Emmanuelle Labeau | June 2023 | Dialogues
Birmingham Research for Upholding Multilingualism (BRUM) looked at the future of language(s) research from a bottom-up angle, through the eyes of non-linguists. It attempted a horizon-scanning of the presence of and (perceived) needs for languages in the country’s second largest city, as a representative case study of superdiverse Britain, but also as the background of my lived experience of the closure of language programmes at Aston University and its impact on the community. The survey touched on four main areas of society: education, business, public services and culture, in the sense of communities. Data was collected through interviews, surveys, desktop research and a linguistic landscape analysis. In this paper, a brief overview of the observed needs for language research will be sketched.
Voices from education
Our survey of languages in education included schools, a university and adult education.
We conducted in-depth work with four local schools, including a grammar school, an inner-city academy, as well as a widening participation school and a specialist school linked to local universities, and two wider reaching online surveys for primary and secondary school teachers, followed by online focus groups.
Teachers reported challenges both at societal and institutional levels. On the one hand, the post-Brexit context proved detrimental to the perceived value of foreign languages, while lockdown had particularly affected the pupils’ language learning experience. On the other hand, top-down decisions on teaching approaches went against teachers’ pedagogical instincts and brought challenges at transition points. This combination of factors seemed to result in demotivation and widespread problems in teacher recruitment. The latter was amplified by school characteristics (grammar schools in leafy areas struggling less than inner-city schools) and geography (rural areas failing to attract newly qualified teachers, e.g. unaffordable housing market in the South-East). Only one grammar school had not encountered issues in recruiting teachers of languages, but its over-reliance on settled EU citizens made it clear it was sitting on a time bomb. Surveyed teachers wished for stronger links with universities at two levels: support in staff training, and support for pupils through (i) career advice and ambassador schemes and (ii) research in the effectiveness of various teaching methods (particularly at primary level) and in pupil’s motivation (particularly at secondary level).
At University level, Aston’s Business and Social Sciences College’s Equality Diversity and Inclusion Committee welcomed the Aston language survey that explored the linguistic background, skills and actual and planned language learning of the Aston community. The survey attracted 264 responses fairly equally distributed between staff and students. As participants opted in, they represent a section of the community with an interest in languages and the sample was highly multilingual. Notable findings include (i) a mismatch between declared native language and strongest language (overwhelmingly English) showing emotional attachment to heritage languages, (ii) a wide-ranging interest in languages, restricted by the available offer, and (iii) a preference for face-to-face language learning despite a default reliance on apps. A subset of participants volunteered to contribute to focus groups, for each of research, teaching and support staff, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students. All categories of informants highlighted the value of multilingualism for their research, career prospects, ability to cater for English as Additional Language or international students, or for enjoyment. Further research into the role of languages in UK higher education would need to be carried out to highlight their hidden added value to the sector.
Finally, interviews with municipal adult education providers revealed new challenges for voluntary language learning: the impact of Covid on delivery and the ensuing increased online competition, the rise in living costs and more surprisingly the implementation of a restricted traffic zone in the city centre that impedes mobility for evening classes.
Voices from business
Information was obtained through interviews with leaders in the fields of language industries and ethnic and minority entrepreneurship.
Language industries in the region have undergone a major shift in line with the evolution of industries from manufacturing to services and distance education. This is accompanied by a diversification of their activities (post-editing) due to development in automatic translation and artificial intelligence. Another noticeable trend is delocalisation resulting from online working but also from the growing dearth of local linguistic skills. Research into the evolving skills of translators would therefore usefully inform translation programmes offered by universities. Language industries work in a limited range of languages, including Western European Languages and languages spoken in the BRICS countries.
As for ethnic minority businesses, language plays a major role in their development. Languages other than English have so far been perceived as a hindrance, but more research needs to be devoted to the advantages they could bring, for instance in facilitating business with the migrants’ country of origin. Languages involved tend to be those of economic migrations.
Voices from public services
The sectors of health and support for education were surveyed. Languages play a major role in both sectors. Demands for interpreting in the health services mirror successive waves in migration, featuring languages from the former colonial empire, recent EU migration and humanitarian crises. For instance, the demand for Hakka (spoken by early immigrants from China) is strongest in departments dealing with an ageing population while the highest demand comes from midwifery, reflecting the restricted social interactions of women in some cultures. In the domain of support for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers, the range of languages seems less predictable.
Provision of interpreting services (and to a lesser extent translation) appears highly variable across trusts and services. For instance, the NHS trust surveyed relied on in-house interpreters for the most frequently requested languages, or agency interpreters and an “interpreter-on-wheels” system by which an interpreter provides remote interpreting via a tablet. Interpreters were more likely to be present in scheduled appointments. It was acknowledged that the quality of interpreting was very variable, and although NHS best practice prevents interpreting to be provided by relatives or friends, it takes place. In-house interpreters were hired based on their long-standing involvement in the trust (min. 5 years) rather than on qualifications, given the low salaries. For the City Council services, trained public service interpreters from the City’s Language Department were employed in meetings with clients, but initial communication was often supported by the heritage language skills of social workers, although these are not part of their job description.
The survey reveals that many languages support the City’s working, but vital linguistic skills are not recognised in job specifications, so languages are undervalued.
Voices from communities
This part of the project focused on the visibility of languages in the public space and on the role of communities in supporting heritage languages. A linguistic landscape study focused on the multilingual offer at Birmingham Central library revealed a disproportionate representation of books in traditional school languages and Mandarin Chinese, maybe due to its dual status as a community language and the language of international students or due to the cultural funding provided by Chinese institutions.
Support for language learning among linguistic communities was found to take different forms. Supplementary schools are often attached to mosques, Sikh and Hindu temples and tend to focus on language for religious purposes (e.g. Arabic). Eastern and Central European groups also run language classes as part of community groups linked to places of worship. For Western European languages, a link between religion and language is rarer, and language practice and teaching happen through cultural groups (e.g. Latin American dance club) or children’s Saturday schools to support literacy for a potential reintegration in the home language school system. Given the wealth of linguistic skills available in superdiverse cities, more could be done to link up community groups and schools. The former could support linguistic practice in community languages (which in some cases are also the school languages), while the latter could facilitate and integrate into their curriculum languages for which national (or international) exams are available.
This exploratory horizon-scanning of languages in Birmingham reveals that beyond its official monolingualism, Birmingham hosts a variety of languages that differ widely in their prestige and recognised economic value.
Education still revolves around the big three, (i.e. French, German and Spanish) despite a mention of “improving access to home, heritage, and community languages” in the government’s school language hubs tender published on 14th November 2022. Schools would probably benefit from a closer integration of the languages spoken in the communities they serve: this includes the so-called MFLs (e.g. spoken by African Francophone communities or migrants that have transited through European countries), but also heritage languages taught within their communities that could be assessed in partnership with schools (following the HoLA project in Sheffield).
Academic success in the home language could help increase engagement in education within communities with a deficit in the dominant culture. The survey of languages in higher education revealed that heritage languages matter to people despite the universal recognition of the role of English, and more research should be carried out on the hidden value of languages in UK universities.
As for the economic value of languages, BRUM has unambiguously shown that languages are not equally regarded. The languages of the UK’s business partners have been shown to bring monetary added value, and linguistic skills in the languages of Western Europe and the emerging economies command good salaries. Meanwhile, mastering the languages of migrant or refugee communities is neither culturally nor economically recognised, as shown by the precarious working conditions of community interpreters, and the lack of consideration for the multilingualism of minority and ethnic entrepreneurs. Considerable amounts are spent in developing academically trained linguists’ skills in “exotic” languages (e.g. GCHQ), some of which are widely used in the UK. Sadly, the increasing concentration of linguists in prestige universities means that the talents of many linguists will be wasted, limiting not only their own prospects but also those of the country.
Matras (2017) was calling for civic universities to be ‘key partners’ in ‘networks of cooperation and pooling and sharing of expertise, insights, and data’ so that they can keep pace with the dynamism and rapid pace of urban change in the multilingual cities of the future. We contend that the future of language(s) research needs “civic” language departments or units that go beyond the reproduction of research traditions in few historically prestigious languages and engage, together with local stakeholders in education, communities, business and the professions, in addressing the manifold needs of multilingual contemporary societies. This engagement should not be the preserve of elite universities as widening participation institutions also have a role to play in their local community and may indeed – thanks to their diverse public – be the best equipped to understand the challenges at hand. It is thus high time to reverse the trend of closing down language departments and to design a future-proof and open to all language provision for the country.
Birmingham Community Healthcare. 2022. Bookings for interpretation for 2020 (Personal communication).
Department for Education. 2022. Language hubs tender <https://bidstats.uk/tenders/2022/W46/786760133> [accessed 24 May 2023].
Association for Language Learning. HoLA – Home Language Accreditation project – 2022 <https://www.all-languages.org.uk/news/home-language-accreditation-project-hola/> [accessed 24 May 2023].
Labeau, Emmanuelle. 2022. The Aston language survey. Presentation as part of EDI Week activities, Aston University, 29th April 2022.
Matras, Yaron. 2017. ‘Can global cities have a language policy?’, Languages, Society & Policy https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.9800.