The monolingual mindset isn’t just an Aussie problem: A Kiwi case
Lauren Gawne writes:
We reported a week ago that the Monolingual Mindset cropped up again in Victoria, with the Department of Human Services declining to have a residents’ survey translated for the roughly 60% of intended surveyees for whom English is not a first language. It seems that there are similar attitudes towards languages other than English across the pond.
Last week the NZ Herald reported on a recent research paper looking at the use of non-English street signs in Auckland. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a copy of the paper, ‘The Cosmopolitics of Linguistic Landscapes,’ from Massey University’s Robin Peace and Ian Goodwin, but it doesn’t matter because as far as I can tell it looks like NZ Herald reporters Lincoln Tan and Hayden Donnell didn’t actually get around to reading it either.
The article starts out acknowledging the research has been done and then Dr. Peace is indirectly quoted as saying ‘Some New Zealanders responded with “annoyance” or “repugnance” when faced with a space that did not make immediate, translatable sense.’ This is then a springboard for an online poll of their readers (not a representative sample of Kiwis), where 39% of the participants said signs should be in English only. As though this wasn’t already a problematic enough way to represent that ‘New Zealanders’ attitudes towards non-English signs they also conducted interviews with ten people ‘in the street.’ It’s from these very impressionistic ‘polls’ that we get the scare-line that Kiwis are apparently ‘uncomfortable’ living in a multilingual society. Then we have a quote from the Auckland Mayor and Auckland Chinese Community Centre chairman, giving proviso-filler endorsement to the signs to give the impression of balanced journalism and round out the piece.
It makes me wonder why we bother even doing rigorous peer-reviewed research at all if the media just pull a quote from a phone interview or media release and then twist it to suit their own agenda (in this case fear-mongering). Choosing to conduct an online poll instead of actually discussing the results of thoughtfully designed and executed research is like choosing to watch your mates race each other around the block over getting premium tickets to the 100m sprint final in London; sure, they’re both running races, but you know that one is going to be a much greater display of aptitude and planning than the other.
Not only is this article a poor performance in objective reporting, but it’s also another sign of the dangerous re-enforcement of the ‘monolingual mindset’ that is a bit passe as far as the team here at Fully (sic) are concerned. Dr. Peace’s quote hints that in the research there is a variety of opinion, not just some misplaced and undefined fear. The article gives the impression that shop owners have something to hide by appealing to non-English-only demographics, instead of helping people to understand that it’s actually a common phenomenon in cosmopolitan cities the world over, and usually a sign (pardon the pun) of a linguistically and culturally vibrant society. Being monolingual isn’t actually a problem (the usual disclaimer: I spent most of my life only being able to speak English), the problem is that people are taught to fear other languages, instead of accepting and celebrating the benefits that diversity offer.
While it would be easy to brush this off as just poor journalism in another country, this article has similar themes to the kind of English-only rhetoric that pops up in Australia too. Hopefully we’ll eventually get to see someone write something that actually reflects Peace and Goodwin’s research, and I’ll happily wager that the picture’s a lot more interesting than the NZ Herald portrays.