Guest Post: City hall, bilingualism and signs of the times

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Ahead of Waitangi Day, Wellington City Council on Monday announced it wants to hear from the public on how it can make Wellington a Māori city and celebrate the language in the city.

Submissions received during a public consultation will help create an action plan to inform the way the council approaches signage and other public forms of communication, such as speeches, street art, murals and performing arts.

In its report on this initiative, Stuff portended bilingual signage around the city.

More important, Stuff noted this is not just about language.

The policy will include contributing to Māori well being and incorporating Māori perspectives in all policy work, as well as stimulating Māori economic, social and cultural innovation.

We can only wonder at how many citizens will better comprehend what is going on in their city – or what the signs are saying – after the policy is implemented.

Data from Statistics New Zealand tell us the most common languages spoken in New Zealand in 2013 were –

  • English – spoken by 3,819,972 people (96.1 per cent of people who stated at least one language);
  • Te reo Māori – 148,395 people (3.7 per cent).

Stuff in 2015 reported slightly different figures:

  • In the 2013 census, 145,356 Kiwis said they could hold a conversation in te reo Māori – that’s just 3.25 percent. Of those, 125,352 were ethnically Māori – just over a fifth of the total Māori population;
  • There were 8,436 people who said they spoke only Māori.

The population in 2013 was 4.442 million.  This implies just 0.1% of Maori could not understand civic speeches, council reports or the English-language signs which adorn all our cities.

Deputy Mayor Jill Day, who holds the Māori partnerships portfolio, told Stuff signs pointed the way to developing a wide-ranging new policy.

“It made us ask why don’t we have signs that are bilingual – but we don’t want this to be a policy that is all about signage – we want to take it further and focus on all the ways a language is seen and heard,” she said.

The current plan for signs was to replace old ones with bilingual versions when they needed renewing, and the policy would make it a priority for the council, she said.

Explaining why the council should show leadership and commitment, Day said te reo is an official language “and we need to make sure we back it.”

Here’s hoping she is aware of the flagging use of another official language.

In 2013, 20,235 people reported the ability to use New Zealand Sign Language, 16 per cent fewer than in 2006. Similarly, fewer people reported being able to use New Zealand Sign Language in 2006 than in 2001.

In the pursuit of partnership and diversity, we look forward to Day going out to bat for sign language, too – perhaps with signing on the signs that seem destined, sooner or later, to be adorned with te reo and English.

But how will the typical citizen respond to the elevation of te reo in civic affairs?

While explaining her mission, Day drew attention to an area in the city “where a Māori name takes pride of place”.

It’s Whairepo Lagoon.

But two years after it was officially given this name by the New Zealand Geographic Board – Day acknowledged – people still refer to it as Frank Kitts Lagoon.

Notwithstanding this experience, the council’s consultation document reportedly states that “te reo is an integral part of the city” and, as the capital, Wellington is

“well placed as the natural home of te reo…”

So we are supposed to believe the natural home of te reo is a city where special efforts must be taken to dissuade people from talking about Frank Kitts Lagoon and where council policy is being engineered (at what cost to ratepayers?) to ensure much greater use of the language on the public.

Council bureaucrats clearly are fluent in the patois that is not so much an official language as the language of too many officials – bollocks.

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