Minjun Chen

Linguistic landscape of Philadelphia Chinatown


An interactive map that allows Chinese and non-Chinese speakers to understand the use of languages in Philadelphia Chinatown’s store signs.

Type | Independent Project for PennDesign Information Design and Visualization, May 2016 (1 month)

My Roles | Photograph, UI Design, UX Research

Team | Minjun Chen

Linguistic landscape of Philadelphia Chinatown


Understanding linguistic landscape

As Woolard (1998) suggests, “In countries where identity and nationhood are under negotiation, every aspect of language, including its phonological description and forms of graphic representation, can be contested”. That means that commercial signage and advertisement in the public sphere can represent historical and cultural meanings. The linguistic landscape examines how specifics language are used in these signs, reflecting the dynamics between language and users.

Living in two different cultures, I am interested in expanding my interest from simply “language” into using design to question the relationship between language and culture. Using my knowledge of Mandarin as a native speaker, I would like to use design as a mean to stimulate discussion about linguistic diversity and tension behind these commercial store signs.



How do we allow users to see the use of multiple languages in Philadelphia Chinatown? 

The majority of the existing linguistic landscape research examines English and its interaction with other languages. The growing body of research focuses on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of analysis of stores signs in the Chinatown neighborhoods throughout various US cities. However, these academic findings are difficult to be translated and communicated to the general public, and research also overlooks certain areas, like Chinatown, that are important for analysis. While Philadelphia’s Chinatown is a lesser-discussed site in Asian American literature and history, it is a highly relevant and valuable space to explore how multiple Chinese languages are used and coexist in a multilingual community. 

The Challenge


Designing an interactive map to visualize languages

I designed this map for both Chinese and non-Chinese speakers to explore how multiple languages are used in store signs of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, and how this multilingual setting reflects the issues of linguistic tensions, globalization, language vitality and language shift.

The Solution


For the purpose of this project, I defined Philadelphia’s Chinatown as the area between N 10th Street and Arch Street to Race Street, where most stores are located. Most linguistic landscape research uses digital photographs as a source of analysis. In order to understand the linguistic landscape of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, I took photos of all store signs along both sides of these three streets, documenting the use of languages as well as colors in store signs. In total, I took 280 digital photographs over a span of four hours on April 17, 2016. These photographs became my data set. Finally, after removing duplicated photos, 127 photographs of store signs were used in this project. 

Methodology & Data Source


Final Design

Chinatown color.png


The color of the circular ring is used to differentiate types of store, including grocery, market, bakery, restaurant, gift store and so on.


Data Structure

This design uses a linear structure to demonstrate all the store signs of each street in a single page. This setting also represents how languages are used and translated in different store signs, which directly communicates the topic of linguistic landscape. All the store signs shown in this map follow the actual order in Philadelphia Chinatown. The data structure is built with InDesign. 


Size & Shape

The size or shape of the store sign is related with the topic of linguistic landscape. To avoid too much visual elements used in this map, all of the circles that contain the photographs of store signs are in the same size and shape. The dotted or solid line is used to represent the store signs with or without other design elements (patterns, logos). Also this line can combine all visual elements together to give a clear overview of colors, languages, and design elements in the photos of store signs. 


Key Findings


Data in the Broader Context


Check out the full research report here  🤔👀👉


Reflection on Chinese Language Education 

When we are talking about what “Chinese”is, Chinese comes to be singular: Mandarin has been considered as the heritage language in my country. Cantonese and other varieties of Chinese, called Fangyan (方言), are usually translated as dialect. The language education we receive in China aim to engage in creating language hegemony of Mandarin while ignoring language diversity in China. I am required to learn and speak Mandarin at home and school and I cannot correctly speak the “Fuzhouhua”, the language of my province. The current mapping of “Chinese” as only being Standard Mandarin leads to the extinction of non-Mandarin Chinese. It is critical for us to acknowledge the values of chaotic use of other forms / versions of Chinese. It also requires us to expand contemporary Chinese language education from only teaching standardized Mandarin as the primary language to incorporate other long existing varieties of Chinese to the teaching of Mandarin.