A look at London’s top linguistic clusters

The city has a long history of language lessons thanks to migration/settlements patterns over centuries



AFP
AFP

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 2 Dec 2021, 11:55 PM

Hundreds of different tongues have been spoken through the long history of London, making it linguistically the most diverse capital in the world. The 2011 Census classified 88 main languages and identified Polish as London’s top non-English language, while recent research by City Lit concludes that the top place has been taken over by Bengali (including Sylheti and Chatgaya).

Bengali is spoken by over 71,500 London residents (mostly of Bangladeshi origin) across three boroughs: 3 per cent of Camden residents say it is their main language at home, as do 7 per cent of Newham residents and 18 per cent in Tower Hamlets.

Polish is now the second most common foreign language, with seven boroughs stating this is the second most spoken main language after English. Approximately 6 per cent of Ealing residents say the main language they speak at home is Polish, as do 2 per cent of people in Barnet, 1 per cent of Bromley residents, 2 per cent of those living in Lewisham, 4 per cent of Merton-ers, and 1 per cent in Richmond upon Thames.

Turkish comes in third, with four boroughs revealing this to be the second most spoken main language after English: in Enfield, where 6 per cent of residents speak it as their main language, along with Hackney (5 per cent), Haringey (5 per cent), and Islington (2 per cent).

The 2021 Census figures are yet to be released, but may throw up surprises, since many more immigrants have arrived since the 2011 Census, along with their languages. For example, Portuguese figured in the past among the top 10 languages, mainly concentrated in communities of Brazilian origin in Lambeth, but the latest Census may add to the numbers based on the migration of thousands of Portuguese and Konkani speaking people from Goa, who acquired Portuguese citizenship and moved to London areas of Southall, Hounslow and Wembley, among other parts of Britain.

The 2011 Census figures also reflected monolingual clusters among diaspora communities, which may change in the 2021 Census. For example, the main languages with the lowest proportions of people who could speak English ‘well’ or ‘very well’ included Punjabi, Bengali, Pakistani Pahari (with Mirpuri and Potwari) and Cantonese Chinese.

Linguistic clusters in London include Gujarati (Brent, Harrow); Arabic (Westminster); Punjabi (Bexley, Hillingdon, Hounslow); Tamil (Croydon, Kingston, Sutton); Urdu (Redbridge, Waltham Forest) and Nepali (Greenwich).

Religious persecution in Europe in the 17th century brought many refugees to London. Huguenots (French Protestants) fled to London in the 1680s because of religious persecution in France, many settling in Spitalfields in east London to set up businesses as silk weavers, creating an industry that survived until the early 1900s. Tens of thousands of Jewish people from central Europe and Russia also moved to London towards the end of the 19th century, seeking refuge from religious persecution and anti-Semitic pogroms, and adding Yiddish to London’s linguistic mix.

Records show that the area around Clerkenwell was known as Little Italy due to the number of Italian residents and businesses located there from the 19th century. Some arrived as political migrants in the first half of the 19th century, while others were economic migrants who came to London for a better life with greater opportunities. By the 1870s, London’s ice cream and flavoured ice trade was completely run by the Italian community.

The Museum of London has a ‘chop book’, which contains a list of Chinese words with the phonetic pronunciations in the Cantonese dialect listed alphabetically alongside, reflecting London’s past as one of the busiest ports in the world, with the docks bringing people from across the world into the city. Sailors were some of the first people from China to settle in London, and Limehouse, near the docks, became the first Chinatown in Europe.

The 2011 Census figures reflected monolingual clusters among diaspora communities, which may change in the 2021 Census. For example, the main languages with the lowest proportions of people who could speak English ‘well’ or ‘very well’ included Punjabi, Bengali, Pakistani Pahari and Cantonese Chinese


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