British Studies Web Pages

Multilingual World



We had a lot of problems making a final decision about what to call this issue. Can you separate language from culture? - You cannot. Can you separate those UK inhabitants whose cultural and linguistic roots lie in Britain from those whose do not? - You cannot. Neither languages nor cultures can be separated from one another wherever they are - so Multilingual World became our title. Multilingual and multicultural are always very close and you will find much from our items on both, especially in Multilingual UK - the power of Babel. For classroom activities to introduce your learners to the theme see Multilingual classroom activities and each chapter is followed by a set of activities by the well-known coursebook writer Alan Pulverness author of Changing Skies soon to be published in Poland.

The topic perfectly fits the intercultural approach we follow - not only is Britain itself multilingual but English is the second language of some countries (notably India and Nigeria) and an active first foreign language in many others. We are very fortunate in being able to reproduce from David Crystal A Language Revolution, an article which explores the current role of English with regard to dying languages. In addition we have a review of his book, Language Death.

Some history

A sense of history is especially important for this theme. Although the UK has become much more multicultural (and therefore multilingual) recently it has always had a variety of native languages. Poland before the war was also strongly multilingual - it is said that a century ago as many as seven different languages could be heard on the streets of Suwa³ki. For a present day perspective on Belarusian see An interview with Oleg £atyszonek while you can find articles on Kaszubia from our past issues by clicking here and here. Polish history is especially complex on this issue both as a dominated and a dominating language at different times. Language is never far from power and politics.

The intentional suppression of cultures and languages was widespread in the past and the UK has rather a shameful record which it is still struggling to come to terms with - attitudes of guilt and denial can both be found. A number of languages with their cultures disappeared in various parts of the world in the colonial period, while within Britain only Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic have survived of the Celtic languages (Manx and Cornish have become extinct - see our Useful Links for examples, as well as Survival Celtic and the Sound of Welsh in our Academic Angle). Elsewhere in Europe Breton, the Celtic language of NW France, has also survived, as have Catalan and Basque in Spain but all against considerable political pressure. Political power seems to have a hatred of difference and love of control.

What’s in our Multilingual World issue?


We have plenty of quizzes this month with a connecting theme of clichés - business, film and literary - as well as Mrs A’s Diary with another rich selection of idioms. Language Rules OK introduces clichés for the teacher showing how they are rooted in culture while The art of telling jokes explores how language and culture influence what we find funny. We have a set of classroom activities on Scottish and Polish Folk Music Today which look at the Polish band Brathanki and the Scottish band Runrig - with direct audio link.

If you are doing a project or want to find out more on multilingual (or multicultural) issues in the UK or elsewhere - follow up our Useful Links. In this section we also have four articles from the World of English archive which we have been given permission to use Literature of the Great Blasket about Irish language and literature, and three on Caribbean roots to contemporary British culture (often showing the influence of Creole) A Poet for the People on the work of the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, Jamaica - the heart of the Caribbean and an introduction to the carnival Getting High on Notting Hill.


You will find a variety of articles and activities as usual - but we are especially fortunate in being able to reproduce the British Council booklet Multilingual UK - the power of Babel in its complete form. Here you will find a great deal of information about all aspects of what are known as ‘Community Languages’ (which includes the sign language of the deaf) as well as sections on music, festivals, schools, family, literature and so on There are discussion points and links at the end of each section.

If you go to the Multilingual UK website you can find a series of video interviews which are very interesting indeed (if you have the software) - try the one on the deaf and their sign language for example. Here you will hear the real voices of the speakers of the languages behind the booklet. Further voices can be heard from the websites in the oral history section of Useful Links and are highly recommended, and from the Routes of English website of the BBC

Finally - did you know you can take GCSE and A level Polish in the UK - see our links to find out how.

Postcard poems

Below you will find two postcard poems – the first National Trust, a sonnet by Tony Harrison about the relation between language and identity, summed up its the final line – ‘the tongueless man gets his land took’. The second a poem in Scots English, Sonet by Mark Alexander Boyd (with a glossary by Don Paterson) demonstrating very clearly in itself the relation between language and identity. (Click a picture to enlarge).

Tony Harrison is a British poet born in Leeds. His first book of poems The Loiners appeared in 1970. In the 80's and 90's he published such books of poetry as Selected Poems (1989); A Cold Coming (1991); The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992), Permanently Bard:Selected Poetry (1996), and plays and opera librettos in Dramatic Verse 1973-1985. A classicist, his translations of several Greek plays have been performed at the National Theatre in London and in 1998 he directed a film Prometheus. He famously refused to be considered for Poet Laurate in 1999 by publicly publishing a poem in The Guardian entitled Laureate's Block. A number of his poems reached a large audience when they were 'screened' by television. Perhaps the best known is his long poem V, written during the miners' strike of 1984-85 it has as its motto the words of Arthur Scargill. The setting is a vandalised graveyard in Leeds, where the poet's parents are buried. The poem's television broadcast caused a heated debate. Many viewers were outraged by Harrison's free use of 'four-letter words'. Tony Harrison is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He visited Poland in 1988.

Here are greetings from Tony Harrison for the readers of our British Studies Web Pages. (Click a picture to enlarge).

More about the poet can be found at:

Don Paterson is a British poet and musician born in Dundee. He published a book of poems Nil Nil in 1993. He has worked as a journalist for Scotland on Sunday and has also written computer games and radio plays. He visited Poland in September 2000, reading and performing in Wroc³aw, Kraków and Legnica.

More about the poet can be read at:

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