Image courtesy of Alexandra Gray
Image courtesy of Alexandra Gray

Signs of discontent: Difficulties Dealing with Multilingualism in China

China recognises over 50 minority languages spoken by millions of the nation’s people, with each unrelated to Mandarin. Government policies designed to support those languages – such as installing bilingual street signs in areas where those languages are spoken widely – have been implemented with varying degrees of success.

One of the biggest obstacles to minority language policies working well has been national efforts to promote Mandarin. Now, as China opens to the world – including to the global spread of English and its prime role in commerce and international mobility – minority language policies face fresh challenges.

Macquarie’s Dr Alexandra Grey, who studied the impact of government minority language policies on local communities in South China, has just won the Australian Prize for Innovations in Linguistics. Alex understands what happens when policy makers don’t consult with communities before implementing language policies.

Her PhD investigated the social impact of the policies around the most widely spoken of the official minority languages, Zhuang, which has over 13 million speakers.

“Many Zhuang speakers aren’t literate in the language,” explained Alex, “so when a few local governments started putting Zhuang on public signage in parts of South China, there were people who didn’t realise it was their language,” said Dr Grey.

“They thought it was English, because it was written in alphabetic letters.”

Alex found that there had been almost no government use of Zhuang in public texts prior to local policy changes in the last decade, and that literacy in the language had not been broadly supported in education.

No-one except the government was putting written Zhuang up in public, Dr Grey found. Commercial signs like billboards and shop names were almost never in Zhuang even in areas where many Zhuang speakers live.

“Other speakers of Zhuang were actually insulted by errors in

the Zhuang on public signs” Alex said.

Alex received the Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation for her thesis, a rare honour, and she will now embark upon further research in China.

Follow Alex on Twitter @Alex_Grey_ and read more about her research here

She is part of the Language on the Move research group in Macquarie’s Department of Linguistics (@Lg_on_the_Move).