What’s in a sign along the street, in a store window, on the side of a bus or in the middle of a patch of lawn? A lot of words with great meaning – especially to the language learner! The simplest message on a sign in a language that is different from your own can help teach sentence structure and a wide variety of vocabulary and expressions. Who knew that you could see active examples of adjective agreement, the gender of nouns, common adverbs, command forms and much more in the small context of a mundane sign? Learning a language requires problem-solving skills, and signs offer the perfect venue because their text is short and satisfying to figure out. As a French and Spanish teacher, I love using signs in class to help my students learn.
A sign in a Montreal food market helps you acquire fruit vocabulary and learn colors as well as basic adjective rules. You might ask, “What is an “oignon jaune?”, and continue to ponder, “Why does the word yellow come after the word onion? Why does the adjective end with an ‘e’ if the word ‘onion’ is a masculine noun in French?”
In the Lima (Peru) airport, simple Spanish signs indicating the entrance (la entrada) and the exit (la salida) work together. “La entrada” is obvious and helps us understand the less obvious word for “exit.” Students can then also better grasp the verbs “to go in” = entrar and “to go out” = salir.
Some signs play tricks on us as English speakers which is yet another way to learn a new word. In a women’s clothing store in Paris there is a big sign that reads “Solde.” But you ask yourself, “Why is there a sign saying ‘Sold’ when things are still on sale?” Well, the word “solde” in French means “sale”, not “sold.” So, voilà, a new word learned!
There is a sign in Spanish on a patch of grass in Bogotá with an image of an embarrassed dog. Now what could that mean?! The images and location of the sign tell us, but we can still dissect the wording. From this comical sign we can learn the verbs “to pick up” and “to leave”, “best friend” and “a fine!” (as in the money you pay).
A street sign in Quebec City has abbreviations for the days of the week, numbers and the letter “h” following the numbers. What does this tell us? Aside from telling us when we can park there, it gives us a clue about how the time is written in French, with “h” designating “heure” and meaning “hour” or “o’clock.”
When we enter another culture with a language different from our own, we might feel lost or bewildered, but we can also feel captivated. In fact, if we are paying attention, signs encourage us to observe. We become language scientists that make sense of what we read by recalling the words that we already know (in the other language) within the context that they are in.
In short, signs are engaging, and I use them in my classes to develop observational skills, ignite curiosity and build confidence. Next time you are in a place where the signs are not in English (but at least use the English alphabet), take a good look and try to learn something new. You’ll get hooked!