Language diversity key to London’s future

London has the potential of becoming a ‘global player’ by understanding and making best use of linguistic diversity among the city’s schoolchildren, a study has suggested.

The study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) mapped the distribution of languages spoken by London state school pupils.

Using data from the 2008 Annual School Census on the language spoken at home, the study revealed that 60% of London pupils record English as their first language while nearly 40% a minority language.

“There are over 40 languages spoken by more than 1,000 pupils. Bengali, Urdu and Somali are the top languages spoken,” said Professor Dick Wiggins of the Institute of Education, University of London.

The Census showed that pupils in the ‘black African’ and ‘white other’ categories were among both the high and the low achievers.

Language provided an extra dimension: within the black African category, English Yoruba and Igbo speakers were among the high achievers, while within the ‘white other’ group, Spanish, English, German, Serbian/Croat/Bosnian and French speakers appeared to be high achievers.

“The language we speak often says more about us than our broad ethnic group; it gives researchers clues about where people come from and their likely socio-economic position, religion and culture,” said Professor Wiggins. “It is therefore of great value to public services or any organisation that use social data. Knowing where the speakers are can help target services where they are most needed, as well as helping public organisations and businesses find people with language skills, particularly the more unusual ones where there is a sudden need.”

Professor Wiggins said there was need to develop and exploit the linguistic skills available in London. “Having speakers of all these languages means we have connections across the globe with other speakers of these languages. We are globally connected, which is an incredible benefit for international trade, particularly at this time when the balance of global economic power is changing and European economies are in such crisis,” he said.

Stressing the advantage of language diversity, Professor Wiggins said: “Having all these cultures represented in one city is also a source of cultural and creative enrichment. We benefit from the cross fertilisation of ideas and it means we live in a more dynamic, multi-faceted society. And global cities attract global companies so it’s good for inward investment and tourism.”

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