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Dennis Gates: Plain Language or Manglish?

The Plain Language Bill currently before Parliament could well be a touchstone for a very divisive issue confronting New Zealand, namely the use of mixed languages. The submissions to the Bill fall into three main categories - those simplistically supporting/opposing it; those drawing attention to people with reading disabilities and those that are opposed to mixing up languages.

Of the latter group a few attack the intermingling of Maori and English. One from the New Zealand Law Society suggests less use of Latin phrases.

As I see it, all three groups miss the point of the Bill.

It seems the objective of the Bill is to promote more readily comprehended expression when publishing Government material. The essence of good communication is integrity in the use of the language. Any language has its own rules, format and cadence.

In correspondence with the Human Rights Commission last year, I raised this very topic, drawing attention to the need for a policy to be developed, clearly expressed and available for guidance. To demonstrate the need I drew on examples from the Human Rights Commission website. One of those examples was the guides the Commission provides in several languages about the various ways it can assist people.

With one exception each guide was, as far as I could ascertain, written in a manner that complied with the grammar, spelling and structure of the particular tongue. For instance, Samoan guidelines written in Samoan, French in French, Maori in Maori, Spanish in Spanish and so on. The exception was the English version. That text has a mixture of English and Maori.

The reply I received from the Chief Mediator of the Human Rights Commission was also in a mixture of English and Maori. Apart from acknowledging receipt of my correspondence, the Chief Mediator recorded he was going to file it, that no action would be taken and that the mix of Maori and English is now commonplace. I got the impression that being “commonplace” was all the justification required for condoning miscommunication of this kind.

That is exactly what is happening, miscommunication. Yet at the heart of the Plain Language Bill is a plea for communication that the average citizen can comprehend.

Internationally the accepted protocol when two or more languages are being used is for one to be provided in its native format and the other(s) separately in their own format. Each language retains its integrity.

We have a working example of this with Maori Television and the provision of English subtitles when the primary language of the channel is being spoken, particularly when presenting news stories. In similar fashion, at a recent High Court ceremony to admit new lawyers to the Bar, the presiding Judge first addressed the audience and the applicants in Maori then followed that with an interpretation in English. To me that was appropriate, proper and appreciated by those present.

If an example we can all recognise is needed, consider our National Anthem. Once only sung in English it is now commonly sung at major events in Maori and English. It is not rendered in a mix of both. To get some idea of the need for integrity, try singing our anthem but substitute the word “love” for “aroha” in the Maori version and vice versa in the English version. It just doesn’t work.

The Prime Minister of Singapore, addressing the nation on its 50th anniversary, drew attention to that country’s achievements (as one would expect) but also castigated his fellow countrymen for the use of what he called “Singlish” - a mix of English and several Asian languages. The equivalent is happening in New Zealand, but driven from the top down, not evolving from the bottom up. We are in danger of creating our own form of Singlish, namely what I call Manglish.

The need for Plain English is a perennial catch cry and one I've heard many times over the years in my career as a lawyer. It is easy to promote as a concept but difficult to implement.

The simple approach is to require integrity in communication and employ strategies suitable for the target audience. The bureaucracy and “political correctness” the Plain Language Bill promotes are not the answer. A basic principle is to communicate in a manner your audience can understand, as I hope I have.

Dennis Gates is a lawyer and company director. He was a sole practitioner in general practice until 2012. As well as a law degree he has a Bachelor of Social Science, is a Notary Public and has a certificate in NZ Sign Language. Recently he featured on Fair Go in its 45th birthday edition as one of the 'good guys'. At present he holds a practicing certificate as a barrister to assist folk that have left Gloriavale to challenge the community's powers that be.

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