Home / Features / Crossing language barriers

Crossing language barriers


Modern VMS allow positioning of an eye-catching symbol between bilingual texts.

Modern VMS allow positioning of an eye-catching symbol between bilingual texts.

Effective communication with road users is crucial for safe and efficient highway operation, and depends on the intelligent use of language on, for example, variable message signs (VMS). Increasingly, the task is involving languages (plural) – as more people travel more widely, for business or pleasure, and can benefit from general safety warnings as well as traffic information; and as regional or indigenous languages gain recognition as cultural markers.  

In the UK, seminal work by the Institute of Transport Studies at Leeds University, for the National Assembly for Wales. involved using its in-house simulator to investigate the impact on drivers of the installation of VMS with content in both English and Welsh, the latter for the benefit of over  half a million native speakers or around 20% of the population.

The researchers used a specialised instrument to measure how much the human eye can absorb in very small units of time – to detect drivers’ likely reactions to the installation of dual-language signs. The results of the study, which continues to be cited as a major source, showed that participants were able to read both one- and two-line monolingual and two-line bilingual signs without experiencing adverse effects on their driving performance.

‘Keep your distance’ graphically expressed

‘Keep your distance’ graphically expressed

Four-line bilingual signs did impact on this, in that the mean travel speed across the section of road where the sign was visible decreased; but typically by no more than 2.4km/h. The initiative was the first stage in the development of a strategy for the deployment of the signs across Wales.

The Institute’s thinking remains relevant in meeting safety-based concerns over bilingualism as the technology behind VMSs has evolved with the availability of LED-based models and their increased flexibility of content.

These are being deployed to good effect in Canada, where rather larger numbers of people are involved. Both English and French enjoy official status and the latter is the mother tongue of some 7.3 million people – most of them living in Québec province, where French is the majority language. Many of these regularly drive across the border to neighbouring Ontario, which has some half a million French speakers of its own and has taken an exceptionally thorough approach to the issue.

In 1986, the Ontario Provincial Government introduced its French Language Services Act which, inter alia, mandated bilingual static signs along provincial highways running through 26 officially designated Francophone areas. At that time, however, available technology made it impossible to display French-language messages on existing VMS along major highways.

The equipment could neither display letters with French accents nor offer enough physical space to display text effectively in both languages at the same time. (Text in French, as in other Romance languages, tends to be between 20% and 25% longer than its English equivalent).

The option of showing alternating content had to be rejected following human factors trialling which demonstrated that switching between the two options risked causing driver distraction.

In response, the province’ Ministry of Transportation (MTO) successfully applied for an extension of time to enable it to comply with the Act by meeting the technological challenges.

The development stage involved volunteers being invited to produce sketches for pictograms, developing a high level of conformity across language barriers and laying the foundations for a library of graphics. This included already well-recognised ones used on static signs, in GPS-based locational devices and on the internet. A review of the process in 2010 was able to take advantage of the now available capabilities of full matrix signs, with scope for accented characters, a wide range of colour options and – crucially – flexibility in the positioning of text and pictograms so that each supported the other as effectively as possible, with the latter reducing the amount of space needed by the former.

The process took until January 2015, when the MTO was finally able to publish its Bilingual Signing Policy, having already begun to replace its existing VMS, as they neared the end of their useful lives, with more up-to-date alternatives.

‘Stop’ in the Cree language of Canada

‘Stop’ in the Cree language of Canada

Canada has more languages than two, and work is already under way on generating equivalents to French and English signs in the country’s indigenous tongues.

The US is facing similar issues in relation to its internally self-governing First American territories. In the state of Minnesota, the indigenous communities recently won an early landmark battle with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) over the use of bilingual static boundary markers.

The tribes wanted priority for their local names. The FHWA disagreed, and lost. The tribes have yet to discuss a long-term policy for moving on from static signs to electronic signs, and to the use of the internet – but this will undoubtedly come. It will bring with it issues of text length and size that can be more ccomplex than they appear in European languages.

Work on the continuing development of transport-sector pictograms that are mutually intelligible across widening areas of the globe is likely to become a major industry preoccupation over the years to come. In the long term, of course, with the development of connected vehicle technologies, the information that travellers currently rely on obtaining from on-road sources such as VMS will increasingly arrive on their smartphones or via displays built into their vehicles. Progress now being made in solving many of the linguistic issues at infrastructural level will have done sterling service in paving the way for a smooth transition to new systems.

Couldn’t be simpler: ‘Don’t drink and drive’.

Couldn’t be simpler: ‘Don’t drink and drive’.

Perhaps, however, pictograms will not necessarily always be acceptable to all travellers using all modes of transport.  A recent internet exchange in Australia ran as follows:

Question: “Why are traffic light signals being upgraded from ‘DON’T WALK’ and ‘WALK’ to pedestrian symbols?”

Answer from Poppy: “Because we as a silly nation have allowed both illegals and other legal immigrants not to learn English. We pander to them so as not to offend”.

And peace and goodwill to you too, Poppy. ◆


PIARC-Port-CrawfordDavid Crawford is contributing editor of ITS International and a contributor to the PIARC (World Road Association)’s web-based Guide to Road Network Operations and ITS. He is a member of ITS (UK) and the Transport Associates Network