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Many tongues of expansion

world Updated: Aug 09, 2010 23:53 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

Sitting with a bunch of boisterous friends in a north London pub the other day, the topic of conversation, after only a minute's pitter-patter of words, turned to language and identity. Seriously — this was an intellectually minded lot, and passionate about London.

We met to remember a friend who would have turned 50 last week — an Indian who was born in Kenya, educated in Goa, lived and worked in London and died while holidaying in Turkey. Edgar Fernandes was murdered in 1998 by a man who wanted to steal his identity — his passport.

It was a case tracked widely by the media in India, Britain and the Middle East, highlighting identity theft in a country that is in Europe and yet not there.

Edgar worked in Hackney, a north London neighbourhood where, according to a 2004 survey, 100 languages are spoken — 5.5 per cent of households are of Turkish origin. Across London, the number of spoken languages rises to more than 250, reflecting the city's multicultural identity.

Why then do so few indigenous Londoners speak Hindi, Gujarati or Punjabi — the languages of communities that together make up the majority of London's migrants? Someone from the corner of our very long table offered an answer: we Brits aren't particularly good at languages. We don't do languages. Not any more.

This wasn't always the case. Languages are the first windows to cultures, and polyglots often led the soft forays into what became the Empire, translating unfamiliar manners, habits and rituals and offering glimpses of foreign lives that were later to be ruled.

There's a time for everything, said someone: there was a time when we had to do it, but now the world has come to London.

Yes, but really? After all, Prime Minister David Cameron has just completed two massive overseas visits — to Turkey and India, as it happens. The links between Britain, its many diasporas and countries that are no longer far flung are stronger in the 21st century than ever before.

Today, Britain is a country that is trying to shake off decades of insularity and studied indifference to all things European. Schoolchildren study at least one European language, and university language degrees are highly sought after.

A friend's son was taken on a school trip to the financial district of London recently, and bankers told the group of 14-year-olds they didn't have to qualify in economics or business studies in order the enter the City — language degrees were just as welcome.

All over Africa, schoolchildren learn Mandarin in addition to English. Perhaps it is time for Londoners to speak Hindi?