Auburn parking ticket (left: quadrilingual on back; right: city logo on front)

Auburn parking ticket (left: quadrilingual on back; right: city logo on front)

In Australia with its persistent monolingual mindset coming across any kind of official institutional multilingual communication always feels like a minor triumph. And that’s how I felt when I recently went to park my car at a Sydney parking garage and the machine at the gate spit out this multilingual parking ticket. In German, English, Italian and French, the ticket says:

Please do not leave the ticket in the car. Please take care not to fold or bring ticket in contact with direct heat. Please note that the parking conditions in operation are displayed within the car park.

European readers will be familiar with this kind of parking ticket. It is produced by Designa, a parking management company headquartered in Germany and I think I received identical parking tickets during visits to Europe. I cannot be sure because I never pay much attention to the text on parking tickets. Receiving a multilingual parking ticket in Australia, however, immediately caught my attention because I had never ever encountered a parking ticket with anything other than text in English only.

Is this quadrilingual parking ticket a sign that the ideology of official English monolingualism that blithely ignores Australian multilingual realities is starting to crack? I don’t think so.

Let me tell you about the context of the parking garage where I received the ticket.

The parking garage is located in the Sydney suburb of Auburn and is operated by the Auburn City Council. Throughout Sydney, Auburn is known as an immigrant suburb with a highly diverse, predominantly Muslim, population of Middle Eastern origin. Consequently, Auburn’s city motto is “Many Cultures, One Community.”

The iconic status of Auburn as a migrant and Muslim suburb is best evidenced by the fact that the acclaimed TV police series East West 101 is set there. The series plays on the global conflict between East and West as well as the local opposition between Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs and its poorer western suburbs with their migrant populations.

Consequently, linguistically, Auburn is a fascinating place, too. According to Australian Census data from 2011, only 13.5% of Auburn households are monolingual in English (for all of Sydney that figure is 72.5% and for all of Australia it is 76.8%). Conversely, at 84.8% the number of bi- and multilingual households in Auburn is exceptionally high in comparison to the rest of Sydney (24.5%) and Australia (20.4%).

In fact, more people in Auburn speak Arabic at home than English. The table shows the top languages other than English.

Table 1: Auburn’s Main Languages (Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011 Census)

Language, top responses (other than English) Auburn (NSW) % New South Wales % Australia %
Arabic 5,184 15.7 184,251 2.7 287,174 1.3
Turkish 3,824 11.5 22,273 0.3 59,622 0.3
Mandarin 3,426 10.3 139,822 2.0 336,410 1.6
Cantonese 2,694 8.1 136,373 2.0 263,673 1.2
Urdu 1,349 4.1 17,742 0.3 36,836 0.2

The fact that many of Auburn’s residents come from the Middle East is easily legible in the streetscape: Auburn is home to Australia’s largest mosque; many women wear some form of hijab; restaurants feature predominantly Afghan, Lebanese, Persian or Turkish cuisine; and commercial signage in Arabic, Persian and Turkish abounds.

So, how does the German-English-Italian-French parking ticket fit into the linguistic landscape of Auburn?

Well, it does not. According to the 2011 census, 19 Auburn residents claimed to speak French at home; 15 German; and 245 Italian. So, the choice of languages on the parking tickets is obviously not locally motivated; if it were, I would have marvelled at an Arabic-English-Turkish-Chinese quadrilingual parking ticket.

The language on a parking ticket may seem banal, mundane, not worthy of further attention. However, language choice on such mundane texts is important because it is not only an expression of what is “normal” – conforms to the norm – but also shapes our expectations of normalcy. The usual monolingual English parking tickets contribute to normalizing Australia as a monolingual English space. A German-English-Italian-French parking ticket sets up the dominant languages of Europe as the norm. In each case, there is a mismatch between the norm and actual multilingual realities. In each case, the effect is to devalue the actual languages of Australia and make them seem “foreign” and “strange.”

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Jamie

    Thank you for this post! Your thoughtful reflection and analysis on having received a multilingual parking ticket is a great example of the way we as applied linguists are regularly thinking about how language use informs society, and the other way around. Fascinating.