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