In the wake of Brexit, universities have a duty to promote the benefits of linguistic diversity more than ever, says Yaron Matras.
Brexit represents the triumph of insularity and isolationism – that is the view shared by most of those who promote the teaching and learning of modern languages in Britain. The anti-immigration rhetoric, which played a key role in winning over a majority for Leave, was nurtured not least by suggestions from campaigners that Britons feel “uncomfortable” living next door to people whose first language is not English.
Claims and assumptions
Claims that multilingualism is harmful to the country captured headlines long before the referendum debate. In December 2012, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, called on local authorities to stop translating documents into other languages because translation “undermined community cohesion and encouraged segregation”.
Among the fallacies put forward by Brexit champion Nigel Farage as far back as 2014 was the claim that there were “entire areas in our cities where nobody speaks English.”
Two years later, Prime Minister David Cameron linked assumptions about the level of English spoken by Muslim women in the UK to their degree of “resilience against the messages of Daesh”. Ironically, he was speaking just days after drones targeted ‘Jihadi John’, whose true identity was uncovered not least thanks to a forensic analysis of his distinctively London accent. Labour governments, too, have been guilty of constructing the image of the ‘outsider’ in association with a foreign language, as Shirin Hirsch reported earlier this year.
Since 2010, the Multilingual Manchester project has been carrying out research into multilingual practices in the city region and engaging with local stakeholders in communities and public services.
Our research has shown that far from promoting segregation, provisions for interpreting and translation enable access and the building of trust in public institutions, and so they actually facilitate inclusion and integration. They are also, by and large, responsive to needs, flexible, de-centralised and cost-effective.
Longitudinal analyses show that demand for interpreting among new arrivals tends to peak, and then drops as communities integrate and acquire English. There is therefore no justification for pathologising multilingualism.
Integration and language skills
But integration does not, and should not, mean the loss of the ability to speak other languages. Respecting others’ linguistic and cultural heritage is as important to community cohesion as sharing a medium of communication. Specialist practitioners point to the advantages that early bilingualism brings and conclude that “languages are a gift”.
For over a decade now, Greater Manchester’s plan for growth and development has flagged the importance of language skills. At no cost to the taxpayer, Manchester’s communities cultivate such skills in the home and through privately operated supplementary schools, giving the city a valued resource from which the entire population benefits. Each week dozens of jobs are advertised within 25 miles of Manchester that require knowledge of foreign languages.
Passionate, not timid
The Manchester experience does not support the assumption that people feel uneasy about language diversity. Through our work we have observed and documented how individuals of various backgrounds make an effort to learn the languages of next door neighbours, motivated by curiosity, respect and interest; how businesses reach out to a diverse customer audience in multiple languages; and how front line practitioners benefit from understanding the language backgrounds of their clients.
There have been enthusiastic responses to our online archive of student research on multilingualism in the city and to the Multilingual Manchester volunteer scheme, through which students support public services in their communication with clients.
For instance last year, hundreds took part in the Levenshulme Language Day, showing that the city’s residents are in fact passionate, not at all timid or uncomfortable about the Babel in their midst.
Earlier this year we launched LinguaSnapp, the University of Manchester’s very first teaching and research app designed to crowdsource data by mapping images of multilingual signs. Manchester City Council’s Deputy Leader praised the project as a chance to promote community cohesion and acknowledged that language diversity represents a “huge opportunity for the city’s economy”.
The opportunity of linguistic diversity
This shows that communities and local institutions see language diversity as something to value and to celebrate. Universities can help respond to the challenges of diversity and help harness its rewards by brokering a dialogue among local stakeholders, and by equipping graduates with the skills to become global citizens and to take on leadership roles in public and private sector organisations that require an appreciation of today’s multilingual and multicultural societies.
As some continue to indulge in linguaphobia, universities have a duty to provide an accurate and realistic assessment of the opportunities that linguistic diversity offers. Amid calls for rationalisation, it is therefore important that they resist pressures to strike languages off their portfolio of degree programmes.
Instead we must review the way in which we organise and deliver language degrees. The traditional approach favoured the framing of modern languages within the territorial boundaries of nation states, mirrored by strict demarcations between individual language-based subject areas. This is gradually giving way to a view of languages as dynamic and multi-layered practices that link our diverse local community with the global world and transcend the boundaries of nations – in media, cultural productions, recruitment and customer care, marketing, governance, and more.
To ensure the sustainability of language degrees, we need to embed this new intellectual agenda into a viable organisational framework and to promote appreciation of languages as a value adder for a range of academic disciplines.
The study of languages and of the cultures that they represent is a key to a richer and deeper understanding of the world. It can and should continue to be the scene of innovation in socially responsible teaching and in learning technologies, and it must continue to have a place at the forefront of research, knowledge exchange and public engagement.