The linguistic riches of London's children

From the University College London lunchtime lecture given by Reinier Salverda, the professsor of Dutch language and literature

Share

Over the last 40 years, great waves of globalisation, migration and tourism have led to a vastly increased mobility of products and people, and of the languages and cultures they bring with them. The result has been a strong surge of multilingualism, especially in large urban areas such as Moscow, Jakarta and New York. In Amsterdam today, for example, some 180 different languages are spoken.

Over the last 40 years, great waves of globalisation, migration and tourism have led to a vastly increased mobility of products and people, and of the languages and cultures they bring with them. The result has been a strong surge of multilingualism, especially in large urban areas such as Moscow, Jakarta and New York. In Amsterdam today, for example, some 180 different languages are spoken.

In London, about 25 per cent of schoolchildren speak something other than English at home, and that something can be extremely varied. Precise numbers may be difficult to establish, but at the latest count no fewer than 300 languages are spoken in Greater London, by more than 850,000 children across all 32 boroughs.

The great advantage of having these data is that we can now begin to address further issues. The key question that arises is: What is one to do when faced with such an enormous linguistic diversity?

A linguist in London today awaits a task that is of a totally different magnitude and complexity to that of Professor Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion - who claimed that he could place any man by his accent within six miles, but in London within two miles, sometimes even within two streets. But what is a teacher to do when he or she comes across a single speaker of a language as exotic as Akan, Igbo, Acholi, Ga or Lingala? Just establishing the name of the language can already be a quite daunting task.

But the work does not stop there, and a full linguistic audit may be necessary - but how is an untrained teacher to do this? Then again, how does he or she find further information about a particular language? What other resources and support systems are available? Where and how can one contact other speakers of the language in question?

Then again, once communication is established, how do we deal with the mental and cultural universe that comes with the language these children speak at home - a language that may bring along a different sense of the world, of play and fair play, of food, health, music, of meanings and stories, of values and beliefs?

A helpful answer to at least some of these questions is offered by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, which, in addition to its linguistic expertise, also offers an excellent library, a good website, and an on-line Community Languages Bulletin with useful resource lists. There is also the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, maintained by the Institute of Linguists, which has published a useful reference work, Dalby's Dictionary of 400 Languages. Other useful resources are the university departments in languages in London.

Going beyond the level of resources, we may observe that many of the 850,000 schoolchildren mentioned above will not only acquire English but will also retain their own language. They will thus become bi- or even multilingual.

Such bilingualism can offer a great many advantages and benefits, and many people may come to profit from it, both intellectually and economically. Who knows: given the appropriate training and education, the only speaker of Tok Pisin in north London could one day go on to become a leading linguist, or a doctor, or an educationalist, a businessman or a writer, either in Papua Nugini or here in London.

As for the benefits of bilingualism in general, Colin Baker, a leading expert in this field, has stated that "knowing two languages frees the child from thinking the name is the object and the object the name." Bilingualism encourages richness of thought. With different associations attached to similar words in different languages, the bilingual child may be able to think more creatively. We should, therefore not waste but, on the contrary, nurture and develop the linguistic talents of these schoolchildren.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform