[lg policy] Council wants ‘English first’ policy on shop signs – what does it mean for multicultural Australia?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 22 17:00:33 EDT 2018

 * Council wants ‘English first’ policy on shop signs – what does it mean
for multicultural Australia? *
May 15, 2018 4.20pm EDT

   1. Alice Chik <http://theconversation.com/profiles/alice-chik-340291>

   Senior Lecturer in Literacy, Macquarie University
   2. Philip Benson

   Professor of Applied Linguistics, Macquarie University

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Bilingual and trilingual shop signs are a feature of Strathfield. Alice Chik,
Author provided

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An inner-Sydney council proposal to regulate the language of shop signs has
significant implications for multicultural policy. Strathfield City Council
recently voted for a motion that states

All signage is to be displayed in the English language, with a direct or
near direct translation into another language using smaller letters or
character … [which] must not exceed more than 30% of the overall size of
the English language text.

The proposal raises two important questions. Is English the “official
language” of Australia? And what is the status of community languages other
than English?

* Read more: Linguistic paranoia – why is Australia so afraid of languages?
English is not the official language

English is sometimes described as the “national”, “main” or “common”
language, and as a “tool for integration”. But Australia has no policy
designating English as an official language.

Australia’s multicultural policy also has surprisingly little to say about
languages. There is no official protection for languages other than

Nevertheless, policy supports community language maintenance and education.
In New South Wales, state multicultural legislation states two principles

   - individuals and communities are “free to profess, practise and
   maintain their own linguistic, religious and ancestral heritage”
   - all institutions should “recognise the linguistic and cultural assets
   in the population of New South Wales as a valuable resource and promote
   this resource to maximise the development of the State”.

How does regulating signs live up to these principles?

Mandating English signage and allowing limited translation amounts to a de
facto policy of English as an official language. It signals, in effect, an
attitude of multicultural tolerance, not a policy of active

The Strathfield proposal has attracted the interest of some mainstream
and the local English and community language press
However, media reports have muddied the waters by using the term “foreign”
languages. Critical comments on social media
have questioned whether the policy would ban established English words like
“pizza” and “kebab”.

Such reports and comments highlight the difficulty of regulating use of
languages on signs. They also miss the underlying issue of the right to use
languages other than English in Australia’s multilingual communities.

* Read more: Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian

The 2016 Australian Census shows that more than 300 languages are spoken in
In Sydney, 35.8% of people speak a language other than English at home.
Languages are part of the social fabric of everyday life in the city.

In Strathfield
itself, 68.5% of the households speak one of 58 languages in addition to
English. The biggest language groups are Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese),
Korean, Tamil and Arabic.
Strathfield shop uses four languages in its signs. Alice Chik

These are not “foreign” languages in Strathfield; they are the everyday
languages of a multicultural community.

Our research in Strathfield’s commercial centres shows the proposal will
mainly affect businesses that display Korean and Chinese script. Most of
these businesses already have bilingual or trilingual signage. Signage for
one barbecue shop shown here includes Japanese, Chinese, Korean and
Why does the language on signs matter?

Multilingual signage is important to the community for many reasons:


   community languages convey the cultural identity of businesses and the
   authenticity of their products

   community language signs are used for effective communication with
   speakers of those languages who often make up most of their customers

   displaying community languages in public space is vital to the
   visibility of the groups that make up a multicultural community, and also a
   resource for community language learning and maintenance

   the right to use a written language in public is equivalent to the right
   to use a spoken language.

When speakers of languages other than English are abused for speaking their
languages in the street, we are quick to label this as “un-Australian”. Is
it not equally “un-Australian” to regulate written language use?

The Strathfield proposal is open for public consultation
until June 15. It might not ultimately be implemented. Yet it raises
enduring questions about the place of language in Australia’s multicultural

The Turnbull government’s first policy statement on multiculturalism,
Australia: United, Strong, Successful
stresses that the economy is “strengthened by the skills, knowledge,
linguistic capabilities, networks and creativity of our diverse workforce”.
So, should local policies on signage in multicultural Australia be limited
to tolerance of community languages within an English-dominant framework?
Or should these policies recognise the right to expression and full
participation for everyone?


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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