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Multilingual World


Multilingual UK - the power of Babel



Who speaks what?

Language in the family

Languages in school

The spoken word

The written word





Conclusion and references

Go back to:

  Viv Edwards
Reproduced by permission of the British Council 2001

Contrary to popular belief, the UK has always been multilingual. Gaelic, Irish and Welsh have been gradually displaced by English, itself the product of many different influences, but today are fighting back. These ‘older mother tongues’ have been joined by an astonishing variety of more recently arrived languages from all parts of the world.

The Multilingual UK set consists of 10 posters, a website, a video, first broadcast by the BBC and a resource book. Project created and managed by Andrew Thomas, researched by Viv Edwards and designed by The British Council Design Department


The English language started its evolution on a relatively small island in Northern Europe. Through a bizarre succession of historical accidents, it has now become a global language spoken not only by some 300 million native speakers, but also 300 million people who use it as a second language and a further 100 million who speak it fluently as a foreign language. English is such an integral part of British life, that there is a real danger that other languages may be overlooked. Yet the UK – like most countries, and contrary to popular assumption – has always been multilingual, and the English language itself is the product of many different influences, including Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Viking.

As the influence of English expanded north and west, it started to displace the much older Celtic languages – Gaelic in Scotland, Welsh in Wales, Manx in the Isle of Man, Cornish in Cornwall and Irish in Ireland. In addition to what might be called these ‘older mother tongues’, it is possible to trace the presence of many other groups for several centuries. For instance, the earliest Africans arrived in Britain in Elizabethan times,1 and the first wave of Polish immigrants dates from the partition of the country in 1772.2

In recent times, the most important population movements have resulted from various ‘pull and push’ factors following the Second World War. All through the 1950s and 1960s, British industry suffered from a serious shortage of manpower. With economic expansion, physically demanding jobs with antisocial hours became very unattractive for local workers, creating a vacuum which was filled by immigrant labour. Major employers, including London Transport and the National Health Service, ran recruitment campaigns in Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan and the former British West Indies where high unemployment and other social factors made emigration an attractive option.

Legislation enacted from the mid-1960s onwards reduced large-scale immigration to a trickle. However, other developments have ensured a continuing inflow of people from many different parts of the world. Entry into what is now the European Union has allowed free movement for citizens of the twelve member states. Employees of multinational and overseas corporations often spend several years in the UK as ‘temporary migrants’. And large numbers of political refugees from Uganda, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia and many other international flash points have also added to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the UK.

Language is not an article of clothing which we shed at will; it is very much a part of who we are. This book will tell the story of what, for the sake of brevity, we will call ‘the other languages’ of the UK and how they form a vital part of life within the family and the wider community. However, this story is not one of isolation or ghettos. As we look at the arenas where language plays a key role – the family, school, the media and performing arts, literature, music, festivals, business and the various service settings – two themes constantly interplay. The first is identity: the freedom to use a language and pass it from one generation to the next is a basic human right which we ignore at our peril. The second is fusion: new elements of language and culture have the potential for exciting new synergies which benefit us all.

1. Walvin (1984)
2. Muir (1991)

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