The publication of Government guidance on social distancing saw a delay between the release of the English language version and the guidance being provided in different languages. In this blog, Professor Yaron Matras examines this disparity and suggests a new policy to prevent a similar issue arising in the future.
- The release of social distancing guidance in different languages has been inconsistent across England.
- If the UK Government had a domestic language policy in place, the translation of vital information could have been more efficient.
- Introducing a domestic language policy that is coordinated and consistent, that brings together the contributions of organisations in the public and community sectors, would help forge city-to-city links with other communities worldwide that are based on trust, common challenges, and shared values.
Amidst the intensity of instructing the public on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, authorities in the UK have been slow in issuing guidance notes in languages other than English. The matter was raised by Labour MP Afzal Khan, whose Manchester-Gorton constituency is one of the country’s most linguistically diverse. Speaking in the House of Commons on 11 March 2020, he called on the Government to disseminate information in community languages. On 13 March, Doctors of the World UK published translations of NHS information leaflets into 44 languages; at a similar time, the Manchester charity Europia produced video advice in various European languages.
However, it wasn’t until late March that Public Health England added guidance on social distancing for vulnerable people in a number of languages. Meanwhile, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Councils published video information in 31 different languages, while Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham were among several local authorities to provide web links to the Doctors of the World translations.
The official UK Government COVID-19 information leaflet was finally published in a small number of languages on 7 April.
A more consistent approach
Authorities in the UK usually translate in order to ensure accessibility of services, or else as a way of regulating behaviour. They target those that are expected to be most liable to violate the rules: leaflets on forced marriage are disseminated in Arabic, Somali and Urdu, for example, while information on angling restrictions appears in Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish. But with COVID-19, the prospect that residents with a low level of English might become carriers of the disease poses a potential risk not just to them but to the entire population. If the UK Government had a domestic language policy in place, the translation of vital information could have been more efficient and consistent. In the absence of such macro-level policy, gaps are currently being filled in a somewhat random way by charities and local authorities.
Discourses around language policy
Over the past few years, especially since the EU referendum in 2016, the public discourse around language policy, to which many researchers have been key contributors, has seen two main strands of argumentation. The first is concerned with counteracting the decline in enrolment in traditional Modern Language courses (like French and German) at secondary schools and higher education. It calls on the government to recognise language skills as a valuable asset to protect British interests abroad, like security and trade. It sees national government agencies as the primary deliverers of this agenda. Some scholars frame it as linked to the mission statement of New Area Studies, seen as the intellectual arm of foreign intelligence gathering and ‘soft power’. Others have tried to capitalise directly on Brexit, cynically arguing that the imminent ‘departure’ of residents who are EU citizens will open up gaps in industries, to be filled by ‘homegrown’ workforce with language skills.
An alternative strand is concerned with language policy as a social justice agenda to promote equality in the domestic arena. It points to the rising uptake of language courses, particularly Arabic and Chinese, as heritage languages in non-statutory education such as supplementary schools, and recognises the importance of cities and local government, and of the intellectual concept of Locality to support heritage language speakers in creating local brands of ‘global diasporas’. In May 2019, Multilingual Manchester sponsored an open event, calling for the formation of a Multilingual Cities Movement that would bring together stakeholders from different sectors, uniting around the realisation that while many nation-states now promote linguistic sameness in an exclusionary way, cities are usually places where languages meet and linguistic plurality and difference are appreciated and celebrated.
Cities have the potential to forge international links. Diaspora communities within cities can play a pivotal role in that process. Global diasporas of today are not temporary emigrants waiting to return to their homelands, but active contributors to global networks of culture and trade. While maintaining links with co-ethnics abroad, they are also engaged in local practices of plurality. If they are allowed to thrive and cultivate their heritage languages, then the localities in which they are settled will be in a better position to be players on the world stage.
A domestic language policy
A coordinated and consistent domestic language policy must firstly acknowledge the UK as a multilingual society. It should take steps to dismantle the hierarchy that currently guides language teaching and which favours the languages of historical imperial European powers. It should recognise the value of heritage languages as skills and encourage the teaching of heritage languages in statutory and higher education, but also support community-based language learning that takes place in the country’s hundreds of supplementary schools. That will also offer a pathway to empower the second and third generations of immigrant background to act as transnational diaspora communities that can build bridges with counterparts in other countries – links that can strengthen diplomacy, investment, and cultural enrichment.
In addition to supporting heritage and skills, a domestic language policy should take steps to regulate the sector of Public Service Interpreting and Translation to ensure high-quality access to services to those with insufficient English language skills.
It also requires modification of key tools to gather accurate data on language use and language skills. For example, currently, the Census asks respondents to indicate their ‘main language’ other than English, but the concept of ‘main’ is vague, and respondents can only choose one single option. Instead, we should be asking about languages that are used in the home, as well as additional language skills. An effort needs to be made to change the public narrative on languages. Last year Boris Johnson, then still candidate for the Tory leadership, demanded that all UK residents should adopt English as their “first language”. We need to move away from such notions of one-sided ‘integration’. Instead, policy should encourage people to maintain language skills and cultural identity, and recognise that multiple identities and multiple languages are an asset for individuals and the country as a whole.
Cities can be active contributors to a new vision of a domestic language policy. A model example is Manchester’s commitment to a City Language Strategy that brings together the contributions of a variety of organisations in the public and community sectors. Strengthening diaspora communities can help them forge city-to-city links worldwide. Policy must ensure that community language needs are met consistently and not left to improvisation in times of crisis.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
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