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

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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.

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