The other British languages

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Most people think of the UK and English comes to mind. However, there are several other languages spoken here including local languages, sign languages and immigrant languages. Let’s take a look at all the other languages of the UK.  

Germanic languages

Germanic languages are the most popular in the UK, they arrived in the islands with the Germanic invasions of the 5th century. English is spoken as a native language by 98% of the people born here. English is not an official language, it is a de facto language. That means that it is the language of the country because that’s what most people use. After English Scots is the second most widespread language, with 2.5% of the population who consider themselves native speakers. It is spoken in Lowland Scotland and in some parts of Ulster (where it’s called Ulster Scots). There are speakers outside of these areas, most are bordering them but some are quite far such as Corby due to the migration of workers. A lot of people think that all Scottish people speak Scots because of their accent, but that’s wrong. Scottish English is a dialect of English found in Scotland, it has the typical ‘Scottish’ accent but the words and grammar are the same as all other forms of English. Scots is a completely separate language with its own dialects.  

Celtic languages

Celtic languages arrived in Britain with the first wave of Celtic invasion in 2000 BCE. At one point they were spoken all over the islands, but after the Germanic invasions they became minority languages. The most popular Celtic language is Welsh. It is spoken by 1% of the population (about 19% of those living in Wales) and it is the only Celtic language in existence that is not endangered. Besides Wales there are also many speakers in Liverpool, London, the Patagonia area of Argentina, Alberta in Canada and Florida in the US. Welsh is the only official language of the UK and because of this it has to be treated at the same level as English, which means all official documents should be available in Welsh and if someone chooses to use it in a government setting they have to be respected, including schools. Irish is spoken all over the island of Ireland in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There aren’t many speakers who use it as a main language, as for most it is a second language after English. Because it is the official language of Ireland it has official status in the European Union. Irish used to be the common languages used by everyone, and then English slowly became the language of politics and trade and Irish was left as a household language limited to smaller towns. Thanks to an increasing number of independent Irish-only schools and promotion of the language the trend is changing and it is believed that in 30 years Irish will be the language of choice for a young professional in urban areas of the Republic of Ireland. Around the 10th century a large number of Irish speakers moved to Scotland, where the language changed and became Scottish Gaelic. It is now spoken by 0.01% of the population of the UK and about 1.1% of the people in Scotland. Outside of Scotland it has a population of over 7,000 speakers in Canada, mostly in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, almost 2,500 of them consider it their mother tongue. Scottish Gaelic is now spoken mostly in the Highlands and is considered and endangered language. The least spoken native language in the UK is Cornish, spoken in Cornwall. It used to be the main language of Cornwall until it became extinct in the 18th century and was later revived in the 20th century. In 2010 the UNESCO declared it once again a living language that is critically endangered. There are very few speakers (0.01% of the population) and most have it as a second language. However, there are now some children who are using it as a mother tongue, with English being their second language, and 550 people consider it their main language.  

Sign Languages

In the UK there are also 3 sign languages: British Sign Language (BSL), Northern Irish Sign Language (NISL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL). All three sign languages are separate from their spoken counterparts and have a completely different grammar and structure. These languages can be learnt in language schools and colleges just like spoken languages and they have their own European levels (from A1 to C2). British Sign Language has almost 80,000 native users, and over 250,000 speakers as a second language (most are family members or friends of native users). It is the main language of about 15,000 people. Despite the large number of users, BSL was only recognised as a language in 2003. Irish Sign Language is very similar to French Sign Language and very different from British Sign Language. It is used by some people in Northern Ireland. Northern Irish Sign Language is a mix between ISL and BSL. It has the lexicon (vocabulary) of BSL and the syntax (grammar) of ISL. Officially it is considered a dialect of BSL, but many speakers think it should be considered as a separate one.  

Immigrant languages

The UK has always been a place on immigration, and migrants usually come with their own language that most times is passed to their children and in some cases their grandchildren. Immigrant languages tend to change rapidly depending on the politics and economics of the time. At the beginning of the 20th century Yiddish was the most popular immigrant language in the UK, while now it’s not even part of the top 20. Immigrant languages can also mostly be seen in large cities rather than smaller towns as these areas are the ones that tend to attract the largest number of migrants. Currently, the biggest immigrant language is Polish with 1% of the population as speakers, after that come Urdu and Punjabi with 0.5% each, and Bengali and Gujarati with 0.4% in 6th, 7th and 8th place are Arabic, French and Chinese with 0.3%. In our school, the two most popular languages spoken by our students are Spanish and Portuguese, which have both 0.2% of the population as speakers.