Anthropology: Bilingualism and the Value of Languages in the United Kingdom

There are approximately 33 billion bilingual people in the world (43% of the total global population). Although only 6% of Brits say they can speak a second language proficiently, over a third (36%) of adults living in the United Kingdom are bilingual or can speak more than one language fluently. The UK is increasingly multilingual, with 1 in 5 primary school children in England speaking English as an additional language. This is more than double the number in 1997, and possibly an underestimate of the actual proportion of multilingual children in the UK. This article will explore bilingualism, multilingualism, and the value of languages to UK society and culture.

Bilingualism and multilingual societies

In today’s world, bilingualism (fluency in two languages) and multilingualism (communicating effectively in three or more languages) are common phenomena. According to Paulston and Tucker (2003), there are more bilingual or multilingual people in the world than monolinguals (speaking one language only).

Most societies today are multilingual, though multilingualism is not always recognized by public institutions. Bilingual and multilingual societies exist because populations of many countries consist of regional minorities that speak their own (native) language. In border areas, populations usually speak the language of the neighboring country. While in ex-colonial states, a former colonial language often continues to be used as the official language of the state. Meanwhile, for everyday communication, people tend to use tribal or ethnic languages. (The University of Manchester).

Some of the most famous bilingual and multilingual societies are in Belarus, Belgium, Canada, India, Ireland, South Africa, and Switzerland. Countries such as Brazil, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Spain, and Taiwan have official languages but also have regional and local official languages.

Image of a sign written in different languages
Multilingual sign outside the mayor’s office in Novi Sad, Serbia. The four official languages in Novi Sad are Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, and Pannonian Rusyn (wikipedia.org)

Bilingualism and multilingualism in the United Kingdom

The term ‘United Kingdom’ can be confusing for those who are new to the UK. The United Kingdom consists of four countries – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. As a result of this, there are naturally different languages, dialects, and accents spoken in the UK.

There are about 37 dialects in the United Kingdom. Different parts of the UK use colloquial terms which have been so developed that they sound like a different language. Consequently, different towns and often different parts of those towns have their own version of spoken English.  Thus, bilingualism and multilingualism are some of the many features that make the UK culture and society one of the most unique in the world.

graph illustrating the percentage of bilingual individuals in the UK
Diagram illustrating the percentage of bilingual people in the UK (based on a survey of 2,000 adults) (preply.com)

Languages in the United Kingdom

Of course, English is the most common language that is spoken in the UK, with varying accents. English is the official language throughout the UK, but it is especially prevalent in England. There are 49.8 million (92%) UK residents who speak English and the majority can speak English ‘well’ or ‘very well’ (Turner, 2022). Other languages spoken in the UK include Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Jarriais, Guernesiais, and Sercquiais, British Sign Language. However, there is little official recognition of those languages within England. Some dialects have died out over the years, therefore regional differences are mostly in the pronunciation rather than in grammar or vocabulary.

Coloured illustrated map of different accents spoken in the United Kingdom
Map of the various accents in the British isles (anglotopia.net)

Irish Gaelic

Irish Gaelic is a Celtic language spoken by approximately 138 thousand people in Ireland as a first language. Over a million people speak Irish Gaelic as a second language in Ireland. The language has three major dialects – Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. In Northern Ireland (part of the UK), many people speak in the Donegal dialect (Turner, 2022).

Illustration of a map of the Irish-speaking regions of Ireland and different dialects
Map of different Irish dialects used in different areas of Ireland (wikipedia.org)

Scottish Gaelic

Scottish Gaelic is also known as Scots Gaelic, or simply Gaelic. It is another Celtic language that is native to the Gaels of Scotland. Gaelic came to Scotland along with the Irish settlers who settled in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland (discoverhighlands.co.uk). Thus, it developed out of Old Irish. As the Gaels spread, Gaelic became considered the language of Scotland. It became a spoken language in the 13th century. Many road signs and train stations are written in both English and Scottish Gaelic. According to the 2011 census of Scotland, 57,375 people speak Gaelic (Turner, 2022).

Colored image of Scottish border sign Welcoming to Scotland in two languages
Scottish border sign welcoming people in English and Gaelic (discoverhighlands.co.uk)

Welsh

Welsh is a Brythonic language that flourished and became the language of culture, law, and everyday communication. It is native to the Welsh people and spoken in Wales as well as in some communities in England. It is one of the oldest languages in Europe. Approximately 30% of people in Wales are able to speak Welsh (Annual Population Survey, 2022).  Just like in Scotland, many road signs and train stations in Wales are bilingual.

Image of a sign in Wales written in Welsh and English
Bilingual social distancing sign in Wales (dailypost.co.uk)

Manx

Manx is also known as Manx Gaelic or Manks. It is a Celtic language and the indigenous language of the Manx people from the Isle of Man (United Kingdom). The language was spoken by the majority of inhabitants of the Isle of Man until the 19th century when it was displaced by English. Manx is closely related to the easternmost dialects of Irish and to Scottish (Britannica). There were various attempts to preserve the language in the 20th and 21st centuries when Manx was on the brink of extinction. In 2015, 1,800 people could speak Manx to different degrees (Turner, 2022).

Cornish

Cornish is a revived language in Cornwall (United Kingdom) that became extinct at the end of the 18th century. It evolved from the Common Brittonic language that was spoken throughout the large majority of Great Britain before the English language arrived to dominate. In the early 20th century, a revival began resulting in approximately 3,000 people being able to communicate in Cornish. Thanks to this, there are some Cornish textbooks being published and other literature. In addition to this, there are films and music in Cornish. Many people are also studying the language.

Jarriais, Guernesiais, and Sercquiais

Norman-French is spoken in parts of the British Isles. Each of the Channel Islands has its own native dialect, closely related to the dialects spoken in Normandy. Jersey has Jarriais, Guernsey has Guernesiais, and Sark has Sercuiais. Despite this, English is still the dominant language in the British Isles. Only about 3% of people living in Jersey are able to speak Jerriais, 3% of Sark residents can speak Sercquiais, and only 2% of people living in Guernsey can speak Guernesiais.

British Sign Language

British Sign Language is used by approximately 151,000 people in the UK. British Sign Language has many dialects that vary depending on the region. As a result of this, certain signs used in Scotland, for example, may not be understood by those in Southern England, and so on. Many British television channels broadcast programs with in-vision signing, using British Sign Language. In addition to this, there are separate programs that are aimed at deaf people.

illustration showing British Sign Language, spelling "BSL"
“BSL” in British Sign Language (wikipedia.org)

Foreign languages taught in British schools

Finally, many UK citizens can speak or understand to a degree a second language that they have learned during their secondary education, or primary education. Of course, some people learn languages on their own, privately, for various reasons. The main languages taught in schools in the UK are French, German, and Spanish.

In addition to this, some schools offer a wider range of foreign languages that reflect the multicultural and multilingual nature of the UK. Some additional languages taught in schools today are Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Panjabi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. 

Immigrant languages in the United Kingdom

Furthermore, there are immigrant communities all over the UK. Immigrants have brought many additional languages to the country. The most common immigrant languages in the UK are Polish, Punjabi, Hindustani, Bengali, Gujarati, Arabic, French, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Tamil, Turkish, Italian, Somali, Lithuanian, German, Persian. Philippine languages, and Romanian.

For many immigrants in multilingual communities, different languages serve different functions. For example, one language is used for informal communication within the group, another for inter-ethnic communication, and another for the public domain, like education, media, and institutions.

Image showing that information on the National Health Service website in the UK can be accessed in different languages
Health information in the UK is often available in different languages and in an Easy-Read format, so it can be understood by minorities (dbth.nhs.uk)

The value of languages and multilingualism in the United Kingdom

Language diversity is a significant feature of UK society. It reflects the multicultural nature of today’s Britain. It is a strength to be able to be multilingual. It strengthens society by promoting skills and protecting the cultural heritage of different groups within the United Kingdom.

Bilingualism and multilingualism are beneficial to individuals and have been researched by Peal and Lambert in 1962. According to their findings, “intellectually [the bilingual child’s] experience with two language systems seems to have left him [or her] with mental flexibility, a superiority in concept formation, a more diversified set of mental abilities.”

Some studies from the 1970s and 80s suggest that people who speak more than one language are better at problem-solving, meta-linguistic awareness, and critical thinking. They have been evidenced to have enhanced cognitive skills in the brain’s frontal lobes, thus supporting high-level thought, memory, attention, and multitasking (Sutton, 2021).

More recently, there has been an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that languages and multilingualism are significant for framing perception and offering an alternative vision of the world. Athanasopoulos et al. (2015), have argued that people can “listen to music from only one speaker, or you can listen in stereo. It’s the same with language” (Athanasopoulos et al. in Sutton, 2021).

Bilingualism and wellbeing

Moreover, it is important for young people to maintain their native language, as there is evidence that communication within the family is the main predictor of young people’s wellbeing. Young people are likely to report feeling satisfied with life if their parents have the main meal with them and spend time just talking with them. Parental support in the form of talking and listening has been found to be positively associated with life satisfaction. It is especially important for young people who speak English as an additional language to be encouraged to communicate in their native language and continue to speak the native language at home.

Benefits of bilingualism for wider society

Clearly, the value of bilingualism is beneficial to individuals who are bilingual. However, bilingualism is also important and advantageous for the wider society. Languages help people make sense of the world, and are the main feature of our cultural and social identities. Languages play a significant role in our history and experiences, whether individual or shared (Sutton, 2021).

Bilingualism and multilingualism allow people to be culturally sensitive. It opens people’s minds and creates bridges between cultures and people. People from different linguistic groups are able to engage with others better if they are bilingual (Sutton, 2021). They find it easier to engage in interpersonal communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries. This, in turn, reinforces the connections within and between different communities (Chen and Padilla, 2019).

Problems faced by bilinguals

Along with all the benefits of multilingual societies, there are problems that are caused by multilingualism. According to Coulmas (2013), these problems can be found at the individual and societal levels. For example, many individuals find it confusing which language to use on a daily basis. Thus, people who speak more than one language often switch back and forth between languages (this is known as code-switching). Very often, this leads bilinguals to blend languages, making it hard for other people to understand.

In addition to this, people who speak more than one language often become less competent in languages that they don’t use often enough (Holmes, 1993). For example, if immigrants sometimes speak in their native language with family back home, and increasingly start using additional language that is dominant at school, in the media, etc., they are more likely to experience language loss. This can lead to miscommunication whenever they use their native language.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Bilingualism and languages, in general, play an important role in understanding culture. Speaking and encouraging other languages allows people to better understand and appreciate other cultures. As research suggests, bilinguals are often more welcoming of diversity (cultural and linguistic) than monolinguals.

Moreover, bilingual and multilingual individuals, as well as bicultural societies, allow Anthropologists to better understand multiculturalism and how people adapt to the challenges of living in multicultural contexts.

 

References:

Annual Population Survey (2022) Ability to Speak Welsh by Local Authority and Year. Available: (gov.wales)

Britannica. Manx Language. Available: Manx language | Britannica

Chen, X. and Padilla, A. M. (2019) Role of Bilingualism and Biculturalism as Assets in Positive Psychology: Conceptual Dynamic GEAR Model. Front. Psychol. Available:  Psychology (frontiersin.org)

Coulmas, F. (2013) Sociolinguistics: The Study of Speakers’ Choices. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Gaelic – Language of the Highland Gael. Available: Gaelic the language of the Highland Gael – Discover Highlands

Holmes, J. (1993). Immigrant Women and Language Maintenance in Australia and New Zealand. International Journal of Applied Linguistics.

Paulston, Ch., Tucker, R. (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. 1st Ed. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Backwell. 301

Peal, E. and Labert, W. E. (1962) The Relation of Bilingualism to Intelligence. 76 (27). Psychological Monographs: General and Applied. Available: PsycNET (apa.org)

Sutton, K. (2021) Insight, Research, and Linguistics. Available: cambridge.org

The University of Manchester. Multilingual Societies. Available: Language Contact Manchester

Turner, G. (2022) Languages in the UK. Available: expatica.com

 

4 thoughts on “Anthropology: Bilingualism and the Value of Languages in the United Kingdom

  1. Awesome article! I am currently teaching myself British Sign Language to communicate better with an acquaintance of mine. Thanks for bringing this topic to light.

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