Dwell Q&A: how can we better support neighborhood languages?

Languages are often pulled into complex and divisive debates on immigration in the UK and what it means to be British. There’s perhaps no better anecdote to illustrate this than Nigel Farage’s recent train journey through London. The Ukip leader commented on how few English speakers he could hear on the carriage. Asked to describe exactly why this made him feel “awkward” he replied: “I don’t understand them … I don’t feel very comfortable in that situation and I don’t think the majority of British people do.”

And it is possible that he wasn’t exaggerating. The UK’s reputation as being a country of stubborn monolinguals sits strangely alongside the reality of its linguistic diversity. The last census showed that there are more than 100 different languages spoken in London alone, and this diversity is not confined to the capital. Almost 20% of young people in the UK questioned in our recent survey said they spoke a language other than English at home. It is likely that it is one of these “community languages” that Farage heard on his journey.

And he may well have been right to “feel very uncomfortable” (although not for the reasons he would likely provide). The British Council’s 2013 report Languages for the Future showed that 75% of UK adults polled were unable to hold a conversation in any of the languages highlighted as crucial to the UK’s future economic standing. Similarly, the British Academy report Languages: The State of the Nation found the UK to be trapped in a “vicious cycle of monolingualism”, experiencing a growing deficit in language skills just as the global demand for them was increasing. The future of the UK may see monolingual Brits not only unable to eavesdrop on the tube, but increasingly locked out of international conversations, negotiations and business opportunities.

Could the languages that incite fear in Farage also provide solutions to what has been described as a language crisis in the UK? Turkish, Arabic and Portuguese were all identified to be of key strategic importance for the UK. A recent language mapping project shows you only have to get off at Stockwell, Edgware Road or Manor House stations in London to find many speakers of these languages. Both the British Council and British Academy reports suggest more could be done to recognise the importance of community languages and to capitalise on their economic, educational and cultural value.

So what sort of policies would better support the one in six English school children who do not have English as a first language? Should there be a push for more official qualifications in community languages? Should efforts be directed into challenging the status attached to them? And who should be taking the lead in pushing for community languages to be recognised assets to the UK?

Join us on Friday at 1pm to discuss these issues and more with our expert panel. You can follow the debate on @gdnlanglearn or on the hashtag #languagesdebate.

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