Speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English

Posted on Thursday 24th July 2014
Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese

On 14 July the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages published its Manifesto for Languages. The manifesto reported that while English is an important world language, the latest cutting-edge research shows that, ‘in the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English’. The group stated that knowledge of other languages – and of other cultures – was important for education and skills, the economy, international engagement, defence and security and community relations. There was, they said, a pressing need to improve the linguistic skills base of the UK.

At the same time, findings from the UK Census 2011 that eight per cent (4.2 million) of all residents reported that English was not their main language have been widely represented as a problem. The statistics do not suggest that 4.2 million people are unable to speak English, or that they do not speak English. But media reports have suggested that speaking more than one language is problematic. Further to press coverage of the Census were front-page stories resulting from the British Social Attitudes survey 2013, which reported that 95 per cent of those questioned said immigrants ‘must speak English’ to be considered British. Clearly bilingualism and multilingualism are on the political and media agenda.

It is in this context that, on 18 July, Birmingham Business School hosted the launch conference of a new research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through its Translating Cultures theme. The research project, Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating Cultural and Linguistic Transformations in Superdiverse Wards in Four UK Cities, develops incrementally from investigations conducted over many years by the MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism on the teaching and learning of languages in Bengali, Cantonese, Gujarati, Mandarin, Panjabi, and Turkish complementary schools (e.g. ESRC RES000231180). Over the next four years researchers from University of Birmingham, Birkbeck (University of London), University of Leeds, and Cardiff University will engage in detailed research in Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, and London. The research team will generate new knowledge about communication in changing urban communities. Researchers will focus on multilingual interactions between people in contexts of business, legal advice, community sport, and libraries and museums. Analysis will provide detailed evidence of how people communicate across languages and cultures.

A crucial dimension of the project is partnership between academic researchers and partners from private, public, and third sectors, including Migrants’ Rights Network, Library of Birmingham, Business in the Community, Birmingham Museums Trust, Law Centres Network, Law Works, Sporting Equals, and Midland Heart. The high-profile partner organisations will contribute their expertise and inform policy through their existing networks.

A multilingual research team will conduct detailed linguistic ethnographic investigations in super-diverse neighbourhoods in the four cities, working with speakers of Chinese languages in Birmingham, Arabic speakers in Cardiff; Polish speakers in London; and Czech, Slovak, and Romani speakers in Leeds.

In his closing statement to the launch conference on 18 July Professor Charles Forsdick, AHRC Theme Leadership Fellow for ‘Translating Cultures’, said what excites him most about the Translation and Translanguaging project is the way in which - in partnership and in collaboration - it will contribute to changing the repertoire of stories that allow us to explore limits in identity, culture, language and place: ‘In part, this is a question of recovering narratives that have long remained inaudible; in part and by extension, this is also, of course, about allowing stories to be told in a variety of languages; but finally, it is about exploring the new languages in which those stories can be told.’.

The Translation and Translanguaging project will do much to (re)discover the hidden languages of England and Wales as they are practised daily in super-diverse cities, and to make visible communication between people who live in those cities. It will also identify contexts in which, far from being a problem, multilingualism is a resource for communication in the 21st century.

Professor Adrian Blackledge
Director, MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism, School of Education, University of Birmingham

Professor Angela Creese
Professor of Educational Linguistics, School of Education, University of Birmingham; Principal Investigator, Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating Cultural and Linguistic Transformations in Superdiverse Wards in Four UK Cities