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Making Biodiversity Accessible For All – Using Different Languages in Interpreting South Africa’s National Botanical Gardens

Volume 3 Number 1 - April 2006

John Roff

This article outlines some of the experiences of the South African National Biodiversity Institute in trying to make biodiversity accessible through developing interpretive signs in three languages. Important considerations, challenges and creative solutions are outlined, and readers can gauge their response to a range of sign examples from some of South Africa’s eight National Botanical Gardens. Important points to consider when designing multi-lingual signs:

Good multi-lingual signs tend to have:
• Not too much text.
• Clear illustrations that repeat the message of the sign.
• Large clear titles in different languages – these act as ‘cues’ to draw readers to text in their language.
• Manageable text chunks that look appealing and can be read quickly.

Bad signs tend to have:
• Too much text.
• Few illustrations.
• No differentiation between languages

Readers are encouraged to share their ideas and experiences with the author.


South Africa is a very rich country – rich in biodiversity, rich in people groups, rich with possibilities. This richness gives rise to many opportunities for us, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), to make biodiversity as accessible as possible for all people.

Interpretation in SANBI’s eight National Botanical Gardens (NBG’s) is primarily in two forms – guided tours, and interpretive signs. Brochures are used occasionally. Each of the eight gardens has a very different range of visitors.  Some, like Kirstenbosch, receive large numbers of foreign tourists who speak languages such as German, French, Japanese and Korean. Others, such as the Natal and Free State Gardens, receive visits primarily from local people. In each case, our challenge as interpreters is to make biodiversity as accessible as possible to as many visitors as possible.

In this article, I explain some of the ways we have tried to do this. Working with several languages is challenging, expensive and very time-consuming, so there needs to be good reasons for doing it.  We have tried, and continue to try, different ways of working with languages in our interpretive work. Any comments and suggestions are welcome.


Some Important Background Details

Language Range

In addition to South Africa’s 11 official languages, we have many tourists from other countries, who speak a wide range of languages, including French, German, Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, Japanese, Dutch and many others.


In order to stay sane in the face of our language challenge, we (SANBI) settled on a policy decision that permanent (aluminium, A4 or larger) signs include three languages – English, Afrikaans, and the most widely spoken African language in that particular garden. Temporary signs, being more flexible and short term, can be in whatever language/s is/are most appropriate. In addition, general brochures in certain European languages are available at the busiest garden – Kirstenbosch.

In this article, the three language situation is the one we have been dealing with, so our solutions and examples have that in mind.

Signs That Seem to Work

I say ‘seem to work’, because most of these signs have proved popular with visitors in the gardens where they have been placed. These layouts may not work in your situation – try them out as temporary signs first.

Try the eye test - Test signs 1 and 2 by letting your eyes quickly browse each one. ’Observe’ your eye movement. What did you notice first? Which signs seem most effective?

John – design note from the author – “If possible, can we put the illustrations of good (HP Dune Storyboard) and okay (Pretoria medicinal) signs on one page, with the explanations/captions on the following page? That way, people will be able to ascertain their ‘gut’ response, and then read on after they have responded to the signs.”

1. HP dune storyboard. This sign was developed in a situation where most visitors are English-speaking. The clear, effective graphics re-tell the message graphically and powerfully, and help to tell the story for those may not be able to read. Having titles in the three languages helps readers quickly identify ‘their’ section of a sign.

2. Pretoria medicinal garden. This sign is text-heavy, but is redeemed by the illustration. Most people will be able to figure out the message without reading the text. A sign with large amounts of text is hard work, in any language.

3. HP Dune labels. This is a simple example of using three languages on a small label. Because the text order is the same for every label, visitors can predict where their language will be on subsequent labels. Also, the text is very short and thus non-threatening.

4. Kirstenbosch Fynbos sign. Illustrations clarify the message here, and subtitles in the three languages break up the text into manageable chunks.


Important Considerations

Who visits a garden?

As with all interpretation, it is essential to ascertain who is actually reading the signs. This means spending time in the garden watching what people are doing. You may find that only 3% of visitors actually read the text of certain languages. Then again, providing multi-lingual signs may increase visitor numbers from previously marginalized groups who feel more accommodated once their language is used on signs.

Staying responsive

Gardens need to respond to changing tourism patterns to remain accessible. Make friends with your nearest tourism authority, and find out what the latest tourist trends are. Visitor groups change over time, so your multi-lingual signs from five years ago may not be effective for today’s visitor profiles.


South Africa’s unique history means languages have deep and powerful meanings in our nation. Some people see certain languages as colonial or oppressive, others may see the same languages as a symbol of nationhood and identity. Leaving languages off signs in National Gardens may thus be seen by some as being insulting or even threatening to their culture. In one case one of our gardens received a series of pleading letters when a local newspaper erroneously reported that a particular language would no longer be used in the garden. This despite the fact that about 5%, if that, of garden visitors actually read that language, and nearly all of those would be able to read English. So, when designing interpretive materials, this kind of issue needs to be considered.

Non-technical is also a language

Science has a language of its own – often inaccessible to many people. Since we are trying to make biodiversity as accessible as possible, we should deliberately use language that is understandable, steering clear of such delightful sentences as ‘This monopodial Tridactyle bicaudata reproduces annually by means of numerous inflorescences borne on 2 spikes which project at approximately 90 degrees from the stem.’ A translation (for that is what it is) might be: ‘Look closely. This orchid has two sets of flowers on its stem.’



Text volume

One of the challenges with multi-lingual signs is the volume of text. Most visitors don’t want to read a huge volume of text, and if two thirds of that text is in a language they don’t know, they won’t bother to wade through it looking for a few sentences they do understand. So the design of the sign has to be attractive, yet informative.


In terms of African languages, the language ‘on the ground’, spoken by most people, is often very different from the ‘official’ translations. Plant names, in particular, are almost impossible to translate, as the same plant may have five or six different names, depending on where it occurs and what it is used for.


We tried separate signs in different languages at one site. This was ineffective because people do not seem to have the time or interest to check each sign to see if it is one they will understand. We had three different languages represented, so, for the visitor the chances of finding something to read, was one in three. Hardly anyone bothered to read these signs.  We also found that signs where the three languages were undifferentiated were less popular – it was hard for people to tell at a glance what they would understand. People’s eyes quickly scan a sign, looking for something they recognise. If their initial scan is confusing, they will probably give up before finding information in their language.


Creative solutions

Temporary signs

Cheap temporary signs, made of laminated paper, can be produced quickly, in any language or language combination. When working with multiple languages, it is especially important to test out your signs with the public. Temporary signs allow you to do this easily.

Text and Captions

Use a main chunk of text to communicate the key facts or messages on your sign. Use illustrations and captions in the most popular language to fill in the details.


Good illustrations can be effective at communicating a message and help bypass the need to use multiple languages all the time. In fact, people who cannot read at all may be able to understand a well - illustrated sign. Find people who have the skill of telling a story or message using pictures, which is something very different to doing scientifically accurate plant illustrations.


In some cases, we have signs in one language, and brochures with the same information in other languages.

Audio guide system at Kirstenbosch

This popular form of self-guided interpretation with an audio handset is great for visitors who come on their own. At the moment, it is available in English or German – we have many German tourists at Kirstenbosch. Recently, visitors have requested other languages.


Working with multiple languages in a botanical garden is challenging, yet carries substantial rewards in terms of increased visitor understanding and satisfaction, and in terms of acceptance of a garden by the local people. I would encourage you to try different ideas, and test them out in your garden. Please feel free to contact me with ideas, comments and suggestions on multiple-language interpretation – I would love to hear from you.


Cet article décrit quelques expériences de l’Institut National de la Biodiversité d’Afrique du Sud dans ses efforts pour rendre la biodiversité accessible grâce au développement de ses panneaux d’interprétation en 3 langues. D’importantes considérations, des défis et des solutions créatives sont esquissées et les lecteurs peuvent également tester leurs réactions à une série d’exemples de panneaux parmi les 8 Jardins Botaniques Nationaux d’Afrique du Sud.

Quelques points importants à prendre en compte lors de la conception de panneaux multilingues :
Les bons panneaux multilingues tendent à avoir :
1- Peu de textes
2- Des illustrations claires qui reprennent le message du panneau
3- De gros titres clairs écrits en différentes langues – ils servent d’appels pour guider les lecteurs vers le texte dans leur langue.
4- Des tronçons de textes abordables qui soient attirants et pouvant être lus rapidement.

Les mauvais panneaux tendent à avoir :
1- Trop de textes
2- Peu d’illustrations
3- Pas de distinction entre les différentes langues.

Les lecteurs sont encouragés à partager leurs idées et leurs expériences avec l’auteur.


Este artículo destaca algunas de las experiencias del Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad en Sudáfrica, en sus intentos para hacer biodiversidad accessible a traves del desarrollo de letreros interpretativos en tres idiomas. Se resaltan consideraciones importantes, retos y soluciones creativas, y los lectores pueden probar su respuesta a un rango de ejemplos de letreros de algunos de los ocho jardines botanicos nacionales. Importantes puntos a considerar cuando se diseña letreros en varios idiomas:

Un buen letrero multilingual tiende a tener:
1. No mucho texto
2. Ilustraciones claras que repitan el mensaje del letrero
3. Títulos claron y grandes en diferentes idiomas – estos actuan como “pistas” a situar lectores al texto en su idioma.
4. Textos cortos manejables que aparezcan atractivos y puedan ser leidos rapidamente.

Malos letreros tienden a tener:
1. Demasiado texto.
2. Pocas ilustraciones.
3. No diferenciacion entre idiomas.

Los lectores son motivados a compartir sus ideas y experiencias con el autor.

John Roff
Interpretation Coordinator
South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)
P.O. Box 21667
Mayor's Walk
South Africa