Do We Need a Common Tongue?

Thursday 13 October 2016

Announcing a new £20 million language fund earlier this year, David Cameron argued that English classes would help disenfranchised Muslim women and those ‘more susceptible’ to extremism in Britain’s divided communities. In response, he stood accused of playing ‘dog-whistle politics’ by political opponents and Muslim campaigners, who argued the figures of non-English speakers in the UK have been greatly exaggerated. After all, English’s dominant status as the language of international business provokes more anguish about national identity in the non-Anglophone world: although some suggest a hybrid ‘globish’, heavily influenced by Chinese and Indian speakers in emerging markets will become the norm. Critics, including Conservative Baroness Warsi, also point out the contradiction between highlighting language as a security issue while English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) budgets have been cut by successive governments, depriving migrants of key skills and the ability to access core services.

Yet with census data showing that over 100 languages are spoken in every London borough, there is increasing uncertainty about the relationship between national identity and language. Social commentators point towards the linguistic and cultural fragmentation of Belgium as a relevant factor in its struggles with Islamist extremism. Meanwhile, arguments over achieving co-official status for languages such as Welsh and Catalan in the European Union has opened controversial debates about nationhood and sovereignty. Others observe that France’s alienated banlieue youth curse Western society in defiant French, suggesting that radicalism goes deeper than traditional integration issues. Foreign-language teachers in the UK have long lamented that native English speakers lack the educational and cultural motivation to learn other tongues – a trend which has grown worse since foreign languages were made non-compulsory. But research during the EU referendum indicated that millennials are more likely to view themselves as European than older generations who were taught European languages as standard.

Is multilingualism in the UK a cause for celebration, or does it raise concern about social cohesion? Why does the future of ESOL seem so politically volatile when there is little obvious cause for concern about English’s future? In a globalised age, does it become more or less important to insist on a collective, common language? Should schools encourage students from immigrant backgrounds to study their native tongue, or put more focus on the educational benefits of learning another foreign language entirely?

IMLR Director, Professor Catherine Davies, will be among the speakers at the Languages and Integration panel at the Battle of Ideas, which will be taking place at the Barbican on Saturday, 22 October 2016 from 12:00 to 13:00.

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