Tuesday, February 18, 2014

London's Linguistic Wealth - a new world taking shape?

Multi-lingual wood carving in Fordham Park, New Cross
'One of the most complex, unique and fascinating aspects of London is its linguistic landscape. Its streets are rich with evidence that London is inhabited by people who speak and read many languages. Multi-lingual cacophony fills the air in all public places. Newsagents throughout London display an impressive range of of publications in a variety of scripts used by European and world languages. Business signs, service information, and adverts presented bilingually are a regular feature of the London scene'

There are many different forms of English itself in the city - Whistle and Flute dry cleaners (144 New Cross Road) derives its name of course from cockney rhyming slang for suit. Elsewhere there are signs reflecting African and Caribbean dialects of English.
Smokey Jerkey, New Cross Road

'The linguistic potential of London is a significant resource. Conditions need to be provided for future generations to develop attitudes that will enable them to make this potential beneficial to the city as a whole. Today nobody is truly monolingual. We are all exposed to different languages in education; on holidays; through film, media, music; we  use computer languages; we are exposed to signs and print in different languages on an everyday basis... The way London has embraced its cultural diversity inspires the thought that it cannot be too long before London also wakes up to the potential of its linguistic wealth'
( Dina Mehmedbegovic, '"Miss, who needs the languages of immigrants?" London's multilingual schools' in 'Education in a Global City: Essays from London', edited by Tim Brighouse and Leisha Fullick, London: Institute of Education, 2007)

Hong Kong City Chinese Restaurant, New Cross Road

Can Tho Vietnamese cafe, Old Kent Road

Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Centre, Spa Road SE16

For me 'linguistic wealth' isn't about turning this potential into economic value, but a social wealth that is freely available to everyone. Once you start to to pay attention to the range of scripts and languages in the city streets, let alone the different languages you hear being spoken, you are constantly struck by it. Children growing up in London are made aware from an early age of the range of symbols humans use to communicate, they may not be able to read all these scripts but they recognsise them as forms of language and in doing so they gain an understanding of how languages work, including their own main language. 

Polish biscuits and Jewish memorial candles (with Hebrew characters on box) in New Cross Sainsburys

In a world city like London, all parts of the world are represented in the city, and all its tongues are spoken. In Lewisham schools alone, pupils speak more than 170 languages (2012 figures). Is it utopian to see this multi-lingual metropolis as prefiguring a different kind of world human community, where all these languages and their speakers can coexist and intermingle in relative peace? Where these cultures and languages are not hermetically sealed entities but also through their proximity give birth to new forms of culture and language like 'Multicultural London English'? 

Maybe the future of the world is taking shape right now in New Cross Road, Rye Lane and Deptford High Street, and in the playgrounds of local schools.

Gracias - a Spanish name for 'English & Afro Caribbean Groceries' in New Cross Road
(formerly the Washline launderette)
Distribution of Chinese speakers in Lewisham schools 2012 - including Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien and other forms. 'Chinese-speaking children in Lewisham are heavily concentrated in North Lewisham, especially the East of Evelyn and New Cross, and in Lewisham Central wards'. Similar maps for other languages at Lewisham Joint Strategic Needs Assessment..

1 comment:

Bob H said...

It is one of the joys of living in London, hearing so many different languges and having access to so many cultures.