Hubert Gregg wrote “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” upon seeing German Doodlebugs flying over London. The song went on to become a hit and London folk anthem in 1947 but how much would he recognise today’s London – multilingual London?
You might not be surprised to learn that the inhabitants of London come from all corners of the world. But did you know this has an effect on the number of languages the children in our capital city speak as well?
The Brits are often criticised for their lack of language skills. Language lessons at many primary and high schools are usually considered to be of poor quality and the lack of language students even means many language departments at universities are faced with closure. However, there are some rays of hope to be found among all this misery!
According to the Evening Standard, toddlers living in London are increasingly speaking more than one language. In fact, these kids are not bilingual, but trilingual, reporter Anna McElvoy [burger eater below] says.
The London children who speak three languages are often the offspring of parents who do not share the same home country and have started a family in our capital city. According to McElvoy, this means trilingual au pairs are in high demand. Moreover, many parents with trilingual children are very keen on keeping their language skills up to par; thus, language schooling is very important to them.
There are many people in high places that speak three languages, McElvoy says. She gives the example of Helène Pfeil, who works for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in Mayfair. Next to English, Pfeil is fluent in German and French as her father comes from Germany and her mother is French.
And what about Nick Clegg? The leader of the Liberal-Democrats comes from a Dutch background and has a Spanish wife, meaning he speaks Dutch, Spanish and English.
:: McElvoy believes it is not surprising that trilinguals often end up in high positions. She says this has to do with the fact that many people who speak three languages are adventurous and do not shy away from a good challenge.
Moreover, according to McElvoy, companies love to take them on board as they have no problem with being sent to departments abroad. However, McElvoy believes the British school system might constrain the language skills of today’s trilingual generation. She says there is evidence that becoming, and remaining, fluent in more than one language is greatly helped by teaching other subjects in these languages as well.
However, there are not many British schools that take this approach to language learning. As London has always been a multicultural and thus multilingual city, McElvoy’s children go to school with a great deal of kids that speak three or even four languages. She says parents are sometimes worried that speaking more than one language would only confuse their kids and result in more “code-shifting,” i.e. incorporating words from one language into another.
McElvoy says this children often do this out of convenience, not because they are confused. In fact, parents of multilingual children should be more concerned that their offspring will lose one of their languages when they don’t have opportunities to speak it, McElvoy says. According to McElvoy, children often adopt the language of their classmates when they start school. Thus, the local language usually becomes the dominant one as being equally fluent in three languages is highly unusual, she says.
Within families, so-called “prestige languages” usually take top position. If languages are deemed economically important, such as Chinese, parents are more likely to speak them to their children. Of course, some people who come from plain British ancestry also wish to learn a new language to their children. McElvoy advises these parents to have their kids watch foreign films for which the subtitles can functions as a dictionary. And, she says, the earlier this is done, the better, as small children pick up a language more easily those that are a little older.
According to McElvoy, multilingual people always find a use for their language skills. She uses herself as an example; when she returned to the UK in the nineties after her stay in Russia, she found out her newly acquired language skills enabled her to listen in on some very interesting conversations! As a last tip, McElvoy advises aspiring multilingualists to look beyond European languages; it may be very convenient to have knowledge about languages such as Swahili speak as well.
Fancy a quick burst of the song? Check out Davy Jones’ pre-Monkees version! Oi Oi!