Many thanks to Caio Iwan of BBC Cymru Wales for the invitation to write a blogpost for Cymru Fyw on current questions of linguaphobia in the Welsh context and beyond: Y Gymraeg a thwf ‘linguaphobia’. An version in English is available below.
Shortly after the EU referendum, Professor Yaron Matras of the University of Manchester wrote a blogpost on linguaphobia for the Manchester Policy Blog. Discussion below of several of the initial examples of recent political pronouncements on language in the UK are developed from this source.
The politicization – and often demonization – of domestic multilingualism during the 2016 EU referendum campaign is now well documented.
Growing hostility towards those speaking languages other than English was not only evident in widespread verbal abuse and even a series of criminal assaults, but also increasingly present in political discourse.
Already in February 2014, the then UKIP leader Nigel Farage had supplemented his customary xenophobic rhetoric with an attack on audible minorities when he claimed that he felt ‘awkward’ when he could hear no English being spoken while travelling on a train from London to Kent.
In the same year, Farage claimed there were ‘entire areas in our cities where nobody speaks English’, a telling indication of the inability of many in the UK to understand that a national culture does not equate to a single national language, and that – by extension – the richness cultural diversity is invariably accompanied by linguistic diversity.
This ethnolinguistic nationalism that presents the UK as exclusively Anglophone has seeped into the policy sphere, where attention to language in recent years has tended to be informed by a dangerously ideological monolingualism.
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles included in December 2012, among his ‘50 ways to save: examples of sensible savings in local government‘, the suggestion that local authorities should no longer provide documents in languages other than English because translation ‘undermined community cohesion and encouraged segregation’. In the same paragraph, provision of translation was linked to ‘ giv[ing] community grants to organisations which promote segregation or division in society’, with the mealy-mouthed proviso that ‘in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom outside England, there are additional legal requirements to translate documents into other native languages of the United Kingdom’ (with the implication that provision in minoritized languages is a legal burden rather than a positive social good).
Two years later, Prime Minister David Cameron similarly saw multilingualism as a threat, claiming in the face of any real evidence that there is a direct correlation between the amount of English spoken by Muslim women in the UK to their likelihood to be resilient ‘against the messages of Daesh’.
Such statements cross party political lines, and were not uncommon under previous Labour governments, with both Tony Blair and David Blunkett being on record for associating ‘Britishness’ with an ability to speak English.
As Farage’s comments about his own feelings of awkwardness make clear, public transport has often been the shared space in which such incidents of linguistic prejudice have occurred.
A widely reported example in June 2016 underlined the complex misconceptions that such incidents often entail.
A passenger on a rail replacement bus between Cardiff and Newport reported shortly before the EU referendum that a Muslim woman talking with her son was told by a stranger that she ‘should really be speaking English’.
Informed by another traveller that the woman was speaking Welsh (and not, as the man clearly assumed, Arabic), the humiliated linguaphobe was left muttering to himself.
This was not, however, an isolated incident.
The result of the EU referendum appears to have legitimated a wave of prejudice against speakers of languages other than English, a tendency of which the Polish community were particular victims, with attacks on cultural centres as well as on individuals.
In several high-profile cases – such as the murder of Arkadiusz Jóźwik in Harlow in August 2016 – it became apparent that belonging to an audible minority was becoming increasingly dangerous, meaning that multilingualism has increasingly been pushed from the private into the public sphere.
What these examples illustrate are the entanglements of the multiple languages spoken in the UK.
The 2001 census in England and Wales provided for the first time detailed evidence of the everyday practice this linguistic variety, revealing the superdiversity increasingly evident in many urban areas.
What is striking in the complex linguistic ecology of 21st-century Britain and Ireland is the juxtaposition of ‘minoritized’ or ‘heritage’ languages – such as Cornish, Scottish Gaelic, Irish or Welsh – with languages associated with more recent migrations from Europe, Africa, Asia or elsewhere.
Research suggests quite clearly that new arrivals to the UK require linguistic support for a relatively short period, and that such provision clearly accelerates social inclusion.
What remains unpalatable for a significant minority of the population is the fact that such inclusion does not imply an adoption of Anglophone monolingualism, but means that many retain the right to a functional bilingualism or multilingualism according to which – as is the case in most other parts of the world – people deploy a repertoire of languages according to the situations in which they find themselves.
The clear prejudice against those speaking languages other than English are increasingly described by the term ‘linguaphobia’.
The concept was first adopted in the 1950s – by analogy with other academic phobias – to suggest a militant monolingualism manifesting itself as a failure in, avoidance of and a hostility towards learning other languages.
Post-Brexit, the concept increasingly describes an ideological phenomenon that judges national belonging in terms of the exclusive use of the English language.
The most prominent media attention in this area has focused on so-called ‘community’ languages, ranging from Arabic to Polish, questioning the right of speakers of languages other than English to express themselves openly in the public sphere, but equally apparent is a parallel hostility to the indigenous languages of the UK.
This is not least evident in ideological monolingualism of recent attacks on Welsh in the English media, seen for instance in a deeply flawed account of bilingual education in The Guardian or a critique of the Welsh language act in The Times.
Such linguaphobia fails to acknowledge the historic multilingualism of the UK, and the associated right of people to be educated in and to live their lives in languages other than English.
It also reflects the persistent failure to see the existence of multiple languages – in schools, in universities, in businesses, in public services – as a social and cultural resource, rather than an impediment to some dangerously reductive monolingual myth of national cohesion.