100 Languages of Britain – and why nobody really cares

Wiktor K. January 30, 2013 Comments Off

NO CHAOS 

This is a bit of a rant. And the position of the ranter should be pretty obvious. I can promise to get you through several key concepts for language and culture, though – so not all is vitriol and bile :) Stay tuned and tell me what you think.

Inspiration: “Polish is second most common UK language”

This article reflects the language data collected during the 2011 census. The results are quite inspiring, and for any language student – something to seriously consider. Read more here.

The key question: how much does it matter?

You’ve seen the facts and figures. You’ve wondered at the diversity and amazing variety of languages, and forces at work in the modern British society. Now let me ask you this: do you think these languages are important? Not to you and me – language learning freaks – but to the average Joe, to those who focus on the big picture?

Hint 1: Subaltern, Spivak and silence

The British Empire had a peculiar way of making sure that the colonies felt like “home away from home.” The postcolonial critique has a lot more to say about this process – and its modern effects – than we have time for here. Let’s just focus on two important points:
– What is not British (ie empirical, enlightened, empire-bred) is pushed to the margins. That’s why colonies had to be explained in rational, Western terms – and managed accordingly. The term “subaltern” refers, by and large, to social groups outside the mainstream, on the margins of the structures of power.
– What is marginalized is rarely heard. The official history, the powerful narratives, the version that everyone knows and accepts – these are all designed, written and propagated by the voices in power. The counter-narratives are there – but since they’re marginalized, they tend to be silenced. See Gayatri Spivak’s theories for more if you’re interested.

Hint 2: English as a global brand

Half a million people in the UK speak Polish. And yet, everyone comes over here to learn English. Obviously, the numbers are there – but it’s English that gets the better press, more attention. David Crystal explains it very neatly:

Of course you could learn any of the hundred languages spoken in London, if you wanted to. But few people want to. English is global. It’s powerful, well-marketed and well-established. So is there any hope for the minority languages?

Hint 3: The Margin is the new Mainstream

Margins are cool. They’re less rigid, more flexible, and generally frequented by a lot more adventurous people. More can (and does) happen in the fluid, changeable, “fuzzy” settings governed by change and movement – compared to hierarchical, established and transparent structures where change and movement is controlled and rationed. (The theory to check out here is Deleuze / Guattari’s “Nomadology”)
So whilst it’s true that you can come to London to learn English – and perfectly understandable that people do so in droves – it’s also possible that UK will become an exciting place for all the languages it contains. Call me optimistic: I still believe in people who take time to appreciate the quirky, the varied, the evolving structure before them. And one day, maybe, make the effort to learn more.

(Photo source: Daniela Hartmann via Compfight)

Thanks for reading this. If you found this blog post useful, please share it – Wiktor

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