Do you speak English? The link between language and identity

By Soile Pietikäinen

From 2021, people moving to the UK for work will have to prove they can speak English to obtain a visa, under the new points-based immigration system.  

The new policy was announced just two weeks after the UK left the European Union, as the country prepares to abandon the bloc’s free movement rules.

While the role of the English language in British society has not been widely discussed, it has emerged several times in relation to Brexit. Often, it has been about hate crimes.

Even on Brexit night, 31 January 2020, a note now investigated by the police was left in a block of flats in Norwich, England, telling residents that people speaking languages other than English would not be tolerated.

So what is the link between language and identity? Why are some people feeling offended by the sound of other languages? And why, at the same time, it is so important for immigrants to hold on to their identity by safeguarding their mother tongue? We asked the views of Dr Philip Seargeant, applied linguist from the Open University.

Recent reports show some people feel unease when hearing a language different to their own. Have these feelings become more widespread than they used to be? Or is it the other way around: have there been periods of particularly strong rejection of foreign languages in the past?

There’s certainly a sense that it’s on the increase, both in the UK and in other parts of the world, following the upsurge in support for national populist leaders and ideas. I don’t know precise statistics on this, and they’d be very difficult to interpret anyway, as the ways of measuring this type of phenomenon are complicated. But a lot of people feel that they are being targeted more often now when using a ‘foreign’ language than they did previously, and many stories to this effect are appearing in the news.

Times when this becomes a prominent issue in society are when there is a large sense of uncertainty and fear in the environment generally. For example, during World War I there were similar panics, especially in the US, which included regulations by companies against the speaking of ‘enemy’ languages (in that case, mostly German).

It seems that in certain cases people speaking another language are seen as a threat. Why is that?

Language is a vital part of one’s identity, and is a clear indicator of this to people you interact with. The language you speak with friends and family, or the accent you have, points to your cultural background or heritage. It can thus become a target for people who have prejudiced views about different cultures or nationalities, based on stereotypes that are circulating in society.

So when people feel that their ‘own’ culture is ‘threatened’ by outside forces, they direct their anger at this at people exhibiting signs such as the use of a language from outside the traditional culture. The sense of threat is almost entirely symbolic rather than linked to anything practical (such as communication), even if it might be rationalised as having to do with things like integration.

We rarely ask *why* people feel threatened, and instead just concentrate on the fact that they say they do. More investigation into why these fears may come about, and what precisely they’re made up of, would help in providing answers to combat this sort of prejudice.

Are all languages seen in an equally negative light? And what is the role of English as lingua franca in this regard?

To an extent, yes. Those who feel that their traditional culture is being altered because of processes of immigration are likely to focus on anything which does not fit with their idea of national culture – an in the UK, the national culture of course is associated with the English language.

Prejudice along these lines doesn’t operate in a logical or consistent way, however. And it rarely takes into account the history of language in a particular country, mainly because this history will not be common knowledge. For instance, English has no official status in the UK. It is the default national language, but there is no legal backing to it. The only language in the UK which has official status is Welsh.

“For instance, English has no official status in the UK. It is the default national language, but there is no legal backing to it. The only language in the UK which has official status is Welsh.”

Dr Philip Seargeant

Furthermore, Great Britain has always been a multilingual society. English was not the original language of the population. Prior to the invasion by the Anglo-Saxons the population spoke Celtic languages, while Latin also played an important role when the Romans were occupying parts of the country. And then of course English has absorbed influences from languages all over the world throughout its history. So there is no reality to the idea of a ‘pure’ English. This is a political construction.

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What are the feelings a person unhappy about others speaking different languages tries to express?

As I say, the threat is based mostly on the symbolism around a changing culture. But it is also going to be to do with fear of the unknown, and in some instances may relate to genuine problems around communication. For instance, a patient in a hospital who has difficulty understanding the accent of one of the staff is not being prejudiced if they feel awkward about this. But this is quite different from someone forbidding someone from speaking a foreign language because they are in the UK.

Is denouncing these feelings as racist a way to solve the problem or does it make it worse? 

Of course, specific acts of racism should be called out as such and condemned. But the general issue of fear of foreigness is more to do with education than anything, and thus labelling large proportions of the population as racists because they have narrow views about the way that immigration relates to cultural change is more likely to produce polarisation rather than bring about a shift in the culture. Merely pointing out that a lot of people in the country feel ‘threatened’ by hearing foreign languages being spoken in public is of little use unless we also know why they feel that way, and what exactly is meant by saying they are ‘threatened’.

Are there any historical examples of a situation where a language tension has been resolved positively?  

Language is often standing in for wider issues about prejudice and stereotype in this instance. The ways to combat this are a mixture of education, and of those in positions of public influence ensuring they don’t inflame the situation by demonising particular sections of society.

What can be done in concrete terms through education? 

Education, along with travel, are excellent ways of experiencing just how alike different people are even if the superficialities of their culture may be different. What education can help us understand is how many of the prejudices we have are built on stereotypes or myths, and that the things we might condemn are in fact common across all sorts of cultures.

The facts of the matter are that the UK itself has always been a multilingual society, and that for those lucky enough to be brought up as multilingual this is a positive rather than a negative thing. Simply by dispelling some of these myths, which see language in terms of purity and so on, it should be possible to reduce irrational fears about ‘foreign’ languages. 

The learning of a language is also often related to citizenship (e.g. a requirement for getting the nationality of another country). Where does a language indicate belonging and when does it become nationalism?

This is a difficult question. Ever since the Romantic period, languages have been central symbols of the idea of nation states. But at the same time, the idea that nation states are predominantly monolingual is mostly a myth. So, while fostering a sense of national pride by celebrating symbols of national identity can produce a cohesive sense of community, it becomes problematic when it starts demonising the diversity which also exists as part of that community.

Soile Pietikäinen © all rights reserved.

The author is a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction. She helps families through private bilingual family consultancy and is the founder of Bilingual Potential, an ethical business dedicated to every child’s right to learn and use the language of his or her parents, as defined in the Article 30 of the UN Convention of the Right of the Child. 

Image by Regina Wolfs from Pixabay.

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