Mending the Gap: Multilingual Britain – an unacknowledged resource?

In the second of her series of article on languages in Britain, Susie Kershaw suggests that every citizen should have a language buddy. Read her first article “Are we Brits hobbling ourselves with Monolingualism?”

MENDING THE GAP:   multilingual Britain – an unacknowledged resource?

Whilst the UK approaches a period of uncertainty in external relationships at global level, internal divisions are also becoming uncomfortably visible.  Assailed by terrorism, and unsettling votes across the UK, we are asking what is the big divide in our country: is it age, class, location, faith, education?

But what about the language barrier?  What if we instead consider language as a bridge, a way into understanding the alien other within our own society?

We are already a divided nation in the way we see the world because many of those citizens of the UK who are monolingual do not have the ability to look at the world in alternative wayswhich others who are bilingual or speak more languages already do.

Fixing the fear of ‘others’

Professional translation and interpreting can help overcome this divide in a functional way, but individuals in a society which is ignorant about, or fears ‘the others’, cannot depend only upon this service.

These ‘others’ are not necessarily foreigners.  They are equally citizens of our own society, some of whom are not completely bilingual because they struggle with English outside their home, and our society has not given priority to helping improve their level of fluency.  There may still be occasions when they need professional translation and interpreting in their everyday lives.  Indeed, the Justice System and the NHS spend a fortune on translations so that such citizens can receive services and society can function.

These are people who may be first or even second generation from Asian countries, Africa, the Middle East, and even Eastern Europe.  Their knowledge and fluency in English may vary but they are all to some extent bilingual or even multilingual citizens.

Significant resource

Have we stopped to consider they might offer a significant resource to the nation by being bilingual?  They offer the ability to function in more than one cultural environment, and have an identity which encompasses being British and belonging to their culture of origin, perhaps most often expressed in the language rooted in that culture.  In socially divisive times, approaching a potentially isolating moment in our island history, is the nation making the most of these embedded resources?

I suggest the monolinguals of the UK need to make greater efforts to see the world in a more resilient way.  Product of a monolingual education system, with increasingly less focus on learning a second language, our citizens urgently need to acquire more effective economic and social relationships on the international stage.   It seems insular of us not to make efforts in another language when we know that many potential partners we can talk to in English around the world are doing so in their second language.   The post-colonial attitude ‘they all speak English’ is coming back to bite the UK.  Multilinguals know inherently and intuitively that there is more than one way of experiencing the world and expressing oneself.   This is as true for Indians and Nigerians as for Europeans.  The French government, for example, now incorporates at top level, completely fluent speakers of German and Russian as well as, of course, English.

Monolingualism is restricting

A monolingual formation of the mind is very restricting, both at home and abroad; more costly to our health service too, it turns out, as monolinguals are now being shown to be more vulnerable to dementia.

We do not have to wait for an inferno to bring us together.  We can choose to build an everyday cohesion through willingness to understand and support each other, as the recent community gatherings of ‘Jo Cox day’ demonstrated.  So, why not learn a new language by making a new relationship?   Choose a neighbour, a colleague or a person you see every day who is leading a life in a language which is unfamiliar to you, and ask to become their ‘language buddy’.

People who only speak English could gain hugely by acquiring first-hand experience of how to look at the world through another language, opening up their thinking and enriching the workings of society  and culture for UK citizens, at home and abroad.  With corresponding goodwill, UK citizens using a different mother tongue could acquire more confidence and fluency in English, whilst passing on a greater understanding of their own root culture.


The process can be a challenge; becoming aware of how your buddy uses greetings, practises faith, eats food, dances.  But reaching out in this way at a personal level, even with just a few words,  offers much opportunity to reduce wider misunderstanding and alienation when extended across our community.

This learning experience would also promote a greater appreciation of the skills – and recognition of the need for – professional translators and interpreters in more formal situations.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU and reconsider its wider relationship with the world, as our society seeks to


REUTERS / John Nguyen / Pool

understand how to stand up against terrorism and threats to community cohesion, surely this is the moment to turn this embedded national resource into an opportunity.

Prince Charles recently rejoiced in rekindling his 30 year relationship with Imam Mohammed Mahmoud at the Muslim Welfare Centre of the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.  During an impromptu visit, he congratulated him for his steadfastness in protecting the alleged terrorist attacker from an aggressive mob intent on revenge.

Language buddy

I propose every adult UK citizen commit to a ‘language buddy’ relationship.  Buddies would aim to acquire some knowledge of a second language other than their mother-tongue, alongside a basic awareness of the culture in which that language is rooted.  After an agreed period each buddy partner would countersign a completion certificate for: Continuing Social Development!

(c) 2017 Susie Kershaw FITI, FCIL 


Cover photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash