There must be dozens

I have been asked on a number of occasions to talk to general audiences in England about linguistic diversity and the threat to smaller languages. I usually begin my talks by asking which languages are spoken by members of the audience (the largest number I recall was around 15) and then how many languages are spoken in London. Everyone is aware that London is a linguistically diverse place (during my morning bus commute I frequently hear various European languages spoken, especially Polish, Russian and Portuguese, along with Yoruba, Bangla, and Kurdish, plus other languages I am unable to identify). Few members of the general public however have any idea just how linguistically diverse London is – “there must be dozens” or “a hundred at least” are common responses.
And the correct answer is?

Well, I usually say “we don’t really know”, which is a bit of a cop out, but I think pretty right. The UK does not ask about language in national censuses so there are no official figures (there is pressure to include a language question in the 2011 census, and the Office for National Statistics is currently undertaking consultations about it). Some boroughs do have information but it is restricted to the local council area. There was a survey of language use by school children across London carried out in 1998-99 by a team headed by Philip Baker and John Eversley that was published under the title Multilingual Capital in 2000. Children were asked what languages they spoke at home – on the basis of this data the researchers concluded that “300 languages” were represented in London (the book contains excellent colour-coded maps showing language distributions, such as one for Bangla and Sylheti available here (.pdf) – for more discussion with links to other maps and information sources see here).
Problem solved. Well not quite. Some of the children’s responses were “African language” or “Nigerian language”, and considering that Ethnologue lists 521 languages for Nigeria that leaves a pretty wide margin for error. So the 300 number is clearly an underestimate. Without further research however any other number is just a guess.
This local linguistic diversity is not without its benefits to documentary linguists, especially those interested in Africa or South Asia. My colleague Oliver Bond has recently located in London two speakers of Eleme, an endangered Cross River Niger Congo language spoken in the Niger Delta region of south-eastern Nigeria. Oliver wrote his PhD thesis last year on aspects of the structure of Eleme and maintains a website about Eleme language and culture. He will now be able to continue doing fieldwork here (though not the CDFM type). One of our MA students recently discovered that his room-mate is a speaker of Bajjika, an under-documented Indo-Aryan language spoken in Bihar, India (the name does not appear in Ethnologue so we are as yet unsure of its status). He will be writing his MA dissertation on aspects of this language over the coming summer.
There is talk that London will highlight its linguistic and cultural diversity in the run up to the 2012 Olympics through displays, exhibitions and ‘cultural events’ – an opportunity for linguistic researchers perhaps?
Baker, Philip and John Eversley (eds.) 2000 Multilingual Capital: The Languages of London’s Schoolchildren and Their Relevance to Economic, Social, and Educational Policies London: Battlebridge

2 thoughts on “There must be dozens”

  1. Peter, I enjoy all of your posts here and it is for that that I think we should look at getting you your own entry in that list on the sidebar.
    In Sydney we don’t quite have as many languages spoken as in London, naturally, and most immigration into Sydney was quite structured, so you can be pretty certain which language you are hearing based on demographics alone.
    I remember a case recently when crammed onto a typically inadequate Sydney bus leaving the university. I couldn’t help but attend to the sounds of the language being spoken by two people right next to me. I wasn’t certain, but based on statistics, I was willing to bet that it was Hindi/Urdu. Only then did I stop paying attention to the raw acoustics and start paying attention to the words. It was actually Hinglish. I was suitably embarrassed, to myself.

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