Decoding the Tower of Babel

Over 300 languages are spoken in London alone, presenting opportunities as well as challenges in the post-Brexit era

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 2 Dec 2021, 11:47 PM

The next time you come across a young Briton in Dubai, Delhi, Karachi or elsewhere, don’t be surprised if he or she speaks to you in Hinglish, the increasingly popular blend of Hindi and English used in Bollywood films and everyday life in large parts of south Asia. The reason: a college in Portsmouth, southern England, has introduced a course in Hinglish, evoking much interest among students keen to enhance their linguistic skills that are crucial to succeed in the global economy.

The growing use of Hinglish in films (including in titles such as Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal), television and newspaper headlines is often highlighted in media courses in British universities, but Portsmouth College is the first to offer such a course to high-achieving A-level students; others may soon follow. Hinglish involves seamless code-switching between Hindi and English, but has also become a symbol of the growing use of blends between English and other languages.

Says James Watters, head of curriculum at the college: “We were quite surprised to receive the interest and caseload when we launched the pilot project. Its feedback means that we will offer a longer duration course to all students in the next academic year. The course’s focus was on culture and reference to headlines and text in adverts, films and newspapers.”

The growing use of Hinglish has prompted linguists such as David Crystal to suggest that it may even outnumber the number of English-speaking people across the globe as the influence of India’s soft power and economic strength increases on the world stage.

Hinglish is not yet recognised as a distinct language, but is another layer of the deepening influence of immigrant communities on contemporary Britain, and reflects growing awareness of the importance of languages of global markets in China and India. Thousands of pupils in schools across England have been learning Mandarin since 2016 in response to its importance as a global language. The success of the Mandarin Excellence Programme is sought to be replicated with new funding for other foreign languages, as post-Brexit United Kingdom seeks to fly the flag of ‘Global Britain’, particularly on the trade front.

Says Vicky Gough, adviser to the British Council: “At a time when it is more important than ever that the UK forges new relationships around the world, languages need to be championed and treated as a national priority so that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to live and work in a global economy.” The (native) British are mostly monolingual, with little language skills beyond English, prompting several initiatives to diversify curriculum in schools by encouraging the learning of foreign languages and offering opportunities to study abroad.

The wider context is that English is spoken by the overwhelming majority (98 per cent) of the UK’s population of over 65 million. Other indigenous languages such as Scots, Welsh and Cornish are spoken by about 2.5 million speakers, while nearly 5 million people are estimated to speak immigrant languages. But in London, recent surveys show that over 300 languages are spoken by children in schools, the largest number in any world capital, a reflection of the demographic that nearly half (48 per cent) of the country’s foreign-born population are based in London and nearby south-east England. Immigrants continue to have a strong influence on the city’s development — from its economic growth to its cultural life.

There are now suggestions that Britain should leverage the linguistic and other cultural capital of large diaspora communities to enhance trade and other relations with their countries of origin.

London has been a multicultural and multilingual place of settlement from its very beginnings as a Roman city in 43 CE/ AD, which did not change throughout its development from a medieval town to one of humanity’s first world cities, reaching one million inhabitants in 1800. There have been several waves of migration into London and Britain since, each enhancing the linguistic mix: the most significant influx in the early modern period occurred because of religious persecution on the European continent, first from the Spanish Netherlands and later from France. Protestants from both these areas were subjected to state-sponsored persecution and found refuge in London and Britain. The growth of the British Empire and the corresponding increase in international trade (both in goods and slaves) during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries saw the arrival and establishment of African and Asian communities who came to London as traders, soldiers, sailors or slaves and servants.

Today, Britain’s multiculturalism is reflected at various levels, including linguistic diversity, often visible in shop names, graffiti, religious places, media (newspapers, radio and TV stations catering to various language audiences), market stalls, restaurants, signs in public spaces, and in health and other official communication.

Learning a new language

New research by City Lit, an adult learning charity organisation, finds that after English, Bengali is now the second most-spoken language in London, followed by Polish and Turkish. According to the research, London’s top 10 most spoken foreign languages are Bengali, Polish, Turkish, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, French, Arabic, Tamil and Portuguese.

Says Chris Jones of City Lit: “People who are unable to speak English might feel somewhat isolated in our country, and in these uncertain political times we urge London residents to reach out to their neighbours — no matter what language they speak — and celebrate each other’s differences and similarities. Diversity and inclusivity are something that makes London such a fantastic and special place to live, and learning a new language — especially one that’s commonly spoken in your area — is a great way to connect with those around you and broaden your experiences.”

Funding worth millions of pounds is routinely allocated to offer translation and interpretation services to a large number of people in several communities that lack knowledge of English. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sadiq Khan, London mayor, unveiled a series of videos in which he promoted health guidance in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Hindi, while similar messages were communicated in various languages across newspapers, radio and television stations. Several individuals and companies offer translation services with busy schedules, given the large number of people who are unable to interact with English, particularly when they need to engage with government officials, the police and the courts.

Sudha Vemuri, who translated and interpreted for government departments for years, says: “It was by sheer stroke of luck that I became an interpreter with the Leicester City Council, which offers interpretation and translation service in many languages. For seven years I interpreted for them and for the Leicestershire County Council in Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi and once in Telugu... I was assigned cases with social services, child welfare services, interrogation of fraudulent benefit claims, hospitals, psychiatric assessments, medical counselling, case studies of asylum seekers, and also at schools. I also interpreted for the police, which took me to detention centers and police stations.”

Besides Leicester, such services are offered in other towns with large populations of Asian and other origin, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Swindon.

Accents and inflections

If Britain’s linguistic diversity is celebrated as part of the discourse of multiculturalism, it also has a counterpart: the fact that many migrants in towns and areas with large immigrant communities mostly go through life without learning the English language, which also prevents interaction with the mainstream. The existence of many distinct monolingual communities does not necessarily constitute vibrant multilingualism.

There is also criticism that Britain, by encouraging minorities to live in their own communities in the name of multiculturalism, is slowly evolving towards a segregationist society. There have been times when, while waiting to board a flight at Heathrow, I have been approached by elderly south Asians holding British passports and boarding passes, asking for help to read computer screens on which the bay number from where their flights would depart is displayed.

Councils and government department offer a large number of language sessions for people with little or no written or spoken English, delivered in high streets, community centres or places of worship. The sessions focus on connecting learners to the places, spaces and people in their local area — helping them in everyday situations such as shopping in the high street, visiting the doctor or attending a parents’ evening.

The most recent Census (2011) found that 770,000 in England speak little or no English, which presents a clear barrier to social and economic mobility; the figure may change when the 2021 Census figures are released. The latest initiative involves £5.1 million for the English for Speakers of Other Languages for Integration Fund for classes and language learning activities in 30 areas across England, benefiting thousands of people. Communities Minister Robert Jenrick says: “We are committed to levelling up and uniting our country. And a successful, well-integrated society requires everyone to be able to speak English. This funding will provide language classes to thousands of people, so they become fully integrated and active members of society, making a positive contribution to the UK.”

Such initiatives continue to be unrolled years after an appropriate level of conversational English was made mandatory for acquiring British citizenship or permanent residency in 2013, besides passing a Life in the UK test.

There are also challenges within the universe of English language in Britain, where it is spoken in a large number of regional accents and dialects, such as Scouse, Geordie, Birmingham, Mancunian, London and Tyke, while diaspora communities for whom English is a second language carry over some of the phonetics and ways of pronunciation from their first languages. Asian English with some words imported from Asian languages went mainstream with popular sitcoms such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42.

Several surveys have found that some accents are privileged in job interviews and judgements are made about individuals based on how they speak English: posh, or with a multicultural London accent, or with a ‘Brummie’ (Birmingham) accent. New research by linguists at Queen Mary University of London found that, despite some changes, public attitudes to 38 different British accents and their related stereotypes have remained largely unchanged over time.

Devyani Sharma, professor of sociolinguistics at the university, writes: “(We) found that exactly the same accents continue to attract high prestige — received pronunciation, the Queen’s English, French-accented English, Edinburgh English, one’s own accent — and the same accents continue to receive low ratings, particularly ethnic minority accents (Indian) and historically industrial urban accents (Cockney, Liverpool, Essex, Birmingham). All humans have biases — simplified ways of thinking when we need to process our thoughts quickly. Accent is no exception: we all have automatic associations with accents based on people we’ve met during our lives. It’s only when we rely on these simple stereotypes to judge unrelated traits, like intelligence or competence, that our cultural baggage becomes discrimination.”

Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London

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