[lg policy] Recognise the UK as a multilingual society, say politicians and academics

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri May 24 14:57:16 EDT 2019

Recognise the UK as a multilingual society, say politicians and academics

University researchers, teachers and leading politicians came together at
the House of Commons on Wednesday 22 May, to call on policymakers to
develop a comprehensive policy that recognises the UK as a multilingual
society, and to ensure that provisions are made to protect the languages of
all citizens.

The event, organised by The University of Manchester’s Multilingual
Manchester research unit, highlighted that languages other than English are
a vital part of the cultural heritage of many British citizens and
residents. For many, they are an important skill, and an asset in
developing professional careers.

In cities in particular, recognition of language diversity is key to ensure
equal access to services, celebration of culture and traditions, and
workforce skills to support development. Languages offer important channels
through which to build bridges among communities and between nations.

Manchester is leading the way in this area, with Manchester City Council
working towards a City Language Strategy, and Manchester Museum
transforming itself into the country's first ‘multilingual museum’.

Professor Yaron Matras from Multilingual Manchester called for the Office
for National Statistics to revise the question on languages in the 2021
Census, to allow respondents to list more than one language that they use
frequently or in the home. This would identify and record the wide range of
languages spoken by UK citizens, and reflect the proportion of the current
population with multilingual skills more accurately. Currently, the Census
question only asks about a single ‘main language’ other than English and is
intended to capture data on those who are not proficient in English.

The British Academy, who were also represented at the event, has released a
statement backing the call to change the Census, saying that “the way the
questions are currently asked arguably reflects a common assumption that
monolingualism is the norm, dismissing the possibility of fluency in two or
more languages.”

Language diversity is about who we are, and what kind of society we live
in. In the current climate of increasing polarisation of the political
debate surrounding immigration, identity, and our relations with other
nations, we need to raise awareness of multilingualism as a way to build
bridges and restore confidence.

Professor Yaron Matras
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”The UK - particularly England, where there are currently no provisions for
minority languages - needs a domestic language policy that protects,
celebrates and harnesses our linguistic diversity," Yaron added.

“The strength of being able to be multilingual - of being able to share
languages - is overwhelmingly important” said Lord Blunkett of Brightside.
“We should allow Census respondents to list multiple languages that they
use frequently or in the home in order to obtain a better picture of the
country’s multilingual reality - changing the question would help to shape
provision, as well as rejoice in the languages around us."

“Languages strengthen our society,” said Shadow Immigration Minister Afzal
Khan MP, whose Manchester Gorton constituency is one of the most
linguistically diverse in the country. “We need more support for
supplementary schools, which provide an important service to promote skills
and protect cultural heritage.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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