The ‘either…or’ politics of language

IMG_3389Cognitive science has shown us that, like it or not, we have the tendency to see the world in terms of opposites. Things are either hot or cold, black or white. People are either young or old, fat or thin. In terms of their identity, they are either one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’.

It’s not surprising, then, that so much of political debate is framed in terms of ‘either… or’. The Government should be clamping down on benefit fraud. Or it should be curbing bankers’ bonuses. When Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician’ she was cleverly creating a binary distinction between having conviction, and seeking agreement. In this rhetoric, any politician that sought consensus was weak, whereas she of course was strong.

Importantly, the same binary distinctions are also prevalent in political (as well as everyday) discussions of language. Children should speak ‘proper’ English in the classroom; or, children should have the right to speak their own dialect at school. Immigrants should learn to speak English; or, everyone should have the right to access public services in their own language.

Here’s one example. In the UK, there have been a number of recent reports of schools banning pupils from speaking their local dialect in the classroom. Here, the reasons for such interventions are often framed in terms of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ language. In one report, a head teacher from Birmingham complained of increasing numbers of pupils coming through nursery with little or no ‘proper English’. Most people would agree there is a need for children to speak Standard English to access the wider job market. It follows that children should be made to speak Standard English – not the dialect which they have grown up speaking at home.

Elsewhere, there have been reports of growing numbers of school children who do not speak any English when they arrive at primary school. In February 2014, The Daily Mail reported that English will soon become a second language in one in 9 schools in the UK. The growth is driven by immigration, in particular from Eastern Europe. As such it is a highly political issue. In the words of one think tank, ‘Educating children who do not speak English as their mother tongue […] puts a huge financial strain on schools’. Clearly, kids who speak Romanian or Somali or Gujarati – and not English – as a first language are a burden on the taxpayer.

Further afield, reports of ‘last speakers’ dying – taking with them entire languages – are relatively frequent. As academics and language activists have pointed out, when a language dies, so much more is lost too: a culture, an entire world view, and quite possibly a vast body of local knowledge. Of the 7000 or so languages spoken around the world, a significant number of them are under threat from extinction. In USA, for example, of the more than 300 Native American languages originally spoken, fewer than 200 remain; as many as 70 of these languages could become extinct within the next decade.

One of the major driving forces for language death is the growth of a global economy – so, for many, it is unavoidable. Parents don’t want to speak the language of the minority to their children, the state doesn’t want to teach it, and teenagers don’t want to learn it. Because, if young people are to access the best jobs and the best opportunities, they will need to speak English not Washo, Russian not Tuvan, Mandarin not Kanakanavu.

All of these issues of language policy and planning might seem intractable. But perhaps they are not. Perhaps the answer is not a regional dialect or a standard dialect. Perhaps the answer is not Russian or Tuvan.

Although we might be programmed to see the world in terms of opposites, let’s pretend for a moment that the answer is not one language or another. Instead, let’s pretend it is both languages.

Growing up in Britain and speaking English, you could be forgiven for thinking that speaking more than one language – bilingualism – is the exception, rather than the rule. Commentators, educators and business leaders have long bemoaned the deficit in language skills in the UK with, for example, the number of people studying languages at university at an all time low. The British Academy’s 2013 ‘State of the Nation’ report on the demand and supply of language skills in the UK concluded that: ‘There is a strong evidence that the UK is suffering from a growing deficit in foreign language skills at a time when globally the demand for language skills is expanding’.

As such, it may not be at all obvious that speaking two languages could be the answer to anything. But further from home bilingualism (or multilingualism, defined simply as speaking more than one language) is actually more common than you might think.

In Switzerland, for example, speaking more than one language is a fact of life. With four official languages the State Government, and much of local Government, simply couldn’t function without widespread bilingualism. And in the Philippines, as well as national languages Filipino and English, at least another 100 languages are spoken. Bilingualism is so prevalent, that it’s not uncommon for Filipinos to happily code-switch between both Filipino and English – as is the case for many bilingual communities around the globe. Worldwide, something like 1 in 3 people routinely use two or more languages for work, family life and leisure (Li, 2007).

In fact, bilingualism turns up pretty much everywhere – even in the UK. In Wales and Scotland, for example, significant numbers of people speak Welsh or Gaelic as a first language, as well as English. TV drama Hinterland, for example, recently broke ground by being filmed in both Welsh and English language versions, using the same actors. Even among native English speakers, there are people who buck the (monolingual) trend. Current England manager Roy Hodgson, for example, has managed football teams in 5 different languages – arguably with the least success managing his current side in his mother tongue.

As the media has been quick to report, immigration to the UK is driving rapid growth in multilingualism. As a result, London has become one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. Today, over 300 languages are spoken across the city. Over a third of children in London will speak English at school, but a language other than English at home (Gibson, 2007). Interestingly, this gives rise to the paradox – also common to USA and Australia – of both second language deficiency and extreme multilingualism.

And, if you extend the concept to those people that can speak more than one dialect of English, then many more people could be considered bilingual. It’s not uncommon to know more than one dialect of a language and use each of them selectively in different contexts. One of them might be the local (say West Country) dialect we grew up speaking and still use with our family; the other might be the Standard British English we use when we speak to our boss.

There’s also a growing body of scientific evidence to show the cognitive benefits of speaking a second language. Bilingual people, for example, are found to be better at filtering out irrelevant information in ‘conflict tasks’. Some studies have found that bilingual people perform better in creative problem solving tasks. Recently, researchers have shown that babies brought up hearing more than one language have a greater thirst for novel images, indicative of a high IQ in later life. Bilingualism may even hold back the onset of dementia in later life. And brain scans have shown that learning another language can, quite literally, make the brain grow. And there are social benefits too. Learning languages opens up the possibility of understanding entirely new cultures, and new ways of life. Just as some languages hold words for concepts that don’t exist in other languages, learning multiple tongues can offer perspectives on the world that aren’t available in a single language.

Slide1So, what about the banning of ‘incorrect’ English in school? Few people would disagree that speaking a standard language is a necessity for accessing the wider job market. But many people would also argue that to dismiss regional dialects as inferior (‘incorrect’ or ‘improper’) is surely problematic – not least because it can damage the confidence of vulnerable young people. The answer, of course, is that children should be encouraged to value their own dialect – and their ability to speak it – as well as the Standard English they will need in wider society.

And what about the problem of ever increasing numbers of school children in UK who arrive at primary school not speaking English? The answer is that they should be taught to speak English at school and – at the same time – they, their teachers and wider society should value their ability to speak a second language. As others have pointed out, at a time when the UK’s language skills are sorely lacking, these bilingual children will be a rich resource for the future. We should drop the negative spin, and focus on the positive.

And finally, what about the problem of indigenous communities abandoning their native language to speak the language of the majority? As linguist K. David Harrison points out in his book The Last Speakers, the answer is the same:

‘It’s certainly fair to ask: “Aren’t kids better off shedding a small local language and becoming globally conversant citizens?” In response, wouldn’t an even better scenario be kids who increase their brainpower by being bilingual and enjoy the benefits of both a close-knit ethic community and a sense of national or global participation?’

In all three cases, the answer is bilingualism. We should move away from debates about language, and any policies that follow, which are based on ‘either…or’. Instead we should be talking about language only in terms of ‘and’.

Politically, this will still require a huge paradigm shift – especially in countries where policies of monolingualism (like Napoleon’s ‘One nation, one language’) have been firmly entrenched for centuries. But such policies are near-sighted at best. In his book, I think Harrison sums it up nicely when he says:

‘[…] we live in a society that curiously undervalues bilingualism. Millions of school children spend countless hours drilling the verb forms of Spanish, while just a classroom away, millions of other children who speak Spanish with their parents at home and could be fully bilingual are shamed for having a slight accent and intimidated into giving up their Spanish. “English only” is one of the most intellectually ruinous notions ever perpetuated upon American society, and one of the most historically naïve. We have always been a multilingual society, even before we became a nation.’

In the USA, as elsewhere, policies of monolingualism are not the answer. They could actually be part of the problem.

So, do you want to maintain the intellectual wealth contained within local languages and dialects, at the same time as acknowledging the need for national standards and lingua francas? Do you want your students to be proud of their heritage, but have the skills and confidence to compete for jobs nationally? Do you want to have employees that will make you more sales worldwide, and help you beat your competitors in the global marketplace? And do you want to increase your creativity, hold off dementia, and literally grow your brain?

The answer is simple. The answer is bilingualism: Value it, support it, celebrate it.



Gibson, M. (2007). Multilingualism. In D. Britain (Ed.), Language in the British Isles (pp. 257-275). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, W. (Ed.). (2007). The Bilingualism Reader (2nd ed.). Oxford: Routledge.