The main observation I made in my last post was that Sydney Markets has a distinctive wholesale vibe – from the outside, the intention seems more focused on finalising sales rather than a laid back community atmosphere as might be found in the Glebe markets for example. Such an environment informs language use in this space. However, this initial rigid perspective of mine was dropped as I started to interview some of the vendors. I will demonstrate this boy selecting the most relevant parts of my interviews.
Something which caught my eye from a distance was an elderly stall-holder wearing the following shirt:
Aside from being comical, to understand the true witty crudeness of the statement, you need a solid grasp of English. It turned out that the elderly man wearing it was Italian and had very basic English skills. When I approached him to ask a few questions, he struggled to understand my words and immediately pushed his son into the limelight, which made me think maybe ironically he doesn’t understand the meaning on his shirt at all! (I think it’s safe to assume his son had explained its meaning). Nonetheless, the hospitality of the elderly man selling chestnuts shone through – he substituted mutually intelligible spoken interaction with hand gestures to encourage me to try his chestnuts and handed me a small pamphlet (in English) with chestnut recipes.
His son was able to elaborate and explained that most of the vendors at the markets were Asian, Lebanese or Italian. He said the most common languages spoken by the customers were Arabic, Chinese languages, Vietnamese and Indian languages (which roughly matched the ABS data of the linguistic diversity of the Strathfield Council area). When I asked whether he got the opportunity to speak Italian to his customers he replied ‘there aren’t too many Italians who come to this market so I usually help my dad out by communicating in English with our buyers. We have a few Italians who come to us every week and it’s nice for my dad to chat with them. But as you can see (points to his dad’s shirt) he’s a bit of a joker so he messes around with the customers even though he can’t speak much English anyway.’
Photo taken with consent.
Above is an image of one of the very few non-English signs I found at the markets (in general there weren’t many signs, but the ones that did exist tended to be in English). This woman spoke quite limited English but was able to tell me she spoke Mandarin. She was very lively but unable to answer further questions so I can assume the sign is duo-lingual for 2 purposes: a) makes the shopping process easier for native Chinese speakers b) by making this sign and appealing to Chinese buyers, the vendor is promoting her business. It is also an invitation to encourage conversation with Chinese people.
I spoke to a woman who identified herself as ‘Australian… but with an Italian background’. She said she never had difficulty communicating with customers despite limited language similarities, because it was quite easy to rely on situational factors to understand what either person means. She said she ‘didn’t really pay attention to people’s backgrounds’ which made it seem like she was almost oblivious to the linguistic diversity. This seems unlikely, but more demonstrates that talking about issues of identity and making assumptions is uncomfortable for some people.
It’s a matter of understanding that the transactional nature of the market means that limited linguistic interaction is very common and actually the default, but that even despite significant language barriers, if the opportunity to explore language outside of that arises, it is received well. There is no shame in using variety of languages, but it will of course be limited to particular interactions.