This week, we focused on issues regarding language use and indigenous languages from the perspective of McDonald’s employees.

First, we went back to Penrith, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 3% of the total population, according to the 2011 ABS census data. One concern in regards to the census data is that it only states the number of people of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin living in the area, but not the number of people who can actually speak Aboriginal languages. More intensive research should be done in relation to indigenous language use in order to provide more specific and valuable census data.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics: Penrith Region Data Summary)

At the McDonald’s in the Penrith Plaza food court, the main language spoken was English, though we observed a small family speaking Korean, they didn’t want to be interviewed. We were, however, able to talk to a manager who only speaks English. When asked about their experience with customers or employees who spoke indigenous languages, they had almost no experiences with indigenous language speaking employees, but they did encounter customers on various occasions who they assumed to be speaking indigenous languages amongst themselves, but noted that they used English to order their food. When asked why they thought they experienced so little use of indigenous languages, they simply said it was probably because there weren’t many indigenous people living in the area. Their experience is reflective of the demographics, as only a small percentage of the population are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background. We asked them if they felt there was a stigma towards indigenous languages, they agreed that there is a general negative attitude towards the use of indigenous languages and they suggested that more representation of indigenous languages in mainstream media may help overcome this problem.

We also went to a McDonald’s near Town Hall, where we observed greater linguistic diversity, with customers talking amongst themselves in Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese, Thai, etc., likely due to the close proximity to popular tourist attractions such as the Sydney Tower and QVB. We interviewed a crew member there who is half Japanese, whose native language is English but can also speak Japanese and a little French.

Photo of interviewee, taken with permission

Apparently, most of the employees at that branch can speak a language other than English at least conversationally, perhaps due to customer demand and a centralised location. When asked about the presence of indigenous languages, the crew member mentioned that one of the managers can speak the Māori language, but they seldom get customers who try to talk to them in indigenous languages. This is likely because it is more convenient and time-efficient to use a widely-used language (such as English) in customer-staff interactions for the purpose of ordering food (as opposed to socialising). Thus, if a customer knows enough English to order, they would have a tendency to use English instead of another language, and as English is the language of education here in Australia, it is likely that most Indigenous Australians would be able to speak English. On the other hand, tourists visiting Australia temporarily may not have had English language education and may lack confidence in English. This, combined with the fact that Chinese is a widely-spoken language, may be the reason why some Chinese tourists would choose to try and communicate in Chinese with people who look Asian.

Here is the transcript of the full interview:

What languages can you speak?

Well, I speak English and Japanese, and I learnt a bit of French in high school.

How proficient are you in each of them?

English: I’m very fluent. Japanese: conversational? And then French: I can make basic sentences.

So if a customer came up to you and spoke in French, would you be able to take their order?

I would be able to tell them that I can’t take their order in French. (laughs)

How long have you been working here?

I think I’ve been working at Maccas for about 9 months now.

Have you ever needed to use a language other than English while you were working?

Yeah, I have had to use Japanese one time. There was an old man and he didn’t know any English and he just wanted to order a Quarter Pounder.

Did he approach you and just started speaking in Japanese?

Um, no, he just went to one of the random counters, and then another co-worker asked me if I knew Japanese and I said yes, and then I took over for that.

Have you had any customers try to talk to you in a language that you didn’t know?

Yeah there are always people who try to speak Chinese. And then I have to tell them in English that I don’t know Chinese and then I’d get someone else to speak to them because there’s normally other co-workers who know Chinese.

Why do you think they try to speak to you in Chinese?

I guess because I look Chinese? I think they’ll be less likely to do that with Caucasians, but there are still people who assume that everyone knows Chinese.

Do a lot of your co-workers or managers know how to speak languages other than English?

Yeah, I would say most of them do. A lot of them know Chinese, and there’s probably a couple of Vietnamese speakers as well. But yeah we speak to each other in English.

Do any of them speak any indigenous languages?

My manager can speak Māori but I don’t think he’s had to use it at work.

Do you get a lot of customers at your store who don’t seem to be native English speakers?

Well, you can’t really tell by looking at them but I would assume so. We get lots of foreigners because we’re right in the middle of the CBD, and that’s where a lot of people visit and where tourists would often go.

Around what percentage of customers are tourists?

Um, around 30 percent maybe? Most of them know how to speak some English though. If they know enough English to order, I think they would try to do that first.

How difficult do you think it is for non-native speakers to order food in English?

Well I think it would be pretty difficult especially if you weren’t ordering something really standard because you won’t know the name for it at all. And the menus at McDonald’s are not very clear, so you can’t exactly point at this and say “I want that”. I think if they aren’t very confident in English they would mostly order the simple menu items because it’s a lot more difficult to order something specialised for the customer.

Do you think McDonald’s has done anything to try and help customers overcome these language barriers?

Well they already have those machines which have pictures on them but I guess it’s not really clear that you can order on those instead of the counter. And yeah they’re only in English.