Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton November 4, 2022

Choreographing linguistic landscapes in Singapore

  • Tong King Lee ORCID logo EMAIL logo


This paper proposes the notion of choreographed multilingualism to describe the top-down dimension of Singapore's linguistic landscape. Using a range of examples of official multilingual discourse, including public signage, exhibition artefacts, and print texts, it identifies a quadrilingual constellation that reiterates across different modalities, stabilizing into a visual-spatial formula. As a semiotic feature, the quadrilingual formula is an indexical that calls up the trope of neat multilingualism, whereby the four official languages of Singapore (English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil) are construed in a relation of equilibrium and equitability, while nonofficial/nonstandard languages, language varieties, and Chinese dialects are relegated to oblivion. The trope of neat multilingualism in turn evokes a larger sociolinguistic ambiance shaped by the official language policy and the language education system in Singapore. The paper theorises this situation in respect of Michel de Certeau's spatial theory, arguing that official discourses in Singapore corroborate the multilingual “place” produced by technologies of choreography.

Corresponding author: Tong King Lee, School of Chinese, University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong, China, E-mail:

  1. Conflict of interest: The author reports no conflict of interest.


Backhaus, Peter. 2006. Multilingualism in Tokyo: A look into the linguistic landscape. International Journal of Multilingualism 3(1). 52–66. in Google Scholar

Backhaus, Peter. 2007. Linguistic landscapes: A comparative study of urban multilingualism in Tokyo. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.10.21832/9781853599484Search in Google Scholar

Ben-Rafael, Eliezer & Miriam Ben-Rafael. 2015. Linguistic landscapes in an era of multiple globalizations. Linguistic Landscape 1(1/2). 19–37. in Google Scholar

Ben-Rafael, Eliezer, Elana Shohamy, Muhammad Hasan Amara & Nira Trumper-Hecht. 2006. Linguistic landscape as symbolic construction of the public space: The case of Israel. International Journal of Multilingualism 3(1). 7–30. in Google Scholar

Blommaert, Jan. 2015. Chronotopes, scales, and complexity in the study of language in society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44(1). 105–116. in Google Scholar

Cook, Vivian. 2013. The language of the street. Applied Linguistics Review 4(1). 43 – 81. in Google Scholar

Coupland, Nikolas. 2012. Bilingualism on display: The framing of Welsh and English in Welsh public spaces. Language in Society 41(1). 1–27. in Google Scholar

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Search in Google Scholar

Department of Statistics, Singapore. 2019. Population Trends, 2019. (accessed 3 January 2020).Search in Google Scholar

Heller, Monica. 2002. Globalization and commodification of bilingualism in Canada. In David Block & Deborah Cameron (eds.), Globalization and language teaching, 47–64. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Jaworski, Adam. 2018. Writing as spectacle: Between aesthetics and politics. In Sociolinguistics Symposium 22, University of Auckland (29 March 2018).Search in Google Scholar

Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwan. 2006. Reading images: The grammar of visual design, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.10.4324/9780203619728Search in Google Scholar

Landry, Rodrigue & Richard Y. Bourhis. 1997. Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: An empirical study. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 16(1). 23–49. in Google Scholar

Leeman, Jennifer & Gabriella Modan. 2009. Commodified language in Chinatown: A contextualized approach to linguistic landscape. Journal of Sociolinguistics 13(3). 332–362. in Google Scholar

Reh, Mechthild. 2004. Multilingual writing: a reader-oriented typology – with examples from Lira Municipality (Uganda). International Journal of the Sociology of Language 170. 1–41. in Google Scholar

Reiss, Katharina. 1989[1977]. Text-types, translation types and translation assessment, trans. Andrew Chesterman. In Andrew Chesterman (ed.), Readings in translation theory, 105–115. Helsinki: Finn Lectura.Search in Google Scholar

Scollon, Ron & Suzie Wong Scollon. 2003. Discourses in place: Language in the material world. London: Routledge.10.4324/9780203422724Search in Google Scholar

Sebba, Mark. 2012. Multilingualism in written discourse: An approach to the analysis of multilingual texts. International Journal of Bilingualism 17(1). 97–118. in Google Scholar

Shohamy, Elana. 2015. LL research as expanding language and language policy. Linguistic Landscape 1(1/2). 152–171. in Google Scholar

Silverstein, Michael. 1992. The indeterminacy of contextualization: When is enough enough? In Peter Auer & Aldo di Luzio (eds.), The contextualization of language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.10.1075/pbns.22.05silSearch in Google Scholar

Silverstein, Michael. 2003. Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23. 193–229. in Google Scholar

Wee, Lionel. 2018. The Singlish controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/9781316855331Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2022-11-04
Published in Print: 2022-11-25

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 10.12.2023 from
Scroll to top button