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.


‘A Sort of Verbal Bannockburn’: Language and the Debate on Scottish Independence

ImageFor lovers of language, there will be plenty to watch out for in the run up to the Scottish vote on independence.

In February, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his first speech directly addressing the forthcoming referendum. It was certainly emotive. ‘Centuries of history hang in the balance’, he said, as he told Scottish voters to reject independence. According to Cameron, campaigners now had seven months to save Britain.

In the speech, as you might expect, there was a good deal of rhetoric. According to the classical principles of rhetoric, there are three possible ‘appeals’ that an orator can make to help win over their audience: logos (an appeal to logic and rational argument), pathos (an appeal to the audience’s emotions) and ethos (an appeal based on the orator’s identity).

There was certainly much pathos. In the speech, Cameron said he could not bear to see the country ‘torn apart’.

And there was more than a deft sprinkling of ethos. In his speech, Cameron spoke about his family’s Scottish roots in the West Highlands. ‘The name Cameron might mean “crooked nose”’, he said, ‘but the clan motto is “Let us unite”, and that is exactly what we in these islands have done.’ You see what he did there?

But, in the debate, we shouldn’t expect all such appeals to ethos to be so explicit.

Linguists will tell you that language and identity are almost inseparable. Whenever we open our mouths – whether we mean to or not – we tell our interlocutors something about who we are, where we were born, where we live, even where we were educated. In choosing the language, dialect, register and style we use (what you might generally call ‘code’), we necessarily convey something about our identity (Auer, 2005).

Cameron, speaking to the whole of the United Kingdom, spoke in British Standard English (BSE), the UK’s ‘norm’ dialect, with a southern accent. In doing so, he was signalling that he is educated, part of the mainstream, ruling majority, English but – most importantly – British too.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), spoke immediately after Cameron’s speech. He too spoke in a Standard English (albeit in a Scottish accent) which, in print, would usually be rendered indistinguishable from Cameron’s code. But, in accusing the Prime Minister of running scared (in not agreeing to a direct debate with him on the issue of independence) he chose one word particularly carefully. He told the BBC:

‘I just want the Prime Minister to come and debate with me and stop being such a big feartie.’

‘Feartie’ is a Scots word, not in currency south of the border. Meaning somebody who is afraid, it was a deft choice: instead of simply calling him a ‘coward’, Salmond could take a swipe at Cameron and underline his Scottish – not British – identity.

I think it’s safe to expect plenty more Scots language to enter the political debate in the run up to the referendum – and not just among the SNP. It’s not unlikely that we’ll also see unionists north of the border using the Scots language to mark their Scottish identity as something which is not incompatible with British unity.

And it won’t be just about using one language or the other. We should also look out for politicians and columnists ‘code-switching’ between the two languages.

Scots-English code-switching is not new. For example, it was something Robert Burns used for great poetic effect. But, code-switching can also be used as a powerful rhetorical device. For instance, I spotted a recent letter to The Observer from a reader in Edinburgh. The letter, arguing that ‘it’s not Scotland’s job to save England from it’s failings’, concluded:

‘Are we to understand, then, that the union’s shared values offer nothing to Scotland but more of the same, or that Scotland must remain in the union so that its different values will enable it to become the union’s (England’s) conscience, pace Hutton? Ye’re haeing a laff.’ (The Observer, 9 February 2014)

In linguistic terms the code-switch to Scots at the end is particularly ‘marked’ (Myers-Scotton and Bolonyai, 2001). It carries meaning, beyond ‘you must be joking’: that is, it carries a distinct and defiant Scottish voice.

There were some interesting comments left on the comments section below the BBC report of David Cameron’s speech. Most aptly, one reader wrote:

‘The last thing Alex Salmond wants is to debate issues […] Salmond wants to portray himself giving the English oppressors a bloody nose… a sort of verbal Bannockburn.’

Perhaps, then, that’s what we can expect over the next 6 months: a ‘verbal Bannockburn’, a battle of words between two duelling languages. Whatever happens in the vote, there’ll be plenty of interest for the linguists. is a great resource for information on the Scots language.


Auer, P. (2005) A postscript: code-switching and social identity. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 403-410.

Myers-Scotton, C. and Bolonyai, A. (2001) Calculating speakers: Codeswitching in a rational choice model. Language in Society, 30, 1-28.