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Up Close: 2011 Census Data on Multilingualism

20 Mar
Street logo Brick Lane, London in English and Bengali

Street logo Brick Lane, London in English and Bengali

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


Multilingual Capital: A Resource for London Communities

15 Mar


London is a multilingual capital. The most recent census results show that over 20% of Londoners use a main language other than English, far above the country’s average. Yet bilinguals face many challenges in using their languages.

Devyani Sharma and I are launching a new initiative called Multilingual Capital: A Resource for London Communities on 18 March 2013 at Queen Mary, University of London to support multilingual communities in the capital and beyond.

The primary aims of Multilingual Capital include:

  1. Engaging with London communities so that the rich linguistic diversity of the capital is accurately represented;
  2. Increasing the visibility of multilingualism in the capital so that groups impacted by multilingualism can share ideas and develop a common voice;
  3. Sharing research findings on multilingualism to ensure that relevant knowledge is disseminated to all groups impacted by, and interested in, multilingualism;
  4. Creating knowledge in the emerging research area of multilingualism through documenting language use and diversity in London and beyond.

This event will include a series of short talks by researchers in the field of multilingualism, with plenty of time for a question-answer session.

Find out more about this event here.

Esther de Leeuw

Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates

1 Sep

Noels, K. (2005). Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates. Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 62(2), 285–312.

Most of the studies discussed so far involved large numbers of bilingual participants. Such investigations are interesting because they allow for generalisations: what does the majority of a large group do? However, in relation to bilingualism, such large-scale studies often don’t account for smaller sub-groups within the majority, or outliers, i.e. for the people who don’t perform according to the group norm. When accounting for outliers, one is essentially asking the does-everyone-do-that-(and-if-not,-why)? question(s). Sometimes, if there are enough outliers in a study, a researcher might be forced to question the generalisations he or she made about the group. For example, let’s say a researcher investigates adult population X and finds that most people (sub-population X1) in population X do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. The generalisation would be, quite simply, that most people do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. But – what if – in the same population X, population X2 were also found, and population X2 comprised highly motivated adult second language learners?  In that case, especially if population X2 were rather large, the researcher would (if he or she were a thorough researcher) want to ask why population X2 was especially motivated to learn second languages, as opposed to population X1. If the researcher were then able to find a factor which determined high motivation versus low motivation in adult second language acquisition, this researcher would have made a considerable step forward in research in bilingualism.

Kimberly Noels made such a step in her investigation into so-called German “heritage” language learners. Specifically, she investigated 99 students who were registered in German classes, differentiating between those who were of German decent (=heritage language learners) and those who were not of German decent (=non-heritage language learners). Although Noels examined German, globally, heritage language learners are a relatively common phenomenon. For example, whilst growing up in Anglophone Canada, I was exposed to Dutch because my father is Dutch, and my Oma and Opa were Dutch, but I can’t claim to have learned Dutch “perfectly” as a child; I was – and probably still am – a heritage language learner of Dutch as a result of less intensive exposure to the Dutch language resulting from my own cultural background. In her study, Noels found that heritage language learners of German were more motivated to learn German – than comparable non-heritage learners of German – for reasons related to their self-identify, and their conceptualisation of their cultural heritage. Interestingly, she didn’t just find that the heritage language learners were differently motivated to learn German, she also found that they were more successful at learning German than the non-heritage language learners.

In this way, her study feeds into a large body of research linking motivation to second language acquisition, some of which indicates that, even when a language is learned late in life, highly motivated learners are able to acquire native language proficiency in a second language. Practically, an implication of Noels’ research is that if you are thinking about learning a second language in adulthood, it might be worthwhile to focus on one with which you culturally identify due to your own heritage. In that case, you could be set to learn it quite well.

Esther de Leeuw

Sociolinguistic perspectives on emerging multilingualism in urban Europe

6 Mar

Yağmur, K., & Extra, G. (2005). Sociolinguistic perspectives on emerging multilingualism in urban Europe. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 175/176, 17-40.

Until now, preceding blogs have discussed research which investigated bilingualism within individuals, examining (1) whether an individual can ever become a native speaker of a late learned L2 and (2) whether amount of L1 use influences level of proficiency in an L2. In contrast, the present blog discusses group multilingualism. Initially, Extra and Yağmur’s research will be discussed. Towards the end of the blog, reasons for European initiatives which support language diversity will be considered and related to their research.

In this article, Extra and Yağmur reveal some of the outcomes of their Multilingual Cities Project, the aims of which were to analyse the status of immigrant minority languages in six European cities: Gothenburg (Sweden), Hamburg (Germany), The Hague (Netherlands), Brussels (Belgium), Lyon (France) and Madrid (Spain). They wanted to find out, for example, which languages immigrant children speak at home and whether immigrant languages are maintained across generations. Impressively, 160 850 school children between the ages of 6 and 17 responded to their questionnaires (the younger children were helped by their teachers and members of the large research team).

Extra and Yağmur embed their research more generally into European language policy issues, addressing the question of how to deal with multilingualism in schools across Europe. A general theme in their research is that “[…] established majority groups often make strong demands on [immigrant minority] groups to assimilate and are commonly very reluctant to promote or even accept the notion of cultural diversity as a determining characteristic of an increasingly multicultural environment” (p. 24). In other words, Extra and Yağmur maintain that multilingualism is now a fact of life in Europe, so we should deal with it, rather than fight it.

The results from their questionnaires support their claim that multilingualism is presently an inevitable characteristic of Europe; apart from Madrid, the proportion of primary school children in whose homes other languages were used next to or instead of the mainstream language ranged between one third and more than half of the total population. Specifically, in Gothenburg, 36% of the examined population spoke a language at home which was not Swedish (and 75 different languages were spoken within this minority); in Hamburg, 35% of the population spoke a language at home which was not German (89 languages spoken within this minority); in The Hague, 49% of the population spoke a language at home which was not Dutch (88 languages); in Brussels, 82% spoke a language which was not Flemish (54 languages); in Lyon, 54% which was not French (66 languages); and in Madrid, 10% spoke a language which was not Spanish (56 languages). Some of the immigrant minority languages most commonly spoken in these cities were Arabic, Turkish, Polish and Russian. These numbers reflect, at least in the school aged population of the cities examined, a truly multilingual Europe, and the authors assert that this is not changing any time soon.

Extra and Yağmur then operationalized language vitality (how well a language is maintained within a language community) by calculating the average from four variables (pp.30-31): (1) Language Proficiency, the extent to which the home language is understood; (2) Language Choice, the extent to which the language is spoken at home with the mother; (3) Language Dominance, the extent to which the home language is spoken best; and (4) Language Preference, the extent to which the home language is preferred to be spoken. This operationalization is to a certain extent both unconventional (i.e. language proficiency usually depends on both understanding and producing the language) and questionable. Why is language choice derived solely from communication with the mother? Surely, this would apply less to a 17 year old than a 6 year old, and whether a child of 6 years of age has much choice in the matter at all is another question. Nevertheless, using this operationalization, Extra and Yağmur’s results suggest that Romani, Turkish, Urdu, Armenian, Russian and Albanian were some of the languages most likely to be maintained within the immigrant populations. In other words, it appears that individuals who speak these languages will be rather likely to maintain them within the profiled cities, whilst other languages will be lost across generations (unless, I note, a steady influx of speakers of the languages is maintained through immigration policies). It is not discussed why these languages are more likely to be maintained than others; but their results are interesting in that some languages appear to be “stronger” than others.

Moving on from their results, throughout their article it is either implicitly or directly argued that immigrant minority languages should not be “denied access to Europe’s celebration of language diversity” (p. 38). Extra and Yağmur quote the European Commission’s 2004-2006 Action Plan (2003) in which it is stated that “[p]romoting linguistic diversity means actively encouraging the teaching and learning of the widest possible range of languages in our schools, universities, adult education centres and enterprises. Taken as a whole, the range on offer should include the smaller European languages as well as all the larger ones, regional, minority and migrant languages as well as those with ‘national’ status, and the languages of our major trading partners throughout the world” (p. 9). Essentially, Extra and Yağmur suggest that the languages of the immigrant minority populations should be taught in schools, just like small regional minority languages (e.g. Frisian in the Netherlands) and large national European languages, such as English, are taught. In other words, they agree with the initiative of European Commission, as cited above. Relating their agreement to their results, if a large portion of the school aged population speaks, let’s say, Arabic, as is the case in Lyon, Brussels and The Hague, why not teach Arabic in these cities’ schools? Both Extra and Yağmur, as well as the European Commission, would appear to support such a change in schools (reflected in actual policies, rather than just small-scale community initiatives).

My initial question here is why the European Commission supports language diversity. What are the reasons for the policy initiatives suggested by the European Commission, which are supported by Extra and Yağmur? In order to answer this question, one should firstly study the purpose of the European Commission. As stated on their website, the European Commission’s purpose is to represent “the interests of the Union as a whole”, in contrast to the Parliament (which represents the citizens of the EU), and the Council of the European Union (which represents the governments of the individual states). So what are the interests of the European Union? Although environmental and human rights’ objectives are mentioned, it appears from the website that the European Union’s interests are largely economic in nature. “[The European Union] has delivered half a century of peace, stability, and prosperity, helped raise living standards, launched a single European currency, and is progressively building a single Europe-wide market in which people, goods, services, and capital move among Member States as freely as within one country.” The European Union is an economic community, and upholding the economic stability of the European Union is as such the primary concern of the European Commission.

Therefore, I interpret that the reasons for the policy initiatives to promote “language diversity” are rooted in the primary interest of the European Union to promote economic growth. It is not language diversity itself which is the goal of such initiatives on the part of the European Commission. In fact, language diversity is connected to economic growth; languages spoken by the European Union’s major trading partners are explicitly promoted. In practice, this means that there appears to be less of a reason to learn Bengali in Mile End, London or Somali in Easton, Bristol, because these languages will not promote economic prosperity in the European Union to the same extent that, for example, Mandarin Chinese or Hindi might. Arguably, if language diversity as such is the goal of the European Commission, all languages should be equally supported. If we accept that triaging, at least in schools, is inevitable (i.e. we can’t teach every language) then, in fact, those languages which increase economic prosperity of the European Union seem to be more likely to be “celebrated” under the auspices of “language diversity” than those which are not likely to. Indeed, it is language diversity – if it facilitates economic growth – which is implicitly supported by the European Commission.

Finally, is it valid to premise language diversity on economic growth (and this is what I claim is actually done in the European Commission’s 2004-2006 Action Plan, as discussed above)? Should the learning of a language which might promote economic growth somehow be more worthwhile than one which does so to a lesser, or even negligible, extent? I don’t think so. Each child, each person, learns languages for different reasons. Sometimes these reasons are simple: it is the language I spoke with my siblings and parents. Sometimes the reasons are complex: it is the language a distant relative spoke, but I’ve always wanted to learn; it is the language of my heritage, which I was not allowed to speak as a child (e.g. indigenous languages in Canada and other countries founded on European colonization); it is the language of my new partner, and I want to communicate with his or her family; or, perhaps more rationally, it is the language which I believe represents knowledge and learning (Latin). There is a point to the Commission’s Action Plan in that, often, the reasons to learn a new language are associated with economic growth. Parents search for new opportunities for their children, and in doing so, want to make those opportunities accessible through language. But, in my opinion, it should not be the case that economic reasons trump non-economic reasons. Each person learns new languages for different reasons and no reason is more valid than the next. It is language diversity itself which should be supported both within Europe and beyond.

Esther de Leeuw

Amount of L1 use affects L2 pronunciation

18 Jan

Flege, J. E., Frieda, E. M., & Nozawa, T. (1997). Amount of native-language (L1) use affects the pronunciation of an L2. Journal of Phonetics, 25(2), 169-186.

This study is presently a bit dated, but its results, at least to a certain extent, challenge some potentially misguided conceptions regarding childhood bilingualism. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to discuss their findings.

Flege, Frieda and Nozawa examined 240 Italian native speakers (the researchers call them native speakers because they learned Italian first, in Italy) who were adults living in Anglophone Canada at the time of the experiment. The Italian native speakers were assessed by native English speakers in Canada and the U.S. as to how strong of an Italian accent was present in their English. Essentially, Flege et al. wanted to find out whether some of the Italian native speakers had stronger Italian accents in their English than others, and why such differences might arise.

They split the Italian native speakers into two groups: the first, having less contact with Italian (self-reported average of 3%) and the second, having more contact with Italian (self-reported average of 36%). What makes the study interesting is that all of the Italian native speakers moved to Canada in early childhood (between 5.6 and 5.9 years), the assumption being that they were all exposed to English for the first time at this early age (e.g. in school).

The results revealed that both groups were found to have “mild” (p.183) but detectable foreign accents in their English, even though they had all started learning English at very young ages and had spoken English for 34 years on average. Crucially, the native Italian speakers who spoke Italian relatively more often had significantly stronger foreign accents in their English than those who seldom spoke Italian. These results are fundamental in our understanding of childhood bilingualism because they challenge the view that ultimate success in pronouncing an L2 is determined solely by an individual’s state of neurological development at the time of first exposure to an L2, or, put alternatively, they challenge the relatively commonly held view that pronunciation in an L2 is determined simply by age. Flege, Frieda and Nozawa say it’s not.

The study also raises a lot of questions: (1) do the findings apply to all individuals who learn an L2 in childhood? (2) are there other factors, aside from age and use, which might also influence pronunciation in an L2 (3) what was the L1 pronunciation like? More on questions like this in future blogs!

Esther de Leeuw