With economies throughout the European Union in crisis and the balance of global power undergoing a paradigm shift, linguistic diversity is becoming more and more of a valued resource, keeping channels of communication open across the globe.
Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has highlighted patterns of educational inequality within the UK capital, but also the vast potential of the language skills possessed by the school-age population of London.
The study, carried out by Professor Dick Wiggins at the Institute of Education, University of London, combined data from the 2008 Annual School Census on the language spoken by pupils at home with information on their ethnicity to map the distribution of languages in London's state schools.
"London’s increasing language diversity attracts much interest and debate among public service providers, educationalists and the public," Professor Wiggins commented. "Yet little was known about the numbers of people who speak different languages, and the implications of this dimension of population structure and change".
60 per cent of the students surveyed listed English as their first language, while 40 per cent cited another language as their first. Bengali, Urdu and Somali were the most common of the 40 different languages spoken among more than 1,000 pupils.
"The language we speak often says more about us than our broad ethnic group; it gives researchers clues about where people come from and their likely socio-economic position, religion and culture," Professor Wiggins went on. "It is therefore of great value to public services or any organisation that use social data. Knowing where the speakers are can help target services where they are most needed, as well as helping public organisations and businesses find people with language skills, particularly the more unusual ones where there is a sudden need".
The data collected enabled Professor Wiggins to compare educational achievement between speakers of different languages in the same ethnic category. For example, Yoruba and Igbo speakers were more often among the high achievers within the ‘black African’ group. On the other hand Spanish, French, German and Serbian/Bosnian/Croat speakers were among the high achievers in the ‘white other’ ethnic category.
Professor Wiggins has expressed the opinion that coordinated planning will be needed to realise the benefits for international trade and business that such linguistic diversity could bring, but also emphasises the societal advantages.
"Having all these cultures represented in one city is also a source of cultural and creative enrichment," he commented. "We benefit from the cross fertilisation of ideas and it means we live in a more dynamic, multi-faceted society. And global cities attract global companies so it's good for inward investment and tourism."