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Cultural Tensions Rise Over Foreign Language Signs in NYC

by Mary Richardson Jul 5, 2011
Foreign signs in NYC may soon be rewritten in English.

The Washington Post recently published an article about proposed NYC legislation to add English to foreign signs. Councilmen Dan Halloran and Peter Koo take issue with foreign language signs in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown.

They believe the signs are problematic for law enforcement and alienating for other ethnicities. They want merchants to change them to break down cultural barriers and attract more customers. Non-complying merchants would get slapped with a fine.

In response, the article reports, merchants in those areas believe the legislation is a financial burden and an attempt to ‘homogenize’ their distinct cultural communities.

It’s a complicated issue, but I tend to agree with the merchants.

It’s unfair to require some businesses to appeal to a demographic outside their customer base in the name of breaking down cultural barriers. Is the next step to require them to produce English menus and brochures? Could they eventually be fined for not performing English transactions?

English run businesses in neighborhoods with high immigrant populations are certainly not legally required to post foreign signs under the same guise of uniting cultures.

What’s more, I doubt a merchant’s appeal depends on whether the sign is English or Chinese or both. These businesses cater to specific clientele, and if a person outside that group is reluctant to enter out of a feeling of alienation, I don’t see how rewriting the sign in English makes some magical difference.

I don’t know about you, but I personally love visiting ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown because I WANT a foreign experience. Without these neighborhoods, I fear US cities would be taken over by one predictable strip mall after another.

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