Multilingual Citizenship

In response to criticism of increasingly diverse and multicultural towns and cities in Britain, I have often championed the linguistic proficiency of many communities and their cross-cultural adaption. As well as supposedly enriching the cultural life of Britain, this aspect of the 21st Century realises what is offered by many academic institutions in developing our linguistic and communication skills.

The above article by Suzanne Hall of LSE examines further the place of multilingualism in society and how fluency across languages may lead us to revise traditional ideological understanding of citizenship.

Multilingual exchange has undoubtedly become necessary in navigating a fluid and diverse world and in my experience, particularly in retail, employers have been keen to tap into the language skills of employees to increase the shopping experience of customers and maximize of sales. For those who speak multiple languages, by doing so expresses a sense of belonging and acts as a means to preserve ones cultural identity as well as communication.

Multilingual communication acts as means to make space for various communities and increase a sense of belonging. This is seen as a challenge by some based on the speed of change of a locale’s population.

“It takes time to establish the personal relationships, the family ties, the social bonds that turn the place where you live into a real community. But the pace of change brought by mass immigration makes those things impossible to achieve. You only have to look at London, where almost half of all primary school children speak English as a second language, to see the challenges we now face in our country.” (Right Honourable Theresa May, Home Secretary of the UK Home Office speech 2012)

Suzanne Hall in her article expresses a more optimistic approach when confronting this change as an inevitable aspect of social life, and one which calls for a redefining of our traditional concepts of citizenship and belonging. How such diverse communities are resourced must also be revised as the world becomes more ‘disparate’. Perhaps a less stubborn approach towards 21st Migration would be to encourage multilingual communication and essentially fluency;

"Fluency is therefore not only a practice of communication, but a process that is activated between people and things in order to connect or conduct or mediate exchange, and to foster transition, re-composition and renewal.” (Suzanne Hall 2013)

The Home Office’s reference to making a place a community requires multilingual strategies to address the diverse cultural identities of Britain’s population. Rather than creating a brick wall alienating migrant groups from English language or culture, a line of communication should be open which understands communities in the 21st Century as changing and dependent on fluency in mediating exchange and transition. The diverse linguistic component of British life and its role in identification should be a means to facilitate a sense of belonging both in Britain and to one’s country of origin. In doing so, the role of the host nation is not compromised or undermined, rather it becomes a sign of belonging for all of its population, native or otherwise.

In relation to my personal project, I must ask how the arts may be used a cultural and educational resource to increase this collective sense belonging to a host nation. Perhaps the need for fluency and multilingualism in our communities will open up a dialogue in which the majority can interact and find a place regardless of cultural background.