Our planet is one of rich linguistic diversity, with around 6,500 spoken languages in existence and nowhere are you likely to hear more of them at once than in London. Such linguistic diversity makes London an attractive place to live and work for all those with an interest in language, from translation companies to individual students.
Welcome to the melting pot
London is known as a melting pot of cultures, with inhabitants from around the world flocking to the bright lights of the UK capital for its economic prospects, huge array of cultural attractions and world-renowned architectural offerings. These individuals have brought with them a fantastic mixture of languages from around the globe. Some have only stayed for a short while but others have chosen to settle and make London their home, committing to life in England and raising their family in the capital.
London’s population reached 8.54 million in 2014 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), with projected growth to 9.71 million by 2024, with people from within the UK and overseas flocking to the city and adding to its linguistic diversity.
London is currently home to incredible linguistic variety. According to the 2011 Census, 78% of residents speak English as their first language, while some 320,000 Londoners speak English either not very well or at all. In almost every single borough (30 out of 33), more than 100 languages are spoken.
According to the ONS, London is home to 53 ‘main’ languages, which are defined as languages spoken by at least 0.1% of the city’s population. A further 54 languages, or variants of languages were recorded as being spoken across the capital.
After English, Polish is London’s most spoken language, followed by Bengali, Gujarati, French, Urdu and Arabic. As the capital grows over the coming years, we can reasonably expect that the number of languages spoken there will increase as well. It will be exciting to see how many languages are spoken in London by the 2021 Census!
London versus Europe
London’s linguistic diversity is impressive, but it becomes even more so when compared with language use in Europe. Europe has 23 official languages, more than 60 indigenous regional and minority languages and many more non-indigenous languages brought to Europe by migrant communities. So London can give the whole of Europe a fun for its money when it comes to linguistic variety.
Across Europe, bilingualism and multilingualism are common. 54% of Europeans are able to hold a conversation in a second language, according to the EU’s 145-page report on ‘Europeans and their Languages.’ Furthermore, 25% of Europeans are able to speak two languages in addition to their native language, while 10% can hold a conversation in their mother tongue plus three other languages.
Europe’s most spoken languages differ a great deal from those most commonly used in London. In Europe, it is German that tops the list of languages that are spoken, with 16% of Europeans using it as their first language. Italian and English are both spoken by 13% of Europeans, while French is spoken by 12% and Spanish and Polish are both spoken by 8%.
English comes into its own as a second language in Europe, spoken by 38% of citizens. French is spoken as a second language by 12%, German by 11%, Spanish by 7% and Russian by 5%.
One of the most interesting figures when considering London’s relationship with language in a European context is the fact that the UK is near the top of the list when it comes to monolingual European countries, with 61% of the UK’s population only speaking their native language. The continent’s most monolingual country – Hungary – beats the UK by just four percentage points, with 65% of Hungarians speaking only their mother tongue. It’s followed by Italy at 62%, Portugal tied with the UK at 61% and Ireland at 60%.
The value of linguistic diversity
Linguistic diversity is part of what makes our world such a fascinating place. The interrelationship of language and culture is one that is deeply rooted in history and remains immensely relevant to some of the political tensions faced around the world today. As part of a global community that is growing rapidly and putting a strain on the resources available to us, the need for peaceful communication has never been greater and accepting and celebrating our linguistic differences can play a key role in this.
Of course, if you’re reading this post then you’re probably already a fan of languages and appreciate their value. Worryingly, though, the EU’s latest Europeans and their Languages report found that nine countries recorded a significant drop (greater than 5%) in their level of residents who can converse in two languages as well as their native one, since the previous (2005) report.
Such figures highlight the need to continue pushing for linguistic diversity to be celebrated and advanced, not just in cities like London, but by all of us around the world.
by Louise Taylor, Tomedes
Tomedes is a leading professional translation company that provides a range of translation services for business customers and individual clients. They translate documents for the web, for print and for use within companies. Tomedes aims at bringing their customers the most comprehensive range of high quality professional language services.