Bilingual road signs

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…in New Zealand. Phil Pennington, "Analysis: National opposed bilingual road signs, so what does the evidence say?", RNZ 62/2023:

Analysis – Bilingual road signs send a signal – that the country values te reo Māori. But going bilingual was confusing and National would not support it, National's Simeon Brown told voters in blue-ribbon Tauranga recently.

Accusations of racism and a walkback by the party leaders followed. But what evidence is the choice to go bilingual based on?

Helpfully, finding the answer to that is easy. The answer Waka Kotahi is relying on is in a 39-page "research note" into international experiences and outcomes.

However, a quick scan reveals the answer itself is not as straightforward as some of the commentary on the debate has suggested – that it is a straw man.

AntC, who sent in the link, wrote

New Zealand has a General Election later this year. The Centre-right opposition party 'National' has questioned [**] whether the Centre-left government 'Labour' has gotten too woke by rolling out bilingual road signs in English and Te Reo Māori. (Of course most road signs in NZ use international symbols only, so are language-neutral.)

[**] Party leadership has walked back those comments almost immediately.

That news report links to a Ministry literature review as of a couple of years ago — that comes to no definite conclusion

"Interestingly, the comprehension time is greatest for those most fluent in both languages, as they tend to read both and compare them, …"

The review considers UK experience in Wales and Scotland. Are there bilingual signs in USA areas with high Hispanic populations?

Bilingual English/Spanish signs of various kinds are very common in the U.S. — one that I see almost every day is

And bilingual (or multilingual) roadside notices of various kinds are also fairly common. But I don't recall having seen (in the U.S.) any official "road signs", like stop signs, no-right-turn signs, etc., with text in more than one language. Mostly such signs rely on standard shapes, colors, and symbols, with text (if any) in English. I've occasionally seen combinations of seperate English and Spanish versions, as in this example from Wikimedia:

Commenters will probably have other examples.

Readers may be curious about the facts available in Ethnologue's pages for New Zealand and for the U.S.



  1. jin defang said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 7:38 am

    In Miami, except for traffic signs, which so far are all in English and are identifiable by their color and shape—you can't pass the driver's license test without knowing them—, things like metrorail signs and other public announcements, ballots, etc, are in English, Spanish, and Creole. It doesn't seem to bother anyone. So what's the problem with Maori?

  2. Cervantes said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 7:42 am

    Of course bilingual signage is ubiquitous in hospitals, but I have found that it is often inaccurate. For example, Brigham and Women's hospital garage had "Keep Right" and "Vaya por el Derecho" which means something like "go on the path of righteousness." (The direction to the right is feminine, la derecha.) A sign at Boston City said "hacia las casillas," which would most likely be read as horse stalls, but intended consultorios, the physicians' offices or examining rooms. A sign in English read "no loitering" and in Spanish "no tire desecho" which is a slightly awkward way of saying "no littering."

    BTW, In the example shown, you could translate "sin salida" literally into English and it would be understandable, but translating "dead end" literally into Spanish would make for an extremely bizarre street sign.

  3. Dwight Williams said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 8:54 am

    In Canada, it's variable. We have Québec's monolingual-French signage, of course, and most of the rest of Canada is monolingual-English. There are a growing number of exceptions. In Ottawa, bilingual-English and French is standard. On assorted First Nations, bilingual-English and the local Indigenous language…and in some cases, monolingual-local Indigenous…is becoming a norm. Some municipalities across Canada with a particular focus on good relations with local Indigenous communities are looking at how to switch to bilingual-English and Indigenous.

  4. Jason M said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 9:12 am

    Here in Houston, there are many signs in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese along with English. The ones at polling places are mandated by federal law, but I see them elsewhere: eg, parking meter machines.

  5. CuConnacht said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 9:41 am

    There are bilingual French-English road signs in Maine (with distances and speed limits in miles and kilometers).

  6. Geoff M said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 10:14 am

    As I kid I spent every spring break at my snowbird grandmother's condo in Florida. I always was a bit puzzled that the signage at the St Petersburg Airport was all in both English and German. When I finally asked a customs officer about it, they explained that at the time the airport was built, German tourism accounted for a sizable chunk of the traffic there. This was more than 20 years ago so I have no idea if those signs are still there.

  7. Coby said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 10:36 am

    While in Canada I noticed that signs are bilingual in national parks and on other federal entities such as post offices.

  8. Garrett Wollman said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 10:37 am

    The Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and MUTCD's companion specification Standard Highway Signs prescribe English legends for all signs that have written legends. I haven't reviewed them to see if they provide guidance (or prohibition) on bilingual signs, but most highway projects in the US are done with some amount of federal subsidy requiring adherence to these standards (or to a state adaptation thereof). The MUTCD's approach toward the "language problem" has generally been to deprecate written legends in favor of pictograms, or more generally to rely on unique graphical elements to render the written legend redundant — with a few exceptions, most of the issues arise for warning signs when the condition being warned about has no broadly understood depiction, and for regulatory signs that express complex conditions like "2 hour parking except 1 AM to 4 AM weekdays".

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 10:55 am

    Signage in airports, hospitals, etc., as well as roadside signage giving details about parking meters, is not designed to be read/comprehended/reacted-to by someone who is simultaneously operating a motor vehicle at potentially considerable speed. The 39-page "research note" looks at a quick glance interesting because it does focus just on traffic signage of the sort intended to be read by the driver of a moving vehicle, but also notes that there are different genres of such signs where the potential tradeoffs might be different.

    I was intrigued to learn that there are many non-Anglophone/non-bilingual nations in Europe where stop signs have only the text STOP in English, with no representation at all of the dominant/official local language.

  10. Terry K. said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 11:28 am

    I read about that when I was working on something on how to say "stop" in Spanish, the stop sign portion. Spain (along with many other European countries) uses STOP on stop signs because of European Union regulations. Basically, there are standard signs that use graphics instead of words, but instead of creating a STOP graphic, they decided to just use STOP everywhere in the European Union.

  11. mollymooly said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 11:52 am

    In Ireland you can generally tell whether a building, vehicle, road, etc. is state or privately run based on whether signage is bilingual. There are exceptions; eg some supermarkets have aisles labeled bilingually, but not product price tags.

    My impression is that road signs in the US sometimes include words where those in Europe use only non verbal symbols; eg "walk/don't walk" or "speed limit" v simply giving green/red silhouette or the number.

  12. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 2:23 pm

    Road signage on a country lane in rural Kent —,0.5057652,3a,75y,89.33h,83.6t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1skw8aGadwogpdGDYOnEt1AA!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en&entry=ttu,0.5045385,3a,75y,327.67h,86.61t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s6y-ZjXURvnympFwnB1D04g!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en&entry=ttu

  13. Dan Milton said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 3:01 pm

    I'm having trouble with the link, but should get you to a site "Stop Toutes Direction" where Professor Chrisomalis had a couple dozen students each report on an aspect of the sociology of stop signs in Francophone and Anglophone areas of Montreal.
    Quite a study.

  14. Dan Milton said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 3:02 pm

    OK, link works.

  15. Carl said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 4:37 pm

    In East Asia, public transit signs are often local characters on top (kanji, hanzi, Hangul) with English transliterations on bottom. has a long running series of blog posts about poor transliterations in Taiwan. As I recall, the Seoul subway has Korean, Traditional Chinese, and Roman signage.

    In Washington DC, the Chinatown district has signs in English and Chinese, but it’s obviously just for tourist veneer and the translations are often laughably wooden.

  16. Carl said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 4:42 pm

    On parking signage, my Chinese friend missed my wedding because she was confused by the parking signs that say “No Parking” prominently at the top and at the bottom list “Thurs. 7am to 11am” or whatever. Frankly, as an American I hate these signs too. They are needlessly confusing, and they should say “Limited Parking” on top and then list conditions underneath with headings like “2 hour parking: Monday to Friday 5pm to 8pm; No Parking: Thursday 7am to 11am; Free Parking: all other times.”

  17. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 6:01 pm

    In Wales, pretty much all government signage is in Welsh and English, including all road signs.

    In Valencia, everything in the way of official signage is in Catalan/Valencian and Spanish/Castilian (with the Catalan first.)

  18. Dan Milton said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 8:18 pm

    A friend of mine, a Teniente de Frigata in the Argentine Navy on assignment in New York State, claimed he got a parking ticket cancelled by explaining his reasoning: MON was obviously Monday, FRI Friday, THRU then had to be Thursday. He did wonder why the R was ahead of the U, but then he never had understood why a D was ahead of the N in Wednesday. Anyway, it was Tuesday so he parked.

  19. AntC said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 9:08 pm

    Thanks @JWB for pointing out the safety aspect.

    All NZ government information must by statute be in the two languages (at least), but most doesn't need making split-second decisions with life-or-death consequences.

    We desperately need the tourists back after Covid. Many take fly-drive packages and are then faced with driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. So a sign in English is already foreign. Adding a further language they're not likely to know/maybe can't even distinguish from English may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

    (OTOH, New Zealanders are perfectly capable of causing carnage on our roads without foreign assistance.)

    But yeah really this is dog-whistle politics about wokeness.

  20. AntC said,

    June 5, 2023 @ 10:29 pm

    @myl Readers may be curious about the facts available in Ethnologue's pages

    Thanks Mark, I'd say 'bemused' wrt the NZ entry: no mention of English as Institutional?

    Māori is surely better than Endangered these days(?) Not only is there statutory support, it's taught in schools and used in all official ceremonies, there's TV and radio stations, …

    NZ Sign Language has a tiny number of signers for obvious reasons, but it's not as if there's any other sign language out-competing it.

    And no mention of the myriads of other languages? There are in general larger numbers of speakers of Polynesian languages in Auckland than back in the Islands.

    Speakers of Bengali and Hindi kicked out of Fiji; Cantonese-speaking immigrants brought by the Brits C19th; Putonghua and Korean since WWII; … I could go on.

  21. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 12:58 am

    In San Francisco’s Japan Town, the street name signs are in English (or Spanish, since some streets have English names like “Post St.” and others have names in Spanish like “Avenida de las Pulgas”*) and in Katakana.

    *I don’t know if AdlP actually exists in J-town; it’s just an example.

  22. James in NZ said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 3:32 am

    As a non-Maori-speaking foreign-born Kiwi, I support the growing presence of Maori in public life, but I think putting it on highway signs is misguided. There will be vanishingly few people in the country who read Maori better than English, and plenty of people visiting with poor English and no Maori who will struggle to figure out what portion of the sign to try to make sense of as they speed down the road at 100kph (or more).

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 4:50 am

    @David Eddyshaw, there are plenty of examples of road signs which are only in Valencian. For example, Av. dels Germans Machado: if you orient so that you're facing more-or-less into the sun then the signs to various places and roads on your right are monolingual Valencian; the larger signs ahead are a fully bilingual sign for lorry drivers and a mixed sign about the "30 kph city" policy which has the important legal small print in both languages (although good luck reading it unless you're held at the traffic lights) but the "Welcome to Valencia, 30 kph city" only in Valencian.

    Or on the CV35 heading out of the city, the signs to the three exits for Burjassot are labelled in Valencian only.

    There may also Spanish-only road signs if you just know where to look, but I tried the A3 thinking that being a national road it might use the national language and I see monolingual signs to "aeroport" and "Fira de mostres".

    For context for those who aren't familiar with the area, Valencian language politics are fascinating, but I don't want to derail the thread by going into detail.

  24. M said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 6:03 am

    At least in the city of Alicante, which is part of the Valencian Community, and maybe throughout the Community, a road sign must be bilingual (Valencian-Castilian) if the two wordings differ even minimally. I cannot now recall the names of the street in Alicante that differ from each other just in that the name in one of the two languages has a diacritic whereas the other name does not. Both names must therefore appear on the sign. Only in cases of full identity between the two does one appear and it is deemed to be in both languages.

    In connection with STOP, in Quebec the stop signs say ARRÊT.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 6:53 am

    Just re taking into account non-Anglophone tourists (in New Zealand or elsewhere), I have two somewhat distinct signage-language memories from an enjoyable week driving around Scotland way back in I think '94.

    1. In the Outer Hebrides there was newly-installed (some sort of boodle grant money from the EU) monolingual-Gaelic signage for at least the sort of signs at crossroads that told you to turn left if you were trying to get to X but right if you were trying to get to Y. This was a recent enough development that most road maps available for purchase by tourists only had the English spellings of the toponyms rather than the Gaelic ones that were now on the signage.

    2. At tourist-type attractions in less peripheral parts of Scotland there would sometimes be a multilingual sign at the exit back onto the main road from the parking lot (car park? how do you say that in Braid Scots?) in relevant Continental-tourist languages (French, German, Swedish etc.) reminding the foreigners they had to drive on the wrong side of the road per local usage. "Links fahren!" was the German but I don't recall any of the other specific wordings. That was not motivated by any sort of "multiculturalism" but was presumably a practical response to a practical problem.

  26. Cuconnacht said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 3:54 pm

    "Stop!", the singular imperative of stoppen, is now good German. I noticed in the movie Untergang that when somebody gave the order "Stop!" (German pronunciation, i.e. shtop) it was translated in the English subtitles by the German loanword "Halt!"

  27. Philip Anderson said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 4:18 pm

    I lived in Wales for many years, both before and after I learnt Welsh, and I never found the bilingual signs confusing (although I don’t drive at excessive speed).
    It’s quite clear from the tone of complaints that the objections to bilingual signs or announcements are essentially complaints about Welsh being visible or audible, a dislike of the language, sometimes with a political dimension (Welsh = nationalist = bad). Equally, there’s a political dimension to campaigns for Welsh signs. Curiously, when a couple of national parks recently switched to signs with a monolingual (Welsh-only) name, this also aroused the ire of English speakers.

    Some Welsh road signs have bilingual text (sometimes added in protest):

    Official notices are generally bilingual, although not always proof-read by a Welsh speaker, leading to Sgymraeg (scum+Cymraeg, i.e. Welsh). Private companies vary, but telling employees not to speak Welsh gets bad publicity.

  28. Chas Belov said,

    June 6, 2023 @ 8:37 pm

    In addition to the English-Japanese street signs Michèle Sharik Pituley mentioned above, historic San Francisco Chinatown and Oakland Chinatown have (or had; the Chinese signs sadly seem to be gone or going) bilingual English-Chinese street signs. The various new Chinatowns across the city have never had them (Clement, Irving, Noriega, Taraval, Leland, Portola District).

    The street names are (I guess, were) usually transliterations, but, at least in San Francisco Chinatown, if a traditional Cantonese or Toisan name exists, that is used in it's place. For example, Sacramento Street is/was translated as 塘人街 "tong yan gaai" (Tong Person Street). I belive Grant Avenue was transliterated based on its long-ago English name of Dupont.

  29. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 1:05 am

    Regarding those European STOP signs, I've long found them mildly amusing because stop means "tankard" in Swedish.

    (Tho it's an uncommon word and I would guess most people think of STOP as a nonstandard spelling of stopp "stop".)

  30. AntC said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 2:43 am

    @AntC 'bemused' wrt the NZ entry [on Ethnologue]

    Ah, my bad. The great unwashed get some sort of hobbled view of Ethnologue. Thank you to friends in another place for explaining this. Mark presumably gets full/Institutional access.

    Of course they've a perfect right to charge for their data, but Ethnologue could do a better job of explaining themselves. They might even win more customers that way.

  31. Peter Taylor said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 4:38 am

    At least in the city of Alicante, which is part of the Valencian Community, and maybe throughout the Community, a road sign must be bilingual (Valencian-Castilian) if the two wordings differ even minimally.

    And yet curiously I find it much easier to find monolingual Castilian signs in Alicante than in Valencia. The first roundabout I looked at has monolingual signs to the bus station and the courts; the first street sign I found is monolingual Castilian with a monolingual Castilian potted biography of the person the street is named after.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 10:51 am

    Note FWIW that the "CUIDADO PISO MOJADO" sign myl included in the OP is not a highway sign and is more likely to be put up on a temporary/as-needed basis by a private business than the government. To be blunt, one key function of such signs in the U.S. is to provide the business or property owner with a legal defense when someone slips and falls by being able to say "hey, you were warned and disregarded the warning." Thus in areas with material numbers of people literate in Spanish but not English who might sue you there is an incentive for bilingual signs. Government entities more likely to have other defenses that make it less important for it to put up "danger bridge out ahead" signs in multiple languages.

  33. Dara Connolly said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 4:20 pm

    In Ireland the sign for a dead-end street is monolingual French

  34. AntC said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 10:20 pm

    @Dara in UK also 'cul-de-sac' is common. I'd go so far as to say it's become English.

    I guess there's a taboo on 'dead' appearing on road signs.

  35. Bloix said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 3:21 am

    On New Zealand signage:

    Out of a total NZ population of about 5 million, fewer than 10,000 are monolingual Maori speakers. Such people are likely to be very elderly. How many of them drive? How many have ever experienced difficulty in understanding English-only road signs?

    Note that the report quoted in article linked in the post does not claim that bilingual signage will result in safer roads.To the contrary, it acknowledges that bilingual signage will make the roads *less* safe but argues that "the aggregate public good may demand that relatively small decrements in public physical safety should be ranked below cultural needs," and that clear bilingual signs can "mitigate the potential negative effects of sign complexity on public safety while providing for cultural aspirations/protection."

  36. M said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 5:34 am

    @ Peter Taylor. I do not dispute what you say. I was in the city of Alicante for five weeks in 2009 and fourteen years later my memory is far from fresh. I should have so stated.

  37. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 5:38 am

    I feel somewhat anbivalent about this, and really cannot decide in my own mind whether public safety should trump indigenous rights. All I can say is that as an occasional visitor to New Zealand, I am always delighted when I see a bilingual sign, or even better, a sign written entirely in Te Reo Māori. If the sign is written entirely in Te Reo Māori, then I regard it as my duty to attempt to understand it, just as I expect to have to try to understand signs written in German when travelling in Germany, signs written in French when travelling in France, and so on.

  38. AntC said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 7:36 am

    @Bloix, I think a more relevant question is: out of the population that drive, how many wouldn't be able to tell where the English ends and te reo begins? (They don't need to understand te reo.) Especially given nearly all the safety-critical signs are purely symbolic. Even the STOP signs are distinctively octagonal with red background.

    Then there's non-English-speaking tourists trying to find their way: we don't want them stopping on the motorway trying to figure out whether (or wether) Whanganui is the same place as Wanganui. (I'm fibbing: W(h)anganui is too small to have any motorway.) Or Christchurch is the same place as Ōtautahi — especially because if you search GMaps for the latter, it'll give you only the former.

    No harm done: any side-route in NZ will add to the tourist experience — except around the 'big smoke' of Auckland.

  39. Kate Bunting said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 7:52 am

    J.W. Brewer – I've visited the Outer Hebrides several times in the past twenty years, and the road signs are now bilingual – like this one–409898003557103711/ (don't know why the poster thinks it's funny!)

  40. Dara Connolly said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 4:20 pm

    What is going on with this bilingual road sign?

    The topmost language uses the Roman alphabet + Greek Sigma:

  41. AntC said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 8:53 pm

    @Dara uses the Roman alphabet + Greek Sigm

    The Latin alphabet is derived from Greek: specifically the block capitals are the same.

    So those top lines are pure Greek.

    The more interesting q is where was the photo taken, that uses bilingual Greek/Arabic.

  42. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 1:32 pm

    So those top lines are pure Greek.

    Not with S, L, and W they aren't.

  43. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 1:35 pm

    Furthermore (interrupted by a phone call, sorry) The sigma is evidently used to represent 'ayn, which is, well, odd. I too want to know where this is.

  44. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 2:20 pm

    Thought: Could sigma be being used for 'ayn due to some misunderstanding involving C?

  45. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2023 @ 5:41 pm

    Second thought: Probably for its graphic resemblance to an 'ayn. (A 'ayn?)

  46. B.Ma said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 3:51 am

    A few years ago when I was in Estonia, when someone was caught in the door of a tram that had started moving, everyone yelled "STOP" to the driver and then several people spoke to him in Estonian after he had stopped. Wiktionary says the native word is nothing like the English.

    In Hong Kong, although I don't drive there, I somehow just ignore the Chinese and only focus on the English. (I have no trouble reading signs that are solely in Chinese.) I have noticed that on wordy bilingual signs the standard of English has dropped in past years and they are occasionally ungrammatical, in which case I then do look at the Chinese to see what it says.

  47. Peter said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 7:34 am

    European stop signs have said STOP since before the EU existed – I remember seeing them in the 1960s. Before 1964, UK stop signs said 'HALT at major road ahead', and my father was amused that our signs used the German word (imperative of halten) and the German signs used English. Nowadays stoppen is, at least informally, accepted German, and the UK since 1964 uses STOP – although stop signs are used much less frequently than in the US.

  48. Philip Anderson said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 8:04 am

    In Wales, I doubt if there are any monolingual Welsh speakers of driving age, only those under school age or who are losing their second language with old age. But there are a lot of Welsh speakers who object very strongly to having to read everything in English, or to be banned from speaking Welsh at work on the specious grounds that other people wouldn’t understand them.
    I don’t find the reduction in safety argument at all convincing, and I doubt if there’s any significant difference in accident rates between England and Wales – excluding motorcyclists who like to cross the border and speed on Welsh curves, since it’s the non-verbal speed limits they appear unable to read!
    The real opposition comes from people who want Welsh to die, or at least be invisible/inaudible.

  49. Terry K. said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 7:09 am

    I think bilingual signage works much better when it's visually clear it's two languages. Which is simple enough when it's languages with writing systems that are visually distinct. Like the Irish one that has two different font sizes. And particularly when dealing with place names can get visually confusing, at least for those not familiar with the particular placenames.

  50. Chas Belov said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 4:04 pm

    Regarding cul-de-sac, I would expect to see the difference in the plural, culs-de-sac being French and cul-de-sacs being English. Wiktionary semi-agrees with me, giving both cul-de-sacs and culs-de-sac as English plurals.

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