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Polyglot picture of multilingual Manchester


Nearly 200 languages are spoken everyday across Greater Manchester, a new study has found.  This makes it one of the most linguistically diverse cities in Europe and the densest multilingual population in the UK.  The study, which was carried out by the University of Manchester, estimates that around 50% of adults and 40% of young people in Greater Manchester are multilingual.  This is much higher than the 20% estimated by the most recent census and dwarfs the England and Wales average of 8%.

The portfolio of languages spoken in Manchester contains many familiar characters alongside some less well-known ones.  Urdu, Arabic, Polish, Panjabi, Chinese and Bengali are the most common but there is also a significant presence of Yiddish- and Persian-speakers, rarely found in the UK outside London, plus a range of African languages and dialects, including Twi, Edo, Chichewa, Ndebele, Ebira, Jola, Mandinka, Wolof and Bravanese.  What’s more, among those whose main language was not English, only 3% said they could not speak English at all, with 80% saying that they speak English well or very well.

This polyglot picture is a living snapshot of global, national and local history.  Colonial and Commonwealth connections have been bringing people from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean and East Asia for centuries, while World War II and its aftermath were a major driver behind Polish migration.  In the early 1990s, Albanians, Bosnians, Serbians and Croatians fleeing the Kosovo war sought refuge in Manchester, while more recent expansions in EU membership have opened up migration routes from Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

The languages spoken in Manchester tell us about more than history and geography; they also tell us about culture, religion and identity.  Certainly there are the official national and international languages (Hindi, Czech, Spanish, French), but there are also regional and minority languages (Yoruba, Cantonese, Mirpuri/Potwari) and languages with no territorial or national ‘home’ (Yiddish, Romani, Western Armenian).  Some language families contain enormous dialectical variation (Arabic, Chinese), while others have no written form (Lingala, Jamaican Patwa and other Caribbean creoles).  A privileged few are dedicated to God(s) (Classical Arabic, Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew, Sanskrit).

The languages spoken in Manchester tell us about more than history and geography; they also tell us about culture, religion and identity.

These languages both mark and make Manchester’s diverse ‘communities’.  They are the means by which friends and family share their lives and their cares, and the way in which colleagues, acquaintances and strangers recognise and connect with one another, exchanging stories, experiences, jokes.  Languages are not just spoken, they are spoken with.  With people at home, at work, in the street; with relatives on the phone, on Skype and email.  Languages are how people keep in touch with people, places and events that may be physically distant but emotionally close.  Relating to others is at the heart of what languages do and is central to how languages continue to live outside of the places they are ‘from’ and the communities in which they developed.

In addition to the cultural richness expressed in languages, there are significant economic benefits of multilingualism too, adding another dimension to what we already knew about the enhanced economic value of immigrant populations in the northwest (Wealth Bringers, Sustainability Northwest).  Language jobs in Manchester, often in the fields of customer service, sales and marketing, management and teaching, are currently fetching between £16,000 and £35,000 and multi-national companies investing in Manchester value the diverse language skills of the local population as much as the city’s transport, communication and training infrastructure. 

Judging by this, the economic future for Manchester and its multilinguals looks bright.

What’s more, those with limited foreign language skills are going out and getting them.  Multilingual Manchester reports that around 3,000 pupils at Manchester state schools sat foreign language GCSEs in 2012, mostly in French, German and Spanish, but some in Urdu, Arabic, Polish, Chinese and Modern Hebrew.  It is not clear whether these numbers buck the wider UK trend of declining modern language learning or whether any decline in European languages is cancelled out by increasing interest in other world languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, Urdu and Arabic.  What we do know is that the figures in the Multilingual Manchester study underestimate the health of language-learning in the city, possibly by as much as 5,000, as they do not cover independent schools or courses run by some of the 54 supplementary schools in Manchester.

This thirst for languages and the abundance of language-learning opportunities in Manchester is a sign that multilingualism may no longer be the privilege of migrants and their descendants.  Manchester Central Library has plans to extend its stock of educational materials and resources in 49 languages, meaning that the world is not only on our doorsteps, it is also at our fingertips.  Multilingual Manchester has revealed the many and diverse cultural and spiritual communities alive in our city, communities to which languages are the both the lifeblood and the key.  But as well as being about migrant identities and histories, languages are also part of Manchester’s identity and history, and its future.

Click here for more about Multilingual Manchester.