Languages in the United Kingdom: Status, roles and public perception 

Henry Pickup


It is widely assumed that the English language enjoys a hegemonic status within the United Kingdom, mirroring its spread across the globe. However, there are increasing concerns within the country that the status of English is meeting a challenge in the form of increasing immigration. It seems there may well be a gap between public perception and reality. Language plays a crucial role in education, and whether or not a pupil or parent speaks a language can determine whether they are included or excluded. Another commonly-held fear in the United Kingdom is that the status of the English language is being undermined by language change. This is not a new phenomenon and it can be argued that language change is both impossible to prevent and potentially beneficial. The second most commonly spoken indigenous language in the United Kingdom is Welsh, which has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years. This is the case both in terms of its official status and the increasing numbers of learners. Looking forward, neither the status nor role of these languages can be seen as a foregone conclusion.

Key words: English, Welsh, status, roles, attitudes


A great number of words have been written on the growth of importance of the English language in countries across the world. This is with good reason, as there are estimated to be one and a half billion learners of the language worldwide, a total that is greater than the combined number of people learning the next six most common foreign languages to study. (Ulrich Ammon, University of Dusseldorf, Population Reference Bureau as cited in The Washington Post, 2015). However, this article will focus on language within the United Kingdom, specifically the usage and position of English and Welsh, and the way that people see them. These are the two most widely spoken ‘indigenous’ languages in the United Kingdom, and thus seemed natural choices for discussion. There are a multitude of aspects that could be considered in relation to the topic, and it would be difficult to address them all comprehensively. For this reason, I have chosen to pay particular attention to the area of education, a topic about which there is much to discuss.


Increasing immigration and the English language

According to Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009), the English language is spoken as a first language by an overwhelming majority of the population of the United Kingdom, with the figure being listed at 56,600,000 people at the date of the last census in 2011. Despite this seemingly invincible position of strength, there are fears among certain sections of society relating to the growth in the local population of speakers of other languages. In recent years, there have been a plethora of articles in the British press decrying the number of first languages spoken by students in British schools, with one columnist in The Daily Express even pointing to a school in Peterborough, at which none of the children had English as a first language, as a symbol for all of Britain’s ills (Hill, 2013). It is certainly the case that the number of people living in the UK born overseas has increased substantially in the last decade, from 5.3 million to 8.6 million people, or from 8.9% to 13.3% of the wider population, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (2016, p.5-7). This will undoubtedly be reflected in the growth in the number of first languages spoken within Britain’s classrooms. Whether or not this has a positive or negative effect on the level of schooling, or upon the status of the English language within the classroom is unclear. However, it seems likely that public perceptions have been, and will continue to be, affected by the media coverage given to this topic. 


The role of language in education

The classroom would seem to be fundamental in helping to assuage or proliferate any fears relating to increasing multiculturalism. For Cantle (2005, p.221), the role of schools in breaking down barriers in society and reducing segregation between communities is critical. He points out that beyond the effect on pupils, schools can be instrumental in providing a link which brings parents from different communities together (2005, p.195-196). If schools can play a positive role in helping to propagate a successful multicultural society, then it follows that it is also possible for the opposite to be true. Interactions with difference can be experienced both positively and negatively. Connolly (2002, p.125) refers to the sense of intimidation felt by primary school children as a result of not being able to understand the languages used by some of the other pupils at their school. Conversely, Blackledge (1999, p.186) highlights the sense of exclusion felt by members of the Bangladeshi community in Birmingham as a result of their English language deficiencies. He mentions the fact that poor school performances among minority students are often assumed to be a result of lack of ability or effort on the part of pupils or their parents, but argues that schools fail to recognise or utilise the level of literacy of pupils or parents in other languages (1999, p.179) The medium of instruction in British schools is largely English, referred to by Blackledge (1999, p.186) as “the linguistic capital”, through which all spoken transactions in school take place. It must be noted that this article is not particularly recent, and so is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the relationship between schools and members of minority communities as they are at present. Far more recently, however, Wilson (2014, p.104) has written about the barriers caused by the lack of a common language which prevent minority group parents from participating fully in school activities and from building relationships with parents from other communities. This does suggest that the situation may not have changed so much in the past fifteen years.


Language change

A second fear associated with the English language held within the United Kingdom is the issue of change within the language itself. On the face of it, this would seem to be an irrational panic considering the aforementioned growth in popularity of the English language globally. Graddol (2006 pp.58-59) describes the way in which the narrative surrounding the language is constructed in Britain as a victory for English over other rival languages, enabling it to spread unstoppably across the globe. However, as a language grows outwards, its nature can also change. Crystal (2012, p.147) points to the examples of American and Australian English as variants and suggests that the future changes in the English language are very difficult to predict, especially as the language is now taking hold in an increasing number of countries in which speakers have other first languages. It is this uncertainty that leads to the insecurity felt by native speakers. Widdowson (1994, p.377) sees native speakers as jealous guardians of the English language, attempting to shield it from any outside influence. He contends that the future development of English is not the exclusive concern of native speakers from any particular country, that they have ceded ownership of the language to the world as a whole (1994, p.385). Aitchison (2001, pp.4-9) makes the salient point that fears among native speakers of English about the health of the language are nothing new, making reference to publications throughout the twentieth century, and drawing parallels with eighteenth century writers bemoaning the perceived pollution of the English language. This is certainly of relevance as it shows that the feeling of language degradation predates the ascension of English to its status as global language and adoption by societies worldwide. Perhaps this phenomenon owes more to a feeling of nostalgia than to any real threat. Graddol (2006, p.116) makes reference to the nature of the English language as being constantly in a state of flux, evolving and borrowing from other languages and benefitting all the while from this process. He contrasts this with other languages, such as French, which national governments have sought to regulate through official bodies. For Aitchison (2001, p.257), this attempt to put a stop to change in language is futile, pointing to the fact that it has failed to have any meaningful impact upon spoken usage. It would certainly seem that any attempt to preserve language in a fixed state would be a fruitless endeavour.


The status of the Welsh language

It is easy to forget that English is not the original language of the islands which today make up the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is a relative newcomer in comparison to the Celtic languages which had coexisted prior to its arrival. According to Penhallurick (2007, p.152), although English had arrived in Britain earlier, it did not make any real intrusion into Wales until approximately eight hundred years ago, in the shape of Norman progress into Welsh territory. He describes its growing adoption within Wales from this point through the following centuries until the late nineteenth century, from which point onwards it has replaced Welsh as the language of the majority in Wales. Due to this gradual linguistic usurpation, it seems practical to view the health of the Welsh language as existing in opposition to that of the English language. Indeed, Thomas (1971, p.31) speaks humorously of the contrast between the ways in which Welsh and English speakers view their native language; for the former, an “obsession” which needs to be continually looked after, and to the latter, a “tool”. This seems unsurprising; finding oneself in the minority often lends itself towards feelings of insecurity, whereas finding oneself in the majority can lead to complacency. Despite this sense of English domination, Davies (2014, p.123) points out that with the passing in 2011 of a measure enshrining Welsh as an official language in Wales, it has in fact become the sole de jure official language within the United Kingdom, unlike English which does not enjoy the same legal status. This can be taken as a symbol of strength of the Welsh language, although the fact that the language is seen as needing legal protection, suggests it is perceived as being threatened.


The number of speakers of Welsh

The trajectory of the Welsh language has changed considerably in the last half century. In the 1960s, many were predicting its imminent death, typified by Saunders Lewis speech ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ of 1962, in which he warned that the Welsh language could “cease to exist as a living language towards the beginning of the twenty-first century…Nothing can change that fact except determination, will power, struggle, sacrifice and effort.” (Lewis as cited in Johnes 2012, p.221).  By around this time, Penhallurick (2007, p.152), tells us that only a quarter of the Welsh population spoke Welsh. Any effort to chart the growth or decline of the Welsh language since then must take into account demographic shifts. Principally, that as the older generation of Welsh speakers die, it is impossible to immediately replace them. This makes any analysis of overall numbers of Welsh speakers superficial. It seems, therefore, more fruitful to focus on the numbers of younger learners, and the number of children receiving Welsh medium education. From the most recent data (Welsh Government, 2016), it can be seen that 23.9% of primary school children and 19.8% of secondary were receiving Welsh medium education in January 2016, which shows a slight increase in both categories over the last decade from 20.5% and 15.2% respectively in 2006 (Welsh Government, 2009). Beyond this, it is compulsory for all pupils to learn Welsh until the age of sixteen, cited by Coupland et al (2010, p.157) as evidence of support for the language from political institutions. Education can clearly be seen as an arena in which to propagate the Welsh language, something which evidence suggests has been taken seriously by the Welsh assembly. The question must be asked as to whether or not Welsh transcends the classroom for most young learners. Johnes (2012, p.430) makes the point that levels of knowledge of the Welsh language are not reflected in the levels of usage in everyday life, that English is “often the dominant language in the playground at Welsh-medium schools” and that the majority of Welsh-speaking children did not speak the language within the home. Be that as it may, it seems likely that the significant level of young Welsh learners will have an effect on language spoken outside of school. This may not be noticeable immediately, but Welsh may gradually grow in its influence in everyday life, as more and more of the Welsh population are exposed to the Welsh language in their education.



To conclude, neither the English or Welsh language can be seen as having certain, fixed roles in the United Kingdom. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the English language worldwide, there are apprehensions as to the change that is taking place within the language and to the significant and growing population of those who don’t speak English as a first language. These are both realities for which there is statistical evidence, but I contend that neither are necessarily bad things. As for the Welsh language, it enjoys far greater official recognition than ever before, due to its legal status, and the number of children who are learning Welsh and attending Welsh-medium schools. It is beyond the official domain where the uncertainty as to the status of the Welsh language lies.



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Blackledge, A. (1999) Language, Literacy and Social Justice: The Experiences of Bangladeshi Women in Birmingham, UK. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 20(3), 179-193. 

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Wilson, H. F. (2014). Multicultural learning: parent encounters with difference in a Birmingham primary school. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(1), 102-114.

(Henry Pickup has taught as an English Language Teacher for the last four years, in South Korea and Vietnam as well as his native United Kingdom. He is currently enrolled on a Master’s programme in English Language Teaching at the University of Warwick. A main area of research interest is classroom motivation, both with regard to the teacher and student, as well as the relationship between the two).



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