Our Traditions of Language Diversity

The Mantra Lingua people have been working really hard to support you as you plan and budget for the new school year. They've been making sure you know about the benefits and resources coming from here, which are particularly helpful in the EAL field. I hope it's been useful for you. For this post, I'm taking a slightly different tone. I'm offering a personal philosophical and historical context, to suggest some perspective around what you do and to cheer us all on as we work. My topic for today: a bit of historical and cultural background to support you as you promote excellent English whilst showing pupils that you value their other languages.

So. Different languages can be used as a clear symbol of 'otherness', as a rhetorical way of creating a barrier. I learnt this early on, in Sunday school. In the story in Genesis 11 (I'm quoting the NRSV), 'the whole earth had one language and the same words' (ah! What bliss! No need for EAL budgets!) before God decided to put a stop to the people's hubristic tower-building and made them babble in mutually incomprehensible ways. Not the most positive mythological slant to put on language diversity. Today's creators continue to play with language. In this film from the Guardian's 'Brexit Shorts', Welsh speech is used, not very subtly, to reinforce our impression of the situation that drives the story: the fact that the metropolitan latte-drinking, Clapham-originating class can't understand the lives of real farmers, who seem totally foreign. Clever stuff.

Now let's pull something different out of that film. I've alluded before to what Welsh speakers have to offer the EAL conversation. Maybe we should look into Gallic too. As the film shows, language diversity is traditional in these islands. (And that's not to mention what modern English is itself: a diverse, gradual amalgamation of Anglo-Saxon and the language of the Normans, in a process that you can clearly see happening if you read a variety of medieval literature). This is the perfect answer to an attitude (see comments) that is still expressed in relation to EAL provision and diverse schools, along the lines of 'They're spoiling English... What's happening to the country of Shakespeare and Dickens...'. In fact, Shakespeare's plays accept diversity. He was familiar with these islands' different cultures, as this piece (staying with the Welsh example) reminds us. Especially those strange-seeming elements of Celtic folklore with their origins in (gulp) languages other than English (sorry, commenters).

Dickens? Well, I think he was fairly concerned by the lack of education and opportunities for children of his day. And the dialect which he gives some of his characters might raise a few eyebrows. 

Anyway. What was I just saying about artists and creators playing with mutual incomprehension? Shakespeare used Welsh speech. Or at least wanted us to feel as though we were hearing it. Think of Lady Mortimer in Henry IV, Part 1. 'The lady speaks in Welsh' is a stage direction. Shakespeare expressed the language barrier in iambic pentameter: 'This is the deadly spite that angers me,/My wife can speak no English, I no Welsh' (3.2.186-7). But the language difference creates a dramatic context for love to be expressed: 'I understand thy kisses, and thou mine' (3.2.198). And unlike in the story of the Tower of Babel, and in the story of the woman from Clapham versus the farmer, there is scope for increased understanding here. It sounds as though Shakespeare was quite used to the idea of these islands containing different languages, and people struggling to understand each other at first. People needing a bit of help. 'I will never be a truant, love,/Till I have learnt thy language...', says Mortimer. (3.2.200-201). (At this point, he's punning on the language of love, of course, but the pun rests on, and reinforces, the idea that linguistic plurality can be a positive thing).

So the very writer who is held up as a symbol of the English language under threat (from schoolchildren having another language - hmm) actually tells us about the deep roots of language diversity on these islands. (I'll leave for another post a discussion of Shakespeare's use of actual written-out French; someone who disapproves of mixing languages presumably wouldn't much enjoy the last act of Henry V). I've mentioned Wales and Scotland; now I'm going to be personal. I grew up in Cornwall, where Cornish is not current in the same way as Welsh, but was historically extremely strong and is still a very important part of the identity. There is a great deal of history (from a century or so either side of Shakespeare) concerning Cornish unhappiness about having to have church services in English rather than Latin. Though the context is complicated, one aspect is that Latin was seen as a language that crossed cultural divides, allowing Cornish identity and language to thrive. For many, English was an imposition.

Thus the notion that we all spoke English until those pesky foreigners came over is simply wrong. We have always been a diverse land, and there is space for different cultures and languages here. Some might suggest that it's still possible to make clear distinctions between England and the Celtic nations. But history doesn't support this view. The different nations and language areas have always mixed, just like those rebels in Shakespeare's play. I've often performed a Christmastime song called 'The Gower Wassail' that comes from a Somerset community in South Wales. That article I linked to earlier mentions the idea of a Welsh colony near Stratford. And in any case, England is today in a union with other nations to make up the UK. So medieval wars notwithstanding, it is valid to hold up the UK as a model of intrinsic diversity.

I'm trying to encourage you with an historical precedent for language diversity. To point out that it's very well-established here. That said, we need to support everyone to learn English, and to express themselves and to read really well in English, which is the dominant language of these islands and an important tongue internationally. We want a common tongue for people to understand each other. And we want everyone to have access to English literature, as well as the literature of their heritage languages. That is the context for your work, and for the work that Mantra does to support you.

But hey, maybe some people will get really creative, like my musician colleague Sianed Jones, and compose a Welsh song for Lady Mortimer to sing. On stage at the RSC. That's language diversity, great literature, creativity and distinguished history.

There's lots of #spaceforlanguages. And people learn English best when their other languages are accepted. Which brings us back to Mantra Lingua.

Happy planning.