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Exploring good governance in multilingual societies

25 July 2018
Meet our Postdoctoral Fellow Alexandra Grey
A passion for linguistics, law and China studies attracted Dr Alexandra Grey to Sydney Law School’s multidisciplinary postdoctoral fellowship.
Image of Dr Alexandra Grey

Dr Grey spent her first few years after graduating working as a lawyer before setting her sights on China. She based herself in Beijing, Wuhan and Hangzhou while working in research and advocacy training at a legal aid centre, teaching at various universities, studying Mandarin and undertaking doctoral fieldwork.

It’s this combination of her three main interests: China, linguistics and law, that drew Dr Grey to Sydney Law School’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, which specifically focuses on interdisciplinary projects. This unique mix means that her research has found a home both within the Sydney Law School and the University’s China Studies Centre, which is a perfect fit for her new project on ‘Good Governance in Multilingual Urban Communities’.

What’s the focus of your current project?

The project is about multilingual Australian government communications. It looks at the decision-making of local, state and federal governments regarding when to use English and/or other languages when communicating with the public.

I’m looking at what laws, policies and guidelines exist to direct those decisions by conducting case studies of various government agencies and departments, exploring how those laws/policies/guidelines, and other factors, come together in the actual production of communication materials (information flyers, government website) and service provision.

I’ll be examining how urban communities organise themselves around shared language. For example, how do ‘language stakeholders’ who are (or could be) affected by multilingual government communications get involved in advocacy, consultation and feedback.

The goal is to draw out some best practices and areas for improvement and bring government and community stakeholders together, to discuss how to improve language-in-public-communications policies and to knit communities together.

What communities will you be focusing on for your case studies?

I’m mainly focusing on local government areas in Sydney where there are high concentrations of Cantonese and/or Mandarin speakers. I plan to contact community-level cultural groups and chambers of commerce, go to local government area community festivals and events, use public meetings and public consultations processes to see who from the community is already engaging on the relevant kinds of issues, and then I will introduce myself and the project. I’ll also use word-of-mouth and personal introductions; it’s called a ‘snow-ball’ method as the group of research participants grows as you go along.

Is there a strong push in our communities for greater multilingual communication?

The project will find out how strong the push is, and who is doing the most pushing! Certainly, there is a lot of interest within government in reaching diverse groups by using diverse languages because Australia is an increasingly linguistically diverse place. Sometimes there’s community push back, and sometimes there are problems with the quality and effectiveness of non-English messages (as there are occasionally in English-language government communications!); reducing both push back and problems would be a plus.

What do you hope to achieve with your project?

Linguistic diversity is a reality by which Australia seems challenged. I want to work out what’s going on in relation to government language choices for public communications, because there isn’t a lot of research available to inform those choices. Moreover, I want my data and analysis to show ways that linguistic diversity can be managed well, and people can be drawn into communities, rather than aggravating community fault lines with misinformed or misapplied language policies.