

Despite the diversity of other languages and scripts, their use overall was infrequent. For example, there were only 5 signs (0.7%) that did not include Mongolian and English. Finally, Mongol Bichig, the traditional vertical script that is officially protected by several language laws and that has been promoted strongly by several post-socialist governments, occurred 26 times (4%), though only 6 times (1%) as the only script on these signs.

Given the anxieties about language that were discussed earlier, it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which these statistics will intensify or mollify these anxieties. Other linguistic landscape researchers have reported the high frequency of monolingual or bilingual English in global public landscapes, yet what makes the case of Ulaanbaatar interesting is the frequency of English and, at the same time, the relative linguistic scarcity of Russian (13 instances, or 2%) and Chinese (2 instances, 0.3%), the two neighboring economic and military powers.


Archives for Cinema, Photography and Sound Recordings. 2009. EAP 264: Preservation through Digitisation of Rare Photographic Negatives from Mongolia. Endangered Archives. British Library.

Blommaert, Jan. 2013. Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Gorter, Durk, ed. 2006. Linguistic Landscape: A New Approach to Multilingualism. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Shohamy, Elana, and Durk Gorter. eds. 2009. Linguistic Landscape: Expanding the Scenery. New York and London: Routledge.

About the Author

From 1994 to 1996, Phillip Marzluf served in Mongolia as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer and has returned many times to conduct research on language and literature in Mongolia. His book, Language, Literacy, and Social Change in Mongolia: Traditionalist, Socialist, and Post-Socialist Identities (Lexington Books) explores the literacy and language policies in Mongolia over the past 100 years.


1 thought on “Linguistic Landscape Research: Ulaanbaatar”

  1. Hello Philip. Thank you for sharing your fascinating post on the Linguistic Landscape of Ulaanbaatar. Your post gave me valuable insights into this city’s linguistic diversity and complexity. I am particularly interested in how you analyzed the use of different scripts, such as the traditional Mongolian script and the Cyrillic script, in the linguistic landscape of Ulaanbaatar. Moreover, I want to know if there have been any significant changes in the linguistic landscape of Ulaanbaatar over the years. Have you noticed any trends or patterns in using different languages and scripts? Do you think the linguistic landscape of Ulaanbaatar will continue to evolve and change in the future?

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