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With an increasing number of Polish, Welsh, Punjabi and Urdu speakers, the U.K. is becoming more international.

If I had been asked what was the second language spoken in England, I would have said, with some hesitation, French. All the jocular, and often caustic, comments made about the British approach to foreign languages would of course have come into my mind; for example: “The British don’t speak foreign languages. They just speak English more loudly.”

In reaching my hesitant answer, I would have been wrong. The correct answer is Polish. This has emerged from data from the 2011 census, just published. The data show that 546.000 residents in England and Wales speak Polish. This is, clearly, a reflection of the very international nature of the United Kingdom, and of the fact that movement between countries of the European Union is easy.

The statisticians dealing with the census data analysed responses to the question “What is your main language” and identified 49 main languages, each with more than 15.000 speakers.

In Wales, not surprisingly, the main language after English was Welsh. After English, Welsh and Polish, which languages come next in the “speaking order”? Faced with that question, I would have been just as wrong as I was about Polish. The answer is Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati, with a total of nearly one million people.

The map of the U.K. showing which languages are most spoken in particular parts of the country does not offer many surprises. It shows, for example, that in Leicester over 11 per cent of the people speak Gujarati and in Slough just over six per cent speak Punjabi and five per cent Urdu. Both towns have long-established populations of Asian ethnic origin. Not surprisingly the greatest variety of non-English languages spoken is in London where, in all except three of the London boroughs, there are speakers of more than 100 languages other than English. This is not surprising because of the sheer size and ethnic variety of the capital. At the other extreme, in Redcar and Cleveland, in north-east England, 99.3 per cent of residents speak English as their first language.

This reference to “their first language” provides a crucial clue to what lies behind the information that I provided at the beginning of this article about the second language spoken. It is not, alas, an indication that the English have suddenly become adventurous linguists. It is simply an indication of the fact that there is a far wider variety of people of different nationalities and ethnic groups living here than was the case half a century ago.

I suspect that the situation is still that many of the British born do not speak foreign languages, but simply “English more loudly”. Could we perhaps hope that proximity to so many speakers of other languages will provide an impetus to enlarge our own linguistic skills? Sadly, I doubt it.

Significantly, most of the people living in the UK for whom English is not their first language do nevertheless speak it well. Indeed the census data show that only 1.6 per cent of residents could speak English either not well or not at all, notwithstanding the fact that 13 per cent of the population were born abroad – a percentage, incidentally, which includes me, born in India.

Inevitably some controversy has been generated by the census information on languages spoken. Possibly the strongest controversial comment came from Professor Yaron Matras from The University of Manchester’s Multilingual Manchester project. He declared: “Though yesterday’s census data provides important confirmation of Manchester’s enormous linguistic diversity, our research shows it has significantly under-represented both languages spoken and the numbers of people who speak them. We identified that our city boasts of at least 153 languages, making it one of the world’s most diverse places.”

More generally, I do not recall such detailed linguistic information being recorded in previous censuses. Relating the results to the map of the country provides a lot of interest, but not all that many surprises. I have mentioned the linguistic variety of London. Closer home, in Cambridge, apparently 1.6 per cent of the population speak Chinese. Given the fact that Cambridge has two universities — yes two, the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University — with many overseas students, that is not so surprising as it may at first seem. Walking through Cambridge you certainly hear a number of different languages spoken.

I shall end with an intriguing footnote: Tony Blair, our former Prime Minister, has been given a special award by Polish Business Leaders for helping thousands of Poles to start new lives in Britain.

E-mail: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

It is not, alas, an indication that the English have suddenly become adventurous linguists.


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