From The Independent, London, 29 March 1999

London: multilingual capital of the world

By Andrew Buncombe and Tessa MacArthur

THERE are very few cities in the world where you can order breakfast in Farsi, book a taxi in Urdu, ask for afternoon coffee in Arabic and spend the evening chatting with your friends in Cantonese. But all of this - and more - can be done in London.

Within the boundaries of the capital, 300 different languages are regularly spoken. "London is clearly the most cosmopolitan city in Europe and only New York can really claim to be as world class in terms of its internationalism," said Patrick Kerr, a spokesman for London First, Greater London's inward investment agency. Such diversity has a range of benefits. Mr Kerr said the language pool was a major attraction for companies operating within the global market. This has been brought into sharp focus by the decision of Air France to close its nine European telephone reservation centres and relocate them to Wembley in north-west London. The move will create more than 200 jobs.

"London is ideal for the recruitment of multi-lingual staff," said Frederic Verdier, who will manage the centre when it opens next month. Air France is following US airlines such as Delta and TWA, which prefer London as a pan-European call centre

John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at University College London, said such linguistic diversity should go some way to improving the notoriously narrow-minded attitude of British people to languages other than English. "It all adds to life's rich pattern. People are generally better at learning other languages if there are others in their background," he said.

But, he said, it will be a long time before the English will be able to compare themselves with their European counterparts such as the Scandinavians, many of whom are fluent in several languages.

Most reports into the number of languages spoken in London are based on research carried out in 1993 by the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. This research estimated that 275 languages were regularly spoken within the capital.

However The Independent has learnt that new research, due to be published later this year, will reveal a total that is closer to 300. The inclusion of a further 25 languages does not, however represent a growth in diversity but an improvement in monitoring techniques.

London's linguistic diversity is matched by the breadth of its ethnic make-up. Figures collated by the London Research Centre (LRC) show that there are 33 communities of more than 10,000 people who were born outside of England. There are a further 12 communities of more than 5,000.

These groups range from those born in Ireland, who number more than 200,000 to the Mauritian community, which numbers around 14,000.

Professor Wells said that experts agreed that there are between 3,000 and 6,000 languages currently spoken worldwide, of which around 100 have an archive of literature and of these, only about 50 support a regularly published newspaper. "London is far more linguistically diverse than Paris or Tokyo, but you come up against the problem of what is a language and what is a dialect," Professor Wells said.

"To a large extent it is a political question. It is often said that a language is a dialect that has an army."

The LRC's research into London's ethnic communities found that compared to New York, the city's different groups were not so concentrated.

"This was quite striking," said the centre's principal officer, Marian Storkey "The communities are spread out. There is also massive diversity within the different communities." The centre does, however, recognise that there is a degree of concentration of different ethnic groups, such as theJapanese community in Totteridge and Finchley and the large concentration of people from Hong Kong in Barnet.

England's new towns may be developing accents all of their own, according to new research. Far from bolstering the spread of Estuary English and uniform pronunciations, some new towns are now building their own distinctive ways of speaking.

In Milton Keynes, in Buckinghamshire, teenagers are now blending the previous generation's north London accent with the south Midlands pronunciation of the surrounding area, a trend that may be being followed in many of the 20 new towns which have been builtsince the Second World War.

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Posted on the web 1999 03 29 JCW