The Secret Languages of Great Britain (with Simon Ager from Omniglot)

languages of britain

Episode 37 is brought to you by italki, where you can find a language partner for any language. We tested it with rare languages like Icelandic, and it totally delivered. Get an awesome free lesson deal at italki.

Today's Topic: Multilingual Britain

Britain is not monolingual at all, but in fact it is teeming with languages. In this episode, we present you the real landscape of languages spoken in the British Isles.

Can you guess how many languages are indigenous to this country?

We discovered some amazing things, not lastly you'll NEVER guess what Irish and Spanish bears have in common!

You'll be surprised to find that more than 2 million people in the UK speak British languages other than English. Here is a quick summary of the bigger groups of languages spoken in the UK - not just British languages, but also the immigrant languages most popular in the UK today, for example Polish, Gujarati and Urdu.

Listen to our podcast episode to get a wonderful tour of the British languages, including:

  • What does it take to keep a minority language alive?
  • Did you know there was a Scots dictionary - and how it's influenced the English language?
  • Our pondering of the true official languages of Great Britain
  • Turns out children really are the future when it comes to reviving languages that don't have native speakers anymore, for example Cornish

Lindsay does some amazing demonstrations of the Scottish language and accent. And Kerstin says her first "goodbye" in Welsh!

Which British Languages Did You Know?

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Beautiful Gallery Images from my Multilingual Forest Surprise

Sometimes we don't have to look very far at all to discover a multilingual gem right on our doorstep. On Sunday, I took a trip to Beacon Fell, a beautiful forest and hill in the Forest of Bowland, for an autumn walk. I love it when the leaves turn yellow and orange and the last of the sun wants our attention.

The Forest is celebrating its 50th anniversary as an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" this year (it really is beautiful), and they currently have a little art exhibition right in the forest to celebrate. I got a little lost looking for the first stone of Geraldine Pilgrim's "Beauty", but when I finally found it I was excited to see that I got a special treat. The word "Beauty" is etched into stepping stones in the forest floor in various languages, placed along a trail that leads you into the forest to a special area of contemplation.

Here is a glimpse of the exhibition. You can catch it until 9 November if you are visiting Northern England.

I would love to hear about special places that you have found in your own area.

Where can you find international signs, exhibitions or other multilingual beauty?

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State of the Nation: Nation's in a state!

One of the most persistent phrases showing just how wrong the UK can get its attitude to language learning is "this nation is just rubbish at language learning". I come across it all the time, and in fact started this blog as a way of battling that very myth. You know what I believe: Nobody is rubbish at language learning. Just look at the language café report!

State of the Nation

I think a sentence that might be closer to the truth is "this nation (and it's government) is not that interested in language learning". One place where you can really see the roots of this is in the education system and policies. I wrote about it previously in "The Age Myth strikes again" and today I want to share the findings of a report by the British Academy. They looked into demand and supply of language skills in the UK in a very detailed report, and here's what they found:

  • The demand for language skills is rising all around the world, yet the UK is suffering from a growing deficit. What this means is that when a company does need skills in foreign languages, they'll rather teach their own experts a language than advertise for a linguist right from the start. This in turn makes languages less attractive because students are worried about future employment. Vicious circle complete.

  • Language teaching is just not good enough - the range is too small, the courses are only offered to some kind of "elite", and the uptake is often low. In Wales (a bilingual country!) only 3% of GCSE subject entries are in foreign languages.

  • The country produces great language experts, but those don't have an opportunity to develop other skills. The language courses are taught in isolation and so often they focus on travel and basic conversation, not workplace skills, customer service or management.

  • The government is operating way differently to what the job and cultural markets actually need!

Positive signs?

There are some encouraging and positive points in the report as well, such as the great attitudes from employers towards languages. They really need and value them. The case studies are big companies like B&Q, Gatwick Airport but also interesting small and medium sized enterprises like New Era Aquaculture.

The overall message is clear though: The government should really have another look at encouraging, promoting and facilitating language learning. Every now and then a good news item comes out, for example the English Baccalaureate seems to be slowly bringing on some more focus on languages - but at the same time that article mentions anti-European sentiments. And the attitudes you encounter can be even worse, need I really mention the Daily Mail here...Can we just not make any progress?!

What you can do

You don't have to become a polyglot to support language learning in the UK. Easy steps to take might just be to think about what's available beyond British borders. German statesman Willy Brand famously said that if you are buying, he'll speak English. But if you are selling, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen! And perhaps consider what your kids are being told at school - if you have to be great at French to even be offered a second language, I believe that is just plain wrong!

In other words, languages are great for business, great for Britain and great for all learners. I wonder what those from other English speaking countries like the USA will say to this?

The Age Myth strikes again

English politics deserves a monarchy of misconceptions sometimes. Their “dire record on language learning” is “laid bare” for the whole world to see (as described in this article in The Independent), so journalists and politicians have sat down and taken a serious look at what could possibly have caused this bleak state.

I have previously tried my best to go myth busting on Fair Languages and on the Fluent Language blog. The equation younger learners = better language learners = not true. There are many things at play that make language teaching successful. Let's see how many factors Great Britain's ministers pay attention to:
We are addressing the chronic lack of attention paid to foreign languages in schools. It is vital young people start studying a language at an earlier age. That is why from next year we are ensuring that children learn a language from age seven.
— Spokesman for UK Dept of Education

That’s right, it's only the most popular language learning myth. If they just taught everybody foreign languages a year earlier, then we’d hit the magic age (seems they have decided that it’s seven – obviously seven), brains would click into gear and Britain’s new generation of polyglots would surely rule the world.

Image credit:  striatic  on Flickr

Image credit: striatic on Flickr

On Red Herrings

As a tutor who works with students from age 8 to age 60, I can see on a daily basis that the age at which someone starts learning a foreign language is not an essential factor in their ability. I teach 21 year old Chinese students, who learn German with more dedication and enthusiasm than many young kids do in our schools.

Yes, children are the future. That doesn’t mean they are the place where we adults should look for every problem to be fixed. If you want a whole generation to become impressive language learners, you have to BELIEVE in it. Changing the age, changing the language choice or making any other superficial adjustment- those are red herrings, cosmetic cover-ups invented by politicians who want to make the nation look better.

But the real noble goal should come from the inside. School children, teenagers and adult learners should love language learning because they can see what it can do for them. We need more role models who celebrate other languages, more parents encouraged to learn, more politicians. Foreign language learning is fuelled by the knowledge that there is more to the world than what we can see. It’s about the lure of another world and the belief that language is power.

Speak to the Future

The Speak to the Future campaign in the UK could be a place to look for well thought out ideas on fixing the “dire record”. They didn’t need a study to show them what was obvious: that Britain’s lawmakers need new inspiration for a fresh start in languages, and that we need to break out of believing in misconceptions.

You can also read this article on the great Fair Languages website.