Lauren Gawne writes:

Last week I wrote about an article in the New Zealand Herald that used a single quote from a research article to launch an online poll and report that Kiwis were ‘uncomfortable’ with shop signs in languages other than English while the article itself had little to do with the original research. Apart from sadly indicating that a large number of New Zealanders appear to forget they have another official language (Maori) beside English, the article also appeared to have very little to say about the original research. As I wrote at the time:

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).

Unable to find the original publication (‘The Cosmopolitics of Linguistic Landscapes’) online, I contacted the authors Robin Peace and Ian Goodwin at Massey University to see how their work stacked up with the sentiment of the NZ Herald article.

Peace and Goodwin sent me their original press release, explaining that the results are from an unpublished paper as part of a larger research project. Reading through the press release I  found myself wishing that I’d wagered money on the Herald failing to do justice to the original research.

To quote directly from the press release:

[Peace and Goodwin] note that some English speaking Kiwis may react negatively to finding themselves surrounded by signs they can not translate or understand. But the real value of cosmopolitan linguistic landscapes is that they may encourage members of the host communities to cultivate ways of knowing and interacting with new migrants, they say.

So Goodwin and Peace offer no idea of how uncomfortable New Zealanders are with a multilingual society, instead they are focused on educating people as to the positive benefits of these shop signs for all segments of the population. The press release goes on to detail the benefits of multilingual shop signs for both the new migrants, who are already under a lot of pressure to deal with the sometimes-stressful process of integration in a new and alien place, and for long term residents of the country, who have the opportunity to be exposed to authentic cross-cultural experiences without even having to remember where their passport is.

One fact in the press release I found staggering is that by 2017 estimates project that around a quarter of Auckland’s residents will be from other Asian countries. It is alarming that there are elements of the New Zealand population who expect linguistic invisibility from such large minority groups.

If the journalists at the NZ Herald were so concerned that their supposedly Anglo-phonic country was being over-run with recalcitrant migrants unwilling to integrate, they could have just allayed their concerns by quoting the press release more extensively:

Auckland’s Asian language signs, the study concludes, depict the process of integration as driven by a desire for belonging, to feel at home and to be part of the social fabric, and offer one way to read the complexity of migrant experiences which the researchers will investigate further.

Instead, the Herald are more interested in perpetuating distrust of non-English speaking migrants, and in doing so, besmirching the good name of both Peace and Goodwin.

Migrant integration is a complex and often multi-generational process. Peace and Goodwin understand this; the NZ Herald clearly understand this no better than journalistic ethics.

[update: As our good buddy Tamaiti Ma’uke (@Te_Reo_KA) pointed out on Twitter, New Zealand actually has three official languages, English, Maori and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). They were the first country to adopt a sign language as a national language back in 2006 – even more proof that New Zealand is linguistically awesome.]