As part of our new publication ‘OnCohesion’ read Professor Yaron Matras’ blog which focuses on language diversity and why he believes it is key to social cohesion
- Language is an emblem of who we are. It is the carrier of our heritage and one of the ways of identifying what we mean by ‘communities’.
- Community initiatives to cultivate heritage languages also help ensure that the city-region’s next generation workforce is equipped with a valuable resource of skills.
- Provisions for translation and interpreting must be in place to ensure that recent arrivals who do not yet have a firm command of English have equal access to services such as health care and emergency support.
- The cities of the future will rely more and more on digital solutions to monitor data and adapt provisions and policies to changing needs.
- Many of the city’s leaders have already spoken out in support of a platform that recognises that Manchester’s language diversity brings a wide range of benefits to the city, its people and its economy.
Around 200 different languages are spoken in the Greater Manchester area, making it the UK’s most linguistically diverse city-region for its population size. In the city of Manchester, some 40% of schoolchildren speak at least one, sometimes two other languages, in addition to English at home. The region’s urban landscape features commercial, cultural, and private signage in more than fifty different languages.
Language is an emblem of who we are. It is the carrier of our heritage and one of the ways of identifying what we mean by ‘communities’. It is the means to communicate with those around us and to reach out to those farther afield. Greater Manchester – and other cities around the world – must embrace language diversity. For this, a formulated language strategy is needed. Here I’d like to share some thoughts on what that strategy should entail.
Language as heritage
Valuing a region’s community languages can help raise the self-confidence of residents and build bridges among population groups of different backgrounds. We’ve seen this in Manchester when young people come together around activities that help them develop their curiosity toward other languages and their appreciation of other people’s language heritage – for example at the bi-annual Levenshulme Language Day organised by the Multilingual Manchester research unit in collaboration with Manchester City Council and community groups, or through the multilingual poetry competition run by Mother Tongue Other Tongue.
Several dozen community-run weekend supplementary schools operate in Greater Manchester, teaching children heritage languages including Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Greek, Tamil and many others. They offer a valuable service to around eight thousand pupils in the Greater Manchester area and their families. Currently they receive very little support with logistics, accreditation, or teacher training; occasionally they are even the target of suspicion from those who regard them as unregulated enterprises that distract students’ attention from the mainstream school curriculum. That attitude needs to change. We need to celebrate these initiatives as important contributors to the regional mosaic of cultures, which play an important role in giving young people confidence that there is no dissent between maintaining their cultural heritage and being proud and active local residents.
Language as skills
Community initiatives to cultivate heritage languages also help ensure that the city-region’s next generation workforce is equipped with a valuable resource of skills. Greater Manchester’s investment agency MIDAS believes that language skills in the local labour pool are among the top five factors that attract foreign investors and help expand the region’s international trade outreach. Many of Manchester’s community languages, such as Chinese, French, Polish, Arabic and Urdu are a valuable asset that can help build cultural and commercial relations with communities around the world. Language skills, and sensitivity toward the use of language, also give direct access to cultural narratives and discourses. They enable insights that can help counteract mutual suspicion, fear, and resentment among population groups and tackle extremism of all kinds.
We need to take more measures to support language skills. More state schools could work together with supplementary schools to facilitate GCSE and A-level qualifications in our community languages. The region’s universities and further education providers might consider aligning their teaching provisions in languages to allow more members of the public to benefit from them. More should be done to introduce young people to the joy and excitement of learning foreign languages and to build confidence in their ability to acquire foreign language skills.
Language as access
Greater Manchester continues to attract migrants of all backgrounds, and the region still regards itself, despite the rise of post-Brexit isolationism and the tensions that it has created, as a place that welcomes new arrivals and stands firmly against xenophobia.
Provisions for translation and interpreting must be in place to ensure that recent arrivals who do not yet have a firm command of English have equal access to services such as health care and emergency support. Greater Manchester has some excellent models of good practice: Central Manchester University Hospitals operate an exemplary and world-leading model of language provisions, responding annually to up to fifty thousand requests for interpreting in over one hundred different languages. Manchester City Council is one of the few local authorities that maintains a successful in-house translation and interpreting service of the highest quality. We need to ensure that good practice prevails and is a model for others to replicate.
These provisions help build trust and confidence in public services among new arrivals and are important motivating and facilitating factors that help people integrate. They also help increase the motivation, as well as the opportunities, to learn English. It is therefore incorrect to juxtapose interpreting and translation provisions, and provisions for learning English; the two must be part of an integrated strategy. Initiatives like Talk English and the Gateway project run by the North West Strategic Migration Partnership are investing much effort in removing language barriers. They and other providers report that resources and sometimes expertise are missing, and that the past four years have seen an increase in articulated demand for English classes while funding has decreased. Brexit threatens further disruption as more funds are likely to be withdrawn.
The occasional government statement that links English language provisions to combating extremism unnecessarily stigmatises learners and does more to dismantle trust than to build bridges across cultures. That rhetoric must change, and support for language learning must increase.
Languages in the Smart City
The cities of the future will rely more and more on digital solutions to monitor data and adapt provisions and policies to changing needs. The delivery of language provisions of all kinds – whether interpreting in the health care sector, English classes for beginners, or skills in foreign and heritage languages – relies on networking between organisations in different sectors.
To make effective use of resources and to harness skills and talent, we must encourage public services to maintain the highest standards of data collection and to share data on language needs and language skills. To that end, we should invest in tools that allow us to pool data, of the kind that is currently being piloted by the Multilingual Manchester team. Universities have a role to play by offering their expertise to a network of local stakeholders, by becoming a hub for discussion on provisions, policy drafting, and public engagement and by offering a long-term vision that capitalises on Manchester’s rich history of embracing cultural diversity and breaking down barriers.
A vision for a city of languages
I believe that we are taking a risk if we ignore our language diversity and the opportunities that it offers us: We lose out on skills if we fail to cultivate them; we neglect an opportunity to tackle prejudice and build more confidence in cross-cultural encounters; we risk depriving new arrivals of access to public services if we fail to provide high standards of interpreting; and if we fail to provide opportunities to acquire English quickly and efficiently we contribute to more isolation, frustration and resentment and on all sides.
Many of the city’s leaders have already spoken out in support of a platform that recognises that Manchester’s language diversity brings a wide range of benefits to the city, its people and its economy. Such vision should be included in the new Greater Manchester Charter, along with a commitment to actively counteract public narratives that fuel Linguaphobia.
The Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Cohesion Commission offers a perfect opportunity to formulate a practical agenda that will draw on the city-region’s language diversity to build bridges between cultures and alleviate the fear of ‘others’. It’s time to develop a plan that celebrates language diversity, encourages language learning, and commits to maintaining the highest standards of interpreting and translation, and adequate provisions for learning English. Lastly, we need an operational pool for sharing data and good practice with the involvement of experts, community representatives and the region’s key public services.
Greater Manchester has an opportunity to show the world how to embrace language diversity in a way that truly supports social cohesion. That would be a something worth celebrating and sharing