Since data from the 2011 Census were released, there has been a fair amount of discussion in the press about multilingualism. For example, in one analysis, the BBC accurately reported that of those surveyed in England and Wales, 138000 speak no English. In Languages Mapped, the Guardian displayed this in relation to the total population, showing that this is equivalent to slightly less than 0.3% of the total population. It perhaps goes less reported that in London almost 50000 people can speak no English (that’s 0.6% of the population of London). And that in Tower Hamlets, where Queen Mary, University of London is located, nearly 4000 people reportedly speak no English (that’s 1.6% of the population of Tower Hamlets).
For many people in the UK, it is these absolute numbers which are staggering.
Why is it that some people – whether it be nearly 138000 in England and Wales, 50000 in London, or almost 4000 in Tower Hamlets – speak no English?
To answer this question, it is necessary to look at immigration patterns in the UK. Globally, the UK is known as what is called a “recipient country”. This means that, for various reasons, political policies presently promote overall movement to the UK from other countries, rather than overall movement from the UK to other countries.
Therefore, understandably, another question which was asked in the Census was country of birth. Here, the Census data tell us that 13% of the population in England was born either in an EU country, like Poland, France, or Spain, or in a so-called “other country”, like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, and so on. But – and this is worth emphasising – most likely in a country where English was *not* their main language. And, rather amazingly, 37% of London’s population was born in such an EU or “other” country. Even more striking, 42% of the population in Tower Hamlets was born either in the EU or in such an “other country”.
And – this is what the Census data also tell us – many of these immigrants haven’t been here that long. Almost 2% of the total population of England arrived from outside of the UK within the last 2 years; in London, 4.5% of the population arrived within the last 2 years; and, in Tower Hamlets, just over 7% of the population arrived within two years. Here my point is that it’s really not that surprising that, given such a high amount of people who’ve actually just arrived, some have not yet learned English. Think about this just for London: 0.6% of the total population reports to not speak English, and 4.5% of the population of London has arrived in London within the last 2 years. It seems like these new arrivals might actually be doing quite a good job at learning English in those two years.
Finally – the Census data also tell us how old immigrants were when they arrived to the UK. (The Census surveyed all those 3 years and over.) Indeed, the data revealed that 1.7% of the population in England and Wales arrived between the ages of 0 and 4; 3% of the population in London arrived between the ages of 0 and 4; and 4% of the population in Tower Hamlets arrived between the ages of 0 and 4. Some of these little ones most understandably won’t yet speak English because at home they speak the language of their parents. But they will learn English, when they go to school, and start to meet other little boys and girls around the country, in the capital, and in Tower Hamlets.
So, we have some tentative answers to the question: why is it that some people here speak no English? And these answers don’t have to do with motivation or attitudes. They simply have to do with population demographics. Some people don’t speak English because they’ve “just” arrived to the UK, and young children might not yet speak English because they’re too young to have learned it – they are learning the languages their parents speak to them. But they will learn English; it just takes a bit of time.
The Census data therefore suggest that immigrants to the UK are indeed learning English (and there will be another blog related to this soon). But the data also tell us something else. They suggest that immigrants are losing the language of their heritage. Like in so many other recipient countries, children from immigrant families at one point switch from the language of their parents to English. Although approximately 13% of the population in England was most likely born in a country where English was not their main language, just under 9% of the population reported a language other than English as their main language. Similarly, although 37% of London’s population was born abroad, only 22% of the capital’s population list a language other than English as a main language. And although in Tower Hamlets 42% of the population was born abroad, only 35% of its population list a language other than English as their main language. More people come here with a language other than English as their main language than people actually report having a main language other than English. This effect – and it is standard in recipient countries – is referred to as a lack of intergenerational language transmission. We see it in other recipient countries as well, like Canada and the U.S.
I believe that there was consensus in the panel yesterday at Multilingual Capital that, at the very least, all people who’ve moved to the UK should be, if so desired, supported in their wishes to maintain the languages of their heritage. The reasons for this support are vast, and in my view, ultimately amount to human rights, but there are also practical reasons, such as to support the economic prosperity of the UK, and to maintain a more healthy population, as there are links between health and proficiency in more than one language.
For me, these are all reasons to support multilingualism. Specifically in the capital, this can be achieved, for example, through ensuring support for the maintenance and development of heritage languages alongside the parallel acquisition of English – one in no way precludes the other.
Esther de Leeuw