I have to admit that the news that Polish has become England’s second language came as quite a surprise to me. If asked to guess, I would have perhaps chosen a language from Asia. But according to a census carried out in 2011, over 546,000 people speak Polish. Other European languages most commonly spoken in the UK are French and Portuguese.
It is no news that England is, culturally speaking, an extremely diverse country, with 13% of its population born abroad. The 1950s and 60s saw huge waves of immigration, mainly from India and the Caribbean. The fall of the Eastern Block at the end of the 20th century allowed freedom of movement for countries such as Poland, and after joining the European Union in 2004, they were able to live in the UK without a visa and with limited working rights.
Go to any city in England and you will be able to find Polish stores, Halal butchers or Chinese take-aways. Even remote villages have an Indian restaurant next to the local pub. Chicken Korma (a type of Indian curry) was voted one of the nation’s favourite dishes. While this fantastic mix gives Britain its cultural edge, what consequences does this medley entail for Britain in terms of language?
It is inevitable that as new tongues are introduced to English society, they will influence the English language. For example, we borrow many words from French such as naïve, façade and cliché. According to the guardian, new ‘hybrid’ tongues are created by people using two languages on a daily basis (think Spanglish or Franglais) with the most recent being Ponglish, a mixture of Polish and English.
But what I am hoping is that the increase in languages being introduced in to the UK will also have positive consequences with regards to our attitude to foreign language learning. We are famed for our negative approach to speaking other languages with the excuse that “everyone speaks English.” In 2004, the government changed the law that had previously made learning languages compulsory to GCSE level. Research shows that British children are amongst the lowest performers in Europe in language learning.
It may be optimistic, but a new generation emerging in Britain who can name more than one language as their mother tongue may bring with them the possibility to alter our largely monoglot society and provoke a change in our negative attitude to learning a foreign language. Focusing on the rise in the percentage of the population who speak another tongue outside of the classroom exposes the need to teach languages as a compulsory part of the curriculum. This is not necessarily to be able to communicate with the large number of people immigrating to the UK in their own tongues, but because it highlights the fact that the rest of the world is becoming bilingual and leaving us behind. Britain must wake up to the advantages that come with speaking another language in terms of employment opportunities, travel possibilities and personal enrichment.