At 19 I travelled to Canada alone. It was the first time I travelled to the north.
When I arrived at the airport, I was welcomed with signs in French, a language I did not understand. Lucky me, under all the French signs, there were English translations. I followed the English signs and found my way around the airport, and Canada with no problem.
Last year I travelled to the Netherlands, and I was met with bilingual signs again. This time in Dutch and English. Some wouldn’t believe it but the fact the signs were in two languages was not confusing at all. How could they be? I didn’t suddenly lose my capacity to understand English because a translation accompanied it.
Bilingual signs seem to be commonplace in many countries overseas and they aren’t met with protests. In fact, they seem to be so ordinary, people don’t think about them, let alone debate them. What is it about some New Zealanders that makes bilingual signs so aversive? Why do some New Zealanders oppose the inclusion of te reo Māori so staunchly?
I have tried to look for good reason to oppose bilingual signs and I have come up empty. People who oppose bilingual signs, because they are against the promotion of te reo Māori, are so tiring and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
I have no energy for people who keep going on about how things were back in their days. Back in the day racism was acceptable but it isn’t anymore.
The most redundant argument I have encountered from people opposing bilingual signs is that they do not understand what the terms in te reo Māori mean.
“We all understand school but I’ve seen signs changed to kura, we just don’t understand all this, we’re all equal,” one man told National Party leader Christopher Luxon.
Another chimed in that he wanted action.
I feel ridiculous saying this, but bilingual signs are also in English. Read the English words and move on.
Ultimately, it does not matter if some people do not understand the words in te reo Māori. I don’t understand every word in te reo Māori. My or anyone’s lack of understanding isn’t a good enough reason to neglect our native language.
But if I saw a bilingual sign with two words - one in English, school, and one in te reo Māori, kura - I would assume that the word in te reo Māori and the word in English share the same meaning. It is common sense. How some still haven’t figured this much out is lost on me.
Bilingual signs provide New Zealanders with an opportunity to grow the use of our native and official language. I am proud to support that. Although in a small way, bilingual signs allow us to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which promised Māori the protection of their language.
Others have raised concerns about road safety. The problem is not that the signs are in two languages. The Republic of Ireland has road signs in Irish and English and hasn’t encountered any road safety issues because of them.
The key is that the signs are clear, concise and legible, and the different languages are formatted distinctly so people can focus on the language they understand and do so quickly.
Bilingual signs are here to stay. People who are upset with them would benefit from getting used to them because whether they like the bilingual signs or not, being confused by them, not understanding them or being a racist is not a defence for causing an accident.
Shaneel Shavneel Lal (they/them) was instrumental in the bill to ban conversion therapy in New Zealand. They are a law and psychology student, model and influencer.