Languages in the news: from multilingualism to monolingualism

Languages have been firmly in the news this week as analysis of the results of the 2012 census—the first to ask detailed questions about language use—have  revealed growing linguistic diversity in the UK, whilst UCAS figures for university applications have recorded yet another drop in the numbers of applicants to specialist language courses in universities.

Census data released by the Office of National Statistics shows that, after English and Welsh, Polish is now the main language spoken in England and Wales, with more than half a million speakers among the UK’s 56.1 million residents. The next main languages with large numbers of speakers reflect patterns of migration from south Asia, and include Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati. And Arabic, French, Chinese and Portuguese also continue to have important communities of speakers. The data suggests that over 100 different languages are spoken in the UK, with 49 of these having more than 15,000 users. What emerges from the figures is a sense of the UK as a linguistic patchwork, with—often for evident historical reasons—clear concentrations of speakers in certain locations: Ealing for Polish, Leicester for Gujarati, Kensington for French, and Manchester for both Cantonese and Mandarin. One million households have no members for whom English is a main language, although most of these remain to a greater or lesser degree bilingual since only 138,000 people were recorded as not being able to speak English at all.

The statistics reflect social and cultural transformations evident in much recent research, such as further diversification of the linguistic landscape of our towns and cities, the existence of a increasing number of young people in our schools who are bilingual, the need for multilingualism to be acknowledged in social policy and supported through innovation in translation practice. The fear that globalization and people’s ever-increasing mobility would lead to a monoculture characterized by growing levels of monolingualism appears to remain a distant one, although it is important to stress that the proportion of the population living ‘in translation’ remains a minority: English remains the main language for 92 per cent of the 50 million residents aged three or older, and the appetite amongst the wider population for acquiring higher level language skills appears to be decreasing. The UCAS figures reveal yet another in-year decline in applications for language degrees: -6.1% for European languages (compared to -11.2% in 2012); and -6.7% for Non-European Languages (compared to -21.5% in 2012). It will be argued that the statistics disguise an increase in the number of Higher Education students taking non-specialist language tuition, but there is a persistent need for us to acknowledge the risks inherent in a continued national decline in the number of specialists with high level language skills and the other attributes that accompany these – i.e., linguistic sensitivity complemented by the well developed intercultural competence  that comes from a formal period spent abroad. The role of higher tuition fees is evidently putting university applicants off four-year undergraduate language degree courses, although the actual cost of the third year abroad is greatly attenuated by a reduced fee, by the potential to earn an income as a language assistant or intern, and by the availability of Erasmus grants. Moreover, employers are emphasising more than ever the very clear advantages enjoyed by linguists in what is an increasingly competitive graduate job market. If we witness a further drop in applications in twelve months’ time, what is currently an already alarming situation will no doubt escalate into a crisis. It seems essential that those of us teaching modern languages in Higher Education must continue to work with our allies in other sectors—commercial, cultural, diplomatic…—to make the case for languages and to highlight the risks of widening monolingualism in what is a stubbornly and increasingly multilingual world.


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